I think I read somewhere that a dog’s sense of smell is a thousand times greater than a human being’s. We’re clearly not in the same universe with respect to our olfactories. We’ve all heard the stories about bomb-sniffing dogs and how dogs were used after 9/11, for example. Dr. Cindy Otto first conceived of a center to train and study working dogs when, as a member of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Urban Search and Rescue Team, she was deployed to ground zero in the hours after the September 11 attacks. “I remember walking past three firemen sitting on an I-beam, stone-faced, dejected,” she says. “But when a handler walked by with one of the rescue dogs, they lit up. There was hope.”
The ability of dogs to smell is the stuff of legend. I remember returning home from France the first time, coming back through the international terminal and all of a sudden realizing there were German Shepherds patrolling around. I thought about the leftover dumbfuck cannabis inside our shoes that my friend and I had brought back from Paris. I was sweating, but these dogs didn’t find the weed. I’m assuming that’s because they were trained for something else. I can’t think of another reason, unless our feet smelled that bad.
Back in 2004 our little dog, an eleven pound mixed Shitzu-Poodle, knew something was up with my arm, before I even knew how bad it was. I was in a lot of pain, vicelike pain, and my wife Karen was away in Florida, and the dog was so solicitous and she sniffed around my arm and she buried her face in my armpit and worried and fussed. I believe to this day that she could smell something inside my arm which turned out to be necrotizing fasciitis, a deadly invasive group A strep infection, sometimes referred to as flesh-eating bacteria. She didn’t even know to what she was reacting, but just knew something was wrong in there, something badly amiss in a primordial way beyond human ken.
Of course there are all kinds of stories about dogs being aware of a stroke before it even happened or after a heart attack happened, alerting someone to help. Dogs have already been trained to respond to diabetic emergencies or alert passers-by if an owner is about to have a seizure. I’ve been reading about how dogs can be trained to sniff cancer. Two German Shepherds trained at the Italian Ministry of Defense’s Military Veterinary Center in Grosseto were supposedly able to detect prostate cancer in urine with about 98 percent accuracy, far better than the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test.
But even with all that foreknowledge, until one night at a meeting around a fire, I never would have thought that dogs could detect human “bullshit.” It was actually because of a guest – not known well by any of us – who took some time in the circle. Everyone was just kind of listening and there was this black lab in the circle brought by another man. The dog was weaving in and out the way they do, going off and chasing things, and then more weaving in and out and being petted and all of a sudden he seemed all attentive and alert and then he got agitated. I heard him kind of moaning and he yipped a couple of times and something clicked and I just thought “is it possible this man’s bullshit has set this dog off?” Didn’t sound like bullshit but, as I said, we didn’t know him very well. No alarms were going off, no detector. So just on the chance that I might be right, I interrupted the man and I said something about this doesn’t smell right to me. I think there’s some bullshit here.
The guest was kind of startled and I said again, seriously, man, something doesn’t click here, like you might be shining us a little. So he backed up and told some of the story again and, don’t you know, he got to it. He realized it was a safe space and he wasn’t serving himself by continuing to tell us stories. Then he came clean about some stuff that was going on in his life, including with his marriage. Now, I couldn’t very well give credit to the dog, so I just kind of let it go, thinking maybe this was a fluke, a one and done type deal, and finished the meeting. Yet I never forgot about it. I was wondering if there’s a more foolproof way to suss out a man’s bullshit and then it dawned on me that maybe dogs could be trained to do that for us. I said shit, if dogs can be trained to detect cancer by smelling it, why not bullshit. There must be something going on when a man’s spewing it that’s below the level of human understanding, something a dog could know more intimately than any of us could.
I thought about it and decided to bring it to some of the other men, and we made up our minds to have an experiment. We did planning around it (built a CPR), and we decided to have that same dog at an inside meeting, in a more controlled space, where the smells and pheromones, or whatever, wouldn’t dissipate in the air so quickly. Then we decided one of us was going to deliberately tell a lie or some kind of crapola and see if the dog could detect it. We worked on setting it up the same way, like a double-blind thing, and, lo and friggin’ behold, when the man got into it, when he started to deliver the nonsense, the dog got agitated in the same exact way, like there was something unseen in the air that only he knew. He got up and walked around and growled a little and even padded closer to the man who was actually spewing the story.
So we thought, damn, if we had this dog at all our meetings and trained him to really be sensitive to the way a man smells deep down when he’s bullshitting us, we sure could save a lot of time and we could laser stuff a lot quicker. So that’s when we decided to see if we could set up a training program for men and their dogs and could replicate this experience around all the New England circles. Or at least for any of those early adopter-type teams who felt up for it. It is a little unorthodox. Over time we developed a great new training that we’re going to roll out to all of MDI early next year. Labs and shepherds seem to work out best, but we’ve had poodles (originally bred as hunters), also, and a golden retriever or two.
Quoting Dr Otto again, “Everything we do is about positive reinforcement. Sniff the right odor, earn a toy or treat. It’s all one big game.”
An article in the NYTimes explains: Handlers begin training dogs selected for cancer detection by holding two vials of fluid in front of each dog, one cancerous and one benign. The dogs initially sniff both but are rewarded only when they sniff the one containing cancer tissue. In time, the dogs learn to recognize a unique “cancer smell” before moving on to more complex tests.
What exactly are the dogs sensing? George Preti, a chemist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, has spent much of his career trying to isolate the volatile chemicals behind cancer’s unique odor. “We have known for a long time that dogs are very sensitive detectors,” Dr. Preti says. “When the opportunity arose to collaborate with Dr. Otto at the Working Dog Center, I jumped on it.”
Well, the same goes for human bullshit, apparently. The volatile chemicals aren’t really known yet nor what exactly the dogs are sensing, but here in New England we’re hoping to gain some ground on this.
Some men from Atlanta came up and brought their dogs and some men from New York have tried it. Right now it’s looking like a one-day training but we’re also thinking about a whole weekend kind of like the EST (Essential Skills Training). Instead of a weekend for men and boys it might be a weekend for men and dogs. And it’s really not that complicated. We use the same kind of system as you do when training dogs to detect cancer or chase a ball. It’s all rewards and fun for the dog and we get this powerful and primordial weapon for detecting bullshit and not wasting men’s time in a meeting.
So if you’re interested in checking this out, get in touch with your division training manager who can contact your regional man and we can put something together. We’re proud of it and we think it could be a valuable tool in the toolbox, especially given all the smart rats that have been around these circles for quite a while. Maybe we get so used to a man we let things skate or we have gentlemen’s agreements, but dogs don’t make those agreements. They just smell and react. Team members come to meetings now and they see the dog there and they just immediately take off their masks because they know it’s pointless to fuck around and try to look good or say things that are just not so. Now men can really be edgy at meetings.
Susan Orlean wrote this in her book Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend—
“Dogs, the very first domesticated animals, have lived with people for thousands of years, but until the 19th century, they usually had jobs, hunting or herding or guarding. Keeping an animal in the house is so familiar now that it’s easy to forget how fundamentally odd it is, and what a leap it must have been to share living quarters with a non-human life-form just to have its company. Dogs worked hard for the privilege, developing as a species the capacity to empathize, or appear to empathize, with human beings better than any other animal, it’s this talent, rather than their intelligence, that accounts for their being the preeminent animals in our lives.”
And they also honor confidentiality.