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Dogs search for cash, cows in heat, whales

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  • Dogs can be trained to find almost anything
  • Some canines are used to sniff out bootleg DVDs
  • A dog can smell a person's urine or breath for certain types of cancer
  • Dogs can sniff your home for termites and other pesky insects
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By Ethan Trex
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Mental Floss

(Mental Floss) -- A story surfaced about authorities finding $3 million in cash on a bus bound for Mexico recently. How did they find such a large sum of money hiding on the bus? With a cash-sniffing dog. Wait, dogs can sniff out cash? Specially trained ones can.

If you're peddling bootlegs, beware. Dogs can sniff out black market DVDs.

If you're peddling bootlegs, beware. Dogs can sniff out black market DVDs.

Since carrying giant sums of cash is often a good indication that chicanery is afoot, law enforcement agencies throughout the world use dogs to help catch couriers for drug, arms, and counterfeiting rings.

Last December a single cocker spaniel found around a quarter of a million dollars worth of nefarious cash at Milan's airport over just a two-day span.

Yes, dogs can be trained to find almost anything. Their noses contain far more olfactory receptors than humans' sniffers do, and the receptors are situated perfectly along the main airstreams of the pups' noses. Sure, you already knew that detection dogs were able to sniff out drugs, bombs, and corpses, but what else can a well-trained pooch find using only his nose?

1. DVDs

Take a walk in any major urban area, and it won't be long before you run across someone peddling bootleg DVDs. These black-market discs hit the street market so quickly that they might even hit a city before a film gets a theatrical release there, so movie studios and theaters take huge losses when patrons buy a flick on the street instead of shelling out ten bucks for a ticket. That's why in 2006 the film industry introduced the world to Lucky and Flo, the world's first DVD-sniffing dogs.

A broad alliance of film groups including the MPAA and the Federation Against Copyright Theft fronted the cash so the two black Labrador retrievers could learn the unique smell of a polycarbonate disc. At first, the pair had some trouble when they started work at the FedEx hub at London's Stansted Airport. A counterfeit DVD smells just like a legit one, so the dogs were alerting their handlers any time they found a package that had any DVD in it.

Gradually, though, they got the hang of finding the counterfeit loot. While on loan to the Malaysian and Philippine governments in 2007, Lucky and Flo uncovered 1.8 million counterfeit DVDs, a discovery that so enraged a Malaysian organized crime syndicate that the dogs allegedly had a $30,000 bounty on their heads. Luckily, they escaped unscathed and are still out there searching for bootlegged copies of Miss March. Mental Floss: What your favorite movies were almost called

2. Whether a cow's in heat

There's very little romance involved in commercial cattle breeding. For the most part, the cow is artificially inseminated, so the bull's not even around to make awkward excuses about why it's not going to call. Given this impersonal system, breeders need to know when the perfect time to inseminate the cow is, and dogs can help.

Since a cow's physical chemistry changes slightly when she's in heat, a dog can sniff out the differences and alert a farmer that the time is right to open the door to the semen freezer. How good are dogs at telling when a cow's in heat? According to a quote Professor Lawrence J. Myers of Auburn University gave the New York Times, the canines are even better at picking the right time than bulls are.

3. Insects

No one wants to buy a house, have it pass an inspection, and then find out the place is rife with termites, bedbugs, or another pest. Dogs can use their noses to help alleviate this problem. After extensive training that can run up to $15,000 per pooch, dogs can help homebuyers and pest control companies by sniffing around walls and baseboards to look for termites or bedbugs.

Once a dog has found the offending insects, exterminators can take care of the problem, then bring their canine friend back in for a second pass to make sure the bugs are really gone. Mental Floss: 5 deadly animals that might just save your life

4. Cell phones

We don't ordinarily think of cell phones as the sort of menace that needs to be rooted out quickly and efficiently, but they're a major headache for prison officials. Prisoners who have contraband phones can continue coordinating illegal activities from their cells, badger witnesses, and plot escapes.

Thanks to their various uses, inmates tend to be pretty crafty with where they stow their phones. These hiding places might fool a human official, but a dog can sniff them out with ease. According to an October 2008 news story, Virginia and Maryland have been using phone-finding dogs in their prisons, and Florida recently debuted Razor, a young Malinois who can sniff out prisoners' phones.

5. Cancer

This one's still in its early stages, but many researchers are optimistic that a well-trained dog can detect cancer in humans. The basic logic is very similar to the cows-in-heat example; a cancerous cell might excrete chemicals that aren't ordinarily found in the human body but can be detected by a dog. Theoretically, the dog could take a whiff of a person's urine or breath and figure out if the patient had certain types of cancer.

If the dogs could reliably make this diagnosis early on in a patient's illness, physicians would be able to better manage the disease. Marine, a black lab from Japan, is thought to be particularly adept at sniffing out cancer, so last year scientists starting cloning her to create a larger army of cancer-smelling canines.

6. Whale droppings

The population of Southern resident orcas is shrinking to the point where the animals are endangered, and scientists would love to figure out why. Unfortunately, it's tough to get close enough to a killer whale to take samples to test for changes in a whale's internal chemistry. However, when you're eating as much as an orca does, you're bound to leave quite a bit of excrement behind in the ocean. If scientists can find the droppings, they can test them for thyroid hormone levels and other telltale signs about the creatures' diets.

Slimy green whale droppings can be tough to find, though, so specially trained dogs are used. The pups sit in the front of a boat and bark like crazy when there's whale excrement nearby. It's a strange system, but it works for researchers at the University of Washington.

One of the dogs, a Lab named Tucker, couldn't cut it as a pet or a police dog, but he's got a nose for whale leavings. Another pooch, an Australian cattle dog named Gator, is a bit more diverse; in addition to whales he can track down droppings from wolverines, bears, jaguars, and cougars. Mental Floss: 6 unexpected uses for animal dung

7. Peanuts

Earlier this year, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported on the story of an eight-year-old girl with such a violent peanut allergy that if a shell touches her skin, it burns her. Riley Mers' allergy is so bad that she can go into hives from inhaling peanut residue that's not even detectable to the human nose. This sounds like a parent's worst nightmare, but now Riley has backup in her fight with the allergy - a Portuguese water dog named Rock'O.

After six months of training, Rock'O was able to detect even the slightest hint of peanut residue in the air, so when Riley goes out, he's always around to make sure the offending legumes aren't anywhere in the area. Additional peanut-sniffing dogs are being trained in Texas to help children like Riley lead more normal lives without the constant fear of allergy attacks.

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