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Bucks charity training dogs to diagnose Parkinson's disease

Medical detection dogs Daisy on carosel

2:01pm 17th July 2017

A charity in Buckinghamshire has just started a program to use dogs to help with early diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease.

Medical Detection Dogs have been using the incredible sense of smell dogs have to detect small, subtle changes in the odour of someone who is suffering from a specific disease or illness.

Claire Guest is the Chief Executive of the charity. She said:

"What we discovered about 10 years ago was that dogs can smell human disease. It sounds incredible, but when we have an illness there is a change in our biochemistry. This change results in a small change in our odour. "

"Dogs with their incredible sense of smell are able to detect these changes."

"What we've found is by training dogs, we can teach them to reliably tell us when these odours are present, and therefore help us diagnose diseases."

"We believe by training our dogs we can assist medics by providing a way to diagnose Parkinson's early. They can then go on treatment earlier, and the progression of the disease can be slowed."

Medical detection dogs Steven &  Molly

The charity has a no kennels policy - meaning all the dogs they use live in the local community

Smelling samples

The dogs are trained by using skin swab samples from people who suffer from the disease, as well as samples from people who suffer from other diseases, and healthy people too.

Once they are able to reliably and consistently identify which samples contain the disease, the charity then works towards offering support to current diagnosis systems. Claire added:

"The dog is a biosensor, in that it's got a fluffy coat and waggy tail, but in fact the science behind what they do is very valid. We still have to prove that the dogs are reliable, just like any other diagnostic test. We're working towards that."

...so do they bark when they've found something?

If the dog smells a sample that has the odour of the condition it's been trained to find, the dog stops, sits and stares at the sample.  If the sample is healthy or doesn't have that disease, then the dog just passes by. Claire said:

"There was originally interest from the medical community, followed by huge amounts of scepticism. How could a dog help with something as important as human health?"

"But what you've got to remember is that we trust dogs to help us in many areas of life."

"In Canary Wharf for example, at the Houses of Parliament, dogs are keeping people safe by using their noses to detect explosives."

"This is no different. It's about using the dog's sense of smell to warn us of things that are a threat to us."

"As time goes on, and we have more evidence and publications, it's becoming something that the medical community is starting to consider."

You can find out more about the charity here.

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