Dogs are incredible animals, and in more ways than one! They provide companionship, are easy to train and happen to have an astonishing precise sense of smell.
All of those factors combine to transform dogs into elite service animals, doing everything from detecting bombs to cancer with their super sniffers. They are literal life savers.
In fact, they can be trained to detect virtually any scent, meaning allergy sniffing dogs are yet another way to mitigate the risks associated with food allergies.
How Are Allergy Sniffing Dogs Trained?
One way to put a dog’s incredible sense of smell into perspective is to imagine walking into a restaurant: you can smell the food, but you might only be able to identify the type of dish, if that. A dog walking into the same restaurant can discern between all of the different spices and ingredients in a meal.
Allergy sniffing dogs are trained to recognize a single scent among all the possible scents bombarding their noses, and to give a clear signal to the handler.
A dog trained to sniff out peanuts is trained initially by creating a positive association with the scent of peanuts. Usually this starts by having the dog choose between a peanut scent and a non-peanut scent. Alerting to the peanut scent results in a reward, and alerting to the non-peanut scent results in nothing at all.
Soon the dog learns to eagerly search for the peanut scent and to signal to the handler that he’s found it. Dogs can be trained to give virtually any signal, like sitting and staring at the source.
Once the dog’s training progresses, more difficult detection tasks are set up, using even smaller amounts of peanut hidden in even more obscure places and introducing all kinds of distractions.
Can Any Dog Be an Allergy Sniffing Dog?
You might already have a four-legged friend. Can you train him to alert you to the presence of an allergen?
Maybe. But a dog’s ability to be trained isn’t the only consideration. Allergy sniffing dogs are formally known as service dogs, and they receive certain rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In short, they can be admitted anywhere the general public is allowed to go, as long as the dog remains under the handler’s control.
This means that a dog needs to have a certain temperament in order to accompany its owner as a service dog. Your dog may be able to alert you to the presence of an allergen, but if he barks, lunges or doesn’t pay a lick of attention to you in public, he’s not likely to put his sniffing talent to much use in the wide, wide world.
A Word of Warning
Allergy sniffing dogs receive intense training and thus can be very expensive to purchase. $20,000 is not an uncommon price tag for a service dog that can do its job well. However, before you shell out that cash, do your research. The service dog industry is surprisingly unregulated. That means it’s up to you to make sure you get a dog that suits your needs.
Some questions to ask include:
- What is the dog’s history?
- Has the dog been evaluated and certified by a third-party organization?
- What kind of education do the dog trainers have?
- What happens if the dog is not a good match or cannot perform its duties as advertised?
- What kind of follow-up training is offered?
You should be carefully matched with a dog that meets you and your family’s needs, and you should spend time with the dog and its trainer to see first-hand how well the dog performs, and to learn how to keep up with the dog’s training. Allergy sniffing dogs should be regularly given rewards for finding the scent of peanut, in all kinds of settings, to keep their training fresh.
Also, even though an allergy sniffing dog would be meant for your child, be prepared to act as the dog’s true handler until your child matures and can handle the dog in all circumstances and knows what to do if the dog detects an allergen.
Do you have an allergy sniffing dog for your child, or have you considered getting one? Would you trust a dog to protect your child? How much has an allergy sniffing dog changed you or your child’s life? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.