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If Only our Dogs Could Talk

Lauren Salani, LCSW, BCB


Studies have demonstrated that dogs can identify the sudden onset of medical conditions in humans through their perceptive sense of smell. Trained scent dogs have detected drops in blood sugar level, seizure onset, certain cancers, Parkinson’s and now even Covid-19. More recently, researchers have discovered that scent dogs might even be able to detect an on-coming PTSD flashback. Post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop after experiencing a traumatic event. People’s symptoms would include re-experiencing the event, a hyper-state of arousal, avoidance of any reminders of the event and sleep and mood issues.


Dr. Sherry Stewart’s Clinical Psychology Lab and Dr. Simon Gadois’s Canine Olfaction Lab, both at Dalhousie University paired up to determine if dogs could be trained to detect stress markers on people’s breath, thereby alerting and possibly interrupting symptoms at an earlier stage. The researchers sought out 26 participants who had experienced trauma. They were asked to wear a facemask while they first provided a calm breath sample. Then (with a new mask) they gave another breath sample as they recalled their traumatic experience. During this time, the researchers trained 25 pet dogs in scent detection. Only 2 dogs, Ivy and Callie were successful at detecting the target odors from the facemasks. They had the ability to detect differences between the stressed and non-stressed masks with 90% accuracy. In a secondary study, researchers presented Ivy and Callie with a series of samples, one at a time, to determine if they could still detect the differences in the samples. Ivy successfully detected 74% of the time and Callie achieved 81% accuracy. It was interesting that Ivy’s performance correlated with anxiety and Callie’s performance correlated with shame.


When an adverse event occurs, stress messages travel from the brain: to the muscular system for strength; to the autonomic nervous system, which raises blood sugar and pressure; to the adrenal gland which secretes adrenaline into the bloodstream, as well as to the hypothalamus, which then sends a message to the gland that produces cortisol. These differing hormonal shifts produce volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that make up the human scent profile that Ivy and Callie have learned to detect.


The findings from this study demonstrate that dogs were able to discriminate between the breath samples of people who were calm and those actively experiencing a stressful situation. As with many animal scent studies, the results look promising, but more research is needed to establish the role of hormones affecting the breath and the ability of dogs to reliably detect VOCs in the breath of one person across different contexts.


Dogs can be a wonderful sense of comfort, as trauma affects; the need to be safe, the need to trust, the need to feel control over one’s life, the need to feel value, and the need to feel close to others. Dogs can offer a psychological cushion to help calm us and cope with life’s troubles. One day in the future, hopefully, they will be ready to provide even greater assistance in our well-being.


In the meantime, it may be time to check in with yourself and the symptoms you have been experiencing as healing is available for trauma and adverse experiences through psychotherapy. EMDR Trauma Therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) uses REM-like sleep waves to assist your brain in processing adverse events from the past, so the past is the past, and you can move on with your life. Remembering without the acute effects.

If you are ready and think you would benefit from EMDR therapy, please call my warm, inviting office at 732.542.2638.  


Lauren A. Salani, LCSW, BCB, Stress Relief Services, Atlantic Executive Center, 107 Monmouth Road, Suite 104, West Long Branch, NJ 07764, Website:,


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