Sniff test

This is part of a series tracing Enloe the puppy’s journey to becoming a cancer-sniffing superstar. Read the first part of his series.

It’s a long road to train a dog’s nose to recognize the volatile organic compounds cancer cells emit. Enloe the puppy started his training in April at the In Situ Foundation in Chico, where in 8 to 10 months he’ll learn all he needs to know to work in the lab, detecting cancer.

Socialization and obedience

Enloe started off his life, and his future career as a cancer sniffer, by meeting a lot of new people. “Puppies need constant socialization to work with handlers and staff. Becoming social is a huge part of training,” said Dina Zaphiris, founder and CEO of In Situ. Enloe made his way around Chico, going to fire departments, police stations and Rotary Club meetings. Now Enloe’s well socialized, meeting people and hanging out in crowds with no problems.

Enloe has also continued his obedience training. Learning to sit, stay and walk on a leash is important for many reasons and gets Enloe set up for the next step: scent training. By sitting at the sample taken from a cancer patient, Enloe indicates to his trainers that he smells a cancer compound. At the same time, when Enloe is in the lab, he’s allowed to exercise “intelligent disobedience” — pulling the trainer around, and putting his cancer hunting before any politesse.

Learning to ‘hunt’ cancer

Early in his training, Enloe was introduced to the scent lab, the room where he trains and will eventually work to sort out cancerous samples. Already through his training, he’s learned to associate the lab with reward, and now cries when he gets there because he’s excited to work.

His early training has focused on the concept of “go find” — searching in the large scent rack used to store healthy and cancerous samples. The trainers start by having Enloe search for a dog treat that he watches them hide, and then later to find a treat that they hide while he’s not watching. “In this way, we go from visual (prey drive) to non-visual (hunt drive). He learns to trust that something is there, even though he can’t see it, and he begins to search,” Zaphiris said.

Enloe caught on quickly. Once the trainers removed the food and added cancer samples, “Enloe went crazy and at 4 to 6 months old, was successful immediately. Most dogs have to go back to food and work through it a few times,” Zaphiris said.

Enloe is in Phase 3 of his training. (See below for the phase breakdown.) He’s now hunting for cancer samples and has accurately sniffed out 25 real cancer samples. In this stage of training, he has to identify a cancer sample among blank samples. Next, non-cancerous healthy samples will be introduced.

Steps and Phases of training
Phase 1 – Hide food in the scent rack, and keep moving the food in different holes
Phase 2 – Cancer sample paired with food in different holes each time, along with switching to a new cancer sample after 5 runsin the rack
Phase 3 – Cancer sample only
Phase 4 – Cancer sample and healthy samples
Phase 5 – Cancer sample, healthy samples and samples from patients with diseases other than cancer
Phase 6 – Proofing— adding distractor scents among disease controls to purposely throw the dog off to prevent false alerts
Phase 7 – Find multiple cancer samples
Phase 8 – Zero trials

Enloe’s early path to success

While it takes time to fully train a dog to detect cancer, Enloe is ahead of the curve. He’s already strongly associating the smells and tools of the trade with reward — a promising start to his career. As he tagged along during a recent presentation about In Situ’s work, Enloe was drawn to a breath tube, a device used in the lab with samples. Because he has been rewarded for finding the tube so many times, he sought it out over other toys and food in the room.

Lots of work, lots of play

While Enloe is being trained for an important job, he still has time to be a dog. He loves swimming in the pool — and jumping as high as he can before hitting the water. He’s made friends with his other co-workers, including Opie the bloodhound.

Once Enloe has gone through all the stages of training, at 12-18 months old, he’ll be able to work 10-20 minutes at a time throughout the day, with lots of breaks.

Want to read more about Enloe? Check out more stories on his blog.

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