Hot on the trail
Can dogs really sniff cancer? Chico trainer takes a big step toward convincing authorities
Traci Hunt wasn’t looking to bring another dog into her family when she heard her employer, Enloe Medical Center, was seeking a household for a puppy.
This would be no ordinary adoption. The Labrador retriever, to be named Enloe, would live with his owners but spend many hours on many days at the In Situ Foundation facility in Chico learning to sniff out cancer.
Dina Zaphiris, the trainer who founded In Situ, has dedicated the past dozen years to teaching dogs to detect cancer in samples of breath and bodily fluids collected from patients. She’s participated in medical research with UC Davis and Duke University, demonstrating the animals’ ability to identify cancers by scent.
Multiple studies have found differences in detectable chemicals given off by healthy versus cancerous cells—but as of now the federal government does not recognize dogs as valid testers.
“What we are doing is going to transform medicine,” Zaphiris said. “It already has: [Researchers] are already looking into volatile organic compounds and odors for disease detection. That happened because of dogs.”
Last year, Enloe contributed $46,700 to In Situ and pledged to put a puppy through the program. The hospital sought an adoptive family and chose Hunt’s. She’s director of the Enloe Regional Cancer Center and a breast cancer survivor; husband Jeff survived cancer as well, but she lost two aunts to lung cancer and both grandmothers to breast cancer.
The Hunts already had a dog, Bella, a rottweiler/shepherd mix they rescued as an 8-week-old—the same age as Enloe when they got him home April 3. The couple live in Durham with sons Carson, 21, and Garrett, 17. Bella joined their family just over five years ago, roughly around the time of Jeff’s diagnosis and three years following Traci’s.
“I was one [who’d felt] no dogs in the house; always outside,” she said. “Bella just bonded with the whole family, was so well-behaved; it changed my whole thought ….
“So when we had the opportunity for [the puppy], I thought, ‘OK, I’ll do it—but this is the last one!’ No more dogs in the house!”
Enloe Medical Center is not expecting, nor will it receive, its own cancer detector. Rather, Traci Hunt explained, “the organization is looking, and wants to be able to give back, at the potential that this could have for the future … with the early detection of cancer. So it’s not specific to Enloe, but any[one].”
Zaphiris started the In Situ Foundation as a tribute to her mother, who succumbed to breast cancer after initially receiving a less serious diagnosis, ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). “In situ” means contained in place (or site); according to the informational nonprofit Breastcancer.org, DCIS is the most common noninvasive breast cancer.
An alumna of Chico High, Zaphiris studied at UC Davis and worked in Los Angeles before returning in May 2015 to train cancer-detecting dogs for UC Davis. Enloe CEO Mike Wiltermood learned about her from a CN&R article that June (“Dogs and diagnosis,” Healthlines); he set up a meeting and initiated support.
First, Enloe fixed up a building on Hickory Street that Zaphiris could use as a training center. The layout suited her well, but the interior temperature grew hot in late summer days, so Zaphiris moved In Situ to its current location on Alamo Avenue.
The sponsorship followed. She’s utilized the financial infusion to establish a program training other trainers in her protocols: not only to teach dogs to detect cancer, but also to conduct consistent, scientifically valid research. So far she’s held three sessions that attracted a total of 34 participants: physicians, researchers and dog trainers from across the country and even overseas (Argentina and Finland).
“The most important thing is we show that it works not just here, not just with me, but everywhere,” Zaphiris said.
Her work echoes the early days of training drug-sniffing dogs. Pioneers in that field knew their animals could detect smuggled narcotics, even when sealed in luggage or vehicles, but legal authorities required convincing. Now, police dogs routinely find contraband that’s admissible as evidence in court.
When will cancer-sniffing dogs gain similar standing? Zaphiris is unsure, because it’s unclear whether the government agency that oversees medical treatments, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), could even regulate animals.
“Dogs are not machinery, dogs are not drugs and dogs are not equipment,” she said. “So there may have to be another agency that maybe we can provide or maybe we can help the government [identify].”
Zaphiris created two manuals of procedures that form the backbone of her program.
“This science won’t go anywhere unless we’re all on the same page,” she added, “have a recognized agency that certifies the dogs because we all did it this [same] way. It has to be like that.”
Enloe the puppy began his training at the In Situ facility last Wednesday (April 26). Jeff Hunt brings him most mornings, though Traci joined them last Thursday.
The key element is a floor rack designed to hold samples. For now, Zaphiris places a cup of food in a holder-lined rail that slides under 10 holes, then instructs the pup to hunt with his nose. By the time the training ends, in 12 to 18 months, he should be able to point out samples from cancer patients by sitting in front of the rack and indicating the specific slot.
Traci Hunt, who’s reading the book A Dog’s Purpose in light of her new pet, says she appreciates “knowing he’s special, that he’s going to have a purpose.”
Added Jeff: “Everything happens for a reason. Had we not had cancer, we wouldn’t be in this position that we’re in today. This may just be a step in the reason everything has happened the way it has.”