Using Dogs as Healers

Humans have been using dogs as healers for thousands of years, and continue to do so today.


| August 2014



Service dogs are one way dogs can be used as healers.

Using dogs as healers in scientific and intuitive ways is not a new practice. From their presence at healing temples in the ancient world to their work as service animals, dogs can cure what ails humans.

Photo by Fotolia/Tifonimages

Humans took the first steps of domesticating canines, but somewhere along the way dogs began to affect the future of their masters dramatically. In A Dog’s History of the World (Baylor University Press, 2014), Laura Hobgood-Oster reminds us that humans and dogs would not have flourished without each other. The excerpt that follows, from chapter 3, looks at the historical and modern uses of dogs as healers.

Modern Science Using Dogs as Healers

When my younger son, Owen, and I were both seriously ill—him with liver failure, me with an aggressive prostate cancer—Bijou became even more than verb and miracle. She was a healing presence in our lives. Believe me, when your life is reduced to a huge question mark, nothing feels better than having a twenty-three-pound mutt snuggled up next to you. Owen and I both profoundly understood what a difference a dog makes as a healer.

The “Dogs Detect Cancer Project” is making incredible discoveries. Working with dog trainers and cancer researchers, the project is tapping into the amazing sense of smell, along with the eagerness to work, demonstrated by some highly motivated dogs. The goal is to save lives by detecting cancer early, earlier than is possible using any other available tests. Researchers capture breath samples for the dogs to smell, and the dogs are trained to alert when they detect cancer cells in a sample. This is the same process employed to train dogs to find drugs, identify arson, or search for missing people by detecting odor. Amazingly, or maybe not so amazingly for those who understand how sensitive and accurate a dog’s sense of smell is, there is a 98 percent accuracy rate in the tests conducted for lung and breast cancer. Another benefit to this process is that the procedure is non-invasive. But most significantly, the possibilities for very early detection go beyond any traditional medical tests available. Dogs display the ability to alert to “in situ, or stage zero, cancer.” Whereas humans, according to medical doctors, can often smell cancer on the breath when it has developed to stage 3 or 4 (late term cancer), tests suggest that dogs can smell cancer when it is still in the very beginning stages of development—earlier than any other cancer screening available, even the most advanced technological approaches.

This detection ability is based on something that has served dogs, and humans, well and helped them survive together for millennia—that incredible canine sense of smell. Dogs can smell at a sensitivity level that is almost beyond human comprehension. It is 10,000 to 100,000 times as acute as the human sense of smell. As one researcher noted, a dog can smell one rotten apple in a barrel of two million. From the moment they are born, dogs rely on their noses. Watching puppies right when they enter the world is amazing. After the mom cleans the pups and gets the newborns breathing, they immediately sniff their way to her. The puppies have no vision or hearing yet, and as a matter of fact their eyes and ears might not open until they are two weeks old. So they rely on their ability to smell their way to their mother to nurse. Observing tiny puppies navigate the world with their noses is revealing. Indeed, it seems to be the primary way they experience their world.

However, the ability to smell certain proteins or chemicals in human bodies is not the only way that dogs are moving into the modern world of medicine. Scientific research points to myriad ways dogs can assist in the healing process, some very straightforward and technical, others based on their emotional impact on humans (which then leads to physiological changes). As already mentioned, their acute sense of smell is tapped in order to indicate cancer, but their powerful nose is also used to alert for seizures in people with epilepsy or signal the onset of hypoglycemia in diabetics. But the list does not stop there. Tests indicate that dogs’ ability to provide companionship lowers blood pressure and heart rates. Their work as service animals opens up connections for humans who are sometimes abandoned, ignored, or ostracized. And, in cultures increasingly concerned about obesity epidemics, dogs keep people active and moving. Thinking about and using dogs as healers in scientific and in intuitive ways is not a new phenomenon, even though some of the testing and methodologies have changed. Not surprisingly, dogs have been healing humans for thousands of years and in some amazing ways, even before advanced scientific methods could prove the benefits. From their presence at healing temples in the ancient Mesopotamian world to their work as therapy dogs bringing peace and calm to sites of tragedy, dogs can cure what ails humans.

Dogs as Healers in Ancient Times

“Lingua canis dum lingit vulnus curat.” (Latin, “A dog’s tongue, licking a wound, heals it.”)