Imagine you have such a severe reaction to gluten that even coming into contact with and ingesting a small amount of gluten could make you extremely ill. Now keep in mind that gluten is pervasive in our diets, the main ingredient in a large number of commercially prepared foods, and even contained in cosmetics and products such as mosquito repellants and medications. How do you avoid accidentally ingesting or absorbing gluten and becoming very sick?
The answer may be a gluten detection dog. Gluten detection dogs are service dogs trained to detect the scent of even small amounts of gluten in products and the environment. The first known gluten detection dog, Elias, was trained by his owner in Slovenia to detect gluten because she had severe celiac disease and coming into contact with even a small amount of gluten could result in life-threatening symptoms. Elias sniffs out food and other products, and if they contain gluten, he pulls the item away from his owner to let her know that they pose a danger to her.
Celiac is an autoimmune disease in which gluten exposure causes damage to the small intestine, resulting in serious symptoms including diarrhea, weight loss, and lethargy. While not everyone who needs to avoid gluten experiences such severe life-threatening reactions, many people with celiac disease do, and exposure to wheat, barley, or rye, which can easily be hidden in a variety of products, needs to be avoided.
Dogs are trained to detect gluten by scent. The problem is that so many different items contain gluten that it can be very difficult to teach a dog to distinguish the gluten scent contained in a product with competing scents present. A gluten detecting dog must be constantly under training to keep their senses sharp and able to detect gluten in a variety of products. Gluten detecting dogs must also be trained to be obedient and act appropriately in a variety of environments, including restaurants, grocery stores, schools, workplaces, and other public places.
Dogs trained to detect gluten do so by being presented products and alerting their owners if gluten is present and by searching out and locating gluten in the environment. To alert their owners to the presence of gluten, a predetermined sign must be taught for the dog to provide their handler. Gluten detecting dogs may paw at their handler, or the item, or perform another appropriate behavior that will clearly signal to their owners the presence of gluten.
LeiLa is just turning one year old & I've already taught her many things (good behaviors & entertaining tricks). I have celiac, so now I'd like to begin training her to detect gluten. I messaged one trainer (Willow) and asked if there are specific resources online that I could use, and she responded that it can only be done by a professional, & there is nothing a regular person can do. Today I found your methods & they seem like they should work. It seems that I should be able to train LeiLa for gluten detection with everyday practice, consistency & patience. Am I correct to think that LeiLa & I can do this together? Is there anything specific you'd like to caution me about, or encourage me with, before I get started?
Hello LuAnn, Many dog trainers are self-taught through years of reading, work with other trainers, and hands on experience. With enough work you could become an expert in this area also, but expect this to take time and work. Because you have Celiac instead of just gluten sensitivity you will need a much higher level of skill in your dog than someone who is less sensitive to gluten and can handle trace amounts. Whether or not LeiLa can be trained to do this actually depends more on LeiLa, her sense of smell, and her ability to detect very small amounts of the protein found in gluten containing products. You will need to cross train her to detect wheat, Barley, Rye, Triticale, and their varieties, as well as gluten in the form of more obscure ingredients that are called by other names and found in products such as Soy Sauce and Gravy. If you want to undertake the training yourself, you likely can, but you will need to be very thorough, and after you train her you will need to test her extensively to be sure that you have taught her all of the various forms of gluten and she will detect it reliably. You will also need to do follow up training sessions occasionally with her for as long as you are depending on her detection, to make sure that she remembers the training as time passes. Be aware that you will need to teach her to detect it in all of it's forms not just in obvious, smellier forms, like wheat bread. After you have taught her to detect and alert you when there is a gluten containing grain product, you will need to also teach her to detect much smaller, trace amounts in products like soy sauce, or in products that have been cross contaminated. If you can teach her to detect very tiny amounts in various forms, then she can successfully help you in this area. To become a service dog she simply needs to learn how to perform a task, in this case, detecting gluten, that directly helps a medically diagnosed condition that you have. I would suggest researching training a peanut allergy detection dog also because the training and level of skill needed in a dog are similar to gluten detection for Celiac disease. The main difference being that gluten is found in multiple grains, so you have to practice with the various forms. When you teach this, if you have not already, research everywhere that gluten can be found and the other names that it goes by, so that you can practice with these types of products while training. I wish you and LeiLa the best! I hope that if you decide to go for it, you feel confident in your ability to learn and train your pup. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden
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