Monday 23 January 2012

Shirley a very special dog!

Hello everyone. its been a while since my last posting. Today I want to tell you about a very special dog called "Shirley".

When Rebecca Farrar was four years old she contracted a virus which, in her mother’s words, “killed her pancreas”. Hampered by a serious form of type one diabetes, little Rebecca’s world changed forever as she and her family battled to keep a check on her blood sugar levels. Unable to detect when her blood sugar was too high or low, at her worst Rebecca would collapse repeatedly, slipping into unconsciousness.

Her mother Claire Farrar, recalled “I had to give up work as I couldn’t leave her with anyone, she would just collapse. She needs at least four injections a day, every day. Some days she could collapse two or three times a day.” But then Shirley came along; a medical alert dog who is now the seven-year-old’s constant companion.

Shirley’s amazing nose for trouble enables her to smell an increase in Rebecca’s sugar levels, allowing teachers and family members to leap into action at the first sign of danger. Three-year-old labrador-cross Shirley, who was trained by the charity Medical Detection Dogs, hit the headlines when it was revealed that she and Rebecca had been nominated in the Crufts Friends For Life category.

Watching Shirley lolling upside down by a fire in the family’s living room, it is hard to imagine she is any different from any other dog. But as soon as Claire puts the canine heroine into her ‘medical alert dog’ jacket, a transformation takes place. Shirley stands to attention and has a pair of devoted eyes trained on Rebecca at any given moment.

Having a dog which such amazing skills as Shirley’s has made a huge difference to the Farrars. Claire said: “It all happened because my brother saw an advert in his local paper for foster families for hypo alert dogs. They came out and vetted the house to make sure it was suitable for a dog and they wrote to the hospital to make sure Rebecca was diabetic. Within 12 months – there was a 12-month waiting list – they found a dog suitable.”

The impact of Shirley’s presence was immediate. Claire recalled: “We went on holiday and Shirley came for two weeks. During this time Rebecca was at a disco and Shirley got up and started licking her and licking her. We did a sugar test and she had gone down to 3.1. It has made a big difference. We haven’t had to phone the paramedics once since we had her. Shirley goes to school with Rebecca from 9am to midday and when she is in class with her she is as good as gold. Last Friday Rebecca was at school when her levels went down to 3.1 so Shirley started licking Rebecca. They gave her some Coke and a Kit-Kat and then she went up to 21.2, her sugar levels can go just like that. She can leave for school in the morning and be 9.5 and by 10am be down to 2.8."

It was frightening at night, she would go to sleep and I would think ‘will she wake up?’ Before we had Shirley, I did not know if she would. Now Shirley sleeps next to Rebecca’s bed so she will wake her up if anything is wrong and Rebecca will come in to me. It is a big relief now and peace of mind. She cost about £10,000 to train but Shirley is worth more than that to me.”

Claire said she would now like to see more understanding about medical alert dogs within the general public. She said; “We have had a few problems with restaurants. You can’t refuse a medical alert dog access anywhere, in the same way as guide dogs, but we have had a few problems with restaurants who have said ‘you can’t come in here with the dog.’ One area manager even had to write and apologise to me recently.” But for all the misunderstandings, there have also been companies which have understood and supported Shirley’s work with Rebecca.

Claire said; “I would like to say a particular thank you to Vets 4 Pets in St James as they have sponsored her with her treatment and ‘vaccinations for life.’”

IT was 1989 when an article in The Lancet described the mysterious case of a woman whose dog showed a persistent interest in a mole on her leg. Doctors checked out her skin condition and she was found to have malignant melanoma, a serious form of skin cancer.

This is just one of many anecdotes in which animals have sniffed out potentially fatal illnesses. In 2004, experts behind the charity now known as Medical Assistance Dogs, based near Milton Keynes, published their first joint study in the British Medical Journal, demonstrating for the first time that dogs can be trained to identify the odour of bladder cancer in urine. The charity was later formed. The organisation’s ground-breaking work in the detection of human disease by dogs continues today and it is currently working with universities and hospitals to try to pinpoint the potential animals can have in assisting medics to identify disease.

Claire Guest, chef executive director of operations at Medical Assistance Dogs, explained: “We were the first people to discover that cancer has a unique odour and we discovered that other diseases have unique odours too. We quickly realised that dogs seem to be able to detect these changes.”

These dogs work for two or three days a week and are not placed with clients but in another, separate strand to the charity’s work dogs like Shirley are placed with clients to help raise medical alerts. Dogs trained by the charity now work all over the country to help clients manage conditions such as allergic reactions, diabetes and Addison’s disease.

Offering a unique service like this means there is now a three year waiting list for dogs, but Claire hopes the future will be a time of expansion for the charity. She explained that the training process for dogs works through a reward system.

Claire said: “As far as they are concerned, they are learning that certain odours are rewarding. It take about four months to do the advanced odour work. Labradors and Labrador-crosses are very good with this kind of work but other breeds can also be very good. We had a Yorkie called Poppy who was a very successful dog, I’m sure we can train many dogs to do odour recognition. The type of dog we need is the kind who wants to sit with you. Shirley was a guide dog not considered suitable because she failed in puppy walking as she was so inquisitive, but that is fantastic for us.”

The idea that disease has an odour is no new one and, before modern medical technology came in, even doctors would use their sense of smell to identify illnesses, according to Claire. She said: “Physicians used to use odour as a way of recognising certain conditions. It has been said that some people could smell TB so the idea that diseases give off odours isn’t new.”

Currently the charity has 18 assistance dogs working in different parts of the country, and the waiting list is growing. Claire said: “We are desperate for funding, there are so many people who need our help. We can’t train any more dogs without expanding.”

So lets hear it for a very special canine friend "Shirley"

Yip Yap
Love to all.

Poppy and Abbey.