Sniffing out Parkinson’s: Nonprofit trains dogs to detect scent of disease

Parkinson’s disease has meant heartbreak for so many people. But new research focused on a dog’s sense of smell could possibly lead to a cure.

When certified dog trainer Lisa Holt and a friend heard about Joy Milne, a nurse in Scotland who can smell Parkinson’s on people, they had an epiphany. Why not train dogs to detect the disease?

But why dogs?

“To start with, they have about 295 million more odor receptors than you do,” said Holt.

So Holt formed PADs — Parkinson’s Alert Dogs.

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“Parkinson’s disease starts 10 to 15 years before tremors and it can’t even be clinically diagnosed before tremors,” she said. “So if we chase it upstream, that’s where the cause is and if you can get to the case, you can get to the cure. That’s what I believe.”

To train the dogs, a shirt worn by a woman with Parkinson’s is placed in a canister.

Then, 22 dogs trained to detect the scene of the disease are brought in to the one canister out of four that has the shirt.

“We actually allow them to develop their own form of communication and how they indicate,” Holt said.

But the training takes a lot of work.

“It takes about 400 exposures for the dogs to even begin to recognize Parkinson’s disease,” she said. “That’s a lot. In any other detection training, it would be well under a hundred.”

One of the dogs being trained is Ella.

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“Her whole world is her nose,” said Katy Barsamian, Ella’s owner. “It’s her job. She just has so much joy. This work is everything to her.”

Dog after dog goes through the drills, with the results recorded each time.

Analytical chemist Jack Bell is the chief scientific officer for PADs. He’s looking into what the dogs are smelling that most humans can’t.

“We think this is in the odor because it is coming off of those T-shirts from the skin of the patients,” he said.

When asked is scientists are generally skeptical, he said yes.

“I would say so because that’s the scientific method,” Bell explained.

But Bell is a believer.

Unfortunately, help did not come quickly enough for David Haugen, who died in 1984. Now, his wife, Carolyn, brings her dog Rowan to sniff out the disease that killed her husband.

“It’s sort of a ray of hope that maybe with what the dogs are doing will be able to help as they have done with other diseases, help people that are suffering,” she said.

Another PADs dog is Bertie. She’s blind and can’t see a thing, but her nose is incredible.

“Her nose is more important to her than her eyesight,” said Leah McConnell. “Once I put her harness on and I tell her we're going to PADs, she’ll trot to the car and she barks like that the whole way here.”

And then there’s Russell, who a PADs veteran when it comes to sniffing out Parkinson’s disease.

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“He's very specific in his work,” said Sarah Shorett. “His nickname is the professor.”

Like other PADs dogs, Russell also loves his work.

“He wants to come,” Shorett said. “He usually starts barking down at the corner there when we turn onto Daugherty.”

Smelling a disease is one thing, but being able to cure or treat it is another.

And help can’t come soon enough for Mark Hopkins.

“I love dogs and hate Parkinson’s,” he said.

For now, he’s settling for hope.

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