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In the summer 2004 newsletter, my wife Ursula wrote an article about our first ever gun dog and indeed, first ever Irish Water Spaniel, Feargal. As you will see from Ursula's second article, at 17 months Feargal is still having adventures and, whilst absolutely full of himself at the moment, has been an absolute pleasure. We do however, have a second Irish Water Spaniel, a bitch, 6 months younger than Feargal and who uses her working nose for something rather different, although she is still being trained up as a true working dog.

Those of you who went to Coleorton for the training weekend back in April will remember Killountain Anna (Niamh) as the tiny 5 months old pup who's head could barely be seen above the tall grass but nevertheless, managed to acquit herself quite well in much older company. In July she competed in the annual working test at Mawley Hall, being handled by Ursula and in October she competed in the Club's any variety working test at Cheltenham, this time being handled by myself. Any body who has seen her at all of these events over the past 6 months or so will, I hope, have seen a steady improvement in her ability as a gun dog (but still a long way to go).

Foto of Niamh

However, she has another working role, a very unusual one and one in which her nose and her temperament are ideally suited. This role is as a research assistant developing a canine method of diagnosing prostate cancer by sniffing men's urine samples (No - this is not an April Fool). Some of you may even have seen in the press recent publicity about another research group using dogs to diagnose bladder cancer, but more of them later.  

We are lucky in that for all of our dogs, going back some 12 years or so, we have attended basic dog obedience classes held by the professional dog trainer Charlie Clarricoates, whose place is on the edge of the Cambridgeshire Fens. If any of you ever read the pet dog magazine "Your Dog" then you will have seen many articles by Charlie, as he is one of the resident experts helping with training and behaviour advice. However, behind the scenes, he is much more than a pet dog agony aunt as he has carried out training work for the police and has readjusted many apparently beyond help dogs using kind training methods and changing how dogs are able to interact with their human companions. His big passion, tho' is training gundogs (Labradors), and using them for picking up on his local fenland shoot. No surprises then, that both our Spaniels also go to his gun dog classes where he keeps both of us on the straight and narrow in between Pat Taft's club training sessions.  

Now, back to the research - some years ago Charlie was approached by a guy wanting to set up in business with him to train dogs for scientific research into the diagnosis of cancer. At the time Charlie turned him down but very kindly explained to the chap how he would go about training the dogs. It is this guy, using Charlie's methods that is behind the training of the dog's in the bladder cancer research that received much publicity recently, maybe he should have set up in business after all. Anyway, Charlie is now working with a research group comprising of the University of Nottingham, Cambridge University Vet School and Addenbrooke's hospital, Cambridge and uses dogs (and their owners) that he knows through his training classes in the work. He selects dogs rather more on their owner's temperament than the dog's as it is important that the owners will carry out the instructions given, rather than procrastinate about it, as many apparently do, he does however prefer bitches when choosing the dogs.

This is how we got involved with Niamh. One day we were up at his place and he asked both of us if we would help with his Saturday puppy classes for pet dog owners (that's an experience I can tell you) and as I was in a period of what turned out to be a period of a year of under employment due to redundancy and, as I was interested in this research from my previous career background, I asked if I could bring Niamh along. Well, Charlie absolutely adores Niamh so she was signed up in an instant.  

Niamh started her training by using a clicker, so it was interesting to go back to Liam McCay's article in the summer newsletter all about clicker training so, if you're reading Liam, here's something new you can train Clancy to do with your clicker. In order to later train Niamh to identify positive cancer urines from negatives it was imperative that a lightening quick method of praising her was used as the timing of the praise had to be absolutely spot on to ensure the association between positive samples and the reward. I had never used a clicker before but I do use treats in basic training so it only took a few minutes of initial training outside to get Niamh realising that the clicker noise and a tasty treat went hand in hand.

After that the training sessions went into a similar pattern. A long length of plastic guttering was turned upside down and tied securely to a plank of wood. A series of holes had been drilled in the guttering large enough to allow a small plastic vial containing a urine sample to be inserted. There was a series of holes and a series of urine samples but only one positive sample.

Niamh was walked up and down along the guttering, on the lead at first, but later as the training progressed, off the lead and told to "find it". Niamh has a very quiet, controlled, methodical approach and so she dutifully sniffs each vial in turn. When she sniffs the vial containing the sample, the clicker is used, she is given a treat right by the hole containing the vial and given huge amounts of happy exciting verbal praise, this training is definitely not for shy and introverted handlers.

Niamh is then moved away and prevented from seeing the researcher rearrange the order of the vials. She then repeats the process. This is then repeated over a period of weeks but unfortunately from my point of view (as far as the training goes) I got a new job and started leaving Niamh with Charlie every Wednesday for him to take over.

The ultimate aim is for the dogs to lie down at a positive sample automatically and then to use this ability in formal clinical trials where the positive or negative nature of the sample is not known before hand. Niamh, although starting to recognise positive samples, is not at this stage yet but Charlie's Labrador, Bliss certainly is. The week before Niamh's first training session the researcher's had statistically shown in a clinical trial that Bliss was actually identifying positive samples rather than lying down at the samples by chance. At Niamh's first training session Bliss was also used in another small trial, but much to Charlie's consternation, kept lying down at a supposedly negative sample. When the researcher's went back to the laboratory they discovered that this sample actually was a positive sample, so the dog had been right all along.  

So how does it work? - well prostate cancer produces a large quantity of a specific protein (as do many cancers), specific that is to prostate cancer. Bladder cancer produces a different protein but specific to bladder cancer. It is assumed that the dog's can detect the smell of these specific proteins in amongst the mass of smells coming from the urine sample, quite amazing really. Elevated levels of this prostate specific protein in the urine could indicate prostate cancer and it is this protein that existing commercial tests use to diagnose the possibility of prostate cancer.  

I do not know what the ultimate objective of the research is but it appears to have some serious thought behind it as the research grant for the project is £150,000. Quite a lot of money to spend on dogs sniffing urine, most of them do it for free anyway, when they're out and about.  

I find the whole thing pretty amazing but it's probably no more amazing than dogs finding game or sniffer dogs finding drugs, but I've never seen an Irish Water Spaniel sniffing my bags at an airport and as it's my dog taking part, I am happy to think of it as an ability that is something really quite special.

Written by:  David Wilcox, Newmarket

And published at the webpage of the Sporting Irish Water Spaniel Club

Sporting Irish Water Spaniel Club