Scientists have already had some success using dogs to sniff out cancer, but now a group of Calgary researchers is testing whether the animals can pinpoint people who are at risk of getting the disease.

At a warehouse in the city's southeast, the University of Calgary researchers are working with the dog training experts at Clever Canines, testing the sniffing powers of seven specially selected dogs.

"Hopefully this will actually be something someday that saves lives and makes people live better," said Jenny McKee, the research facilitator and a dog trainer at Clever Canines.

The dogs' job is to find a box in an adjoining sterile room that contains the breath sample of a person with cancer — or someone who has been determined as being at high risk for getting cancer.

cancer sniffing dogs

The seven specially selected dogs being used in the study are family pets. (Maureen Miller/CBC)

"We've actually introduced a set of high-risk controls. So in addition to the dogs testing for people that actually do have cancer, we're testing them to see how accurate they are at predicting someone who is getting cancer," said Bianca Nassey, operations director for Clever Canines.

"And high risk comes from people who have families with risk of cancer … lung cancer specifically, have smoked a pack or two packs a day for 15 years to 30 years."

The researchers are able to use breath samples because people with cancer exhale a certain number of volatile organic compounds (VOC).

"There's about 4,000 VOCs in every exhaled breath, and about 20 of those will actually have that cancer smell," said Nassey.

If the project is successful, it could save people a lot of suffering with earlier diagnoses — and the government a lot money on cancer tests and treatment, Nassey says.

Family pets on loan for project

The study isn't complete and the results won't be available for a while.

However, Nassey is encouraged.

"We are really optimistic. The dogs have been doing really well," she said.

"Our end goal is to have an inexpensive, effective screening tool to help reduce the number of people that actually end up with cancer."

For the dogs, it's just a part-time gig. They are all family pets and come to the training facility for a few hours each day before returning home to their families.

Dogs can identify smells between 1,000 to 100,000 times more accurately than humans, according to the Clever Canines website.

"We're so lucky that these dogs have to ability to sniff things out that we can't even smell, and really being able to hone that ability and use it to our advantage," Nassey said.