Enloe, the Cancer Sniffing Dog
By Kayla Anderson
A Really Good Boy
Story by Kayla Anderson
Photos by Sunshine Rush
AS THE TEMPERATURE RISES on an early summer day, an entourage surrounds an affable Northern California celebrity who is slightly panting in his golden fur coat. However, the four-legged gregarious personality doesn’t seem to mind the heat – he’s just happy about all the attention and the fact that he’s in his favorite place – the training center next to the Enloe Regional Cancer Center.
Escorting Enloe the dog are his owners, Jeff and Traci Hunt, In Situ Foundation CEO Dina Zaphiris and the Enloe Foundation’s Jolene Francis. As the founder of In Situ, Zaphiris started her celebrity dog training career in Los Angeles where she aided the local police department and wilderness rescues to help sniff out bombs, narcotics and people. In three decades of working with different dog breeds, Zaphiris built up a reputation. One day, a doctor from a cancer clinic called her to report an interesting observation – when he brought his poodle to work, she would poke her nose around the patients in the areas where they eventually developed cancerous cells.
Knowing that Zaphiris worked with dogs with a focus in scent detection, Dr. Michael McCullough and Zaphiris started researching the correlation between dogs and his cancer patients and found numerous stories of dogs that sniffed out cancer.
Flash forward to 2016 when Zaphiris decided to leave L.A. and come back to Chico, where she had roots. She had various research papers published in medical journals and had started the In Situ Foundation, which focuses on training dogs and their people on how to detect early signs of cancer.
When the Enloe Foundation caught wind that Zaphiris was back in town, it wanted to be involved. To continue her research, Zaphiris needed samples, funding, a training space and a dog. To raise awareness and get people behind the cause, they knew that hiring a friendly, social dog as the program’s spokesperson was key. Enloe Medical Center began accepting applications to be Enloe the Dog’s keepers. Jeff and Traci Hunt, who both have fought and survived cancer, won the bid.
Zaphiris found a breeder, picked the eight-week-old golden Labrador puppy up from the airport, and took the new furry medical assistant to his forever home. The Hunts immediately fell in love and started taking Enloe out on the town to interact with people. As the director of the Enloe Cancer Center, Traci says her whole life has been around fighting cancer and it’s rewarding to take care of a dog that’s helping other people.
So how do you get a dog to sniff out cancer? First, it helps to understand what motivates a dog and how their noses work.
“Dogs have 3 million scent receptors; they have a different organ in their nose the size of an almond that humans don’t have. They have two separate path lines to smell, whereas we only have one,” Zaphiris says.
For instance, humans generally can’t smell sugar in a cup of coffee unless it’s at a teaspoon or more, but Enloe could probably sniff out a teaspoon or less of sugar in a million gallons of coffee. Another way to look at it is, say you walked into a bakery and recognized the scent of a brownie, but Enloe can smell the individual parts of it – the sugar, flour and other specific ingredients.
Due to his strong nose, Enloe can also differentiate between healthy and cancerous cells.
Zaphiris explains that humans constantly exhale waste products through their breath (there are 2,000 volatile organic compounds visible in it) that dogs can pick up on. Therefore, instead of training the dogs on how to find a tumor, Zaphiris began teaching them how to use their noses to detect cancer cells through samples of exhale breath condensate.
“Here we have machines that prod, poke, hear and see, but not smell,” Zaphiris says. “With their sensitivity and specificity, dogs are proven to help fight cancer in an early stage. Enloe has a mind of a 2-year-old but the nose of a computer,” she adds.
To get a sample for a dog to test, a patient breathes into a surgical mask for 10 minutes while filling out a questionnaire. The mask is put into a freezer at negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit, thawed out and tested when the dog is ready to work. (It takes about 5 minutes for the breath to thaw.)
Being at the training center, the antsy Enloe is eager to get to work and Dina brings some samples out to demonstrate. The biggest challenges are keeping samples in stock and teaching Enloe (plus others) to ignore negative results.
While Enloe is still in training and there’s still a lot more testing and clinical research to be done, Zaphiris has already written a protocol with 357 steps on how to work with dogs to perform this kind of early cancer detection, and Enloe Medical Center is one of the only two facilities in the United States that is doing this kind of research legitimately with the Institutional Review Board.
“Our mission at this point is to standardize it to bring more recognition and take it to the level where this is taught in universities as part of a bio-detection focus. It doesn’t even have to be a dog – they are just helping us understand volatile compounds at this point,” Zaphiris says.
Being able to conduct more large-scale studies consisting of using five to 10 dogs to sniff out hundreds of mixed samples can help take the research to the next level – and that’s where the public can help by donating money or provide breath samples (for more information on how to do this, visit www.dogsdetectcancer.org).
For now, Enloe the Dog is still working on improving his cancer-sniffing accuracy levels while serving as an inspiration to all.
“With cancer-sniffing dogs, a lot of people can catch cancer early enough to where it doesn’t affect the rest of their lives,” Traci says. “Enloe has opened up that conversation.” •