Anyone living with celiac disease knows how uncomfortable it can be to accidentally eat something with gluten in it. As careful as you are, mistakes happen, and if you have severe reactions to gluten, you may be more than just uncomfortable. Eating even a trace amount of gluten can make you really sick. There may be a new ally in your corner, though. Celiac service dogs, trained to sniff out gluten, can help people with celiac avoid those costly mistakes.
Celiac Service Dogs Save Owners from Severe Reactions
There are not many celiac service dogs working for their devoted people, but a few are out there helping people with the most severe forms of this disease. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, one out of every 100 people across the world is diagnosed with celiac disease. Fewer people have a severe form of the disorder, including Michigan resident and former EMT, Dawn Scheu.
Scheu lives with a particularly insidious form of the disease. Just ten parts per million of gluten in a food that she eats can make her sick. Accidentally consuming gluten has made her sick for weeks at a time. Her illness is so serious, and her reactions to trace amounts of gluten so disabling, that doctors who made her diagnosis gave her three to four years to live. Scheu describes feeling trapped in her own home, overwhelmed by the fear of cross-contamination. That is, until she met Willow.
Willow is a German shorthaired pointer and one of a select few celiac service dogs working in the U.S. to keep people safe. Scheu got Willow as a puppy and it was her idea to train her to detect gluten. Dogs have a keen sense of smell and have been trained to detect drugs, explosives and even cancer cells and blood sugar in diabetic patients. Why couldn’t a dog detect gluten?
Scheu contacted a master dog trainer, certified by FEMA, to help her train Willow and it worked. Willow can find gluten in places Scheu never imagined. As one example, she used bug spray one day and Willow started pawing at her, their sign for the presence of gluten. It turned out that there was gluten in the spray. Scheu showered immediately, but it still took two months for her to recover from the exposure. Without Willow to warn her, the incident could have been much worse.
Celiac Service Dogs Protect When Labels Aren’t Enough
A lot of people these days have cut back on or cut out gluten from their diets, even if they don’t have celiac disease. Gluten-free foods have become popular and trendy, but for people who really live with this disease, the way foods are labeled is crucial. The FDA only recently regulated the labeling of foods as gluten-free. As of August 2014, foods labeled in this way must meet the FDA-set requirements.
The requirements include that the food must have been tested to ensure that there is less than 20 parts per million of gluten. For people like Dawn Scheu, this isn’t good enough. She can’t simply buy a food in the store labeled as gluten-free. The FDA rule is important and has improved the lives of those who have less severe forms of the disease, but for those who can actually die from exposure, the label is meaningless.
Scheu is just one of a handful of people benefiting from celiac service dogs, but she and her trainer, Kathryn Watters, aim to change that. They started a business to train celiac-sniffing dogs for other people who need the assistance, and they offer their dogs for sweeps of public areas or homes to find traces of gluten. They are even expanding their services to train dogs to detect food allergens, like peanuts.
For someone with severe celiac disease, the world can be a scary place. Thanks to the noses and the devotion of celiac service dogs and those who work to train them, these people have a better chance to live a more normal life.