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Allergy-busting dogs new allies against childhood affliction

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture

There is a new ally in the fight against life-threatening allergies - man’s best friend, the dog. Boo and Riley, two Connecticut allergy-busting pooches making headlines today, are highlighting a new trend in the country: allergen-sniffing dogs. Boo is a St. Bernard companion to 7-year-old Gianna Minicucci, a girl who suffers from peanut allergies so severe that even being in the presence of peanut dust in the air is enough to trigger hives and labored breathing. Riley, a yellow Labrador retriever, accompanies 13-year-old Jeff Glazer to school, on errands and out in the general public wherever he goes.

The new medical service these dogs provide has emerged as a response to a steep increase in the number of allergies that small children suffer from. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates four of every 100 children have a food allergy, and says rates are highest among preschool-age children. It's also growing quickly: From 1997 to 2007, food allergies increased 18 percent among American children under 18 years old, though researchers haven't conclusively determined why.

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The allergen-sniffing dogs are so novel most people are not aware of the life-saving service they provide. In some instances they have not been welcomed in places of work, business or school, mainly due to people’s ignorance of the invaluable role they play in their owners’ lives. In one instance, an allergen-sniffing dog whose owner took him to work triggered an allergic reaction in a co-worker who was allergic to –dogs! The situation does raise an interesting ethical issue – whose allergy takes precedence? Despite the comical overtones of the scene, the person allergic to the dog suffered an asthma attack, an event which can, under some circumstances, be life-threatening too. Riley, on the other hand, has been accommodated at Jeff’s school with an apparently one-sided endorsement. The school went so far as to install HEPA filters in the school’s air conditioning system to protect those children who are allergic to dogs.

The training for Boo, Riley and other allergy-sniffing dogs is similar to that of police dogs learning to track scents or dogs being trained to sniff out explosives for the military - which, in fact, inspired trainer Sherry Mers to work in the field after seeing a television show on bomb-sniffing dogs. Mers, of Monument, Colo., started Angel Service Dogs after receiving a trained dog for her peanut-sensitive daughter Riley (no relation to the Labrador retriever).

Depending on the trainer and dog, the animals can cost between $10,000 and $20,000, including the training to teach them how to sniff out particular allergens and alert the handler with a specific signal.

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