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Bio-alert dogs - Dr. Fiona Firth


Dogs are so much more than manís best friend. They can be your pet and your best pal, but they can also be your nurse, your watchdog, your life saver, and now, medical detective too.

Dogs have been trained for some years to detect drugs and criminals, but today they are being trained to sniff out cancer, even before our so-called sophisticated tests can identify anything.

Our speaker, Dr Fiona Firth, on 8th September, is a member of Bio-Alert Dogs, one of the charities that trains dogs to react when their diabetic owners need insulin, an epileptic is about to have a fit, or someone who suffers from Addisonís Disease is about to go into crisis. The dog can literally bring the emergency medication pack to the patient, or keep attracting their attention until they are alert enough to help themselves.

Most exciting of all though, are the tests whereby trained dogs are taught to sniff urine samples on a carousel, and accurately detect which sample shows bladder cancer. There are 12,000 cases a year, resulting in 6,000 deaths, so this is extremely worthwhile. They once thought one dog got it wrong - the sample he picked was not from someone with bladder cancer, but it turned out he had kidney cancer instead. The dog was right!

The dogs are obviously able to smell some component in the samples that we are unable to detect. “If we can work out what that odour is,” says Fiona, “we could produce an electronic nose to do the work instead.” This would be useful for prostate cancer too, since 65% of men over the age of 65 have some sort of prostate problem, and the current blood test is notoriously unreliable.

Fiona told us about her own dog, which kept licking a small patch of cells on her arm. As a GP, Fiona 'knew' it wasnít anything to worry about, and had it confirmed by her own doctor. But the dog kept on, so in the end samples were sent for biopsy, and it turned out to be a melanoma in need of prompt attention. The dog knew best!

She also mentioned an occasion when her husband had been at the scene of a motor accident, and the woman driver had died in his arms. Back at home later that evening, their two dogs were behaving strangely, could obviously see something in the room, and her husbandís dog, who usually plonked himself on his masterís lap every evening, wouldnít go anywhere near him.


Dr Fiona Firth Dr Fiona Firth, during her talk about Bio-Alert dogs

Eventually Fiona phoned a friend, who realised the spirit of the woman driver had attached to the last person she was with. The friend advised her to light a candle, and invite the spirit to go to the light. Thoroughly spooked, Fiona did as she was bid, and watched the dogs watch the invisible spirit move towards the lighted candle, and then leave.

Immediately the dogs reverted to normal behaviour and half-a-hundredweight of dog happily plonked himself on his masterís lap as usual.

From there Fiona raised the fascinating question of how dogs know when their master is coming home when heís shut inside a car and still too far away for the dog to get his scent. What is the dog picking up on? Research is being done into the morphic field, whereby a twin in one country often 'knows' when his or her twin is in trouble in a completely different country thousands of miles away.

She also mentioned behaviour studies of rats in a maze in Oxford, who were taught a certain task, and mastered it in, say, four minutes. The same study was conducted in Japan 24 hours later, and the Japanese rats performed the task in three minutes. This was repeated in another country another day later, and those rats mastered the task in two minutes.

What is happening here? And how? This work has been reported in the science journals and is acknowledged, but no one has yet come up with an explanation. Could it be telepathy?

As always, our speaker helped us realise how much we donít know and donít understand of the wonderful universe in which we live, and the beautiful animals that obey their instincts and seem to know so much more than we do ourselves.

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