Can Service Dogs Help Sniff Out Gluten?

To train a scent-detection dog, a handler first introduces the scent to the canine. He then puts the scent in a container and purposely walks the dog by it. He watches for the dog to have a natural reaction to the scent and then tells him to sit or lie down. If the dog does it, the dog gets a reward. In odor training, that’s usually the dog's favorite toy. The trainer keeps doing this over and over again, adding other containers into the mix or hiding the container with the odor to make it harder for the dog to find. Each time the dog correctly indicates that he smells the scent, he gets the toy.

“The dog thinks it’s a game,” Waggoner says. “You play that game until the dog is finding the odor reliably in lots of different environments.”

He says dogs who are usually best suited to detection work include Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois and German Shorthaired Pointers like Willow.

“With detection dogs, we typically want dogs who show a strong independence and a desire to work for praise,” Waggoner explains.

Training Requires a Lot of Skill

Because gluten is so pervasive, it raises the possibility that it could be harder to train on. Would a dog mistakenly indicate that the gluten-free cookies you're asking her to sniff contain gluten if she smells it on something else down the grocery aisle? Waggoner uses an analogy of training a human to listen for a certain sound frequency as an example of how that issue could be overcome.

Kasey, a scent-detection dog
Courtesy of Auburn University
Kasey, a detection dog with Auburn University, searches for gray fox in Kentucky. The GPS tracking device on his collar helps researchers know what ground he's covered.

You might encounter a certain frequency quite a bit out in the world and not notice it. But if you’re then put in a room absent a lot of other frequencies, you could probably be trained to detect a certain one.

Training detection dogs is complex and requires a lot of technical knowledge, craft and skill, Waggoner says. The dogs are constantly learning, and once they’ve figured out how to get the reward, they could fool a handler into getting it.

“If somebody knew what they were doing and worked through it, it makes sense to me that dogs could do this,” Waggoner says.

If you’re considering looking for a scent-detection trainer, he offers some fundamental advice on what to look for:

  • You want a trainer who says your dog has to be evaluated before he could be trained. “If they’re basically saying that any dog you bring them can be trained to do this, that would be a warning sign,” he says.
  • Pay attention to how much time they think it will take to train a dog. Waggoner says if a trainer has a method down, it should take a minimum of three months.
  • You want someone who’s going to continue maintenance training and checking the reliability of the dog over time.
  • You should expect to be part of the training, rather than just being handed a trained dog.

No detection dog is 100 percent accurate, 100 percent of the time, Waggoner says. “They might not detect it because their attention is on something else, their nose is otherwise occupied,” he says. But with detection work, “the gold standard really is the properly trained detection dog.”

Innovations in Scent Detection

Some organizations are training detection dogs to sniff out other allergens, including peanuts. At Auburn, experts teach dogs to detect pythons in the Everglades or track down the skat of rare species.

Waggoner and his team are also working on a pilot program for detecting viruses. Now in its early stages, they're training dogs to detect a bovine virus — with the hope that someday, they’ll be able to work in hospitals to alert their handlers to the presence of a virus in humans.

So while there are challenges when it comes to training dogs to detect gluten, it seems that someday soon, these impressive canine noses just may be up to the task.

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