Along with being able to provide warnings about low blood sugar for clients living with Type 1 diabetes, there are other illnesses that the dogs Simmy trains can assist with too.‘There’s Addison’s, which is cortisol imbalance that can affect your adrenal glands,’ he explains. ‘Pott’s disease is another – it can create a rapid increase in heart rate, which causes people to faint.
‘What we’re doing is using the dog’s nose, which is phenomenally powerful, to detect the onset of an episode of illnesses like these.’
Simmy works for the charity Medical Detection Dogs, which Metro.co.uk is championing through our 2021 Lifeline campaign . To help raise money, so he and his colleagues can continue to do their amazing work, we’ve organised two fundraising hikes for readers and charity supporters to take part in June, alongside celebrities Alexandra Burke , Dr Christian Jessen , Pete Wicks and Debbie Flint.
The reason their work is so vital, Simmy explains, is because although the dogs might not be able to cure any of these conditions, their actions can still be lifesaving.
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‘They can allow their owner to know whether they need to take medication, or have to lie or sit down, which saves them so much time,’ he says. ‘Before these people were probably going to the hospital left, right and centre, so the dogs help them manage their days a lot better.’
Training a dog to alert people to be aware about certain illnesses is a much more complex process than simply training them to sit, or roll over. It’s a huge commitment for Simmy, who even takes the dogs he is training home with him for a fully immersive learning experience.
‘Everything we do has to be positive, and it has to be fun for the dog,’ he explains. ‘If it’s not enjoyable learning, they won’t do it. Some of them will have to alert their owners up to 15 or 16 times a day, so they have to love their job.
‘Initially, we start with games with the dog to see how much they use their nose. If I were to hide his favourite toy, how long would that dog keep going to try to find that toy?
‘Is he the type that will give up and have a lie down on the matt, or just wants to go and go? And that is what we need, that high drive and that high motivation.
Once we identify that a dog that is suitable, we then get clients to give us samples of their odour when they’re having episodes. We then pair that odour with something positive for the dog, like a toy or a food reward.’
Simmy explains that he uses this technique to build up conditioning in the dog, so that when he smell’s that particular scent, it is associated with something positive.
‘It’s quite funny that the training puts a twist on it,’ he says. ‘Obviously, it’s a bad thing for the client, because it’s their episode. But it’s a good thing for the dog. They think, “that’s great. There’s that smell. I need to do something now.”
‘We want to get the dogs doing what they do naturally and once they start doing it, we can reward for that. They’re picked for these roles as they do tend to be the persistent ones, but it all has to be positive. We don’t like the dogs to bark, or do anything that could scare a person, so instead we encourage them to nudge, or maybe jump up.’Another interesting part of Simmy’s job is ensuring that the animals are equipped to behave well and do their jobs effectively in public spaces, and with lots of distractions.
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‘One of the dogs was being trained for nut detection, so had to learn to do an environmental search – like a bomb dog would do – for nuts, peanuts, cashew nuts.
‘If his owner came into contact with them she would go into anaphylaxis, so we also worked with him on trains, as he had to be really good in these conditions as well as at home.
‘We need the type of dog that’s going to be switched on and persistent,’ Simmy adds.
‘If you’ve got a dog that when you send him to his bed, he goes and lies down and stays there, that’s no use to us – we need a dog that is going to break that command if needed. Especially if it is going to have to get up and alert its owner in the night.’Simmy worked training guide dogs for the blind for nine years before taking on his role with Medical Detection Dogs, training animals in Scotland and the North East.
He says that balancing family life and working with the dogs can be a challenge, especially when he brings them home, but it’s also a crucial part of the animal’s development.
‘It’s also a challenge for the dog because it’s a change,’ he adds. ‘Like all dogs, it can take some time for them to get used to somebody new.
‘I’ve got a wee girl, she’s four years old. So we go places with the dog all together. She jumps around, and she has tantrums sometimes – all of this is good for him though, as it’s really important that they get used to being in a normal family lifestyle.
‘We have to mimic being the client essentially, which is the most effective way for the dog to learn.’
Interacting with a dog all day sounds like every canine-lover’s dream job, but Simmy says there is much more to his role than the hands-on, practical training. And a lot of that involves getting his head around complicated spreadsheets, as they need to collect a lot of data to ensure their dogs are up to the job and receive annual accreditation.
‘It can be quite time-consuming, but it’s a vital part of our job,’ he explains. ‘And if we find that if a dog’s not doing as it should, we have to do a bit of detective work. Maybe the client is doing differently or there’s been a change in the environment… Sadly, you can’t ask the dog, so it’s our our job to figure out what’s going on.’
‘This work is not an exact science, but when you get that feedback that the client is loving having the dog and that the alerting is working well for them, that is the high point,’ adds Simmy.
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‘When you see that smile on the client’s face and you know they have a good match with a dog, there’s no better feeling.’