Karma, The Bio Detection Dog in Training

Bio Detection Dog
Karma (pictured here with his human mom, Sandee, is a star student in cancer detection work. Photography: Courtesy Dierdra McElroy

Here in the United States, we don’t currently utilize Bio Detection Dogs (BDD), which are pups trained in medical detection, including cancer. As of right now, U.S. insurance companies won’t pay for BDD testing. There is also an issue with getting positive samples to train the dogs on. Then there are the questions around the science. Testing for BDD-type cancer screening requires you to accept the unknown of the specific dog’s personality. Scientists don’t like unknowns that can alter conclusions in their experiments. Dr. Klaus Hackner of Austria, did his own study in 2016 and had misgivings, telling Scientific American that the BDD screening did not reflect the reality of mass cancer screenings in the real world. Asking a dog to sniff a high number of samples with relatively few “hits” made Dr. Hackner believe that a handler would not be able to successfully provide enough positive feedback to the dog for him to stay engaged. Don’t forget for double-blind studies and in the real world the handler doesn’t even know which samples are positive to be able to give the dog feedback at the correct times; whereas other detection dogs, like those in search and rescue, do many “blank” searches where there is no actual find and are still successful.

Bio Detection Dog

Getting ready

One of the huge positives is that BDD cancer screeners seem to identify cancer much sooner than current methods. The sooner life-ending cancers can be identified, the higher the likelihood that treatment will be successful.

Certified Bio Detection dog trainer and canine behaviorist Dierdra (Didi) McElroy is getting the detection dogs under her tutelage ready to be able to start “sniffing out cancer” as soon as it is an accepted process in the United States. Didi is certified in dog behavior, service dogs, therapy dogs, police K-9s, scent and cancer detection. She also graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in Biomedical Science, which is extremely helpful when she is talking to doctors about the process of BDD.

Almost any breed that likes to do a good job and likes to please can be a candidate, even short-legged affectionate love bugs like Bulldogs. Didi’s star student is a 4-year-old black Lab named Karma, owned by Sandee Wall. According to her human mom, Karma has been training with Didi at California Canine, a comprehensive training and behavior modification company founded by Didi, for the majority of her life.

To become a cancer-sniffing dog, the dog must be able to do scent detection and do it well. Karma has mastered this task and works with a scent rack. The scent rack looks like a long metal container with several holes that Karma can stick her nose into to smell what’s inside. Since a dog’s sense of smell is so keen, Karma probably knows where the positive sample is before even getting to the rack, but she wants to make sure the human watching her knows she is doing her job. Karma will check each individual hole before alerting that she has found her target.

Didi’s goal is to train her dogs, including Karma, to sniff out prostate cancer in urine samples. It can make someone uneasy having a detection dog sniff them up and down with the energy a dog has while working. Using a sample, like urine, makes it an easier process for all involved. Karma is such a well-trained detection dog it would only take a pup like her approximately 6 weeks of training with urine samples donated by men with prostate cancer to be ready when she is called to duty.

Star pupil

Karma’s talents don’t stop at detection work. She’s also an award-winning tricks and dock diving dog, she works hard on honing her detection work, she’s personal protection (schutzhund) trained, and she is a licensed therapy dog spending time at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Stockton, California.

With so many jobs it can sometimes be confusing which one she is supposed to be preparing for. To help Karma get into the mind frame of helping with her therapy work, she dons her “uniform.” Her uniform is several different costumes that help elevate the mood of her patients. A black Lab dressed up as an angel, skeleton, butterfly or even a banana sundae is sure to put a smile on anyone’s face.

Karma likes helping people, according to her mom. It’s why Sandee would love for Karma to be able to become a cancer-sniffing dog. Karma likes all her jobs but the one she has yet to do, sniffing out cancer, would be her most important and impactful one.


Working dogs are just like us

Q: What is your dog’s diet?

A: Karma’s diet consists of twice-a-day feeding. She eats Diamond Lamb & Rice with a tablespoon of salmon oil by GNC.

Q: Does your dog get any human food?

A: If she is actively training a new behavior, we frequently use turkey hot dogs as her reward. Other than that Karma prefers toy rewards over food rewards. If she has had an exceptional day, such as winning first place at a Disc Dog competition, we will get her a Starbucks Puppuccino.

Q: What type of gear does your dog use?

A: Part of Karma’s training is her “gear.” Dogs are very much situational learners. Every dog owner knows this when they grab a leash. The dog instantly knows that piece of equipment means they get to go for a walk. Karma wears a “service dog” type vest when doing cancer detection work. She wears an agitation harness when she is doing drug detection or personal protection work. She also wears goggles, shoes and up to four collars when working at drug detection and personal protection. The only part of her body that isn’t taken with equipment seems to be the top of her head. So, for therapy work we put a headband on her. We hot glue all kinds of themed objects to it for human amusement, but the feeling of something across the top of her head lets her know that she is working as a therapy dog. She should be calm, friendly, accept touch from anyone and NO SEARCHING them.

Q: Are there certain health issues that your dog’s job causes her to have and how do you address those?

A: We are aware that her various jobs all come with potential health hazards. We mitigate them in a variety of ways. Therapy dog is a tough one because we work at an acute care hospital. Some zoonotic diseases could transfer so we have to give a full groom 24 hours before entering the hospital. Since she does rounds once a week this is a lot of bathing and not necessarily great for her skin and fur. Hence, the salmon oil on her meal to help replenish the oils in her skin.

We don’t use tick/flea medications because we’ve found it has adverse side effects, so we choose to do full body checks after high-risk areas instead.

Q: Do you groom your dog yourself or take her to someone to be groomed?

A: Her professional groomer does an excellent job at selecting less harsh shampoos and using conditioners that meet hospital standards. We bathe her ourselves most of the time but she goes to see Kristi, her groomer, once a month. Our bathing protocols call for more than a quick bath and air dry. Then we use sanitary wipes when the dog leaves the hospital to keep them from tracking anything home to our family.

Thumbnail: Photography Courtesy Dierdra McElroy

About the author

Wendy Newell is a former VP of Sales turned dog sitter, which keeps her busy being a dog chauffeur, picking up poop and sacrificing her bed. Wendy and her dog, Riggins, take their always-changing pack of pups on adventures throughout the Los Angeles area. Learn more about them on Facebook @The Active Pack and on Instagram @wnewell.

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