Medical detection dogs come to the rescue: rehomed pooches sniff out cancer, diabetes and Parkinson’s

Those amazing wonderdogs who sniff out diseases and raise alarm when their humans struggle regularly hit the news and could be key in detecting life-threatening conditions much earlier. Susie Kearley reports on three very special medical detection dogs – all of whom are rescues

The Medical Detection Dogs charity in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, is working with scientists to train dogs to detect diseases like cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and malaria. The dogs learn to recognise the distinctive scents associated with these diseases and to react to them. Their pioneering work could enable earlier diagnosis of a range of diseases, and enable thousands of people to get treatment much earlier, potentially saving many lives. 

Two of the dogs training to be Bio Detection Dogs are Louie, a black Laborador (pictured above), and Jasper a spaniel. Louie was less than a year old when he was given to Battersea Dogs Home, for rehoming. The staff there thought he had the potential to be a good medical detection dog, so he was offered to the Medical Detection Dogs charity. He quickly adapted to his new role and enjoys the training. 

Gemma Butlin from the charity explains: “Louie has just started his early scent training, meaning he is learning to find a particular odour. He will start with something ‘easy’ like a tennis ball, which will gradually be made smaller and smaller. He will then progress to other smells and eventually, he will be detecting tiny amounts of a disease. 

Jasper can’t wait for work

“Jasper came to us from [rescue charity] Woodgreen at around seven months old,” Gemma continues. “He was taken to the shelter by a family whose circumstances changed and they no longer wanted him. He is currently doing what we call ‘socialisation training’ where he gets used to all sorts of different places and learns obedience, manners, self-control and that sort of thing.

“In both cases, the shelters saw potential in the dogs and contacted us. They would have been showing signs of excellent use of their noses, and a need to be busy and use their brains. We’re very grateful to be gifted dogs in this way. It is amazing to know we are part of giving them a second chance in life too! It just goes to show it doesn’t matter where you start from.” 

Detecting the smallest change

Louie and Jasper have a lot to learn. They’re being trained to find the odour of diseases in samples such as urine, breath and swabs. The dogs have incredible noses and are able to detect tiny amounts of a scent, around one part per trillion, which is equivalent to a teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic swimming pools. 

These two pups are following the same training programme as other Bio Detection Dogs who’ve been through the experience. Rescue dogs aren’t treated any differently. “We may have to work on some things more than others, but that’s the same with any dog in training – it isn’t because of their background,” says Gemma.

“Jasper is a lovely dog,” she continues. “He loves people and has many strengths. He loves to retrieve, has great recall, is very easy to walk and lovely to live with. He’s a typical spaniel, so we’re working on his over-interest in birds! He likes to be cuddled like a baby and in the evening will wrap himself around your shoulders on the sofa.”

How about Louie? “He’s great too! He’s a quick learner, really enthusiastic, and he enjoys the training. We’re just working on his recall and his over-excitement around other dogs. He has a habit of bounding into the Bio Detection area, nearly knocking over the treat box.

“Bio Detection Dogs are trained on one disease each,” explains Gemma. “With cancer, we have dogs for differing types of cancer, so, for example, we have prostate cancer dogs, colorectal cancer dogs, etc. And of course Parkinson’s dogs, pseudomonas dogs, malaria dogs etc. It is too early to say which diseases Louie or Jasper will work on, as they are in the early stages of their training”.

Louis pays close attention in training

Now you may be wondering, why someone smells different when they have a disease? Well, evidence shows that our bodies produce certain volatile organic compounds when particular diseases take hold. The dogs are trained to detect these very specific odours so that the diseases associated with them can be identified early and treatment provided in a timely manner.

The charity is involved in an NHS ethically approved study to detect urological cancers using the dog’s sense of smell. Another trial looks at whether the dogs can detect breast cancer at an early stage, and there is interest in pursuing this approach for the diagnosis of a wide range of different cancers.

Of course, it would be more practical in medical settings if there was a medical instrument that could do the same thing as a dog’s nose. That’s why the charity is helping scientists to develop E noses, to assist in the early detection of cancer. 

“We are on the threshold of delivering an accurate, rapid and non-invasive test to diagnose cancer at an early stage – a test that would be offered to clinicians to use alongside existing diagnostic methods,” says Gemma.

They are also training dogs to identify the presence of malaria, with a view to having detection dogs at ports to screen travellers passing through borders, and thereby prevent the spread of the disease.

Research has clearly established that dogs can detect Parkinson’s disease before the symptoms present themselves. The charity aims to create a new approach for the early diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease in clinical settings so that treatments can be delivered earlier and will be more effective. It would also enable the cause and progression of the disease to be studied in greater depth.

“In the short term, our cancer dogs could provide additional testing for cancers that are currently difficult to diagnose reliably, such as prostate cancer,” says Gemma.

On alert

The charity also trains Medical Alert Assistance Dogs to help people who have type 1 diabetes, severe allergies, Addison’s disease (a rare disorder of the adrenal glands), and other life-threatening conditions. These dogs can tell when a person is at risk – for example, they can detect when a diabetic’s blood sugar falls too low.

Medical Alert Assistance Dogs, of whom more than 80 now live with people across the UK, are trained to detect minute changes in an individual’s personal odour. This change signifies an impending medical event, which can be prevented, such as diabetic hypoglycemia.

The typical waiting time for a Medical Alert Assistance Dog is 18 months, but it does depend on individual requirements. 

Medical Detection Dogs is entirely funded through donations. To learn more visit

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