Medical dogs

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 12.32.46 PMMedical detection dogs are taking their life-saving missions to a whole new level. The dogs’ amazing sense of smell – between 1,000 and 10,000 times better than our own – is helping to identify various diseases and conditions that are potentially life-threatening to humans. Researchers and dog trainers are investigating the possibility of dogs to detect subtle changes in the body when certain diseases or conditions are present – opening a new frontier in medicine.

Bio-detection dogs

In the UK you’ll find a different sector of medical detection dogs, called bio-detection dogs. These canines are trained to detect bedbug infestations. If bedbugs are not discovered quickly, they can have a crippling effect on businesses and communities. Medical Detection Dogs, a UK-based charity, aims to train dogs to detect the odour of human disease.

Source: Medical Detection Dogs, UK (

Assistance and response dogs

Guide dogs are the most well known of the service and assistance dogs, trained to provide assistance to the visually impaired. Hearing dogs assist the deaf and alert them to sounds like a telephone, doorbell or potentially dangerous situation, like an activated warning siren or smoke alarm. Assistance dogs also include dogs who help people with other disabilities. They are able to pick up objects the person has dropped, turn on lights or retrieve a cordless telephone.

Cancer detection dogs

Cancer detection dogs are probably the most well known of the medical dogs. Their powerful sense of smell allows them to detect different types of cancers, although scientists are still baffled as to exactly what the dogs detect through smell – either through the breath or urine samples of patients. Dogs have successfully been trained to detect breast cancer, ovarian cancer, lung cancer, prostate and bladder cancer, melanoma and colorectal cancer, with impressive accuracy.

The accuracy rates may be impressive, but there is still much work to be done before dogs will actually be used to detect cancer in patients. For now, dogs are being trained and research studies are ongoing, but perhaps one day, instead of a doctor taking a blood sample and sending it away for analysis in a lab, patients will be able to consult a clever canine for a diagnosis or clean bill of health.

Medical response dogs

Medical response dogs are trained to assist people who have various medical conditions which can be life-threatening. They assist patients with diabetes, epilepsy, autism and even psychiatric conditions. Medical response dogs are able to let their handlers know about a possible medical problem before it occurs. The dogs are trained to help their person, call for assistance or alert others if a problem is detected.


The diabetic assistance dogs help their owners maintain better control over their blood sugar levels. The owner gains confidence and feels safer, knowing that he or she has a constant companion close by. The dog is able to warn the owner about a possible blood sugar low or high. He can do this in various ways – sometimes through touch or pawing, or through a bringsel, a rod used in canine search and rescue. If the owner is unresponsive, the dog, if so trained, can alert a family member or press a panic button to call an ambulance.


Autism assistance dogs are trained to assist children with autism and help them feel more secure in their environment, especially an unfamiliar one. The dogs are highly trained to meet the needs of the child and his family. The dog not only provides safety for the child and peace of mind for the parents, but becomes therapeutic and emotional support for the autistic child. Positive behaviour changes are often noted in just a few weeks after the dog comes to live with the family.


Also known as seizure alert or response dogs, these dogs are trained to assist someone who is having a seizure, or they can be trained to predict when a seizure is about to occur. They may bark to alert others to the patient, or move dangerous objects out of the way. If the dog is able to predict the seizure, he can retrieve a telephone so the patient can call for help before the seizure occurs. Dogs can also be trained to alert a family member if a patient has a seizure, for example, a child who has a seizure while playing outdoors.

The full article appears in the September 2014 issue of AnimalTalk.


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