Working dogs are invaluable resources for assisting humans. From police K9 units to guides, man’s best friends are smart, intuitive creatures. Tracker canines are also ideal for sniffing out animals or diseases.
Researchers worldwide have been studying dogs’ abilities to sniff out cancers since the 1980s — and not just dogs. Other animals, like ants, have been found to sniff out breast cancer in urine. These animals can be trained to detect several different types of conditions, from cancers to Parkinson’s disease.
Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C) is helping the Blackfoot Confederacy find what’s causing alarming cancer rates within the Montana Native community. WD4C specializes in tracking poachers and invasive species. However, Souta Calling Last, a researcher and member of the Blackfoot Confederacy, brought on WD4C to help her find out what’s causing a sudden rise in cancer and thyroid problems amongst her people.
Enter Sully and Frost, two energetic dogs that find things like human remains. Their mission working with Calling Last is to track down scat, or droppings, from mink and otters. It’s believed that these substances contain toxins due in part to bioaccumulation and biomagnification. Contaminated organisms like insects get eaten by fish and then eaten by otters and mink, concentrating the toxins in the food chain.
Once the dogs have identified scat, field scientists collect samples to test for toxins. The Blackfoot Confederacy hopes this will clarify what’s causing this contamination on their reservation. The waste can determine if an area isn’t safe to grow crops. That is vital information needed to reduce the levels of cancer in the Tribe.
In terms of public health, the Blackfeet nations have higher cancer rates than anywhere else in Montana.
A community health assessment found that six per 1,000 Tribe members were diagnosed with some form of the disease every year between 2005 and 2014. These numbers compare to five per 1,000 people in the rest of the state.
Some blame it on oil drilling and subsequent pollution from business operations, but it’s only a working theory. According to Kim Paul, founder of the health nonprofit Piikani Health Lodge Institute, the cancer problem may be traced to historical toxic dumping. She published an account of her efforts to find the most significant contributors to cancer clusters on the reservation.
However, Paul could only record what she could see, hear, and touch. The working dogs dig deeper to sniff out unsafe areas. In nine days of surveying the land, they found more than 70 scat samples to test. Calling Last is preparing a map of each site that designates the polluted areas to the clean ones.
The dogs will be back this summer to sniff out another potential infection on the reservation: chronic wasting disease (CWD). This prion disease occurs when proteins in deer are damaged by contaminated vegetation. CWD may also be causing the cancer rates to spike.
The Blackfeet members live in an area of food insecurity, meaning they hunt animals on their lands.
“Because we live so close to the land and because we’re subsistence hunters, if there is a human impact from CWD, it’s going to be to the Tribal people,” Calling Last explained to Grist.
Dogs have been trained to identify CWD prions in deer droppings. A University of Pennsylvania study determined dogs are valuable resources for finding their source in nature. They can even sniff out the prions in the breath of cancer patients.
“We’ve done some pilot studies, looking at bacterial infections, and if we train the dogs on the bacteria itself, the dogs can respond to samples from infected subjects,” Cynthia Otto, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, told National Geographic.