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Stamford man Matt Kefford explains the ground-breaking work of Medical Detection Dogs

The average human nose might struggle to detect a spoonful of sugar dissolved in a cup of coffee.

But some breeds of dog can sniff out the same sized spoonful in the equivalent of two Olympic swimming pools.

Harnessing dogs’ terrific sense of smell has long been used to root out criminals, and now a British charity is developing its use for the early identification of a common cancer.

Matt Kefford
Matt Kefford

Having already trained dogs to sniff out prostate cancer and bladder cancers, the latest advance of the Medical Detection Dogs charity is to identify the presence of bowel cancer from samples of urine.

It is hoped that this non-invasive method, which doesn’t involve the stigma of supplying a ‘poo sample’, could increase uptake of bowel cancer screening and therefore improve health outcomes.

Matt Kefford, who lives in Stamford, is an ambassador for the charity and gives talks to audiences across the area about the work of Medical Detection Dogs.

The dogs work in a clinical environment
The dogs work in a clinical environment

He explained that the Milton Keynes-based charity has a clinic where dogs, selected for their good noses and impeccable behaviour, come in from their homes to do three stints of 20 minutes’ detection in a working day.

During that time they sniff different samples and are trained to ‘sit’ by those that give off a particular scent of volatile organic compounds from human excretions.

Their trainer, with whom the dog forms a tight bond, stays behind a screen to prevent the dog being distracted or influenced by visual stimuli.

These ‘bio detection dogs’, as they’re known, have achieved more than 70% accuracy in identifying prostate cancer, and it is hoped similar results can be gained in colorectal (bowel) cancer.

“All the charity’s research is conducted with NHS trusts and universities, and it’s all evidence-based and subject to peer review in journals,” said Matt.

“Prostate cancer has been a focus in the clinic. Diagnosis in the UK usually starts with a blood test that shows raised PSA (prostate-specific antigen) levels, which is followed by a biopsy.

“The problem is, PSA tests are unreliable and can suggest prostate cancer is present when it’s not (a false-positive result), so many men undergo an invasive biopsy when they don’t need one.

“The dogs’ detection rate is highly accurate.”

Betty and Viking have been trained by the charity
Betty and Viking have been trained by the charity

Like prostate cancer, bowel cancer is common and because of the invasive nature of the colonoscopy screening process, nearly half of people decline it.

In a UK first, Medical Detection Dogs will use urine samples, which patients are keener to supply, and will be applying the same methods it has already tested to detect the odours of prostate cancer and bladder cancer.

Six dogs will be trained to detect bowel cancer by sniffing bowel cancer positive and negative samples and indicating when they have found it.


The initial team will be flat-coated retriever Willow, cocker spaniels Mango, Callie and Dotty, fox red Labrador, Hetty and black labrador, Rosie.

Matt, who was diagnosed with testicular cancer when he was 35, knows the importance of cancer’s early identification.

He was a lawyer working in Hong Kong in 2005 and was misdiagnosed initially. When his cancer was detected he had to undergo particularly aggressive chemotherapy, which left him almost unable to function.

“I felt absolutely rotten to the core during treatment,” he said.

Matt Kefford
Matt Kefford

“I couldn’t make a cup of tea, let alone drink one, and I lost 8kg in a few days. Losing my hair was the easiest bit about it.

“It completely changed the way I viewed life and when I returned to work about five months later I found it didn’t mean anything to me anymore.”

Matt eventually returned to the UK and after learning about Medical Detection Dogs decided to support the charity, first by dressing as its dog mascot and supporting awareness and fundraising events, then as an ambassador giving talks.

“I was beating myself up about not returning to being a lawyer because I missed the advocacy I’d previously enjoyed. Speaking on behalf of Medical Detection Dogs has become a great substitute for it - and the bigger the audience, the better.

“It also appealed because I love dogs!”

During his talks, which he conducts in an area from Leicester across to Spalding, and from Grantham down to Cambridgeshire, Matt shares information and videos about the dogs’ bio-detection skills, and about the charity’s work to train medical alert assistance dogs for individuals with specific conditions.

This began with dogs that could detect when the blood sugar level of someone with Type 1 diabetes was going out of a healthy range, but since the development of continuous glucose monitoring systems, other medical conditions are now the focus of dog training.

These include postural tachycardia syndrome (PoTs), which can cause a person to collapse suddenly and without warning, often causing injury or embarrassment.

“People who now have a trained dog to help them cope with a condition say their lives have been transformed,” said Matt.

Harriet and Anna for a great team
Harriet and Anna for a great team

“They speak about gaining confidence, freedom and hope for the future. With the dog they can go out by themselves, work and lead a normal life.

“It also keeps people out of the health service, because the dog warns them before they have a fainting episode, and they can therefore find a safe place to be until it passes.

“It’s estimated the health saving is £33,000 a year and, with reduced care costs and the fact the person can work, the effect the dog has is worth nearly £80,000 a year to the economy.”

More about the conditions Medical Detection Dogs can sniff out, both in clinical settings and as assistance dogs, can be found on the charity’s website, www.medicaldetectiondogs.org.uk

Anyone wishing to request Matt to come and give a talk about the charity can apply using a speaker request form on the ‘about us’ section of the website.

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