Medical Detection Dogs
The charity Medical Detection Dogs is an organisation that trains dogs to identify human disease by odour. It is currently undertaking a number of pioneering research projects involving canine olfaction, including the training of dogs to detect cancer, blood sugar changes, and Addison’s disease.
Called biodetection, this science is still relatively new, but trials have proven that it is possible for dogs to identify certain conditions due to them having a specific, detectable odour. Dr Claire Guest, the founder of the Medical Detection Dogs charity, has a dog herself, Florin, who can sniff out prostate cancer.
In addition, some of the dogs trained by the charity are specifically trained to be of aware of potentially life-threatening situations, such as sniffing out hypos and hypers in someone with diabetes. With conditions such as diabetes, the dogs can be tuned to a specific person and their needs (in a room of diabetics with low blood sugars, they are trained only to tell their owner that their sugar is low).
It’s a kind of Magic
Claire Pesterfield was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1986 at the age of 13. In her day job she is a DSN (diabetes specialist nurse) at a hospital in Cambridge. She currently uses a Mechanic insulin pump and Medtronic Enlite sensors for continuous glucose monitoring (CGM), combined with a Contour Next One Link blood test meter. However, she certainly sees her medical detection dog, Magic, as her most invaluable piece of diabetes kit.
Pesterfield has had impaired hypo awareness over the last 10 years. Including episodes of unconsciousness due to the onset of undetected low blood glucose. This was affecting her work as she took time to recover from such episodes. “It was a friend who showed me the Medical Detection Dog charity, as her sister was into showing dogs. And had heard about it in that arena,” she says. She subsequently applied for a medical detection dog in 2001 at which point she was interviewed by the charity and a dog matched to her needs. “Finding the right dog is key, but so is finding the right person,” she says, “This has to be a bullet-proof relationship, and a bullet-proof dog. It took 18 months before I was matched with Magic.”
The selection and training process may have taken some time, but once in place it was a quick fix. Pesterfield recalls, “Just months after being paired with Magic my life changed completely. I have had no episodes of unconsciousness at all since then, and I’ve also gained better overall control, although my actual awareness of hypos has not come back as a result of the better control, which was something I might have hoped for. But with Magic here to look after me, I know that I’m going to be OK.”
It’s a big commitment from the owner too, but very much worth it. As Pesterfield says, “Magic comes with me everywhere even onto the paediatric ward in the hospital where I’m a DSN. He has the same rights as a guide dog as he is an accredited assistance dog and meets an international standard that means that he is safe to be in public environments. He is trained to respond to only my blood glucose level. And he detects when I’m in trouble by smell. Whatever else I am doing, this smell prompts him to do the action – his behaviour has to be obvious so I know I have to act.
He can’t do the blood test for me, that part of the deal is for me to do. Some dogs do an intense stare, but Magic always jumps up. He is trained to alert me when I’m at 4.7mmols or below, so I have time to act before I’m in hypo, as by then I could be too confused to act appropriately.”
Magic is a four-legged glucose monitoring device – a canine with CGM capabilities. Pesterfield says, “He’s better than CGM; he picks up to my blood sugars up to 45 minutes ahead of time, where as the CGM is arguably 15 minutes behind. At Medical Detection Dogs we are undertaking some research comparing dog versus CGM to prove this statistically.”
The Medical Detection Dogs are able to smell beyond just smelling any other stress reaction; they can separate a hypo from another more normal episode of being stressed, like the owner being stressed at work. The medical detection dog’s ability to accurately identify a hypo has to be 90% in order to stay accredited. But Magic’s talents are not limited to hypos, says Pesterfield: “Magic alerts to highs as well although he’s not necessarily trained for picking up on a hyper state, whereas some other dogs are.
He just tells me to test, telling me if I’m high or low, not which. Testing is my part of the deal. If he alerts me I’ll test; that is my commitment to the relationship. The dog is only given to someone who will do the necessary compliance. In a way, you could say it’s a way of keeping the dog calibrated. I trust him more than all my other diabetes kit.”
Pesterfield now volunteers one day a week for the charity, working the selection process matching dogs to people as well as doing talks and fundraising. She says, “One of the many factors involved with living with diabetes is quality-of-life and there’s a sort of scale. Those in dire trouble needs the soonest fix. I also do a lot of advising and a lot of research and reading. The selection process is very specialised from the start; usually around 80% of the dogs we start with end up working as planned. The dogs are often Labrador crosses. Magic is a Labrador crossed with a Golden Retriever.”
Problem Areas In Diabetes
There’s now an assessment known as PAID (Problem Areas In Diabetes), one of which is that people with diabetes can be prone to increased anxiety levels. Hypo dogs are proven to reduce anxiety, not just alerting to hypos, which is itself a huge relief. But ‘pet-related quality of life’ is widely accepted to show that people with pets are happier. And healthier as they have companionship, and tend to have to go for a walk twice a day to take the dog out, benefitting overall health.
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