Food allergies are a serious problem for many people in the United States. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, food allergies have increased from 3.5% in 1999 – 2001 to 5.6% in 2011 – 2013 for children and teens. The reactions differ from rashes and hives to life-threatening anaphylaxis. For those with severe allergies, leaving home is risky as they never know where or when an exposure may occur. The table in the waiting room might have dust from peanut butter crackers on it or the tongs used for the lettuce at the salad bar might have been used for cheese or nuts before being placed back into the lettuce bowl. Even the backyard poses a threat from squirrels that drop shells and pieces of nuts onto the patio.
For allergy sufferers, even everyday activities like going to work or school can be stressful events – that is unless they have a 4-legged early warning system at their side! Humans have trained dogs to detect all of kinds of things from drugs to explosives to people buried in avalanches. Now, dogs are being trained to find allergens. Reporter Lisa Ward described an allergy alert dog named Rex who lives with a little girl who is allergic to peanuts. Before Rex joined the family, trips to public places like amusement parks were off limits. Now, they are able to go worry-free because Rex’s highly sensitive nose will tell them when peanuts are present. He has found peanuts on the playground and even the doctor’s office. It has given the family the freedom to live a normal life, visiting public places free of worry.
Although almost all dogs have the ability to detect allergens, not all are mentally or physically cut out for the work. Candidates must be healthy dogs who are calm, well-behaved and comfortable in a variety of situations. Training starts with basic obedience before progressing to scent work. These dogs are trained with methods similar to those used for drug and bomb sniffing dogs. When the offending scent is detected, the dog is trained to sit and point their nose toward the allergen. The allergy sufferer leaves the area and the dog receives a reward, usually a food treat or playtime with a favorite toy. Like all scent trained dogs, allergen dogs receive regular training to maintain their skills. This is another great reason to love dogs.
Ward, Lisa. “In Search of Food Allergens, Consider Sending in the Dogs.” WALL STREET JOURNAL, Tuesday, February 17, 2015, P R5.