From the 1st April – 4th May is National Pet Month, which celebrates all the joys animals bring to our lives. The charity aims to promote responsible pet ownership and raise awareness about the benefits of having animals, plus the value of working pets to society.
Each year the charity has a different theme, which their numerous fundraising events are based around. This year it’s ‘Pets and the Elderly: Enjoying Later Years Together.’
Dogs – Man’s Best Friend
Dogs have been hailed as man’s best friend for years and some are being trained to go even further in their ability to help their owners. Medical assistance dogs are specially trained to aid humans who suffer from a range of conditions such as physical disabilities, mental health issues, epilepsy and diabetes. Some are even being trained to detect early forms of cancerous cells.
Dr Claire Guest is Director of Operations and co-founder of Medical Detection Dogs. She set up the foundation in 2008 after her previous work showed that dogs could be trained to recognise certain smells, including cancerous cells.
“I knew we had a brilliant solution to early cancer detection using the amazing smelling power of dogs. I was determined to take it to the point where we started putting the science into practice and saving lives.”
Training a dog for cancer detection takes about six months and requires patience.
“It’s all about rewarding the behaviour we want them to display. First, we reward them when they sniff a urine sample, then build up to only find urine samples containing cancer. That way they begin to seek out the samples with cancer in them and alert us to a positive sample by sitting down and staring. Later on in the training the dogs learn to indicate when all samples are clear.”
Other Alert Dogs
As well as cancer detection dogs, Medical Detection Dogs also train medical assistance dogs for people with diabetes, Addisonian crisis, seizures and severe allergic reactions. For these health conditions, the dogs are trained to detect changes in human scent that indicate the person is likely to have a medical emergency.
“Assistance dogs have eighteen months of puppy socialising and public access training, followed by six weeks of scent and alert training. When they detect a problem, they stare, nudge, lick and if necessary, jump up and fetch the medical kit. The owners carry a kit to treat themselves, such as insulin for diabetics. The dogs will often go and fetch that kit bag and make sure their owners take action when they are in danger.”
All Dogs are Welcome
For Dr Guest, there are no restrictions on the types of dog they train but personality is key.
“Temperament wise, the dogs we use all naturally love working with humans and are keen to learn. The cancer detection dogs have bundles of energy and love to solve the puzzle we set them. The medical assistance dogs are similarly bright and energetic so that they are always ready to alert their owners to chemical changes in their bodies that signal an imminent medical crisis.
“We have lots of Labradors and Spaniels, particularly for the cancer detection, as they have tonnes of energy and are keen to work. Among the medical assistance dogs, there are Labradors, Spaniels, Terriers and even Poodles. Any dog with a willingness to learn and enthusiasm to work can be trained. Our assistance dogs must pass a public access test, be friendly and confident in all working environments and must bond strongly with their owner.”
“Often the dogs are donated by breeders or are rescue dogs. Sometimes we take on dogs who don’t make it to become guide dogs. They weren’t suited to guide a visually impaired person because they are distracted by smell, but make great medical detection dogs. Occasionally we train the dogs people had already as pets.”
A Lifelong Companion
After their training period, the assistance dogs are introduced to their new owners.
“The medical assistance dogs who match successfully with a partner stay with them for life, with plenty of support and further training from us.
“We currently have a three year waiting list of individuals managing life threatening medical conditions, who are desperate for a medical assistance dog to turn their life around. We work so hard to raise funds from public donations because we get no government money. Every pound helps to change a life.”
These amazing animals can truly be man’s best friend but they need our support. Every little can help, so during National Pet Month we are donating 5% of all our sales to aid the care of assistance dogs in training.
Use the link below to shop with us and help Medical Detection Dogs