Allergen Alert Dogs, also known as Allergy Alert Dogs, Allergen Detection Dogs or Allergy Service Dogs, work with people who have life-threatening allergies. Sometimes they’re called Anaphylaxis Service Dogs or Anaphylaxis Prevention Dogs. These special Service Dogs sniff for the presence of allergens. They alert their human partner if the Allergen Dog locates any amount of the potentially deadly substance in the environment.
For hundreds of thousands of “allergy parents” across the United States, every day involves constant vigilance. For their kids, exposure to even trace amounts of certain foods or medicines could end with a trip to the emergency room or worse. According to the organization Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), roughly 1 in 13 children has a food allergy. That works out to 2 or so children in every classroom! 40% of all children with food allergies have life-threatening reactions. Furthermore, 30% of all children with food allergies are allergic to more than one food.
All in all, about 15 million Americans suffer from food allergies. 5.9 million of them are children under the age of 18. Myths and misconceptions about allergies abound, but the facts don’t lie: life-threatening allergies are on the rise, with the Center for Disease Control citing a 50% rise in recent years. Every 3 minutes, an allergic reaction sends someone to the emergency room. There’s no known cure, and the only management involves total avoidance of the food or substance.
Common Allergens & Allergic Reactions
Some of the most common food allergies include milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, and shellfish, with latex, insect stings, and certain medications amongst common non-food allergies. Exposure to an allergen can cause a minor reaction, like hives or a rash, or a major one, like difficulty breathing. No matter how minor a reaction seems, though, all allergies are serious.
Anaphylaxis, the most severe allergic reaction, causes symptoms akin to shock. The body releases a flood of chemicals. Blood pressure plummets and airways narrow, making breathing difficult or impossible. Anaphylaxis requires prompt medical treatment and intervention to save the person’s life. If the person carries an epinephrine autoinjector (EpiPen), administer it immediately, and then arrange for transport to the emergency room.
For the people who deal with life-threatening allergies, everything in the environment could be potentially deadly. Every bite of food requires screening. Cosmetic products and everyday essentials necessitate exhaustive research. Even things like Play-Doh can contain allergens. Nothing can be done without careful planning and forethought. Every facet of life changes. Because life-threatening allergies affect one or more major facets of life, they’re federally classified as a disability. As such, many families have opted to partner with a specially trained Allergen Alert Dog to help bring some peace of mind back into their life.
What Do Allergen Alert Dogs Do?
Allergen Service Dogs alert their partner or a designated handler to the presence of life-threatening allergens. The Service Dog sniffs items, like food, medication, or hygiene products, before they’re given to the person with the allergy. If the item contains the allergen, the Service Dog performs a specific, trained behavior, like sitting or touching the child’s leg with a paw. That behavior is called an “indication” or an “alert.”
As an example, a child with a severe peanut allergy attends a birthday party. The hostess provides granola bars to the children as a snack. Before the child with an allergy touches the bar, the bar is presented to the Allergen Alert Dog to be checked for peanuts in any amount. The dog sniffs the bar and does not alert. The bar is safe to eat, assuming the dog has received proper training & proofing.
For some Allergen Alert Dogs, their job is even broader — they clear entire rooms in schools, hospitals, group homes, and camps, in order to ensure the prep surfaces and tables are free of even trace amounts of allergens. These specialized dogs help ensure “clean rooms” stay that way, and that they remain safe for even those with the most severe of allergies.
How Are Allergen Alert Dogs Trained?
Allergen Detection Dogs go through a systematic training process to learn which scents are signficant and what they should do about them. In the beginning, the scent of the allergy is paired with something the dog really enjoys, such as food or a toy. This is called “imprinting.” This pairing process helps the dog learn that the scent of the allergen has meaning.
Next, the dog is taught an indication behavior. Common indications include sitting, touching the item with a nose or paw, touching the person with a nose or paw, or picking up a danging rope from their collar and holding it. Once the dog reliably performs the indication behavior on cue, the indication is paired with the imprinted scent. The dog is exposed to the scent, told to perform the indication behavior, and rewarded. This process continues until the dog reliably performs the indication behavior without being asked.
Allergen Alert Dog Intermediate and Advanced Training
Once the dog reliably indicates to the allergen, the trainer introduces more difficult scent puzzles. The allergen may be present in much smaller amounts, or above the dog’s head, or in a cooked food. The dog is exposed to as many situations, environments, and possibilities as the trainer can dream up, so that the dog can generalize the scent of the allergen in any circumstance.
The Allergen Alert Dog must learn to alert to the presence of the allergen in any form and in any amount. The dog must learn to NOT alert to anything that is not the allergen, no matter what. This involves a lot of proofing on the part of the trainer, so that the Allergen Dog can work reliably.
Finally, the dog is introduced to their new family and the family taught how to work the dog. Lots of environmental factors affect scent, so it’s vital the family learn how scent works. Their dog’s skills must be carefully practiced and maintained so the Allergy Dog continues to do its job safely.
Allergy Service Dogs must be properly trained in order to be effective. Training an Allergen Alert Dog takes hundreds of hours and tons of experience. Families should not attempt it without proper guidance, especially in the case of life-threatening allergies. In order for an Allergy Dog to keep its human safe, it must be properly trained, tested, and above all else, reliable.