This Dog's Purpose: Sniffing Out Cancer

Meet "Enloe," a yellow Labrador who will be trained as a cancer-detection dog by Chico-based In Situ Foundation, a pioneer in the study of a dog's ability to detect cancer.

We'll chronicle his journey and provide updates on his progress right here. 

Please note that "Enloe" is in training. He will be sniffing samples—not people—at the In Situ Foundation laboratory, not the Enloe Regional Cancer Center. 

Canine companions come in all shapes and sizes

Posted Jan. 16, 2019

Dogs are known as man’s best friend. They can be a child’s best friend, too.

Such is the case for 2-year-old Bentley Smith. His stuffed “Enloe” dog, who he called Timmy, provided the comfort and companionship of a best friend.

When the Camp Fire swept through Paradise, the Smith family fled quickly and Timmy was left behind, their home burned.

Although Bentley had many stuffed animals, Timmy was his favorite and the only plush pet that he allowed to sleep in his crib, said Kyle Smith, Bentley’s dad. And while the family has two Dachshund dogs, it was Timmy that captured Bentley’s heart and went everywhere with him.

“Bentley kept asking for Timmy many times over the past two months,” said Bentley’s mom, Brandy. “It was hard because we were in a different house with family trying to get settled, and he really missed Timmy,” she said.

Timmy had been a birthday present from his beloved uncle, Nate Smith, who works at Enloe Medical Center. Nate knew Bentley dearly missed his stuffed dog.

On Christmas, Nate gathered the family to surprise his nephew with a special gift. “When Bentley opened the present, he clapped and cheered when he realized Timmy had appeared,” said Kyle.

Bentley got another recent surprise when hospital staff arranged for him to meet the real-life “Enloe.” While holding Timmy, Bentley pet, fed and played with “Enloe,” the cancer-sniffing pup who spurred the creation of a plush version to help raise funds for the Enloe Regional Cancer Center. The furry toys can be purchased in the Enloe Gift Shop, located off the main lobby of the hospital.

Real or otherwise, dogs will always be man’s best friend.

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Happy birthday, 'Enloe'

Posted Jan. 23, 2018

Where has the time gone? "Enloe," the loveable Lab puppy with a heart-shaped nose, is getting big. On Jan. 19, the cancer-sniffing dog in training turned 1!

 

In that time, he's filled out. Last time we checked he weighed in at 60 pounds.

Yet, he continues to get plenty of "awws" and lots of love, at home, in public, and while he learns to sniff out cancer. Happy belated birthday, "Enloe!" We hope you had a great celebration. 

And keep up all the great work you're doing in your training. 

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Own an 'Enloe' the dog of your own

Posted Oct. 6, 2017

Want your own "Enloe" the dog? Now you can get one…well, sort of. The Enloe Gift Shop is selling plush versions of the loveable cancer-sniffing Lab in training for $15 each plus tax.

Be sure to pick one up. Not only are these plush toys adorable, they're for a good cause. All proceeds from their sales go to the Enloe Regional Cancer Center. With October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it's a great time to grab one of these cuties.

It seems everyone's doing it. On a recent Friday afternoon when two Enloe employees stopped by the Gift Shop to pick up their own "Enloes," a grandmother was buying four. She couldn't leave any of the grandkids out, she said. According to volunteers at the Gift Shop, she's not alone. The miniature Labs are flying off the shelves.

Even the real "Enloe," loves them. Here he is with several of his mini-hims. Be sure to get yours.

The Gift Shop is located off the lobby of the main hospital on the first floor. It's open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and on weekends from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

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It's all about 'Enloe'

Posted Sept. 22, 2017

"Enloe" has been hard at work learning how to sniff out cancer. Now 8 months old and about 60 pounds, the lovable Lab has been in training with Chico's In Situ Foundation since he was 8 weeks old—and he loves it!

Owner Jeff Hunt takes him to the foundation to work one-on-one with founder and CEO Dina Zaphiris. When "Enloe" reports for duty, he's ready and it's all about him. 

Learning the basics

So far "Enloe" has rocked basic obedience. That's important as it will allow different trainers to handle the pooch during cancer trials and allow him to signal by sitting when he smells cancer. He's also learned the concept of hunting and finding. 

"'Enloe' is training to be a search dog," Dina explains. "He's going to be finding cancer, so we teach him the concept of 'hunting' and 'finding.'" The pup has learned that when he hears the phrase "go find," he needs to search by sniffing all the holes of the scenting apparatuses. 

Getting him to this point started with something dogs love: food, of course.

Dina would place a doggy cookie in the apparatus while "Enloe" watched and then he would search for the tasty treat. The next step was to show "Enloe" the cookie and hide it when he couldn't see what was going on.  

This helped him learn to trust that something was in the scenting apparatus, even when he couldn't see it and began developing his drive to "hunt."  

When "Enloe" would find the cookie, Dina "threw a party," playing fetch with the dedicated dog and giving him lots of love to reward him and build his desire to continue finding. Next, Dina began hiding cancer samples paired with food in the apparatus so "Enloe" could start learning cancer's scent. After several runs, he got that down, and it was time to eliminate the food and only hide cancer samples in the apparatus.

That was a big step. Some dogs lose interest at this point because there is no food reward. But not "Enloe." "He passed with flying colors," Dina tells us, adding that the Lab has worked on identifying 25 cancer samples.

More training to come                                

"Enloe" has a long way to go in his training. He's in phase 3 of an 8-phase training program.

"First you have to learn words, then how to write a sentence, then you can write a paragraph," Dina says. "He's just starting to learn words. He's starting to learn the very basics."

The next step will be to add in healthy samples so "Enloe" can learn to distinguish between those and cancer samples. That step will take the difficulty of "Enloe's" training up a few notches.

"Right now we're just finding the target order: cancer," she says. "He's not discriminating saying, 'This is healthy; this is cancer.' He's only finding cancer sample after cancer sample."

Stay tuned to see how the next part of his training goes.

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One popular pup

Posted June 6, 2017

"Enloe" the dog is a busy guy. The pup is becoming a local celebrity as word spreads of his training to identify cancer with the In Situ Foundation.

People can't seem to get enough of him. But who can blame them? Not only is the science behind the training fascinating, but just look at that face!

The loveable Lab has had a busy social life recently, visiting local service organizations, as well as several emergency responders, including Enloe Medical Center's FlightCare, Durham Volunteer Fire and Butte County EMS. He's also found time for a little leisure. Below you can see him on a recent boat outing on Lake Oroville with his buddy Stewie, whose owner happens to be Dina Zaphiris, "Enloe's" trainer at In Situ in Chico.

 

 
 

As you can imagine, the busy itinerary tires out the little fella at times, so he naps regularly—even when he's out on visits.

"Enloe's" owners, Traci and Jeff Hunt, say he loves meeting folks—and that's good. His story is reaching far and wide, leading to even more fans.

"Jeff and I went out to the house boat yesterday," Traci says. "On our way out on the shuttle there was a woman on the shuttle we had never met before. She recognized 'Enloe' from a Facebook post and was starstruck and took pictures of him. It seems that the more we take him places, the more people recognize him."

The Hunts even received a letter from Sen. Jim Nielsen commending them for adopting little "Enloe."

"It is incredible that ['Enloe'] is expected to sniff out cancer samples 12 to 18 months from now," he writes. "I applaud your family's commitment to helping raise such a special dog."

He is special indeed. What's next on "Enloe's" itinerary? Visiting Chico's mayor, City Council and chief of police. 

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'Enloe's' first day on the job

By Dina Zaphiris | Posted May 9, 2017

The first big day of cancer-detection training for little "Enloe" has come and gone—and let me tell you, he has what it takes. The day looked something like this:

Puppy "Enloe" and his daddy, Jeff Hunt, came to the sniff lab in Chico for "Enloe's" first scent training. The pooch was hanging out of the car window, already sniffing, and instantly spotted me.

He let out an adorable whimper like, "Hey! It's me. Remember those yummy chicken strips?" He knows I give him lots of treats.

Once he was out of the car, we had kisses, pats, ball throwing and, yes, a few treats. Then we let "Enloe" acclimate to the grounds while I went over the laboratory rules with Jeff.

This laboratory is "doggie Disneyland." Once dogs learn their job, there's nowhere on earth they'd rather be than here, sniffing out cancer for a treat or a ball toss! We kept "Enloe" on a leash when he entered the lab to show him the value of the detection apparatus. The long aluminum rack you see below is where we'll eventually place cancer samples and healthy samples for "Enloe" to find, and it will become the most awesome thing in the world to the pup, providing lots of treats.

We started his session by acclimating "Enloe" to the aluminum scenting apparatus and doing some desensitization and counter-conditioning so he gets used to the clanging noises the sliding rack makes.

He loved it!

"Enloe" approached the rack with confidence and got to find dog treats on top of it, inside it, and all around the scent rack. Then we hid a treat inside the rack and asked him to "go find."

He searched the holes in the rack and found the hidden chicken strip inside. Good boy!

We thought the little guy was tired from all of this, so we sat down with him to rest. After about 5 minutes, "Enloe" let out a huge yelp and began pulling and tugging toward the aluminum rack, letting us know he was ready for more.

"Let him go!" I told Jeff, and "Enloe" ran to the rack. He let us know he wanted to play with a fleece bunny toy, so we hid it in the rack, and sure enough, little "Enloe" found it over and over again.

Want to see some of the training for yourself? Head over to my Facebook page for video of his first day.

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Starting with the basics

By Dina Zaphiris | Posted April 25, 2017

It's time for little "Enloe" to begin his life-long training with In Situ Foundation. We're a nonprofit organization dedicated to training dogs to sniff out cancer.

I am the CEO and founder and have been at this since 2003, training dogs for studies published in peer-reviewed medical journals. The best part is that dogs are great at detecting early stage cancer. They can be better than machines.

There's a lot of hope for this science in a world where there are few accurate screening methods for early stage cancer. Dogs can provide an early stage, non-invasive, highly accurate screening test for all types of cancer. So far, In Situ has focused on research and training people across the globe using protocols I have established for everything from sample collection to data recording, to running a clinical trial, to the very dog training itself.

 

This is where Enloe comes in—the hospital and the puppy.

'Enloe' faces a lifetime of learning

"Enloe" the dog (seen here with his owners Traci and Jeff Hunt) will be trained using about 100 samples taken from biopsy-confirmed cancer patients to show him that cancer samples will produce a reward in the form of a dog treat. In addition, about 400 healthy and disease samples will be used to teach little "Enloe" that these samples have no value.

Proofing the dog involves doing lots of runs with "no cancer samples present"—called zero trials. When "Enloe" sniffs and ignores these healthy samples, he will still be rewarded, proofing against false positives.

Trial runs are done with multiple cancer samples present, one or none. Training has many levels, and is gradual, but progressive. After "Enloe" learns his target odor, the cancer scent, he will learn to signal when it's present.

Training is dependent on the ability to obtain a large amount of samples, however. If all goes well, initial training will last about 18 months, but just like an athlete, "Enloe" must train for a lifetime to maintain his ability to detect cancer. We are just in the beginning stages of his training and started with basic training.

What's ahead? Sample collection, introducing "Enloe" to the equipment in the lab, hiding cookies and toys, teaching "Enloe" to hunt and "find" particular objects, and socialization. One job I'm sure "Enloe" will love is helping us train students who come to In Situ from throughout the United States and the world. He will be our "demo" dog and will participate in all of our training classes for others who want to learn about this groundbreaking science.

No people-sniffing here

Many people have an image of dogs sniffing patients when they hear "cancer-detection dog." But that's not quite what we do. We train pups a non- invasive method: to sniff samples taken from people—such as saliva, urine, exhaled breath and plasma—and identify cancer in those samples. 

So although you may see "Enloe" at Enloe Medical Center events, like you did at Saturday's Heart & Sole (you can see him here with Enloe's Community Outreach Coordinator Deanna Reed), he won't be working there. He will work at In Situ's training facility here in Chico, where samples can be sent on dry ice, and put into a medical freezer at 40 degrees below zero.

I have a feeling that you will see Enloe around town and at other Enloe events. He’s already a local celebrity.

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Puppy love: 'Enloe' bonds with his new family

Posted April 5, 2017
"Enloe" met his new family, the Hunts of Durham, Calif., late Monday. It was nearly midnight when he arrived following more than 10 hours of travel. 

On Tuesday afternoon he was settling in and getting to know his new family, most of them pictured below, (from left to right) Jeff, Garrett and Traci. The Hunts' oldest son, Carson, was at school that day. Bella, the family's other dog, was more than happy to become "Enloe's" new playmate, sharing her ball with him several times during a game of fetch.

The 10-week-old puppy will live with the Hunts, and "Enloe" will be theirs to keep. Both Jeff and Traci have personal experiences with cancer and were happy to welcome the cuddly canine into their home.

Enloe Medical Center sponsored the puppy and offered its employees the ability to apply to adopt "Enloe" as their own. Traci works at Enloe, and the Hunts met all the criteria.

 

The family will be responsible for taking "Enloe" to his training at the In Situ Foundation, which will last one year to 18 months.

Enloe Medical Center has partnered with the In Situ Foundation since 2015 to support its research in the study of dogs detecting cancer. For many years, In Situ Founder and CEO Dina Zaphiris has developed medical protocols for the selection, handling and training of canines for early cancer detection. Her research has found that the dog’s accuracy rate for certain types of cancer hovers at 98 percent.

 

Enloe Medical Center's involvement is focused on helping Zaphiris increase the number of trainers who teach dogs how to sniff cancer, resulting in more studies around the world to further her research in the medical community. 

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