Not only can dogs use their incredible sense of smell to save lives by detecting cancer and finding people buried in rubble, they can also be trained to sniff out peanuts as well as other allergens that are potentially deadly to people with extreme allergies.
Dogs are natural-born sniffers: their sense of smell is 1,000 times greater than a human’s. While humans have 5 million olfactory receptors in their noses, dogs have a whopping 220 million.
The breeds commonly used for peanut detection are Poodles and Portuguese Water Dogs (both breeds also make good pets for highly allergic people since they don’t shed much and have little dander), Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds, along with mixed breeds such as Labradoodles.
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, peanut allergy is the most common cause of food-related death. Approximately 2 percent of the population is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts or both. A report in the December 2003 issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that the number of children with peanut allergies doubled in the early ’00s.
Southern Star Ranch in Florence, Texas, trains dogs to detect peanuts and tree nuts. According to its website, “Peanut dogs are easily able to detect minute quantities of peanuts in any form: raw, cooked, oil, butter, dust, etc.” Sharon Perry, the facility’s director of training, told ABC News that while a hypoallergenic breed is ideal for this type of work, the most important attributes are drive and energy, because the dogs are working all the time.
”They are always aware of what’s around them and what they’re smelling,” Perry said. “It’s their nature; these dogs work because they consider it a game.”
It takes at least 6 months to train a dog. Perry said she starts the training process by instructing the dog to find one whole peanut in a plastic bag. She then moves on to peanut butter and other foods containing peanuts, as well as objects such as library books and groceries with traces of peanut dust or oils on them. The dog is trained to discretely scan people for peanut residue to eliminate the risk of contamination. In addition to the ranch, training locations include real-world settings like malls and libraries.
If a dog detects peanuts, Perry said it will perform what is called a passive alert and response. “They’re trained to sit, and you can’t get them away from that sit,” she said. When the owner says “Show me,” the dog will point at the contaminated item.
If you or a loved one is allergic to peanuts and you’re thinking your HMO might provide you with a service dog, forget about it. Perry said the total cost of training a peanut-detecting dog can be at least $10,000, which is not covered by any insurance plan.
Sherry Mers, whose daughter has a life-threatening peanut allergy, started Angel Service Dogs to help families defray the prohibitive cost of training these dogs for children with severe allergies. “When you have a family looking at this dog and knowing that this is what’s going to save their child’s life, you can’t put a price on that,” Mers told WBZ.
While a trained dog’s sniffing skills are about 95 percent accurate, trainers warn that people still need to be on guard for allergens, and the dog should be the last line of defense. According to ABC News, some doctors aren’t convinced that a service dog is better than caution and education.
”Although a dog might be able to smell a peanut, the danger does not come from the oils that create the smell; they come from proteins that a person ingests,” Dr. Dan Atkins, a pediatric allergist and professor of pediatrics at the National Jewish Health in Denver, told ABC News. “What could probably help them more than a peanut-sniffing dog would be better education about allergies, potential exposures, how to avoid them, and how to cope with an accidental ingestion.”