Volunteers are being recruited to be a small part of a dog’s journey towards becoming a life-saver.
Medical Detection Dogs needs people to provide holiday cover and longer term care for puppies who will then go on to live with specialist trainers before being paired up with their lifelong companion.
The pups are trained to detect the odour of human disease and go on to become cancer detection dogs or medical alert dogs.
Mum Sam Somerville, of Hemel Hempstead, has been volunteering with the charity for around six months and has so far looked after five dogs so far – Bounce, Joan, Sydney, Archie and Alan.
“I found the charity on the internet and was absolutely amazed by what these dogs can do. They are literally saving those people’s lives on a daily basis and it fascinated me,” she said.
During the early days of the dogs lives, volunteers are tasked with introducing the pups to new environments such as supermarkets, cafes and pubs in a positive way.
It helps ensure that the dogs will be comfortable in the wide range of environments they will visit with their owners.
Sam, who started volunteering as a puppy socialiser after being made redundant, said: “These dogs are being trained to be public access dogs which means they will go everywhere with their recipient, so it is important from a young age that you get them socialised and used to going into different places.
“In one sense it is easier than a normal puppy because you can take it everywhere. The more you make them a part of your everyday life the better.”
Many volunteers are retired people who love to have a dog around but do not want to commit to the long-term responsibilities of having their own pet.
But mum-of-three Sam said it’s perfect for families too. “Everyone can get involved and it means that you always have something to do at the weekend that’s free and healthy, especially around here where we’re so lucky to have lovely places like Ashridge to walk,” she said.
The charity, co-founded in 2008 by scientist and animal behaviour expert Dr Claire Guest and former orthopaedic surgeon Dr John Church, pays for all of the dog’s food and care and training support is offered.
Cancer detection dogs are trained to detect the odour of volatile substances in urine or breath samples.
The dogs have the capacity to provide second line screening for cancers that are currently difficult to diagnose reliably, such as prostate cancer.
While the medical alert assistance alert dogs help individuals with complex medical conditions, such as diabetes, severe nut allergy, Addison’s, Postural Tachycardia Syndrome (PoTS) or narcolepsy.
They are taught to identify odour changes that are associated with certain medical events, such as a drop in blood sugar levels for diabetics, and to give an alert.
There are currently 62 medical assistance dogs partnered with people across the UK.
Sam said: “The main question I always get asked is ‘How do you give them up?’ - I’d be lying if I said that there aren’t tears, but you start the process knowing that it isn’t your dog so although it’s still tough to say goodbye, it’s not unexpected and you’ve had time to prepare for it. And of course the dog is going to go on to save and improve somebody’s life so it’s lovely to be a part of that.
“For the children, it’s a good way to learn about saying goodbye, but in a way that is quite positive in that they then still get to hear about how the puppy is doing and that it’s helping someone else have a better life.”
Medical Detection Dogs receives no government funding and relies entirely on charitable donations.
To find out more about volunteering visit www.medicaldetectiondogs.org.uk