NewsDogs can detect trauma stress by smelling humans’ breath, study shows

Dogs can detect trauma stress by smelling humans’ breath, study shows

1 of 2 | The study’s first author, Laura Kiiroja, a doctoral student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, receives a hug from Callie, a German shepherd-Belgian Malinois mix in the research lab. Photo courtesy of Laura Kiiroja

NEW YORK, March 28 (UPI) — Service dogs trained to recognize oncoming flashbacks of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, in people also can be taught to detect these episodes by sniffing their breath, a new pilot study shows.

The study, conducted at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, was published Thursday in Frontiers in Allergy.

Earlier research already established that canines’ sensitive noses can detect the early warning signs of many potentially dangerous medical situations, such as an impending seizure or sudden low blood sugar.

But until this investigation, it was unknown whether dogs’ heightened sense of smell can interrupt a PTSD episode or alert their human companions to these oncoming symptoms spurred by reminders of trauma, the study’s first author, Laura Kiiroja, a doctoral student at Dalhousie University, told UPI via email.

The researchers described PTSD as “an impairing mental health condition with high prevalence among military and general populations alike.”

PTSD service dogs “are trained to respond to minute behavioral and physical cues, such as fidgeting, fist-clenching, muscle-twitching or elevated respiration and heart rate,” Kiiroja said. “Our study showed that at least some dogs can also detect these episodes via breath.”

If dogs reacted to stress markers on the breath, researchers suspected the canines could potentially halt PTSD episodes at an earlier stage, making their interventions more effective.

All humans have a “scent profile” of volatile organic compounds — molecules emitted in secretions such as sweat and influenced by genetics, age, activities and other variables.

Some evidence suggests that dogs may be capable of detecting these compounds, which are linked to human stress. However, earlier studies had not looked into whether dogs could learn to detect these compounds associated with PTSD symptoms.

The study is a collaboration between two distinct sets of expertise — the clinical psychology lab led by Sherry Stewart and the canine olfaction lab spearheaded by Simon Gadbois, both at Dalhousie University. Neither one could have conducted this research on their own, Kiiroja said.

To carry out this investigation, the researchers recruited 26 humans as scent donors. These individuals also were participating in a study about the reactions of people who experienced trauma to reminders of a catastrophic event, and 54% met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD.

To donate scents, they attended sessions at which they were reminded of their trauma experiences while wearing different facemasks. Participants also answered a questionnaire about their stress levels and emotions.

Meanwhile, the scientists recruited 25 pet dogs to train in scent detection. Two of them — Ivy and Callie — were skilled and motivated enough to complete the study.

Both dogs were taught to recognize the target odor from pieces of the facemasks,

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