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.
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.”
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.