How I Trained My CF Service Dog to Detect Bacteria

I learned that service dogs for diabetics can be trained to detect the scent of high or low blood sugar. Could this type of training be effective for teaching my service dog to detect when I have a bacterial infection?

Jan. 16, 2024 | 5 min read
A headshot of Jennifer Kyle
Jennifer Kyle
Jennifer sitting on her living room floor holding a cotton ball up to her dog

On October 3, 2022, we were excited and nervous as my boyfriend and I drove three hours to Chattanooga, TN to meet to the breeder with the newest member of our family. This is the day Ben came into our lives and — little did I know — he was going to be the most important dog I have ever owned.

I grew up in New Jersey, taught PE and dance for 16 years, went on disability due to CF, met the love of my life, and moved to Kentucky. Dogs have been a part of my life for more than 20 years, and I had just lost my golden retriever shortly before the move. When we decided to get Ben, I knew I wanted him to be the kind of dog I could take everywhere and never have to worry about his behavior. I decided I was going to train Ben to be my service dog.

I started learning all about service dog training by reading, watching videos and documentaries, and talking with other service dog trainers. Once I started Ben on the basic level of service dog training, I knew he would be great as he picked up the commands quite easily. After six months, he passed the basic level training and I had to decide what service he was going to provide for me. 

I knew dogs are trained by scent to detect blood sugar level changes with diabetics so I wondered if I could teach Ben to detect the two strains of bacteria I grow — Staphylococcus aureus (staph) and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. I knew each bacteria had a unique scent since my boyfriend could tell when I was starting to get sick by the scent I gave off. That’s when I looked up the smells of each one.

Staph smells like bleach and P. aeruginosa smells like grape. I immediately ordered grape extract and already had a huge container of bleach. I started researching scent training for service dogs and so began our next level of service dog training.

Every morning we do a scent training session. I use cotton pads — one soaked in bleach and the other with grape extract that are kept in zipped plastic bags. I open one bag and have Ben take a sniff. While I reward him and distract him with a treat, I take the cotton pad and place it somewhere around me. I use the command, “touch” and then Ben has to find the pad and touch it with his nose. I reward him, again, and move the pad to various locations, finally placing the pad on my chest and forehead. Again, I say, “touch” and Ben sniffs around and finds the pad on my chest or forehead and touches it with his nose. We do this every day for about three minutes. 

I started to wonder if our training was working, until one evening Ben was sitting next to me on the couch and — out of nowhere — buried his nose into my right lung, took a deep sniff, and let it out. At first, I did not realize what he was doing until he repeated it one more time and then I had that lightbulb moment. OMG he just smelled something! I called my clinic the next morning, told them what happened, and I tested positive for staph that week. I was so happy the training was working!

Ben and I continue to do this training every day and as my bacteria change, I will teach him to adapt to new scents. I would love to train him on Burkholderia cepacia next. Ben has also received his therapy dog certification and we go to the hospital, hospice house, and nursing homes to bring comfort and cheer to the residents.

We are so proud of Ben achieving these goals at only a year and a half old and we know he will only get better with age. We take Ben everywhere we go — even on airplanes — and he is always ready to greet people with a hearty tail wag and big Labrador smile. I couldn’t have asked for a better dog. I’m forever grateful to Little Falls Labradors in Northeast Georgia for giving us such a wonderful dog.

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This site contains general information about cystic fibrosis, as well as personal insight from the CF community. Opinions and experiences shared by members of our community, including but not limited to people with CF and their families, belong solely to the blog post author and do not represent those of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, unless explicitly stated. In addition, the site is not intended as a substitute for treatment advice from a medical professional. Consult your doctor before making any changes to your treatment.

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Accommodations | Infections
A headshot of Jennifer Kyle

Jennifer Kyle is 58 years old with cystic fibrosis. She has a MS in sports administration from Montclair State University, a BS in health, physical education and sports studies, and a BA in dance from Douglass College Rutgers, The State University. She taught dance and PE for 16 years in New Jersey public schools and dance for four years as an adjunct professor at Montclair State University. Jennifer previously served as president of the New Jersey Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (now known as SHAPE NJ), and served as the VP of Dance for the Eastern District Association for the national SHAPE organization. Since retiring on disability with cystic fibrosis, Jennifer dedicates her time to taking care of dogs and volunteering for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation on the Adult Advisory Committee, Clinical Review Committee, Health Equity and Team Science Advisory Committee, and CF Peer Connect. Jennifer has participated in five clinical trials and hopes to participate in more. She currently serves on the Governance Board for the Cystic Fibrosis Sexual and Reproductive Health Collaborative as the meeting coordinator, helping to broaden research for sexual and reproductive health to better the lives of women living with CF. Jennifer was also involved in a CF Foundation outreach study as a patient advocate to help improve tele-health appointments for patients with CF and is currently serving on the CF Foundation care model committee to improve patient care in CF clinics across the US. Jennifer resides in Bowling Green, KY with her boyfriend, Pat, and service dog, Ben. During her free time Jennifer enjoys working out, cooking vegan dishes, playing golf, and visiting hospitals and nursing homes with Ben. You can reach Jennifer by email or Facebook

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