Gluten sensitivity and gluten-free diets may be a new fad for some in an attempt to root out diet problems or be healthier, but for those who have Celiac disease eating gluten is debilitating. Many products contain gluten, some obvious and others because of processing or contamination from being too close to products which contain gluten. To help those who could become very sick from eating gluten service dogs are being trained to react when they smell gluten in a food item their owner might eat.
This is Willow, a German shorthaired pointer trained to smell gluten in food:
(Lansing State Journal)
What is Gluten?
Gluten is the name for protein found in wheat, rye, and barley which acts like a glue to help food hold its shape.
What is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which eating gluten leads to damage to the small intestine and which prevents nutrient absorption. The celiac disease foundation estimates that 1 in 100 people worldwide have the disease. Long term, the disease can lead to other autoimmune problems like type 1 diabetes, MS, and even intestinal cancer. There are tests that a doctor can perform to indicate that a person has celiac disease by checking for celiac antibodies and intestinal damage. The only treatment is to eat a diet free of gluten. The avoidance of gluten is not a choice, it is a necessity.
Why are gluten service dogs needed?
It might seem obvious which foods and products contain gluten. This is true for many things. However, some products which use gluten as a binder are not marked and cross contamination is a huge problem.
If you don’t buy all the ingredients of a meal separately and make it yourself in a gluten-free environment it would be impossible to tell whether it contained traces of gluten. Restaurants often sell “gluten-free” items which while gluten-free themselves are made on the same surfaces as, or right next to, other items containing gluten. This can be true of a gluten-free pizza crust made on a floured surface, items being fried in oil with other gluten battered items, or pasta cooked in the same water. If someone is super sensitive to gluten these small amounts could make them sick for weeks or worse.
This is where service dogs come into play. Just by sniffing an item or meal they can tell if it has traceable amounts of gluten in it. Someone who once had to be nervous about eating out or trying any new products can now be free to eat more things knowing their dog is there to indicate when they should not eat something. This applies to eating meals at restaurants and friends homes, buying groceries, and when on vacation. This is freeing in a way that was not possible before.
For example, Willow’s owner (pictured above) got so sick from her celiac disease that she kept losing weight until she was only 100 pounds. Her doctors told her, due to her severe reaction, that if she did not cut gluten from her diet entirely she would only live 3 to 5 more years. She is so sensitive to gluten that she cannot eat anything cooked on the same grill with something else containing gluten. She has to be careful when outside her home to not touch her mouth because her hands might have traces of gluten on them. Willow’s owner once trained search and rescue dogs and wondered if a dog could be trained to smell out gluten. She got Willow as a puppy and found a trainer willing to try to teach her. Willow caught on quickly and proved that dogs can be useful for this purpose.
Currently, there are only a few dogs trained to smell gluten. But Willow’s owner started Nosey Dog-Detection Partners Inc. to begin training more dogs to do this simple but helpful task. They also train dogs to detect peanuts for those severely allergic and dogs to detect blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. They also offer basic obedience training and help to teach your own service dog for allergies.
These types of service dogs can provide a level of independence that allergy or disease sufferers have not had in a very long time. Dogs are certainly versatile! It is amazing to see someone who had such personal success translate that into a program to help others who are in a similar position.