Our best friends might save our lives in a new way.
When Dina Zaphiris was a little girl, she often was asked by friends and family what she wanted to do in life. Her answer was always, “I want to work with dogs! I want to be the best!”
Dina indeed became a renowned pet dog trainer but her passion for dogs led her much further. My husband and I went to Chico last month to interview her.
As we arrived at a large dog-training facility with friendly wide-open spaces and pictures of Dina and her dogs over the walls, we were welcomed by Dina, her husband, and two of her dogs. Dina had a big smile on her face. Her dogs, Stewie, a beautiful Australian shepherd, and Linus, a playful German shepherd, both trained for cancer detection, immediately came to us. Stewie wanted to be petted and Linus wanted to play with a ball. We felt immediately at ease there and started to interview Dina about her passion for dogs.
Dina told us she was exposed to dogs at a very young age when she visited her uncle who was a dog breeder. Every summer since the age of 4, Dina handled dogs, thanks to her uncle. Dogs fascinated her. They were full of unconditional love, acceptance and playfulness. Her passion solidified when she left New York, came to Los Angeles, and met Richard Vye, a pet dog trainer and fellow student of Rudd Weatherwax (trainer and owner of the original Lassie in the film Lassie Come Home). That’s when she decided to become a pet dog trainer herself. For several years she worked full time training dogs—especially movie stars’ dogs—but also dogs for search and rescue, epileptic seizure detection, balance support, and emotional support. Her passion for dogs led her to be the host of Animal Planet Show series Petfinder for one year.
Then in 1990, two things happened that changed the direction of her life: First, she heard about a study published in the Lancet describing how a pet dog was always sniffing a mole on a patient’s leg which prompted the patient to see a dermatologist who diagnosed a melanoma (by alerting its owner which triggered the resection of the skin cancer, the dog saved its owner’s life). Second, Dina’s mother Catherine was diagnosed with breast cancer. Catherine had very dense breasts but could feel a small lump in her breast that was not detected at first with a mammogram. It was only later, when the lump grew bigger, that a mammogram detected it. The Lancet study and her mother’s cancer got Dina thinking: What if dogs other than the one cited in the Lancet could detect melanoma? And what if dogs could detect cancers other than melanoma. Finally what if Dina could train dogs to detect cancers earlier than medical tests did?