To Catherine Ross, her 125-pound English Mastiff, is a guardian angel.
"These are her angel wings, she earned them," says Ross as she touches the light patches of fur on her dog Emma's shoulders.
When Ross got Emma as a puppy to make her feel safer in her downtown Bakersfield home, she never knew just how much protection her new pet would provide.
"She would sniff my breast and paw me and cry and cry and cry. It went on day after day after day."
Turns out it's pretty hard to ignore a dog the size of Emma, so when Ross saw her doctor next, she mentioned the strange behavior. "He said wait, come back here. He said where exactly is the dog doing that? I showed him the spot, he examined me and said, do you want my medical advice? He said, keep the dog."
It was cancer. Within weeks Ross went in for a mastectomy.
Dr. Ravi Patel, with Comprehensive Blood and Cancer Center, didn't treat Ross, but says science proves this isn't just a fluke. "Some of the first reports of this came out in 1989," he said.
Dogs have a sense of smell so strong, Dr. Patel says they can detect up to a trillionth of a particle. "There are things in cancer called bio-markers. They are these chemicals we detect in the blood to see if there's activity of cancer. There are bio-markers in your breath which dogs can detect," he said.
Going forward, Dr. Patel says one day there may be an application for this peculiar talent. "They could develop gadgets that would simulate that sense of smell, and that could be used to detect cancer."
But, while Dr. Patel doesn't recommend replacing CAT scans and PET scans with dog scans, he says you should take note if man's best friend seems to insist something is strange.
Ross, who calls Emma a friend and a family member, is sure glad she did. She was diagnosed with cancer a second time, and, once again, she says Emma alerted her to it. She is now undergoing treatment.