From my Dog World column ‘Crossing the headlines’ (7th January 2015).

I always find the months of December and January dominated by two questions. In December the big question always seems to be, ‘Going anywhere nice for Christmas?’ and January seems to be dominated by, ‘So, have you made any new year’s resolutions yet?’

My usual replies are; to the first, ‘Spending it with family’ and, to the second, was always a firm, resounding ‘No’.

However, for 2015, I’ve decided to make a change to my usual response, because this year I’m finally going to make a new year’s resolution… and it’s going to be to support a charity.

But, with so many good causes clamouring for our money, from the multitude of heart-rending adverts we see on TV to the bombardment on the High Street by a myriad of ‘chuggers’, it’s increasingly difficult to decide which ones to support and I feel (given that many of us are still feeling the pinch) that it is better to whittle down to one or two deserving causes that really resonate with you as, lets face it, if one was to ‘dig deep’ for every heartfelt plea for cash you would quickly find yourself bankrupt!

Now, the large charities have certainly had their fair share of bad press of late and I have to admit I too have often wondered exactly how much of the money given by the generous British public actually gets to those most in need and how much goes to cover ‘costs’.


In the past I’ve supported a number of charities and have always tended to find that the smaller, lesser known charities are often the ones that are the most passionate and dependable and free from ‘political motives’. The one thing all these smaller organisations need at the moment however is the oxygen of publicity and having a well-known face fronting your campaign can certainly be very effective. A few months ago watching ‘morning TV’ I saw Downton Abby’s delightful Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) on the ‘Lorraine’ sofa talking about a charity she was promoting – Medical Detection Dogs.

Now, of course, anything ‘dog’ related is always certain to grab my attention and what Lesley was talking about was truly incredible; Medical Detection Dogs are a charity that works in partnership with researchers, NHS Trusts and Universities and their aim is to train specialist dogs to detect the odour of human disease.

Of course, dogs are renowned for their sense of smell (a dog’s brain is specialised for identifying scents; the percentage of the dog’s brain devoted to identifying smells is a staggering 40 times larger than ours. Some have estimated that the average canine can identify smells thousands of times better than us nasally challenged humans, and for centuries doctors have been aware that different diseases give off different odours – all very detectable by dogs.

Lesley spoke about the dog’s role in ‘cancer detection’ (hopefully there is the potential to develop a method of diagnosing cancer which would be simple and non-invasive) and this is a subject that has long fascinated me and is very close to my heart. I got first hand experience of the almost ‘miraculous’ powers of the dog’s nose a couple of years ago when we brought home our new Miniature Smooth Dachshund pup, Alfie, and he immediately bonded with our old girl, a 13-year-old Miniature Long, Molly.

After Alfie had well and truly settled in we began to notice that he was curiously drawn to a small moveable lump that Molly had developed on her stomach – a lump that we’d previously been assured was simply a benign fatty growth. He would nuzzle and nudge it and sometimes seemed quite perturbed by it. None of this seemed to bother Molly in the slightest but (having previously read about dog’s incredible powers of cancer detection) I took her for a check up anyway… and eventually back came the devastating news that Molly had a ‘very aggressive mammary cancer’. She still managed to reach 15 but, right up until the end, Alfie seemed drawn to the site of the cancer.

Cancer detection

Reading through some of the touching stories on the charity’s website, I came across the story of Daisy – a remarkable Labrador – who has recently been awarded the Blue Cross Medal for her pioneering work in cancer detection. This incredible dog has sniffed over 6,500 samples and has detected over 550 cases of cancer.

Daisy went on to detect cancer in her owner – the similarity between her description of what happened and what I witnessed between Alfie and Molly was startling.

Dr Claire Guest, Daisy’s owner and chief executive of Medical Detection Dogs explained,

“Daisy kept nuzzling and pawing at my chest one day, which really alarmed me. I got it checked out and was told I had early stage breast cancer. Fortunately I was able to have it removed but if it hadn’t been for Daisy it would have gone undetected for much longer and could have been more serious.”

Soon after Molly’s terrible diagnosis I had my very own cancer scare. A small growth appeared on a routine x-ray and this lead to several (fearful) trips to the Royal Marsden Hospital which does such magnificent work in the fight against this terrible disease. Thankfully my diagnosis was a lot more positive than poor Molly’s, I had a Schwannoma (a benign tumour embedded in the nerve endings) but that terrifying brush with the world of cancer certainly left its mark and was one of the main reasons Lesley’s plea for financial help struck such a chord with me.

But this charity isn’t just about cancer detection. They also train dogs, Medical Alert Assistance Dogs, who assist their owners to manage complex medical conditions on a daily basis and I defy anyone to read personal stories of those helped by these dogs and not be moved by them; stories like Karen and Coco (a Labrador trained to detect levels of cortisol) or of Yasmine and little Nano (a fully trained ‘nut allergy’ dog) or of the difference Roots (a working Cocker Spaniel) has made to the Downing family (the first medical assistance dog to alert type 1 diabetics to dangerous drops in their blood sugar levels). These dogs are giving their owners the gift of greater independence and peace of mind and above all they are saving lives on a daily basis.

And on a purely selfish note, for all us dog owners, these incredible canines provide us with a wonderful riposte for those, who, in these increasingly ‘anti dog’ times (like the man I heard on a local radio station, who’d initially phoned in to complain about dog mess but ended by saying that ‘nobody, except possible the blind, needed dogs anymore, and so they should all be banned’) this charity proves that the bond between man and dog is still as strong, necessary and as important as ever.

So, if anyone asks you, ‘Have you made any new year’s resolutions this year?’ keep in mind the fantastic work of the smaller, lesser known charities like Medical Detection Dogs. I know they’d be grateful for your support.

Read more on Dog World’s website