The October meeting of Stanhoe & Barwick WI saw members transfixed by the role and abilities of medical detection dogs, about which previously we knew nothing. Our speaker Norma Howell, ably assisted by her husband and technological operator, gave us an immense amount of detail of the dogs, their training and operation, and the wonderful life saving work that they carry out.
The Milton Keynes based charity Medical Detection Dogs, whose patron is the Duchess of Cornwall, was founded in 2004 by Dr Claire Guest, a scientist, whose breast cancer was detected by a dog. Dogs have 300 million sensors in their noses, compared to a human’s 5 million, and 40% more brain capacity than us for processing the information detected: dogs can also use their nostrils independently of each other! The dogs never interact at the diagnostic stage with humans, but breath or urine samples from patients are mounted on an apparatus which enables the dog to circle round and sniff each sample: as soon as they detect the unique odour produced in the body’s cells by disease, the dog will sit down in front of the relevant sample, as we saw in video clips.
There are 35 working dogs at Milton Keynes, and 125 across the country. It takes 4 to 6 months to train a dog, at a cost of £11,500, and the cost of supporting working dogs is £600 per month. Bio detection dogs have a 98% success rate at diagnosing a problem, and are primarily used for cancers and diabetes, with research now being carried out on lung infections and cystic fibrosis; another potential use in the relatively near future is for dogs to enter hospital wards and identify ‘superbugs’ – MRSA and C. difficile being examples. Dogs are also now being trained for research into detecting malaria.
Once a client is supplied with his or her own Medical Alert Assistance dog, the dog can obtain medical supplies for them, fetch help, attract attention, or alert the patient to changes in his or her condition. One patient, prone to needing help while asleep, credited her dog with alerting her 4,500 times in five years, and we saw a video of her dog pawing at her to wake her when an abnormality in her condition was detected. It takes 18 to 24 months to train a living-in dog fully, at a cost of £29,000.