Dogs Use Human Breath To Sniff Out PTSD

May 13, 2024

Recent research has revealed a groundbreaking ability in dogs—they might be able to sniff out the onset of a PTSD flashback even before it fully emerges. How do they do this fantastic thing? According to the research, they sniff out the oncoming flashback from their human’s breath. This discovery could revolutionize how service dogs aid individuals with PTSD, and significantly enhance their lives!

Dogs’ Remarkable Ability to Detect PTSD Stress in Humans

Scientists have trained dogs to recognize specific scents present in people’s breath as they are about to or currently reflect on traumatic events. Those scents are known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and they vary when a person is stressed. They include elements like isoprene and monoterpenes. Remarkably, dogs have shown they can differentiate between the breath samples of stressed and relaxed states with an accuracy of up to 90%.

A Dog’s Primary Sense

Dogs possess an extraordinary ability to perceive the world through their sense of smell. This primary sense is way more developed in dogs than it is in us humans and allows them to detect and respond to various environmental and biological cues. Recent research continues to confirm this amazing capability, showing that dogs can even detect stress-related volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the breath of individuals experiencing early signs of trauma, such as PTSD. In the world of those who partner with service dogs for PTSD, this research promises to be life-changing.

Heightened Sense of Smell

The canine nose is a powerful tool, and it can detect odors at concentrations nearly 100,000 times less than what humans can perceive. This heightened sense of smell enables dogs to perform some pretty remarkable tasks, including finding lost individuals, detecting drugs or explosives, diagnosing diseases, and now, potentially helping individuals manage PTSD symptoms before they fully present.

Why Are Noses Important To Dogs?

For dogs, their nose is the key to understanding the world around them. Through smell, dogs can interpret detailed information about their environment and other beings within it, from the mood of their human companions to the presence of a squirrel in the backyard. This sense is crucial for communication, hunting, and now, providing support to individuals with mental health challenges.

Why Do Dogs ‘Smell Better’ Than Humans?

Dogs ‘smell better’ than humans due to the biological design of their noses. A dog’s nasal cavity is lined with millions more olfactory receptors than a human’s—about 300 million compared to a human’s six million! Additionally, the part of a dog’s brain that analyzes smells is proportionally 40 times greater than that of humans. That’s significant, and allows dogs to detect and differentiate odors in extremely low concentrations. This skill has likely always been essential for their survival and effectiveness in tasks such as tracking and now, medical assistance for their beloved humans.

Groundbreaking Study Shows Dogs Detect PTSD Onset From Human Breath

The study, published in the journal Frontiers of Allergy, involved 26 people, more than half of whom were diagnosed with PTSD. These participants were asked to breathe into a facemask while recalling past traumatic experiences. Meanwhile, two specially trained dogs, Ivy, a red golden retriever, and Callie, a German shepherd/Belgian Malinois mix, were tasked with sniffing these breath samples.

The results were impressive: Ivy achieved 74% accuracy, and Callie scored 81% in detecting stress VOCs. What’s even more fascinating is how the dogs’ detections correlated with different emotional states. Ivy was attuned to anxiety-related compounds, likely linked to adrenaline and noradrenaline from the sympathetic-adrenomedullary axis. In contrast, Callie picked up on compounds related to shame, associated with cortisol from the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis.

This research demonstrates the sensitivity of dogs’ noses, which are up to 100,000 times more acute than humans’, and their potential to intervene before stress symptoms escalate by reminding their handlers to use coping techniques learned in therapy. This early intervention could prevent the full onset of a PTSD episode, increasing the effectiveness of therapeutic strategies.

The study included participants who were regular cannabis users, which could influence the results, but still, the ability of Ivy and Callie to perform well suggests that their detection skills are robust. However, future research will need to explore how these findings can be generalized to a broader population and how they can be implemented effectively in real-world scenarios.

We’ve always known dogs are our best friends, but with this research comes exciting possibilities for enhancing the support that service dogs provide to their humans affected by PTSD. They’re not just our best friends, but also continue to be a proactive form of support in managing mental health challenges.

Sign up now to receive the latest updates via email.