Canadian dogs sniffing out cancer in U.S. firefighters

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Specially-trained Quebec dogs sniffing out cancer in U.S. firefighters
Meet the Canadian canine detectives who are are sniffing out cancer in American firefighters. Allison Vuchnich reports. – Feb 23, 2017

Dogs have been part of the workforce for ages, helping to sniff out bombs, drugs and even to find missing people. Now a Quebec organization is drawing on dogs’ keen sense of smell to detect cancer.

CancerDogs has trained six dogs, all beagle and hound mixes, to screen breath samples from firefighters in the United States.

“If they have cancer, we find it,” CancerDogs founder Glenn Ferguson told Global News.

Dogs have been used to sniff out cancer before, but what makes this approach to early detection different is the way the breath samples are collected.

For close to $20 per test, a firefighter receives a surgical mask and breathes into it for 10 minutes. That mask is then shipped to the testing centre in Gatineau, Que., where it’s stored in a large plastic vial. The dogs take over from there, sniffing each vial and raising a paw to indicate a cancer detection.

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Ferguson said the dogs are more than 95 per cent accurate at finding cancer, with fewer than 40 per cent false positives.

The method is an experimental one, and Ferguson made clear the test is only meant for screening and detection.

“We’re not talking about diagnosing those people. We’re not treating those people, so what we’re doing falls completely into the traditional use of dogs,” he said.

If the dogs do detect cancer in a sample, CancerDogs asks for a second sample. If that test comes back positive as well, they recommend a visit to the doctor for further testing.

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CancerDogs began working with American firefighters in 2011. Now the organization is partnered with more than 50 fire departments in the U.S.

With studies showing firefighters at greater risk for developing cancer, many say they are willing to give a breath sample and get screened.

“Twenty-seven guys that I have worked alongside of have developed some type of cancer,” said Jeremy Eldredge, a firefighter with the Modesto Fire Department in California.

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Ferguson said he tried to rally interest from Canadian fire departments as well, but so far, none are using the CancerDogs screening method.

When Global News reached out to several firefighter associations across Canada, some said they were waiting for more evidence about the program, while others said they had never heard of the organization and its cancer-sniffing dogs.

Ferguson said he knows there are skeptics in the medical community, and he’s always working to improve the dogs’ accuracy.

“If there comes a day when there’s a machine that can do a better job than what the dogs are capable of doing, we think that’s wonderful – but until that day comes, we should not be so close-minded,” said Ferguson.

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