Dog days are here — and I am not talking about the weather. Just look around. As confirmed by a recent MarketResearch.com report, pet ownership has soared during the pandemic. Despite the economic setbacks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. pet industry had a record year, posting $107 billion in 2020, according to U.S. Pet Market Outlook. “The pace of change within the pet market will continue to move at breakneck speed in the foreseeable future,” the report concludes.
Over the years, I have often covered many news stories about the dog/human relationship. As I wrote in a “C Force” installment back in September 2016, the expression “dog days” first came into use in ancient Greece, translated from Latin to English about 500 years ago, used to describe the belief that a particular constellation of stars associated with this hot weather pattern looked like a dog chasing a rabbit.
I used the reference back then in reporting on stories of a groundbreaking scientific study that proved dogs (as many dog owners and trainers believed) understand both the meaning of words and the intonation used to speak them. What science was confirming was that man’s best friend not only hears the meaning of human speech but also perceives the emotion behind it. That dogs not only can separate what we say and how we say it but they can also combine the two for a correct interpretation of what those words actually mean.
“What’s indisputable is that, before humans milked cows, herded goats or raised hogs; before they invented agriculture, or written language, even before they had permanent homes, humans had dogs in their lives or dogs had humans in theirs lives,” I wrote back then.
Outside being a best friend and companion, dogs have unique traits that we have used through the ages to help and protect us in many ways. Maybe none greater than their sense of smell. “With up to 300 million scent receptors, dogs are among the best smell detectors in the animal world,” writes a team of forensic and biochemistry researchers in a post on TheConversation.com. “The human nose, by comparison, contains only around 6 million scent receptors. Dog brains also devote 40% more brain space than humans to analyzing odors.”
Beyond their natural instincts, we have been able to train dogs to use their sense of smell to sniff out all manner of things from illegal drugs to agricultural pests, to missing people.
“Dogs accomplish this by successfully recognizing the odors of substances called volatile organic compounds that are specifically associated with these targets. Not only can trained dogs detect these volatile organic compounds, but oftentimes they can do it with greater sensitivity than analytical instruments,” say the researchers. This unique sense of smell has also been successfully used to recognize “unique ‘biomarkers’ in the exhaled breath of patients with certain diseases or chronic medical conditions, including cancer and diabetes, as well as for pre-seizure detection in epileptic individuals.”
As recently reported by multiple sources, researchers now believe that dogs can be trained to sniff out COVID-19.
Preliminary studies utilizing four specially trained dogs has shown in tests that they accurately detected COVID-19 more than 90% of the time. Researchers believe they can refine and improve the accuracy. As pointed out to local news reporter John Paul of WSOC-TV in Charlotte, North Carolina, by lead researcher Dr. Kenneth Furton, chief scientific officer at Florida International University, dogs aren’t detecting the actual virus. He explains that COVID causes metabolic changes in the human body that create a specific odor, which is what the dogs are trained to identify. Now that they know dogs can be trained to sniff out COVID-19, the next step is developing materials and training aids for teaching other dogs how to detect the disease.
In a follow-up story on the many health benefits attributed to dogs, in March 2016, I wrote: “Can something as seemingly simple as the introduction of an adopted pet into someone’s life, by that one act bring on renewed health? Animal-assisted therapy has long been used to significantly reduce pain, anxiety, depression and fatigue in people with a range of health problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, having a pet has proven to help decrease blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides and feelings of loneliness. It increases opportunities for exercise and socializing with others. Medical evidence exists demonstrating that interaction with pets helps people cope with challenges ranging from Alzheimer’s Disease, to end of life trauma, to PTSD.”
Since 2016, a growing body of research into PTSD and service animals paved the way for a bipartisan House bill with more than 300 co-sponsors mandating the Department of Veterans Affairs provide both traditional mental health therapies and promising new approaches such as the use of service dogs in caring for at-risk veterans. As outlined in a House Committee on Veteran Affairs background report, “a growing body of evidence has proven that an appropriately trained service dog can be life-saving for veterans with PTSD.”
As stated in a U.S. Senate press release, the bill, known as the PAWS for Veterans Therapy Act, “aims to reduce veteran suicide connected to mental health conditions by partnering veterans experiencing symptoms of PTSD and other post-deployment issues with service dogs through a Department of Veterans Affairs pilot program.”
According to a Kaiser Health News report, prior to its passage, the federal dog referral program relied exclusively on nonprofit service dog organizations to pay for the dogs and to provide them to veterans for free. At present, the law stops short of requiring the VA to pay for the dogs. “Instead, the agency will partner with accredited service dog organizations that use private money to cover the cost of adopting, training and pairing the dogs with veterans,” says Kaiser. It’s estimated that a PTSD service dog can cost in the range of $25,000 to adopt and train. Removed from VA policy is the previous requirement that participating veterans have a physical mobility issue, such as a lost limb, paralysis or blindness.