You can’t enter a grocery store or restaurant these days without noticing the booming popularity of gluten-free foods. What started as a medical necessity for some has flourished into the newest diet trend — and we bet you know someone who’s gone gluten free.

Gluten is the protein in wheat, barley and rye. People cut it out of their diets for many reasons; some think it’s a healthier option, while others have varying levels of sensitivity to it that can result in stomach upset and abdominal pain.

a gluten-detecting German Shorthaired Pointer

But for the estimated 1 in 100 people worldwide who are diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder, staying away from gluten is a medical necessity. If a person with the disease ingests even a minute amount of gluten, they could suffer illness akin to food poisoning — and have long-term health effects, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. The only treatment for celiac disease is following a strict gluten-free diet. Even ingesting trace amounts through cross-contamination can lead to an attack, and avoiding gluten is very challenging because it can be in anything from food to medicines.

The question now is can people with this disease benefit from a service dog? Some service dogs help people who are blind, deaf or have PTSD, and scent-detection dogs have been trained to sniff out diabetes and cancer. Have we reached a point where dogs can be trained to detect gluten, too?

Willow, the Gluten-Detection Dog

Dawn Scheu of Michigan suffers from a particularly severe form of celiac disease. She was diagnosed five years ago and says it takes less than 10 parts per million of gluten to make her sick. But she says she’s been much healthier in the year since she started working with trainer Kathryn Watters to teach her dog to detect gluten.

Scheu, a former EMT who worked with search-and-rescue dogs, started working with Watters to train Willow, a young German Shorthaired Pointer, in September 2013. Scheu says Willow saved her from gluten for the first time last Christmas Eve. In a rush at the grocery store, she grabbed a box of crackers that she thought were gluten free. But she had inadvertently picked up the wrong box. When Scheu got home, Willow pawed at the back of her owner’s legs and then at the bag, and then Scheu realized her mistake.

Willow is considered a service dog, so she’s able to accompany Scheu into stores and restaurants. When she and her husband took Willow out to eat with them for the first time, they brought another special guest along to celebrate: Watters.

“When [Watters] met me, I looked like the walking dead, and now I have color in my face and my hair is better,” Scheu says. “I’ve only been glutenated once since I got Willow.” (Being glutenated means to be contaminated with gluten.)

That was when she was at a park with a group and stepped away from Willow to apply bug spray, which she didn’t know contained gluten. When she walked back to Willow, the dog indicated at her. It took Scheu a few minutes, but she realized the spray was the culprit and quickly went home to shower it off. She was sick for 10 weeks after that incident and had to be on steroids, but it could have been much worse if it weren’t for Willow.

Watters and Scheu believe Willow detects gluten with 95 to 98 percent accuracy, but they continue to work with her.

a scent-detection demonstration at Auburn University

An Emerging Possibility

We talked with someone at the Celiac Disease Foundation to get the organization’s take on the concept of gluten-detection dogs for people living with the disease. Its medical board’s consensus is that “there’s no research to either support or refute it,” says CEO Marilyn Grunzweig Geller. “There’s no protocol; there’s no scientific method” for training the dogs.

Then we talked with Dr. Paul Waggoner, a senior scientist of Canine Performance Sciences at Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Although the nationally renowned program hasn’t investigated gluten detection, Waggoner conducts research into many olfaction topics. He saw lots of potential in the idea. “I have no reason to think that it’s not feasible,” he says. “In principle, if you can identify the target that’s associated with the problem, then it’s feasible.”

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

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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