By Dr. Becker
Dogs’ sense of smell is anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 times more powerful than humans,’ which explains why they’re experts at sniffing out drugs, explosives and even medical issues like cancer and low blood sugar. Dogs can also detect the scent of gluten, a type of protein found in wheat and barley, which can be life-changing for people living with celiac disease.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder affecting nearly 3 million Americans.1 If gluten is consumed, it causes an immune response that damages the small intestine, causing impaired nutrient absorption and a host of other debilitating symptoms.
In some cases, the disease is so severe that even consuming food that touched gluten (like a salad with gluten-containing croutons placed on top and then removed, or a food cut with a knife used to cut a gluten-containing food) can cause severe illness and even hospitalizations. The only “treatment” is to strictly avoid gluten, a challenging prospect since it’s found in so many foods and even in personal care products, like toothpaste, shampoo and insect spray.
Gluten-Sniffing Dogs Are Changing Lives
Although there are no formal training programs or certifications for training gluten-detecting dogs, success stories among people with celiac disease continue to grow. Today reported on Zeus, a miniature Australian shepherd, who lives with a teenage girl, Evelyn Lapadat, in Indiana. Lapadat has long suffered from joint pain and fatigue due to celiac disease.2
Zeus stays by the girl’s side, even while at school, and gives a signal if a food she’s about to consume contains gluten. She says she hasn’t gotten sick in a long time, thanks to Zeus.
Zeus’ trainer stated that he’s able to detect gluten in amounts as small as .0025 parts per million,3 and he can even check foods right through their packaging, which is invaluable during grocery shopping trips. USA Today reported on another gluten-sniffing dog, a Beauceron named Elias, who was trained in Slovenia in order to help a college student with celiac disease.
Because gluten comes in so many forms, the training can be even more complex than other scent-detection training,4 however dogs trained successfully are proving to be game changers for celiac patients.
Willow, a German shorthaired pointer, is another gluten-sniffing dog, in this case living in Michigan. Her owner, Dawn Scheu, says she can detect gluten with 95 percent to 98 percent accuracy.5 She worked with a trainer (the same one who trained Zeus) to teach her own dog to detect gluten, with excellent results. She told VetStreet:6
“When [the trainer] met me, I looked like the walking dead, and now I have color in my face and my hair is better … I’ve only been glutenated [contaminated with gluten] once since I got Willow.”
Considering a Gluten-Sniffing Dog? Here’s What to Look for in a Trainer
Paul Waggoner, Ph.D., a scientist at Auburn University's College of Veterinary Medicine, states that gluten-sniffing dogs are a reasonable prospect to help people with celiac disease, despite the challenges in training dogs to sniff out gluten in a particular food, even among a sea of gluten-containing foods at the same table or grocery aisle. “I have no reason to think that it’s not feasible,” he told VetStreet. “In principle, if you can identify the target that’s associated with the problem, then it’s feasible.”7
He points out, however, that scent-detecting dogs are rarely 100 percent accurate, 100 percent of the time, but proper training is essential to getting trustworthy results. Because there is no national training program, it’s up to individuals to seek out knowledgeable trainers. In VetStreet, Waggoner recommended the following guidance in choosing a scent-detection trainer:8
- The trainer should evaluate your dog before offering to train him. “If they’re basically saying that any dog you bring them can be trained to do this, that would be a warning sign,” Waggoner said.
- Find out how long the training is expected to take. It should be a minimum of three months.
- The trainer should continue to offer training and maintenance over time to ensure the dog’s scent detection remains reliable.
- You should be part of the training process, as opposed to simply being handed an already-trained dog.
Working Dogs Are Saving Lives and Giving Freedom Back to Their Owners
There’s seemingly no end to the value that “man’s best friend” adds to their owners lives, and in the case of working dogs this value can be life-saving. Dogs can be trained to detect the scent of allergens, like peanuts, in food and alert a rescue team to a person's location in an avalanche. Technology known as FIDO, or Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations, has even developed wearable technology that is integrated into assistance dog vests in the form of sensors.
Dogs are then trained to activate the sensors (by biting, tugging or using nose gestures) to communicate different messages or even call for help. Above all else, what the dogs offer is a newfound sense of freedom for people who may have otherwise felt trapped by their medical condition.
Lapadat’s mother explained to Today, for example, that having Zeus by her daughter’s side offers a huge sense of relief. “I feel like I don't have to be a complete control freak anymore. I feel like he can be a control freak for us,” she said.9
It can be costly to get a properly trained gluten-sniffing or other service dog, but there are some financial assistance options available, including non-profit organizations that help people raise funds for such dogs. While the cost is typically not covered by insurance, you may be able to pay for costs out of a Healthcare Spending Account, and financial support may be offered for service dogs for veterans via the Veterans Administration.
Once you have added a service dog to your family, many veterinarians also offer discounted medical services for these dogs, which can help to defray some costs for what is otherwise a priceless benefit to people with celiac disease and certain other conditions.