In this classic joke we have to ask “How does he smell?” The true answer is… very much better than you or I!
We are just starting to understand that a dog’s sense of smell is on a whole different level to ourselves. As humans have evolved we have relied more on our senses of vision and sight whereas dogs have depended much more on their sense of smell. The area of nasal lining that can detect odours gives an indication of an animal’s ability to smell. Humans have about 10 cm2 of olfactory epithelium, whereas some dogs have 170 cm2.
A dog’s nasal lining is also considerably more densely innervated, with a hundred times more receptors per square centimetre. On top of this a dog’s brain is specialized for identifying scents. The percentage of the dog’s brain that is devoted to analysing smells, the olfactory bulb, is around 40 times larger than that of a human. It has been estimated that dogs can identify smells somewhere between 1,000 to 10,000 times better than humans can.
In 2008 Dr Claire Guest, a psychologist specialising in the interaction between human and canine behaviour, realised the potential in the power of the dog’s nose and set up Medical Detection Dogs.
The charity has two arms to it.
The first is Medical Alert Assistance Dogs, which works on the same model as guide dogs. Dogs ‘assist’ their owners to manage their disease, whether it be diabetes, severe allergies or narcolepsy. For example, people with diabetes can have bouts of ‘hypoglycaemia’ (low blood sugar) which can cause fits. This is particularly true for children and young adults. They find it difficult to assess themselves for the clinical signs of low blood sugar but the dogs can sense the slight change in odour associated with the ‘hypos’. They can then warn the individual or get help.
The second is Cancer Detection Dogs, supported by Buckinghamshire NHS Trust at Wycombe Hospital. These dogs are trained to sniff out the changes in the urine produced by prostate, bladder or urinary cancers. Also studies are now underway that demonstrate dogs can detect changes in odour of breath samples and thereby detect early breast cancer in women. Existing tests for some of these diseases can be unreliable or invasive so a simple sniff of a sample by one of these specialist dogs could mean early detection, more rapid treatment and hopefully more favourable outcomes.
The Medical Detection dogs use a mixture of reward based training and clicker training. It takes a lot of time and effort to train dogs for this work but it is very worthwhile. Each medical alert assistance dog costs £11,200 to train and an extra £750 a year to support. As yet the charity relies entirely on donations.
If you want to find out more or read about the many stories of individuals that have benefitted greatly from these dogs then have a look at their website medicaldetectiondogs.org.uk
One of our clients has recently been very generous and donated a Sprocker puppy (Springer Spaniel cross Cocker Spaniel) called Elvis to the Medical Detection Dogs. I think you will agree that this is an amazing gift and I’m sure Elvis will go on to help untold numbers of humans in his career.