It’s only been just over three years since an Otago dog lover first pursued a passion to train dogs to detect certain cancers in human urine, as has been trialled successfully overseas. Already Mosgiel-based Pauline Blomfield’s K9 Medical Detection NZ dogs are having remarkable success at detecting bowel cancer and prostate cancer.
Pauline’s had no government funding for the costly work and the programme has been surviving on generous philanthropic donations alone. She currently needs to raise $500,000 to continue her work next year.

Pauline, who works closely with a cancer trust, says more dogs could be trained for other cancers if more philanthropic funding was available. It’s taken a lot of hard work, long voluntary hours and fundraising, but K9 Medical Detection NZ now has successfully shown dogs can detect low concentrations of cancer with a high degree of accuracy.

It’s hoped to be another value added, diagnostic tool in the fight against cancer. Pauline says bowel cancer claims the lives of 23 people a week in New Zealand. “We have one of the highest rates of cancer deaths (per head of population) in the world.” The dogs have been detecting the cancers they’re trained for with remarkable accuracy and it is hoped this will enable patients to be prioritised for the likes of colonoscopies, she says. “At the moment we only have bowel cancer screening for people over 60 and it’s a faecal test.” “We train the dogs to ignore all other contaminants, such as the strong odours of things people have eaten, like asparagus, any supplements or medications. They only sniff out the odour released from the cancer cells they’ve been trained to identify,” she says.

Levi detecting bowel cancer.

Certain breeds are selected such as German shepherds bred from a top New Zealand breeder, and Springer spaniels, a top line working breed. So far Levi, Weta (sponsored by Weta Workshop) and Freida are getting results, with training based on positive reinforcement. The dogs are trained according to the type of cancer the private funders want prioritised. The programme has had great success with bowel cancer and Pauline is hoping to secure additional funding to proceed with ovarian cancer work next year with Ace. “One woman dies from ovarian cancer every 48 hours in New Zealand and symptoms can often be masked,” says Pauline.

A permanent paid trainer is employed as well as a lab technician and a canine fitness trainer. “We desperately need to raise $35,000 for the new software programme for patient urine collection,” says Pauline.She spent two years initially speaking to scientists, microbiologists and clinicians about what they thought of the idea. “The response was overwhelming – 100 percent positive,” she says. “I’m just somebody who’s worked with dogs for 40 years,” says a humble Pauline.

Ace the springer spaniel in training to sniff out cancer.

She knew of New Zealand’s alarming cancer rates and wanted to do something about it. K9 Medical Detection’s work has already been recognised internationally.  “Most pets can detect when something is wrong with their owner,” she says, recounting the story of a dog who had uncharacteristically, persistently nudged the breast of its owner, so much so to the extent that the owner decided to go and get a mammogram and was found to have breast cancer. “Another little dog kept nuzzling the back of the neck of its owner when he was sitting on the couch,” says Pauline. “That man was later diagnosed with a brain tumour right in that spot where the dog had been pressing.”

Needless to say Pauline’s had plenty of offers to foster their pups from eight-weeks of age, with two of those having been fostered in Wanaka. However, now all dogs are fostered in Dunedin. She’s also had no shortage of volunteers offering urine samples, however, she can’t accept those. These are currently selected through health authorities where priority and most at risk patients get in first.