These 'doctor dogs' can sniff out disease

Twice a week, a rescue dog named Shugga has a very important job. Dressed in her signature tutu, the little Pomeranian barks with excitement for her turn to play her favorite game: detecting Parkinson's disease. Inside a training room, four canisters conceal T-shirts worn overnight by four different people — three healthy, and one with Parkinson's disease.

"She kind of just barrels through the room and goes right to the canister most times, and smacks it," her owner, Amber Chenoweth, told TODAY. "It's winning the game that gives her so much confidence and makes her so happy."

Shugga is one of 21 dogs of various sizes and breeds training to detect Parkinson's disease, a nervous system disorder that affects movement, with Pads for Parkinson's, a nonprofit based on San Juan Island in Washington state. The goal is for researchers to be able to identify which molecules allow the canines to detect the disease, and then develop early-detection methods and possibly a cure.

How different dog breeds show love
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How different dog breeds show love


Common breeds: Chow Chow (pictured). Akita, Chinese Shar Pei

Many of these kinds of dogs were originally bred to guard people and property. They're often seen as independent and more reserved around strangers, although fiercely loyal to their family. They like their space, so you should let them come to you — let them give you love on their own terms. They'll usually show their love by sitting close to you (but not on you).


Common breeds: Siberian husky (pictured), Alaskan Malamute, Samoyed

These types of dogs were bred to be highly active and social dogs. They get along and work well with other dogs (think: sled dogs). They often show their love by playfully jumping, roughhousing and playing with toys. To show them love, they should get proper exercise and lots of playtime. 


Common breeds: Maltese (pictured), Bichon Frise, Lhasa Apso, Maltese, Pekingese, Pomeranian, Pug, Shih Tzu

Companion dogs were literally bred to be lap dogs, often finding companionship with royalty. They're friendly, intelligent and show their love just by being with you and "kissing." Show them love by petting them while they sit on your lap.


Common breeds: Mastiff (pictured), American Staffordshire Terrier, Boxer, Bulldog, French Bulldog, Rottweiler

These types of dogs are known to be loyal to their families. Although often large, they show love by playfully jumping and "smiling." They enjoy belly rubs and just being near you, like snuggling up with you on your couch or in your bed.


Common breeds: Australian Shepherd (pictured), Australian Cattle Dog, Border Collie, German Shepherd, Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Shetland Sheepdog

These breeds of dogs are very smart. Give them a job to do and they'll show their love through their hard work. They love to keep a group together and will herd most things as well as stick by your side waiting for the next command. Show them love by giving them plenty of play time and a job to do, like playing fetch.


Common Breeds: Golden Retriever (pictured), Cocker Spaniel, English Setter, German Shorthair Pointer, Labrador Retriever, Poodle

These dogs are known to be friendly, happy, active and loyal companions. They were originally bred to work with hunters, and they show their love by helping. This is why many of them make for great therapy or guide dogs. They'll lean into you or put their nose in your lap to show their love. To keep them happy, play retrieving games that provide exercise and cuddle them close.


Common breeds: Chihuahua (pictured), Russell Terrier, Schnauzer, Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier, Yorkshire Terrier

Terriers have a lot of energy and often want to be with their humans, but they can also be stubborn and more reserved around strangers. They'll show their love by playing with you and coming into your space. To show them love, give them some exercise and keep them close.


Chenoweth, a 47-year-old photographer, recently lost a friend to Parkinson's disease, so she's incredibly grateful for the chance to volunteer the services of her spunky dog. Over the past year of training, she's also been impressed by Shugga's aptitude for the work, as well as the skills of the other detection dogs, which include diverse breeds like the Jack Russell terrier, vizsla, Australian shepherd, miniature schnauzer, Labrador retriever, standard poodle, golden retriever, dachshund and Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever.

"I've learned every dog sees the world through scent and odor in a way that we can't understand because we, as humans, don't have the ability," she said. "And I know that any rescue dog sitting in a shelter could have this potential of doing this work if they were given a chance."
Author Maria Goodavage greets an Australian shepherd named Stewie.

Around the world, dogs like Shugga are training to detect diseases ranging from Parkinson's disease and cancer to malaria, according to Maria Goodavage, author of "Doctor Dogs: How Our Best Friends Are Becoming Our Best Medicine."

While researching the book, Goodavage met medical detection dogs across the United States and Canada as well as Japan, the Netherlands, Italy, Hungary, Croatia, China and the United Kingdom.

The dogs Goodavage observed were all trained with positive reinforcement techniques rather than punishment. The reward for a successful find is typically food or a toy, depending on each dog's preference.

"I wish that most people could love their job as much as these working dogs — these medical dogs — love theirs," she told TODAY.

Goodavage noted that while humans have around 6 million olfactory receptors, dogs can have up to 300 million, giving them a nose up in scent detection.

A Labrador retriever checks a scent carousel for prostate cancer.

"They're detecting these diseases that until recently we didn't even realize had a scent," she said. "They can pick up many things around the world, like different kinds of cancers. So far, they've detected breast, ovarian, lung, bladder, stomach, liver, prostate and skin — a bunch."

In some cases, the dogs don't detect cancer from tissue samples but from blood, saliva or even breath. The dog trainers collaborate with scientists who hope to develop "inexpensive, rapid early-detection devices available to people around the world," according to Goodavage.

Medical detection dogs are also working to detect dangerous pathogens like Clostridium difficile, aka C. diff, a highly contagious bacterium that can lead to life-threatening conditions. In Vancouver, British Columbia, Goodavage met a dog named Angus who checks Vancouver General Hospital for C. diff, alerting teams to stations that need cleaning. Unsurprisingly, incidences of C. diff there have declined.

Angus, an English springer spaniel, sniffs out C. diff in a hospital.

In England, detection dogs are able to sniff the socks of children — submitted by health care workers in Gambia — and largely determine which former wearers have malaria. The preliminary findings could lead not only to helping more quickly detect malaria in local communities and ideally eradicate it, but also stop its spread around the world.

"This could mean they could stop the spread of malaria at checkpoints like airports," she said. "If a dog alerts, someone would need a further test before being admitted to a country that has pretty much eliminated malaria so it doesn't spread there again."

Some medical detection dogs are trained as service dogs for their handlers. For instance, autism-assistance dogs can apply calming pressure to a child who is becoming overstimulated, and service dogs trained in post-traumatic stress disorder can lead a veteran out of a crowd at the onset of a panic attack. Diabetic-alert dogs alert handlers to blood sugar changes.

A line of Labrador retrievers trained as diabetic-detection dogs

In England, Goodavage met with a young woman with unexplained fainting spells; her service dog alerts her when she's about to pass out so she can sit or lie down. The dog started pawing at her during a group meeting with Queen Elizabeth II, so the woman went to the back of the room to lie down.

"She didn't have to faint in front of the queen," Goodavage said. "Then the queen met with her afterward and the woman's dog sort of 'snortled' into the queen's purse and it was a grand affair."

A service dogs cuddles a puppy in training.

A Labrador retriever named Hank provides a special service to a teen with severe schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He seems to know when she's about to have a hallucination and provides calming pressure; the girl has also realized that if her dog doesn't acknowledge scary people screaming at her that she should kill herself, then they aren't real.

"She gets a reality check from her dog," Goodavage said. "He's able to separate reality from these horrible hallucinations for her, and then he's there to calm her down."

Goodavage said it's important to note that people interested in getting a service dog should "do your homework" and make sure to work with a reputable organization, potentially speaking with handlers who have dogs from the nonprofit or even visiting the training facility if possible. Unfortunately, there are scam organizations that will waste time and money.

However, when people partner with the right service dog, she said that "it can be a life-changing experience." In fact, she's inspired by all the dogs doing cutting-edge medical work.

"Dogs are offering us so much hope to detect so many things that we thought there wasn't a lot of hope for," Goodavage said. "I love that we are finally realizing their potential. It just makes them even more our best friends."

Best dog breeds for kids
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Best dog breeds for kids

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel

"The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is a wonderful family pet; a gentle, calm dog, who is happy to be combed and brushed," says Dr. Emmett. "This breed is, however, less enthusiastic about games, such as tug of war, and rough-and-tumble play. King Charles Spaniels are a good match for a more urban lifestyle and a sensitive child." What does that wagging tail mean?


Golden Retriever

"The Golden Retriever is one of the most well-known dogs because of their gentle, caring temperaments. They are able to lounge around the house for an afternoon or take a hike through the woods," says Pete Lands, DVM, Director of Emergency and Critical Care at Saint Francis Veterinary Center. Goldens are very bright and easy to train. They're also stoic when it comes to kids. "While they may not like it, Golden Retrievers tend to be apathetic to young kids pulling on their ears or tugging at their tails. This makes them one of the best family dogs you can find," he adds.


Labrador Retriever 

They look large-and-in-charge, but Labs are famously child-friendly. "The Labrador Retriever is a reliable family pet," says Dr. Emmett. "This breed has an insatiable appetite for games and play and is well suited for an active outdoor lifestyle and a child who likes to run, throw balls, and play Frisbee." These are the most popular breed dogs in every state.



Cute as a button, sweet, and gentle, these pack animals thrive on companionship. According to the American Kennel Club, these charmers make excellent family dogs because they are loving by nature, love to play, and have goofy personalities. If you want a dog who wants to be with people, this is a great breed for your family. Pass Beagles up, however, if your house is always empty during the day.


Irish Setter

Does your family love a good group jog or a game of beach Frisbee? If so, an Irish Setter will be the perfect fit for you. Regal to look at and energetic beyond words, this breed grows to be large, around 50 to 70 pounds and has a long lifespan, so they can grow up with your kids. Irish Setters make great companions, are wonderful with children, and have lively dispositions. They also love to play with toys and balls. Don't miss these secrets dog trainers won't tell you.


French Bulldog

Frenchies, as they are affectionately known, are diminutive in size, but big in personality. Known for their affectionate natures and silly "bat" ears, French Bulldogs were bred to be companion dogs. The perfect family dog for apartment dwellers, Frenchies do well in small spaces, and love being around kids. French bulldogs also love getting dressed up for Halloween.



Make a Boxer part of your family, and you will never feel unprotected again. Fiercely loyal and protective of those who love them, these energetic, medium-sized dogs have calm dispositions, but love to play. They need lots of exercise, but beware of driving them too hard in hot weather. Like all squish-faced (Brachycephalic) dogs, they tend to overheat. Keep your pooch safe all summer long with these 28 warm-weather health tips for dogs.


Cocker Spaniel

There's a definite possibility that Cocker Spaniels think they are people. They're gentle, loving, very smart, love being around children, and tend to always put themselves in the middle of the action. They also make great therapy dogs and may be a good fit for an anxious or special needs child. Their beautiful, floppy ears make them prone to ear infections, so keeping them clean and groomed is essential.


Bichon Frise

These little bundles of low-shedding fur are some of the friendliest dogs on the planet. Sweet, affectionate, and playful, the Bichon Frise is a fantastic playmate for energetic children. Their small size makes them a great city dog, provided you give them lots of walks. According to Animal Planet, they're loyal to a fault and do best with consistent training and moderate amounts of activity. These are the dog breeds most compatible with your (or your child's) Zodiac sign.



Rough Collies are known for their majestic, flowing coats, while smooth Collies have shorter coats. Rough or smooth, Collies make great family pets. (However, rough collies require more grooming.) This breed is incredibly intelligent and likes nothing better than to engage in activity with the children who love them. They're fast learners, loyal to their families, and protective. Just ask Lassie.



Have an allergic child? According to Health, Poodles might just be the ticket for you. While no dog is completely hypoallergenic, Poodles seem to come close, because they appear to produce fewer allergens. They also come in three sizes—standard, miniature, and toy—and an abundance of colors. These adorable goofballs are super-smart, easy to train, adapt well to new situations, and love kids. Here's your official guide to picking the best dog breed for you.



An intentional mix of Poodles and Labrador Retrievers, Labradoodles are as adorable as their name. A medium-shedder, Labradoodles were originally bred to be even-keeled and empathetic, so they could be trained as guide dogs for visually-impaired people. This breed couldn't be more affectionate, or more adorable. Note that they need lots of exercise and tend to get along great with other dogs.



This Instagram-darling brings with it major cuddle-factor. Their cutie-patooty smiling faces and cozying-up tendencies make Pugs a popular favorite for children who prefer gentle play to roughhousing. These playful pups were bred to be lap dogsand adore being around people. They're clever, quiet, and make great family pets.



Long-haired or short, Chihuahuas are the tiniest of all dog breeds. They tend to adore children and are very loyal to their families. Chihuahuas love the indoors and are not fond of very cold weather, perhaps because they're thought to have originated in Mexico. They're easy to train and love the lap of the person who loves them best. Watch out for these secret signs that your dog is mad at you.



Chugs are a specific breed comprised of Pug and Chihuahua ancestry. Many have the best characteristics of both popular breeds, making them great pets for children. According to Pet Guide, Chugs are a designer dog with characteristics that vary from liter to liter. Like their forebears, most will make good family dogs. They're loyal, affectionate, intelligent, and love to play.



This tiny charmer is the national dog of Cuba. They have exuberant personalities and adore people of all ages. Havanese dogs are very social and outgoing. A loving breed, they also enjoy playing games. They're a toy breed, so not a great fit for rough-and-tumble play, but they're perfect for families who are looking for a silly, outgoing friend for their child. Read on for the 50 secrets your pup won't tell you.


Bull Terrier

Bull Terriers and Miniature Bull Terriers make fantastic pets for older kids. They are sweet beyond belief, very protective, and very trainable. The American Kennel Club calls them mischievous, playful, and charming. Known for their silly, comical antics, and crowd-pleasing behavior, Bull Terriers need lots of exercise and lots of love.


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