I know a dog’s sense of smell can save a life because it happened to me

Daisy was a fox red Labrador with the most beautiful brown eyes. She went everywhere with me and loved being by my side. But there was one day, nearly 12 years ago, when my dog became a bit distant with me.

She’d look at me with those big eyes and I’d think ‘what have I done?’ I just couldn’t work out what I’d done to upset her.

Not long after she started to behave strangely, I took Daisy for a walk. When I opened up the back of the car so she could jump out, she refused. Instead she kept staring and nudging at my chest.

Eventually I coaxed her out of the car and as we were walking I decided to feel where she nuzzled me. To my horror, I felt a small lump.

The discovery prompted me to see my GP and after being referred for further tests, I was shocked to discover I had early stage breast cancer.

The consultant told me that it had been situated so deeply in my chest that had Daisy not spotted it, my prognosis would have been a lot different if we’d had waited for the lump to grow enough for me to notice it.

It meant I had to endure treatment that included a lumpectomy, lymph node removal, radiotherapy and 10 years of hormone treatment, but without Daisy it could have been so much worse. I literally owed my life to her.

MDD founder Claire Guest with her labrador Daisy
Diasy started working with Claire when she was just an eight-week-old puppy (Picture: Claire Guest)

However, this wasn’t the first time I’d learned about the true power of a dog’s nose.

A few years earlier a colleague had told me that her dalmatian had saved her life when she was a teenager.

She explained how the dog would sniff at a mole on her lower calf. Even if she was wearing trousers, the dog’s nose would twitch. Eventually my friend went to the GP, who assured her it was probably nothing but suggested they removed it and gave it a biopsy just to make sure.

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That mole turned out to be a malignant melanoma, the most aggressive form of cancer. Without her dalmatian’s intuition, my friend said she most certainly wouldn’t have survived.

I’d always known dogs were amazing, but after hearing her story, I was adamant that they had the power to smell cancer – and if they could do that, I felt sure they could sniff out other diseases too.

From that moment, I became committed to finding out how they did it and how well it could work.

After spending many years working for charities and studying the amazing detection abilities of dogs, in 2002, I was privileged enough to meet Dr John Church, who was known as the maggot man after he discovered the amazing power they had to clear wounds.

Like me, he agreed that dogs had a brilliant ability to detect the different odours of diseases, so in 2008 we decided to set up a charity to train dogs to sniff out illnesses like cancer, which could then help with quick detection and early diagnosis.

Our idea was that if we could train dogs to sniff out diseases by learning how they smelt, they not only could help with early detection, but also support people who lived with certain illnesses, such as nut allergies and Type 1 diabetes, and let them know if their health was in danger.

I knew people were skeptical about what we were doing, but thankfully we also had lots of supporters who did believe in our mission.

To us it was no surprise really that dogs are good at this. We already knew they had a huge protective element as they have worked alongside us as guard dogs for years. This was just another string to their bow, another way for them to keep us safe.

What’s really interesting is that many of the dogs we recruited came from rescue homes. They often ended up there in the first place because owners felt they were too high maintenance or naughty.

But the truth is most of this behaviour stems from boredom and they just want to keep busy. That’s why they’re so brilliant for us as what we need them to do involves lots of problem solving.

Of course, I know my work has led to many people to call me a ‘Mad Dog Lady’, but I’ve always been very clear that what we do has a strong scientific robustness behind it. People needed to know this was real, not just fantasy.

Claire Guest with a golden Labrador detection dog
‘If our dogs are having an off day, they don’t work,’ says Claire, pictured here with detection dog Lexi (Picture: Claire Guest)

For centuries we used sense of smell in medicine, it just got lost as we began to rely more and more on technology, which of course is just as vital and there’s no doubt that we’ve achieved so much thanks to these advances in medicine – but in many ways we’ve forgotten the basics.

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I think a lot of the skepticism comes from the fact that the dog isn’t a computer sitting on my desk, instead they’ve got a waggy tail and a fluffy coat.

What’s frustrating is when people warn against the idea saying that dogs can’t be 100% accurate. They’re right, of course, but even technology includes an element of error or has a human operating it who might have an off day. The only difference with us is that if our dogs are having an off day, they don’t work.

From day one our charity has been about helping save lives, every single day, and that’s not changed.

We have placed over 150 assistance dogs with people who otherwise would be hospitalised because of their condition up to two or three times a week, which would be a nightmare right now with the Covid-19 crisis.

Their illness itself puts them more at risk of catching coronavirus, but thanks to their dogs monitoring them minute by minute they’re able to stop them from ending up in hospital, which is really amazing.

We’re also constantly working hard on helping dogs to detect all sorts of illnesses outside of cancer. Currently, we’re researching into the detection of a bacteria that can kill people with Cystic Fibrosis.

Our other big project is Covid-19, with the dogs already trained to sniff it out, which means they could be brilliant in discovering new variants or detecting it on people flying into the country or at big events.

A sausage dog with a Medical Detection Dogs bib
Claire’s sausage dog Iggy works as a detection dog for the charity (Picture: Claire Guest)
Claire guest cuddling her three dogs.
(L-R) Florin, Tala and Asher work with Claire at the charity too (Picture: Claire Guest)
But despite all this amazing work, we’re still a small charity that needs funding – and that’s where the support of Metro.co.uk Lifeline can really make a difference.

Not only do we need money for the day to day running of the charity in terms of paying for dog food and vet bills, but more cash means we can employ more people to help train the dogs and make a real difference to someone’s health.

Crucially, it also means that we will have all the resources we need to action our dogs more quickly if and when another big disease hits.

Of course, the huge sadness with dogs is that they don’t live as long as we do.

I had 13 wonderful years with Daisy by my side as I built up the charity. Whenever someone would come to my office upset or concerned, she could tell immediately and would sit on the chair beside them and put her head on their lap.

She’d always been very fit and healthy and would run 5k with me each day, but then Daisy developed a very aggressive breast tumour in 2018.

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Within 48 hours of starting her chemo, she became critically unwell and I had to let her go.

It was one of the hardest moments in my life to say goodbye and felt worse than receiving my own cancer diagnosis. I really do believe she was my soulmate.

These days I have four dogs – Iggy, a long-haired sausage dog, Florin, another fox red Labrador, Tala, a yellow Lab, and Asher, my brown spaniel – and all of them work for the charity.

What I’ve learned most from all the dogs in my life is that us humans should live our lives more like them.

They get up every morning and are simply glad to be alive. They’re happy to see their owner and they just want to know what they’re doing today – not tomorrow or next week or year.

I think if we all looked at life like that, and just enjoying what is going on around us now, I think we would all feel a little bit happier if we were a bit more dog!

I consider any legacy of our charity to be Daisy’s legacy too and, for me, I want that to be that if any disease can be detected by odour then we’re able train a dog to find it.

Maybe one day technology will learn to do it just as effectively and quickly and our dogs’ will be able to put their feet up, but until then we will keep on working to help save as many lives as possible.

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