Can you imagine having a severe allergic reaction every time you come into contact with peanuts, even just proximity to peanuts? Your throat starts to close, your airway becomes compromised, and a life-threatening situation develops. Now imagine you are a child. What a terrifying experience.
For thousands of people, this experience can be an everyday reality if they are unknowingly exposed to peanuts or products contaminated with peanuts. In some cases, the sensitivity and reaction are so severe that simply being in the same room with a peanut contaminated product can induce a life-threatening reaction. So what can people with such severe allergies do to protect themselves? The answer is, use an allergen detection dog; specifically, a dog trained to detect the presence of peanuts. A dog’s sense of smell is thousands of times more sensitive than ours, with ⅓ of their brain being dedicated to the sense and discrimination of smell! No wonder they spend so much time with their nose to the ground. We can harness this special ability in our dogs to work for us and save lives, such as by detecting the presence of life-threatening allergens in the environment and alerting allergy sufferers to the presence of these allergens, so appropriate precautions can be taken.
For allergen detection dogs, life can be like a constant game of hide and seek. Dogs trained to locate a certain scent, alert their handlers, and receive a reward can be invaluable to humans suffering from life threatening allergies. Dogs are trained to detect and identify a particular scent, in this case peanuts, and alert their handler, usually by providing a location alert such as ‘sit and look at me’. The handler may be the person with the actual allergy, or in the case of a minor child, the handler may be the child's parent or guardian. Handlers may send the dog into a room prior to the allergic person entering, to perform a scan of the room, or present foods to the dog to smell, such as in a restaurant so the dog can scan for the presence of peanuts. Because no one is perfect, you cannot rely on a dog to be accurate 100% of the time, and precautions such as reading labels, instructing people preparing foods, and educating classmates about the presence of a severely peanut allergic person, is still required. Nothing is a substitute for appropriate vigilance, however, a peanut detecting dog can identify sources of peanut contamination when there is no other practical way of discovering them prior to exposure of the allergic person. Dogs can be taught to identify several different allergens, which can be especially useful if the handler is allergic to more than one type of allergen. Allergy dogs are often taught to also carry epi-pens and other medication required by the allergic person in case of emergency.
While training dogs to identify scents, you will need a small container for scents. It is best to avoid plastic, if possible, as plastic has its own scent. Dogs that are very food or toy motivated make the best detector dogs and are easiest to train to identify scents for a reward. Remember, this is like a game for the dog, and is fun for them. A dog that is motivated to locate the scent and receive his reward works best. You will need several months to train a dog to be obedient in a variety of situations, including public situations, and also develop the skills to discern peanut scent with other competing scents and distractions present. A young dog can be trained to detect peanuts as long as they have a calm, confident demeanor, and can stay focused on their job. More mature dogs are also used to detect allergens, such as peanuts, and may already be comfortable working in a variety of distracting or stressful environments.