The Medical Detection Dogs charity sounds like a concept straight out of a science fiction movie: an organisation training dogs to identify human diseases by sniffing out unusual odours. The charity was in the news recently after reaching the finals of the Purina Better With Pets Prize, launched by Purina, which sought out enterprises across Europe that exemplified the positive power of the pet-human bond.
The charity uses dogs in two ways: medical alert assistance dogs are trained to notice tiny changes in an individualâ€™s personal odour triggered by their disease, alerting them to an impending medical event. Â Meanwhile, bio-detection dogs are trained to detect the odour of diseases, such as cancer, in samples such as urine, breath and swabs.
Medical Alert Assistance Dogs
Medical alert assistance dogs help patients with life-threatening health conditions to avoid an oncoming medical emergency, giving them greater independence and allowing them to carry out normal daily activities more safely. Currently, most of the medical alert assistance dogs work with people with diabetes, but they also assist patients with Addisonâ€™s disease and some with severe allergic responses. The dogs are trained to detect subtle changes in blood sugar levels as well as other hormone-related odour changes. When the dogs notice that levels are falling or rising outside the normal range, the dogs warn their owners, get external help and fetch vital medical supplies.
Bio-detection dogs are trained to detect the odour of volatile chemicals that are found in urine, faecal, and skin swab samples when humans are suffering from certain specific illnesses. Itâ€™s likely that all diseases are associated with biochemical changes that cause changes in odours emanating from our bodies. The charity is working on a number of studies into the early detection of urological cancers such as prostate and bladder cancer, malaria and more recently Parkinsonâ€™s disease.
The use of the dogs for the breast cancer has a very personal background for the charityâ€™s chief executive. Back in 2009, Claire, a scientist and animal behaviour expert, had already started training dogs to assist with medical conditions. It was well known that the part of the brain that processes smell was much larger in dogs than in humans, and forty times as powerful. Claire had heard anecdotal stories about dogs changing their behaviour when their owners developed cancer, so she had started to train her own Labrador, Daisy, to use her sense of smell for medical purposes.
One day, for no particular reason, Daisy did something odd: she stared at Claire, prodding her chest with her nose. She did this several times. She wasnâ€™t a clumsy dog, and she normally kept herself to herself, so this was peculiar behaviour. Claire was prompted to carefully feel the place where Daisy had nudged her, and to her surprise, she found a small lump there. She went to her doctor, and following a mammogram and a core biopsy, a diagnosis of breast cancer was confirmed. She is now cancer-free, after extensive surgery and radiotherapy. Without her dogâ€™s intervention, the diagnosis would have not have been made so early, and the outcome could have been very different. This experience has inspired Claire to continue even more passionately with her work with Medical Detection Dogs: she has witnessed for herself the life-changing possibilities.
How medical detection dogs are trained
The charityâ€™s dogs are trained using reward-based methods, and clicker training: when they correctly identify a particular odour, they are rewarded either with a food treat or a play session with a tennis ball. There are similarities with the way that drug-detection dogs are prepared for work at customs posts.
The dogs work on samples – such as urine, breath or swabs – in a â€śbio-detection roomâ€ť at the charityâ€™s training centre; these dogs have not been trained to detect odours on people directly. Claire has worked closely with medical researchers, publishing a number of research papers in journals such as the British Medical Journal. There are two long term aims: first to provide diagnostic support for cancers that are currently difficult to diagnose reliably, such as prostate cancer, and second to assist with the development of electronic systems for disease detection using the information that the dogs have provided (i.e. pinpointing the volatile chemicals that have caused the dogsâ€™ behaviour to change, then developing conventional electronic measurement systems to detect these).
How much does it cost to train a medical detection dog?
It costs ÂŁ29,000 to train and place a Medical Alert Assistance Dog, with on-going support costs of ÂŁ1,000 a year. Meanwhile it costs ÂŁ11,500 to train a Bio-Detection Dog to prepare them to work on a disease project.
Medical Detection Dogs are highly specialist canine bioâ€“sensors and the ongoing costs of their training form part of the costs of each research project, which can be ÂŁ150,000 a year. Â
Medical Alert Assistance Dogs cost more in their initial training phase as this includes the intensive support and preparation that is provided for applicants, many of who have very complex healthcare needs. This support is provided throughout the process of assessment and matching. Â Puppies start socialising and early training as soon as they arrive and at 18 months are trained to recognise the disease odour they will alert to, it can then take another year before they become a fully accredited assistance dog partnership. Medical Detection Dogs provide ongoing support and aftercare for the life of all of these dogs to ensure the partnership is a success.
Extending the range of diagnostic possibilities
As well as cancers, the charity is currently investigating using odour as a way of diagnosing Parkinsonâ€™s disease, malaria, and bacterial infections. The prompt diagnosis of Parkinsonâ€™s disease – up to ten years earlier than conventional means – was the project that won the charity particular acclaim in the Purina Better With Pets Prize. One of five finalists, the charity shared in the prize pot of ÂŁ76000, receiving ÂŁ11500 to assist with development of the Parkinsonâ€™s Disease project and gaining highly commended recognition from the judging panel.
The charity does not receive any funding from government, so private donations, grant applications and prizes of this type are critical to the continuation of the charityâ€™s work.
You may think that your pet dog is lying passively in her bed, idling while the world passes by. Little do you know: perhaps an entire encyclopedia of current affairs is entering her consciousness via her sensitive sense of smell. Claire Guest and her team are doing their best to harness this hidden canine skill in a unique and productive way.