Heather Shute, Medical Detection Dogs, 26th July 2011

Heather and her dog Edward gave us a fascinating talk and demonstration on the work of a small charity, Medical Detection Dogs. MDD was registered in June 2008 and was started by Claire Guest who had previously been at Hearing Dogs.

The charity’s work is in two parts: cancer detection, where the dogs are trained to recognise cancers in urine, sweat and tissue samples; and medical alert dogs who live with people who have serious illnesses and can alert them when they are about to have a medical emergency. A dog’s nose is 100,000 times more sensitive than a human’s nose.

Dogs recognising illness started as anecdotal stories , but this is now being studied in detail and the first paper was published in the British Medical Journal in 2004 describing work in which dogs could identify bladder cancer on the basis of urine odour. The bladder cancer trial has been completed and the dogs are now being trained on prostate cancer. The first trial was conducted with Amersham Hospital, the second is with the University of Bristol Veterinary School. Dogs can detect the cancer at an earlier stage to other tests. Dogs are now being bred and selected for this role. The aim of the research is to understand what volatile compounds the dogs are sniffing and to develop “electronic nose machines”. Heather suggested that human technology is 15 years behind the dogs’ noses.

The second part of the charity’s work provides dogs to live with families who have illnesses such as type 1 (insulin dependent) diabetes and Addisons disease. There are now 20 trained blood sugar dogs, who are able to alert their owners when they are experiencing hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar otherwise known as a “hypo”) which can lead to a coma. Heather explained that some diabetics lose the symptoms that would otherwise warn them of a hypo. Consequently, many of these keep their sugar levels too high, in order to avoid a hypo. However this can lead to complications in the long term and so the dogs enable them to manage their sugar at lower levels. Each dog is trained to sniff its owner’s hand and detect the sugar levels in the sweat. We were given examples of how the dogs have made a huge difference to people’s quality of life. One dog lives with a family where both the father and young son have type 1 diabetes – the dog has been trained to alert the mother when the son is ill and the father when he is ill. Another dog goes to school with a young girl and he has been trained to alert the teacher when she is about to become hypoglycaemic. Another man is able to manage his illness, has increased independence, and his wife no longer has to call out the paramedics on a twice weekly basis as she did previously. These dogs are both saving lives and reducing NHS costs.

Puppies live with volunteers to be socialised for 12-18 months and they receive some training during this period. The dogs are then placed with a client family and they receive ongoing training and supervision from the charity’s two trainers. The charity is hoping to raise £60,000 for its prostate cancer trials. £20,000 has been pledged so far.

Edward and Heather gave us a demonstration of his sniffing skills. Edward is Heather’s pet but has been trained for demonstration purposes and we all thought he was lovely. He was able to detect a sample of sugar water and distinguish it from 3 other plain water samples. He was also able to alert Heather as she sat down and pretended to go into shock, then he retrieved the diabetes kit from another chair and brought it to her.

A diabetic member of our club also noticed how the dog appeared to pay some additional attention to him. On testing his blood sugar levels later he found that they were higher than normal.

Our President, Naomi, presented Heather with a donation from Oxford Spires. For more information see the Medical Detection Dogs website at