Zoe can feel dizzy or collapse any moment. It doesn’t mater if she is in the street, at home or in her bed.But thanks to her medical detection dog Stowe, she now gets a warning and her life has changed for the better.
Zoe has postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) – where she has an abnormal increase in heart rate just from standing or sitting up.Zoe was paired with Stowe through the organisation Medical Detection Dogs, who are based in Milton Keynes, but they help people all over England, Scotland and Wales.
She says: ‘It took me quite a long time to even apply because I’d always thought I didn’t have the confidence to do it because I had convinced myself that I wasn’t suitable.‘Then I met Deborah, one of the trainers, and I was given the encouragement to apply.’
And the rest is history.
Zoe had to fill out an application form so that the organisation could see that she was eligible for a dog and evaluate her needs.Once she was accepted, she was invited to the newly refurbished Medical Detection Dogs centre in Buckinghamshire for what is known as a ‘match day’.
No it isn’t the world’s cutest Labrador five-aside teams fighting it out head-to-head for the championship title, but instead it allows clients eligible for for an assistance dog to meet their potential future paw-some pal. Zoe explains: ‘I met and worked with Stowe on a handling day and we were out in Morrisons. I had a collapse and the way he responded and stayed by me and was licking me.
‘It opened my eyes into what life could be like with having a medical detection dog.’
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When Zoe found out she had been paired with a dog, she was in hospital. She didn’t know which detection dog she had been matched with, but she knew that she wanted the black Labrador that had stolen her heart on the handling day.
Once she was discharged from hospital she was able to travel to the centre to find out. When Stowe came bounding through the door she could not have been happier.
She says: ‘When I said I was happy to go ahead with Stowe I had him for a week to stay at home to see how he fitted into life at home, and then he entered his four week scent training.
‘Scent training is pretty much what it says on the tin. It is the process that allows dogs like Stowe to recognise the specific scent of the phenomenon that they have to alert to.
‘Prior to meeting Stowe, I had to collect samples every time I’d either have a faint or a pre-faint.
‘I had to collect breath samples and sweat samples so I’d get a cloth and then wipe it across my forehead and then freeze those and they trained Stowe to my specific POTS odour.’
After four weeks, of intensive training and preparation, Stowe got to go to his fur-ever home.
Zoe says: ‘From day one he was alerting, and I think it was something like the fourth day [of having Stowe] I had seven alerts in one day. Even out in public or in different environments, he will still always alert even on a free run when he is off the lead.’
Being able to rely on Stowe has changed Zoe’s life.
‘He’s always by my side no matter where I am or what I am doing. If I get up to go anywhere, even if there are other people in the room, he will get up to follow me to see where I am. We have become inseparable,’ she says.
And it’s not just confidence in managing her chronic illness that Stowe has given Zoe.
‘Since having Stowe he has helped me make sure that I am out everyday so at the very least I’m going for a walk and even talking to people in the woods about dogs,’ she says.
‘It has built up my confidence. If we’re out and about at shops people say “oh what are medical detection dogs?” so it’s got me talking to people.
‘Any situation that I am nervous in I know I have that reassurance as well that if he’s there I am OK. It’s not just to do with the episodes, it’s that comfort with him being there.’
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The pair seem like kindred spirits who have known one-and-other an entire lifetime, but in reality they will have only been paired together a year on the 1st August.
Zoe says: ‘I can’t imagine life without him now and I’d be lost without him now. Not just because of POTS because of everything else that he has helped me with.’
How does Zoe know when Stowe is giving her a warning?
Even though Stowe is your typical mischievous lab, he is still a hard-working professional.
All of Medical Detection Dogs assistance animals still get time to be a dog, which means that when they aren’t picking up on a medical alert, they are free to roll around, play fetch and get all of the snacks and tummy tickles that they can.
But once Stowe senses that Zoe needs him, he can do a few things to let her know it’s time to act.
She explains: ‘If I’m sat down, he will tend to put his paws up on my lap and he can get a bit vocal and he will lick my face.
‘If I am walking or stood up he will spring up and get to head height and stop me from walking any further. If I haven’t acknowledged it and have carried on he will get more pushy and keep bouncing up and stand in front of me to stop me going any further.’
Following an alert, Zoe has only a few minute to find somewhere to rest or sit down before she feels ‘POTS-y’.
‘If I have passed out he will lick me to help me come round and he will stay close by and keep an eye on me,’ she adds.
How did Medical Detection Dogs get started?The charity now boasts the Duchess of Cornwall as a patron, but it started more than 15 years ago when CEO Claire Guest witnessed something remarkable happen. Claire’s friend had a dog who licked and fussed over a mole on it’s owner’s calf so relentlessly that she went to the doctor to have the blemish examined. It turns out that the dog had detected a malignant melanoma.
From there, Claire started her journey into finding out how dogs could smell cancer and how she could utilise this incredible skill to help people.
And her work no longer looks at just cancer, her charity looks at training dogs to detect ‘every disease you can think of’.
Claire says: ‘To train a good cancer detection dog we have to teach it to only alert to the cancer. But what we started to find was that whenever dogs came across a new disease they were interested in it and they could clearly smell a difference.
Move over Rover! 45% of dogs sleep in their owner’s bed (we’re pretty sure a large percentage also hog the blankets!)
‘We then started to feel that perhaps as an opportunity to use this incredible ability that has come to train the dogs to work and assistant along side individuals who have life threatening medical conditions, seeing if they could alert them to an oncoming emergency.’
Since its conception, the charity has gone from strength to strength and this year opened a newly renovated centre.
Their expansion means the dogs now have space to test out samples, train to detect, as well as space for dogs to meet, work and train with their clients and a large space for the detection dogs to play and relax, as all dogs should.
What can Claire’s dogs currently detect?
As Claire said, you can train a dog to detect all sorts of diseases. She has a canine calvary that currently live and work with her to help provide essential detection services to those in need.
- Asha – Parkinson’s detection
- Florin – Prostate cancer detection
- Tara – Bio-detection dog in training, they are still working out which disease Tara responds best to.
How can you help?
There are lots of way to get involved.
Claire explains: ‘We’re still relatively young charity, just 10 years old, so one way you can tell just by spreading the word and telling people about the amazing things that we are going to do and the way in which they save lives.
‘You can also sponsor a puppy. You’ll be able to go to the training that puppy and you’ll be able to track that puppy’s progress throughout his live to moment he becomes a Medical Detection Dog.
‘You can get involved in local community fundraising. You can help organise your own event and you can also get involved in some of the bigger events that we run.’