New project to train dogs to detect bowel cancer is officially underway

Beagle dog
(Image credit: Getty Images)

It’s no secret that dogs have a seriously impressive sense of smell – much better than ours! And humans already use that canine sense of smell in various different ways, from finding victims of natural disasters to helping solve crimes.

And, of course, many of us incorporate our pups’ sense of smell into all sorts of fun games, often involving some of the best dog treats!

But now, one charity in the UK is training dogs to identify colon cancer early on, something that could potentially be lifesaving. The cancer is one of the most common globally, so numerous lives could be saved through this method.

The Medical Detection Dogs charity has already trained dogs to detect prostate and bladder cancers, and now it’s training them to sniff out colon cancer from urine samples. It’s hoped that many people might find this non-invasive method of detecting the cancer less embarrassing or awkward than providing a sample of feces. In turn, it could increase the uptake of colon cancer screening, and lead to better outcomes.

Matt Kefford, an ambassador for the charity, told LincsOnline that it selects dogs for their great sense of smell and good behavior, and that the clever pups come in to do three lots of 20 minutes’ detection in a working day.

They sniff various samples and are trained to sit by the samples that give off a certain scent. Their trainers, who they develop close bonds with, stay behind a screen to prevent the dogs from becoming distracted or influenced by visual stimuli.

The dogs have achieved an accuracy rate of over 70% in identifying prostate cancer, so it’s hoped that they’ll come to achieve similar results with colon cancer.

Kefford says, “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.

“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.”

Six dogs in all will be trained to detect colon cancer: Flat-coated Retriever Willow, Cocker Spaniels Mango, Callie, and Dotty, fox red Labrador Hetty, and black Lab Rosie.

The charity, which is based in the city of Milton Keynes – around 50 miles from London – began training dogs to monitor the blood sugar levels of people with Type 1 diabetes, but then moved on to postural tachycardia syndrome (POTS) as well as cancers.

If you’d like to know more about dogs at work, here are seven amazing jobs that working dogs can do. Meanwhile, do you know why you should let your dog sniff on a walk?

Adam England
Freelance Writer

Adam is a freelance journalist covering pets, lifestyle, health and culture, and he has six years' experience in journalism. He was senior editor at, and has written for The Independent, GoodToKnow and Healthline

He's also spent the last few years studying towards undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in journalism. While a cat person at heart, he's often visiting his parents' golden retriever, and when he's not writing about everything pets he's probably drinking coffee, visiting a cat cafe, or listening to live music.