Gluten-sniffing Dogs

Dogs are more than just humans’ loving and loyal companions–they can save our lives. Some service pups use their powerful noses to guide visually impaired people, others sniff out drugs and bombs, and now a handful are even being trained to detect gluten and other potentially life-threatening allergens. To honor this year’s 20th annual Take Your Dog to Work Day, we’re celebrating all the work canines do for us by learning more about their gluten-sniffing abilities.

Selecting a Gluten-Sniffing Dog

Like any kind of service dog, allergen-sniffing dogs are selected based on physical, intellectual, and environmental factors. Dogs must undergo a series of tests, which are then analyzed by certified dog trainers to assess whether their behavior demonstrates a good fit. In general, service training companies select dogs to detect allergens who are highly motivated, independent, intelligent, and eager to please.

Training a Gluten-Sniffing Dog

There are currently no national guidelines for training dogs who can detect gluten. Many companies, such as Willow Service Dogs, boast comprehensive standards and tests that celiac service dogs must undergo prior to graduating from the program. This includes being able to identify various items of gluten in a room search, detecting gluten in a public space, and checking individual items in a gluten or gluten-free environment. At Allergen Detection Service Dogs, dogs are taught to detect gluten in substances using reward-based training techniques. Once a dog learns how to identify gluten, a trainer may teach the dog to turn its head if the food item is safe or raise a paw if gluten is detected. According to Nosey Dog Detection Partners, it can take approximately one year to train a service dog, depending on the breed and maturity of the dog; however, as with any service animal, additional training throughout a gluten-sniffing dog’s life is critical in reinforcing learned behavior.

Who Benefits From Using a Gluten-Sniffing Dog

An allergen-detection dog most benefits individuals with Celiac disease, those with severe reactions to allergens, gluten-free teenagers who want more independence, and families that are eager to be more involved in their community. Bear in mind that gluten-sniffing dogs aren’t for everyone. Having a service dog requires continual training multiple times a week for the duration of the dog’s life so that the dog maintains its detection proficiency. Most service training organizations require primary dog handlers to be 13 or older, as the handler must be old enough to understand and recognize a dog’s physical changes in behavior when he is searching for a specific allergen.

Where to Use a Gluten-Sniffing Dog

Are gluten-sniffing dogs effective everywhere? According to Ciara Gavin, a certified dog trainer for Allergen Detection Service Dogs, gluten-sniffing dogs are ideal for homes that are already gluten-free, as they can help find stray gluten in foods or shampoos. While accuracy is more difficult for dogs to detect in public places, where gluten is ever-present, many companies train their dogs to successfully detect gluten in grocery stores, restaurants, school settings, and other public spaces.

The Science of Gluten-Sniffing Dogs

While experts’ knowledge of dogs’ olfactory abilities is scant, it has been proven that when dogs come into contact with an odor, they can track it to its source. This is due to the dog’s predominant sense of smell as well as the importance of the olfactory bulb, a mass of neural tissue within a dog’s brain that allows a dog to recognize specific scents, such as gluten and other allergens, through its nose. A dog’s olfactory bulb is 40 times larger than that in humans relative to brain size. When a dog smells something, that scent information travels from the olfactory bulb to the dog’s limbic system (responsible for emotions, memory, and behavior) and the cortex (where conscious thought is processed).

Similar to Nima, a gluten-detection dog is another way to provide more information about an item before you consume it. No dog is ever 100% accurate, so it’s important to remain vigilant in reading food labels and avoiding gluten, even if you have an allergen-detection dog by your side.

Do you have experience handling an gluten-sniffing dog? We’d love to hear about it!