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Dogs That Save Lives

Alula with Gemma Butlin and a medical detection dog

“Medical dogs are the future,” Gemma Butlin said at a recent presentation and fundraiser for Medical Detection Dogs. Since 2008, this charity in the United Kingdom has been training dogs to sniff out such diseases as cancer, malaria, Parkinson’s disease, and diabetes.

I got a chance to attend the event and had a chance to speak with Butlin afterwards. She is the team’s marketing and communications manager.

Butlin explained that these life-saving dogs usually come to Medical Detection as puppies.

“One of the lovely things about this charity is that our dogs come from all over,” Butlin said. “Some of them are rescue dogs. And sometimes they’re donated to us by very generous breeders.”

The dogs are trained and encouraged with treats or a tennis ball. They know that hard work will come with a reward. But how does it all work?



A volunteer, Mel Bettsworth, helped the audience get a better idea of just how amazing dogs’ noses are. “If you had a teaspoon of sugar in your tea or coffee, and you sniffed the cup, you could probably smell something slightly sweet. A dog would be able to smell that teaspoon of sugar in a volume of water the size of two Olympic swimming pools.”

Using their keen sense of smell, the charity’s dogs sniff samples from both healthy and sick individuals. The samples may contain urine, a swab of saliva, or even worn socks.

If the dog sniffs out an illness in one of the samples, it will make clear that something is wrong. The dog will sit in front of the sample, nudge it, lick it, or stare intently at it. To make sure that different illnesses are not confused, certain dogs sniff for certain problems.

“You or I would not be able to go down a row of test tubes and see which one has got an illness in it,” Butlin said. “It’s all about early diagnosis, and these guys are absolutely at the forefront of being able to do that.”



Not only does Medical Detection Dogs train its animals to smell disease, but it also provides Medical Alert Assistance Dogs (MAAD). Claire Pesterfield, who has an assistance dog of her own, also participated in the event. Pesterfield has Type 1 diabetes. Diabetes is a condition that causes blood sugar levels to become too low or too high. If the levels are extreme, a person might pass out. This is a worry that Pesterfield has had on a daily basis.

Not anymore. With her dog, Magic, by her side all day, Pesterfield is alerted whenever her sugar levels are unsteady.

For six years, Magic has supported Pesterfield wherever the two go. “In that time, he has alerted me and potentially saved my life over four and a half thousand times,” Claire told the audience.

Although you may consider a dog to be a pet, Medical Detection Dogs has proven just how much they are capable of.

Photo courtesy of the author