Children inhibited by a life-threatening food allergy may find some safety and freedom with the help of some very special canines. Allergy service dogs that are trained to sniff out certain allergens are a relatively new type of service dog, but they likely have already saved lives while providing a rare peace of mind for children with food allergies.
Consider the story of Gianna and her service dog, a Saint Bernard named Boo. With a severe peanut allergy, Gianna has spent most of the seven years of her life fearful of a deadly reaction to trace amount of peanuts that could be just about anywhere. Even the residue left on playground equipment by a child who had just eaten a peanut butter sandwich could trigger a deadly reaction and send her to the hospital. Boo, however, can point out the tiniest traces of peanut butter for her, long before she has the chance to come into contact with it.
Severe food allergies are on the rise, and scientists have yet to figure out why. From the year 1997 to 2011, food allergies have increased by 50 percent. Now, 1 in 13 children—an average of about two school children per classroom—has a food allergy. With so many children at risk, the need for service dogs to help keep them safe is greater than ever.
Allergy service dogs, like other service dogs, are often carefully bred (though some are shelter rescues) and selected for health and temperament. Just about any breed with the right aptitude can be an allergy service dog, with the most popular being Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds and the hypoallergenic Labradoodles and Portuguese Water Dogs. Once a puppy is selected it goes through a rigorous training program, learning how to identify an allergen’s scent and promptly notify the handler, usually by sitting.
Benefits of Allergy Service Dogs
Service dogs trained to sniff out allergens are beneficial to their young handlers in more ways than one. They are extremely effective and offer another much-needed safety net against allergies. While an EpiPen is a treatment for an emergency situation, these dogs are preventative allergen-scanning devices on four paws. So far, no technology has rivaled these dogs’ effectiveness. Gianna’s peanut-sniffing dog Boo, for example, once alerted his young owner to a tiny smear of peanut butter on a mouse trap tucked under some shelves halfway down a department store aisle.
Another benefit to having an allergy service dog is the opportunity for more freedom. Children with severe food allergies often can’t risk going to the playground, a friend’s sleepover or a baseball game, but with one of these special dogs, they can participate in greater safety. The peace of mind that these dogs offer also gives the children, and their parents, freedom from fear.
Besides protecting their young handlers from hidden allergens, these service dogs also provide the benefit of companionship and emotional support. Having a severe food allergy can be stressful and alienating for a young child, but with one of these furry companions they can enjoy a boost of confidence and even benefit from the dogs’ natural mental health benefits, including reducing stress and anxiety.
Hurdles to Overcome
While allergy service dogs have already proven effective, many children with allergies and their families may find that getting one of these dogs is difficult, and owning a dog isn’t the best solution for everyone.
Allergy service dogs are difficult to come by. Few breeders and training programs exist and getting one of their certified dogs takes quite a bit of time. Some families even move to another state just for the chance to have one. Money is another factor to consider, and the cost is certainly nothing to sniff at: the price of an allergy service dog is up to $20,000.
Allergy service dogs are a new idea and few people are aware of them. They therefore still lack regulation, and because children with severe allergies do not appear disabled, certain public places may not be willing to accommodate them. With time and proper education, however, parents are confident that their children’s service dogs will get the recognition they deserve from the community. “I don’t expect people to change their world for us,” states Gianna’s mom, “but I do expect them to allow us to protect our child in the way we need to.”
If you or a loved one would like to explore allergy service dogs as an option, contact the Angel Service Dogs or a similar group in your region to start the application process.