Dr Christian: ‘Detection dogs could be vital in our fight against Covid’

Dr Christian and Medical Detection Dogs founder Claire Guest
Dr Christian Jessen with founder of Medical Detection Dogs Dr Claire Guest (Picture: Supplied)
As an ambassador for Medical Detection Dogs – and one of the celebrities joining our Metro.co.uk Lifeline Woof and Walk challenge in June – Dr Christian Jessen explains why the charity’s work is so crucial.

‘In the medical profession, we’re not terribly good at predicting things. When somebody might be about to have an epileptic fit, or their blood sugars might be about to drop. It’s incredibly hard for humans to predict things like that.

But the fact that we can actually train dogs to warn someone when they are unwell – before they even know it – so that they can lie down somewhere safe, or have their necessary medication nearby, that is just so valuable.

Dogs have this ability due to their extremely heightened organs of smell. It’s not strictly true that they have two noses, but they do have two areas of detection – a front one, and one further back, which gives them this extraordinary power.

I first came across the charity Medical Detection Dogs when I was filming a documentary about urine, funnily enough.

It was about all the different incredible things that you can tell from a person’s urine, including its smell.

I went to visit their training centre to watch the dogs in action and I was just blown away.

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Here we are, in laboratories working out complicated tests for diseases, and we’ve already got these incredible creatures with their amazing noses just ready and waiting to do that for us with a bit of training.

Dr Christian sitting with some people and two medical detection dogs at Crufts
‘If you think of the bigger picture with the pandemic, these dogs could be a real game-changer.’ (Picture: MDD)

As I watched them work, it just seemed like such an obvious thing to do. Dogs are already our best friends, we already know the many benefits they can have on our lives. This is just one extra – lifesaving – thing that they can do for us, and I just thought was wonderful.

These dogs don’t just offer a novelty service either – there is a very real use.

Their noses can detect a teaspoon of sugar in Olympic-sized swimming pool of water, that’s how sensitive they are. So, what the charity does is train them to look for the absence or presence of certain aromatic compounds produced by tumor cells, or certain cells produced during infection, such as those in Covid.

And if you think of the bigger picture with the pandemic, these dogs could be a real game-changer.

If we want to travel, for example, rather than having to be swabbed, and waiting for that to go off to a lab and then waiting for the result to come back – which takes days – there’s the possibility that this could be fairly instantaneous, which could liberate us all from the bondage of laboratory testing.

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They can also be invaluable with other illnesses – like prostate cancer. Without getting too technical, the tests for this kind of cancer are still not completely faultless. There are still a lot of false positives.

This means patients often undergo procedures that are not pleasant, possibly for no reason. Now, I don’t know any patient who would say they regrethaving it, but if we could make testing more accurate, and hone that process, that would be much better for everyone. I think these dogs would be able to do that for us.

Obviously, no one wants to see some kind of a dystopian nightmare where battery dogs are in rows of cages sniffing wee samples at airports. But when you think that we already have sniffer dogs in airports looking for explosives or drugs, I certainly think we can have similar things for viruses and diseases.

Of course, there is a fine line, because we also don’t want to stigmatise or criminalise disease but, in trying to reduce a pandemic, and trying to allow people to travel safely, having those checks could be a really important thing.

We also shouldn’t forget that medical detection dogs have a vital role as support animals. They let owners know if their blood sugar is plummeting or if they are about to have an epileptic fit, for instance.

For people who might fit or drop blood sugars in the night when they’re asleep, clearly, that’s a really dangerous thing. If the dog is able to wake them up and have their medication ready to go – you can immediately see the value of that.

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During lockdown, we have all seen the value of companionship and the strain of loneliness. It’s an almost aching pain.

Having a pet can help relieve that, and having a companion that can also save your life? That is such a profound thing to to be able to offer somebody.’