Doctor Dogs

How Our Best Friends Are Becoming Our Best Medicine
By By Maria Goodavage (Dutton)
Reviewed by Susan Tasaki, December 2019, Updated June 2021

Her previous books include Soldier Dogs, Top Dog and Secret Service Dogs, so it’s no surprise that New York Times best-selling author Maria Goodavage has now taken up the story of dogs we’ve enlisted to help us with our health.

That dogs are good medicine comes as no surprise to anyone who lives with one. They get us up and out, they make us laugh and they’re excellent company. The “doctor dogs” Goodavage covers in her new book take that medicine to a whole other level of specialty care, however.

To help us monitor our physical, emotional and mental health, dogs have been trained to alert to seizures and diabetic highs and lows; detect cancers; calm children on the autism spectrum; safeguard and stabilize people overcome by debilitating psychiatric conditions; and identify pathogens that can kill us. And this is the short list.

For much of this work, we can thank the canine superpower: olfaction. Researchers are working to narrow down exactly what it is that dogs are picking up when, for example, they alert to a seizure. The ultimate goal is to create a diagnostic device that never gets tired or distracted or has its accuracy thrown off by environmental pollutants.


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Goodavage, who traveled thousands of miles and interviewed many individuals to gather information for this book, mixes straightforward science with emotionally rich stories of the effects these dogs have on the lives of those they assist. The result is a hard-to-put-down book, and a reminder that the ancient, hardwired human/canine bond is a gift that keeps on giving.

Read an excerpt below.

Sniffing Out UTIs

A study with exciting potential for practical application in the near future is also a study with one of the best understatements ever: “Sniffing urine is an innate behavior in dogs,” write the authors of a paper on canine detection of urinary tract infections in the journal Open Forum Infectious Diseases.

Anyone who endures daily walks with a dog who stops frequently to read “pee-mail” can attest to this. Yes, sniffing urine is indeed innate. The paper discusses the reasons dogs do this, and amazingly, “to vex the person on the other end of the leash” is not among them. The main reasons the authors give for dogs sniffing urine is identifying other dogs and their notable characteristics, including their fertility and health status.

It turns out that the canine fascination with urine may be a boon for humans. The authors write that dogs are predisposed to “exceptional accuracy in identifying disease in humans by sniffing urine samples.”

The dogs in the study, who were trained to identify urine samples for E. coli and three other types of bacteria (S. aureus, Enterococcus, and Klebsiella) in double-blinded conditions, correctly detected nearly 100 percent of the positive samples. Even when the samples were diluted with distilled water and had very low bacterial counts, the dogs could sniff out the troubled waters. The authors suggest that dogs could provide early detection of urinary tract infections (UTIs).

UTIs are a common health problem, accounting for ten million visits to doctors’ offices every year in the United States. For most patients, they’re easily treated. But for some, especially the elderly and people with limited mobility because of neurological conditions, UTIs can lead to complications. If left untreated, they can rapidly become lethal.

The study suggests that highly trained future service dogs for those with, say, spinal cord injuries could do double duty. They could help their people with mobility, and they could also serve as UTI monitors. Early detection from a best friend who also helps you out of bed, picks up your dropped phone, and helps you get up if you take a tumble? It doesn’t get much better than that.

Adapted from: Doctor Dogs by Maria Goodavage. Copyright © 2019 by Maria Goodavage. Published by arrangement with Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Image courtesy of the publisher

Susan Tasaki, a freelance editor and writer, lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her Husky, who wishes they both got out more.