Fighting Cancer with Positive Reinforcement

By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor,

The New York Times recently reported on a program at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center that teaches dogs to sniff out cancer using positive reinforcement.  A typical session finds a dog circling a wheel with 12 samples of blood plasma.  Only one contains cancerous cells.  When the dog halts in front of the correct sample, the trainer throws a tennis ball across the room and the dog chases it around giddily.

The Center utilizes dogs, known for their incredible senses of smell, to act as an early detectors of ovarian cancer.  Dogs have also been shown to detect bladder cancer, melanoma, lung, breast, and prostate cancer.  In the near future, interdisciplinary teams will isolate a range of cancer chemicals that only dogs can smell.  Dogs won’t be entering the doctor’s office anytime soon, however.  The ultimate goal is to manufacture nanotechnology that can detect cancerous tissue 1/100,000th the thickness of paper.

If you have experience with this type of training, we would love to hear from you in the comments below!  Also, be sure to stay in the loop by subscribing to bSci21 via email to receive new articles directly to your inbox!


Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns and  Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at

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1 Comment

  1. Amazing to see ABA animal training and biotechnology coming together. It was something I thought of during my biomedical science degree which then developed into studying ABA. Would love to see more comes of research collaboration between these faculties.

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