Heidi the Search and Rescue Dog Detects Cancer in Her Owner

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BALTIMORE—Heidi  is a 125-pound black shepherd-Lab mix that is trained  to do search-and-rescue. She finds things.  When she began burying her snout into her owner’s chest and pawing at her with excitement and fervor, it appeared she found something important.

It turned out to be cancerous tumors in Anne Wills’ lungs.

“She was physically barricading me on the couch,” said Wills, the 52-year-old owner of the Arbutus, Maryland-based Dogs Finding Dogs tracking service. “She was drooling and scratching at my arms.”

At first Wills thought the dog was sick, but when the vet cleared her, Wills decided a few weeks later to get herself checked. A CT scan revealed the spots in her chest.

Without chemotherapy and radiation, Wills’ cancer likely would have advanced within a few months, Cole said. The dog played an important role in early detection he said, and  Wills’ primary care doctor took Wills seriously when she described Heidi’s behavior.

“You trusted the dog and the doctor trusted you,” he said to Wills. “Good thing. Early detection really changes your odds.”

Once Wills’ treatment began, Heidi’s anxious pawing at her stopped. Her cancer is now in remission, though she remains on maintenance chemotherapy.

Heidi might soon retire as a search-and-rescue dog at the age of 9 and realx  with a ball and Ann at her side.

“I’m so thankful for her,” Wills said. “But if she starts acting funny again, I’ll be on Dr. Cole’s doorstep, and I don’t care if it’s midnight.”