Training a dog to do anaphylactic alerts takes a very high degree of training since it involves the life and death of the handler. SDTI accepts no liability or responsibility for these risks should you decide to train your own dog. This content is provided for interest only so people understand the possible process of training anaphylaxis alerts.
Anaphylactic allergies are becoming more and more common, especially among children. There are things that can be done to protect those with severe allergies from harm. Of course the best thing is to avoid the allergen trigger, but this can be hard when, in cases such as peanuts, they are found in so many things and in so many places. (Link to list)
Anaphylactic Alert Dogs are dogs that can alert the allergic person to the presence of these specific chemicals in their environment, even what they can’t be seen by the naked eye. This can be done in three ways.
1. The dog is sent in the room ahead of the person, does a room search and indicates if there are objects containing the allergen or residue (which may be on counter tops, handles, clothing etc)
2. The dog stays in proximity to their handler and alerts if the allergen is on or near objects, people and food and blocks their access to it (as in if a person moves close to them with some peanut butter on their clothing or who has handled peanuts recently) This is more typically used with children. With adults, the dog may be trained to alert to the location of the allergen (using a pre-trained behavior used only for that alert such as scooting backwards or dancing on front feet and then sitting) and the handler makes a decision to leave the area.
3. The dog is trained to sniff food (from a restaurant) that may contain allergens and alert if it is present (peanuts, tree nuts, fish, soy, etc that triggers allergies).
The dog is usually taught to use the same alert behavior for all different allergen alerts. The dog learns to alert several different scents (or residues) that can trigger an anaphylactic reaction such as different kinds of tree nuts if that is what the handler is allergic to.
They can also do other tasks such as carrying medication (Epipens (adrenaline), antihistamines etc) in a pack, getting help if the person collapses etc. In their home environment, dogs can also be trained to remind their handler to take medication at regular intervals such as the same time in the morning and night each day. They are taught a different way to indicate this than what is used for allergy alerting so there is clear communication what the dog is telling the handler.
Choosing a Dog for the Task
Since anaphylactic alert dogs need to check counter surfaces and other high places, it helps to have a dog that is a reasonable height.
A breed that has a higher number of sensory cells in her nose helps for finer detection. (link to list)
If you or your child has possible dog allergies, consider a hypo-allergenic breed, realizing that they are actually not allergy free, just that the person is less likely to react to the dog.
Crosses of these breeds (such as poodle) may or may not have the non-shedding coat, depending on how many generations F1, F2, F3 of the mixes have been bred.
Avoid short-nosed dogs (brachycephalic) as they have fewer sensory cells and also may have breathing problems of their own.
Depending on your lifestyle, dogs with shorter coats (such as labs, pointers,hounds, Dalmatians) may work better than dogs that don’t shed since they have less fur to bring in allergens from the outdoors such as grass pollens and can be easily wiped down with a damp cloth to remove pollens.
Dogs that are eager to work and play with you are the best choice as they will always be up for the challenge. At the same time, the dog has to fit into your lifestyle.
Also consider the food you are feeding your dog as that may affect how allergic to her you are. (If you are feeding your dog a food with corn for example and you have corn allergies, you may show more symptoms than if you feed a diet without corn.
Here is a general approach to training an assistance dog to be of help with this disability. Anaphylaxis is a disability recognized by the ADI in the US and Canada.
Anaphylaxis alert dogs are trained the same way as a drug narcotics (scent) detection dog and diabetic alert dogs combined.
Here's a video showing how to pair an alert behavior with the scent. If you are training your own dog (or a family member or friend), see below for some suggestions to save you money while keeping you safe. Look for "Save on Costs" Give careful consideration to what scents you choose to train with that are safe for you. If you choose smells that you run across on a daily basis (or that are common in your various environments), your dog will be constantly alerting to things that are trivial. In my environments, the only place we run into people drinking tea is at home and the cups are never on or near nose level or lower. The nice thing about tea is that it is almost always found in or near a cup as a clue to what the dog is alerting.
Here's the next step in the process, teaching the dog to smell for the scent on the ground and in containers.
Early on, dogs are typically started on a scent wheel. One container is used for the same scent to avoid cross contamination during training. Here's how to make one from easily available materials.
Tip: Start with clean containers. Materials of all kinds hold scents so make sure to mark and use only one container so as to not cross-contaminate the scent for the dog. A dog may alert to a container that had the scent in it previously (residue) as their noses can pick up very small amounts of scent. I use a pen to mark containers, or tie a knot in shoes etc. Just make sure the mark can be seen by you but will not be perceived by the dog as a visual clue.
Here is how to start your dog on a scent wheel.
There are many ways to teach your dog a basic scent search.
Here are Three:
Part A i Using Containers
Part A ii Adding a Cue to the Search Behavior
See Youtube for more numbered videos in the progression of training the allergy alert dog.
(Search "Donna Hill allergy alert")
For room searches, the dogs can be trained like Steve White does with the allergen as the scent item and the dog performs the alert behavior in its presence.
(Scent wheels vary in construction)
For the taking it on the road, practice hiding the vial with scent in it in your garage, the backyard, in a friend’s yard, in a friend’s house, in a bookstore (where you have gotten permission to train) etc.
There are many elements that need to be trained separately, before being added to the chain of behaviors. For example, the dog needs to learn to search at different heights. Teach the dog to rear up during a nose target (without using her paws), then add the scent in. Use chest of drawers, tables and boxes stacked on their side to help the dog learn to search at height. Or use target sticks with a vial of scent on the end. Train at varying heights. Place many of them with only one scented one. Transfer to hiding it at different heights in the room.
Trainers work the dogs with a variety of small amounts of scents in any form: raw, cooked (canned, baked, steamed, dehydrated etc), oil, butter, dust (residue in packaging), and in combination with other food items (such as chocolate bar, in rice noodles) etc. Also, you want to train in smaller and smaller amounts of scent so the dog learns to indicate even trace amounts. Note: ideally, you don’t want the dog to touch the scent container, just indicate it. This will help reduce risk of the dog contaminating the handler after an alert.
They then teach the dog to detect other related substances the person is allergic to. For some people this would mean different kinds of tree nuts (hazelnuts, walnuts, cashews etc).
Once the alert behavior rate is consistently high (90% or higher) in one environment, they then start training the dog to alert in different environments with more distractions as will be needed by the client’s lifestyle.
Save on the Costs by Training the Foundation Behaviors Yourself
Since hiring a trainer to train the dog from the start can be an expensive proposition (especially if you or your child has a wide range of allergens to train), a suggestion is as follows:
Find a trainer who closely shares your training philosophy.
Work with them to create a detailed ‘how to’ training plan. (Watch for our videos that show a basic process and provide ideas).
With the trainer's guidance, but with the owner doing the training, start training your dog to do the alert behavior using scents that you (the future handler) can safely interact with. Use careful selection of the scent so that it is not one your dog might encounter in the environments the allergic person will be in or the dog will give what appears to be a false alert in public. In fact, she will be alerting to a scent that was trained. Also the scent does not have to be very strong. You may need to be creative.) Train one scent to a high level of accuracy and high degree of distraction, using room search patterns, low to high etc.
Train this one scent in several different indoor environments (increasing distraction levels) where your service dog in training has permission to be. Don't forget to include outdoor environments as they are usually more challenging for the dog and will improve their indoor scenting.
Train other scents one at a time (using the same approach) so the dog learns to generalize the behavior. (The more different scents the dog learns, the faster each retraining will be)
Next, have the trainer to train the dog from the beginning with one actual allergen at a site that the future handler will not be exposed to (usually their training center). (Be sure to have them wipe the dog down with a mild antiseptic before returning her to you after each training session.) For some allergens, there may be several different forms such as raw, cooked, liquid, oils, ground, trace etc. Ensure the trainer trains these as well.
Then have them train the dog to indicate other known anaphylactic allergens (one at a time) for you to a high degree of accuracy.
When complete, do several trial runs with the dog and the new alert scents in a public environment to you so the dog transfers the behavior back to alerting to you.
For maintenance purposes, the dog should be brought back to the trainer every 3 to 4 months (or as needed) to be re-freshed on the allergen since the handler cannot handle them due to exposure to the allergen. Dogs do have good memory for scent and this is what we are relying on for their alert.