Dogs can detect traumatic 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, gets 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 nearby flashbacks of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, in people can also be taught to detect such 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.

Previous research has already established that dogs’ sensitive noses can detect early warning signs of many potentially dangerous medical situations, such as an impending seizure or a sudden drop in blood sugar.

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

The researchers described PTSD as “a debilitating mental health condition with a high prevalence among military and general populations.”

Service dogs with PTSD “are trained to respond to minute physical and behavioral cues, such as fidgeting, clenching of fists, muscle contractions or elevated breathing and heart rate,” Kiiroja said. “Our study showed that at least some dogs can also detect these episodes through breathing.”

If dogs react to stress markers in their breath, the researchers suspected that canines could stop PTSD episodes at an earlier stage, making their interventions more effective.

All humans have an “odor 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 able to detect these compounds, which are linked to human stress. However, previous studies had not looked at whether dogs could learn to detect these compounds associated with PTSD symptoms.

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

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

To give smells, they attended sessions in which they were reminded of their traumatic experiences while wearing different face masks. 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 of the parts of the face masks, achieving 90% accuracy in discriminating between a stressed and a non-stressed sample.

The dogs were then presented with a series of samples, one at a time, to determine if they could still correctly detect the VOCs associated with stress. In this second experiment, Ivy’s accuracy rate was 74% and Callie’s was 81%.

“Perhaps the most interesting result is that our two dogs seemed to respond to different olfactory biomarkers. Stress is not just about cortisol, and our dogs attested to that,” Kiiroja said.

“Although they both performed with very high accuracy, they seemed to have a slightly different idea of ​​what they considered a ‘stressed’ breath sample,” he added. “Ivy’s performance was correlated with participants’ self-reported anxiety, and Callie’s performance was correlated with participants’ self-reported shame.”

Kiiroja, a native of Estonia, said she enrolled in Dalhousie University’s doctoral program to pursue her passion for studying canine behavior and cognition.

“It made me even happier that my PhD project allowed me to contribute to the well-being of our own species, both by expanding our knowledge of the potential of dogs in biomedicine, particularly in mental health, and by adding to the foundation of evidence from service dogs. as an adjunctive treatment for PTSD,” he said.

Dr. Jerry Klein, chief veterinarian of the American Kennel Club in New York City, who was not involved in the research, told UPI via email that “it is intriguing and hopeful that dogs may one day provide assistance to people suffering from PTSD. or perhaps other forms of trauma. These tests will need to be validated at a larger level.”

One thing is clear, though: Dogs tend to have a much greater sense of smell than humans, with 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses compared to humans’ six million, Klein said.

However, “not all dogs may have the same ability or inclination to use these natural gifts in the same way,” she said, noting that service dogs are chosen based on their abilities and willingness to be trained to use these factors.

“Often these dogs come from similar breeds or types of dogs, or even subsets of dog families, although there are exceptions to every rule,” Klein added.

Some small studies have shown that dogs can help people with PTSD have greater independence, more confidence, lower hypervigilance and greater success in relationships, said Alice Connors-Kellgren, a clinical psychologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. , at UPI by email.

“Hypervigilance refers to the heightened awareness of potential danger that people who have experienced trauma develop,” Connors-Kellgren said.

She added that “dogs can be an incredible support for people with all kinds of mental health diagnoses.” However, “therapy dogs and service dogs are trained from an early age to be on the lookout for signs of distress and to respond to people’s signals that they need help with a task.”

Other dogs can use their sense of smell to detect cancer and have been specifically trained for this purpose. It’s not something any dog ​​could do without training, Connors-Kellgren noted.

Nancy Smyth, a professor at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work, told UPI via email that the current study is “too small to be of much significance, except to encourage further research investigating whether more dogs can be trained, especially service dogs. to detect human odor profiles associated with PTSD.”

Smyth added that if future research proves the reliability of the usefulness of dogs trained to perform this task, “it could really improve the ability of these dogs to support people with PTSD symptoms.”

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