There are three classifications of assistance dogs: guide dogs, hearing dogs, and service dogs. Beyond that, the latter includes numerous different types of service dogs. Allergen detection service dogs, otherwise known as allergy alert dogs, are just one example. These service dogs are specially trained to help people with life-threatening food allergies.
Some common misconceptions are circulating out there about food allergies, and they often aren’t well understood by those without direct experience with them. To truly get an idea of how life-changing an allergen detection service dog can be, you need some appreciation for the dangers food allergies pose and just how difficult it is to live with them as a constant, often practically invisible threat in the environment.
What Are Food Allergies?
A food allergy is an immune system response to a protein in a particular food. Sometimes, the immune system mistakenly identifies a protein as a threat and goes on the attack. Food allergies can be triggered by consuming, inhaling, or even just coming into contact with an allergen. As if that weren’t scary enough, it only takes a particle of an allergen to trigger a response.
Risks of Food Allergies
Many people associate allergies with hives, itching, and sneezing, but don’t think of them as dangerous. These are some symptoms, but food allergies can be life threatening. A potentially fatal reaction is called anaphylaxis.
Allergic responses can affect four organ systems: the skin, respiratory tract, gastrointestinal tract, and central nervous system. The stereotypical image of anaphylaxis is the throat closing up, leaving the victim unable to breathe. This is a common manifestation, but not the only one. Anaphylactic reactions are any involving more than one organ system.
Most anaphylaxis involves the skin (hives, rash, itching, swelling, etc.) and respiratory tract (nose running heavily, sneezing, coughing, throat swelling, difficulty breathing, etc.). Sometimes it involves a drop in blood pressure, weak pulse, dizziness, tunnel vision, or other nervous system symptoms, and/or acute abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, or other GI symptoms.
Whenever the lungs, throat, or heart are involved, the allergic reaction can be deadly in a matter of minutes. What’s more, for many people, allergic responses get worse with each exposure.
Managing Food Allergies
There’s no cure for food allergies. Some people get allergy shot desensitization therapy, which is sometimes effective, but it usually takes years. It also carries the risk of triggering anaphylaxis. An epinephrine injection is the only treatment, and while it usually works, it doesn’t always.
The only way to manage a life-threatening food allergy is to completely avoid the allergen (and always carry around an epinephrine auto-injector like an EpiPen).
Completely avoiding an allergen may sound easy, but it’s not. Let’s say you’re allergic to peanuts.
You learn to carefully read the ingredients on every food label. As one of the top 8 allergens in the US, peanuts must be clearly identified when used (things can be trickier if you have a food allergy that’s not in the top 8—which includes peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, wheat, milk, egg, and soy).
You also check for a warning below the list that says the product “may contain” peanut, or that it was packaged in a facility that handles peanuts, or something similar. This warns you of potential cross-contamination in a product that shouldn’t contain peanut. But there’s no law mandating this warning, so if you don’t see it, you still cross your fingers over this remote but real risk.
Things aren’t so easy if you’re at a bakery, a restaurant, or a friend’s dinner party. You’re at the mercy of whoever you talk to. Hopefully, they know all the ingredients in everything and understand cross-contamination risks.
Then there’s being out in public. Peanuts are served on lots of flights. The guy who used the shopping cart before you might have been snacking on peanuts on his way in. Your coworker may have gotten peanut butter on his hand at lunch. It may sound paranoid, but the possibilities are endless.
For an even more frightening reality many people deal with, it’s their kids who have a life-threatening allergy. Think about how likely it is that a child is around someone eating peanuts, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, peanut butter cookies, a Snickers bar, or Reese’s at school, camp, a friend’s house, a birthday party, a social activity, and so on.
Enter Allergen Detection Service Dog
Canines have an amazing sense of smell. They can detect the scent of an allergen in much smaller quantities, from much farther away, in all its various forms, and even masked by other ingredients far better than any human can.
A dog’s ability to detect even trace or hidden amounts of an allergen is nothing less than a life-saving ability for people at risk of anaphylaxis. Allergy alert dogs are thoroughly trained to detect one or more allergens. Beyond that, they’re trained to proactively scan every area and all food for the scent of the allergen(s).
When you consider the challenges and dangers outlined above, it should be clear just how life-changing an allergen detection service dog can be. The companion eliminates a great deal of daily stress and allows for enjoying simple things most people take for granted—like just going to a restaurant or school or a movie—with peace of mind.