When I first heard about an allergen detection dog, I almost fell off my stool. Only a parent of a child with life-threatening food allergies could understand the fear…the feeling that your child’s entire life will be a mine-field…that even with every precaution, you could miss something…that missing something could cost your child her life…that you would do ANYTHING to keep your child safe.
And if that ‘something’ was a cute, lovable dog? Sign me up! Well, not so fast. I have a penchant for research and the potential $15k price tag slowed me down a bit.
There are two, related, reasons why we aren’t ready to start our fundraising for a dog just yet. Bubba has not demonstrated that she has severe contact allergies. She gets contact hives from egg and milk, but they (thus far) have resolved quickly by simply washing her off with soap and water. As a result, we feel fairly comfortable letting her play at playgrounds, at friends’ houses (with me present), go to church, etc. Also, I have concerns about the attention that a service dog brings to a child. Looking at the cost/benefit picture, for our family, makes me not ready to take this plunge just yet. But I will continue to update this post with information that I find in my research. Our situation may change someday such that I would want to pursue this option. I think this ‘field’ shows a lot of potential, and also a lot of risk. This is a largely unregulated industry and in the years ahead I’m sure we will see many folks seeking to take advantage of our fear. That said, there are companies out there with an identifiable track record who are helping kids.
Among the companies I found who could/would scent train a dog for allergen detection, I am self-characterizing them into three groups:
First, traditional service-dog training organizations that have trained dogs to be aides for kids with autism, epilepsy, those who are wheel-chair mobile, etc. For these companies, I want to know more about their background in scent detection, but would feel more confident about their ability to select and provide a service-quality dog capable of working with young children in a school environment.
Paws 4 Ability – I am impressed with the company and their track record. For now, it’s a dead end. They are not taking applications for allergen dogs because their waiting list is already too long. That should tell you something though I suppose.
I would like to look into Assistance Dogs International more.
Second, organizations dedicated to providing allergen-detection dogs. For these organizations I am most interested in their qualifications and track record. I feel more confident that these folks might understand allergens and how specifically they pose dangers for our kids.
Allergen Detection Service Dogs – I spoke with their founder Ciara Gavin. She has a background in scent training dogs for the military – doing bomb and narcotics work. This company boasts that they have trained almost half of the working allergen detection dogs in the country (17 of 50). The cost is about $15k for the trained dog and the training session you do with the dog (offered at their facility or they will come to you). If you opt to go to them, additional perks include workshops on deducting the cost of the dog from your taxes, etc. The waiting period is about six months. I have not yet spoken to someone with personal experience with them. An interview with Ciara can be found on this blog. The company’s website answers a lot of FAQ and also discusses the issue of “allergy-friendly” breeds. I also came across this Facebook discussion from a couple years ago about the benefits of an allergy service dogs and video demonstrations of their skills. In addition to her prior military canine work, she previously worked for Angel Service Dogs.
Angel Service Dogs – Many of us have seen of videos of Sherry Mers or the families doing fundraising to get an ASDI dog. As of January 2014, the organization has placed over 60 dogs, per this article. Their current plans are to train 20-30 dogs/year and wait times for a dog are around 6 months. This somewhat dated article provides a little information on how the organization was started, its trainers, and preferred dog breeds. An example of one of their success stories can be found here.
I am a part of several allergy support groups on Facebook and read a discussion about ASDI (you need to join the group to read the thread). It includes families who love their dogs and families who feel betrayed by the organization and don’t feel they got what they were promised. I took the time to reach out to these families and several were kind enough to share their stories with me.
Those with good experiences shared that ASDI has been ‘like a family’, very supportive through the whole process, and that the dog has helped them to feel safer and to help them locate allergens they could not see. These families report they are going more places, with fewer reactions.
Those with negative experiences complain of issues with behavior and temperament. One family shared that their dog can no longer work as a service dog due to an aggressive incident at school. These families put a lot of money and emotional investment in their dogs, when it doesn’t work out it is heart-breaking. Google searches of this organization turn up accusations regarding professionalism and a dated discussion of various ‘issues’, but there are no Better Business Bureau complaints within the last year. The organization has an “A” rating.
I spoke with Sherry about dog selection and training. I was impressed with the socialization process, which sounds similar to how other service dogs are raised – in the homes of volunteers where they can be socialized to families and the community (the puppies go out wearing vests). As the dogs get older they work with ASDI trainers (all certified) for their advanced obedience and specialized training. This includes for the desired allergens as well as things like tracking (for an autistic child), electric fence work (for families like ours who don’t have a fenced yard), etc. They have trained dogs on up to 15 allergens, including dairy. All of the ‘standards’ the dog is required to meet are spelled out explicitly in a contract with ASDI. The dogs are evaluated by a third party before they are placed.
Placement/training sessions with the families are held in Colorado. The training includes lots of additional workshops to help families coping with allergies – risk assessment, the psychology of personality (so you know how to best advocate for your child), canine and human first aid/CPR courses (including how to use a defibrillator), allergy education, etc. Families are required to sign-off on witnessing all of the behaviors the dogs are expected to exhibit. If there is an issue with any of the dogs, or a mis-match so to speak, there are a few ‘extra’ trained dogs (referred to as “dogs on deck”) who could be placed with the family instead.
Getting an allergy service dog is a commitment to ongoing training to keep the scent detection fresh and obedience on track. Part of the contract spells out that families need to send in weekly training logs. Trainers are available for Skype sessions. If there is a serious problem that cannot be worked out remotely, Sherry told me the dog would be sent to ASDI (owner’s expense) and that her trainers would try to resolve it (ASDI’s expense). Worst case scenario, if the dog could no longer work as a service animal, it would be returned to ASDI and a new trained dog would be provided after ASDA raised the necessary funds.
UPDATE: CBS Denver posted an article about Angel Service Dogs, “Service Dog Organization Accused of Selling Untrained Dogs”. A separate news article mentions an additional family who does not feel their detection dog works.
Noelle’s Dogs Four Hope – I actually came across this organization because the owner, Tina Rivero’s name came up unfavorably in a discussion about Angel Service Dogs. Another blogger appears to try to have looked into her. Tina is the mother of a daughter with epilepsy and got her start by training a dog for her. I have not done any additional research.
Third, organizations with a track record of dog training (related or otherwise). There are a lot of questions here.
Southern Star Ranch – I know very little about this organization outside of their website. They scent train dogs for police units, pest detection, and a number of other purposes. They also train people who train dogs, which gives me confidence in their skill and reputation. I found a story about one of their dogs here. I have been played phone tag with Sharon Perry, the head detection trainer. I will update this post if I speak with her. My questions center around their experience with allergies and how to get a scent dog service qualified. Do they know what to look for in the temperament? Do they know what types of environments the dog needs to be comfortable in? How do they train dogs to work with/for young kids?
Tarheel Canine – I spoke with one of their employees as well as Jerry Bradshaw, the head trainer. He has an international reputation for training professional dogs (narcotics, police, etc.). He founded Tarheel in 1994. Tarheel turns out close to a dozen police dogs a month and they have trained allergen detection dogs, but I’m not sure how many (it may be only one). Tarheel has less experience training dogs designed to work primarily with children (versus say Guide Dogs for the Blind), but Jerry discussed with me how most of their protection dogs are trained for families, so they are used to having children in mind. Similarly, many of their police dogs need to be trained and comfortable in a variety of ‘service’ settings, e.g. public transportation, schools, etc.
Jerry initially trained an allergy detection dog in order to help out a family who was having trouble raising the funds for “one of those $20k dogs”. Jerry believes the fees charged by organizations devoted to allergy dogs are out of line with what the costs to train a dog are. I believe that he has a lot of skill and experience as a dog trainer. My only concern would be the tendency to want an excitable, higher energy dog that might do great in a police setting, but struggle to be the mellow, petable dog required for a young child. Additionally, an organization like this is normally handing a dog over to an adult whose job it will be to handle them rather than a family (and child) with little-to-no dog training experience. There may be great differences in how ‘finished’ a dog is according to Ciara Gavin. I asked Jerry at what age did he think a child could be the primary handler for a dog like this and he said (depending on maturity) probably in the early teens.
*There are also private trainers who can do scent detection training with a dog. I am not comfortable with this route personally. I have heard both positive and negative stories on Facebook from people who worked with someone privately.
Issues to Consider
- Might the dog increase your/your child’s anxiety about allergies rather than decrease it?
- Will the dog draw attention to a child who might otherwise be able to blend in? Are you, your family, and your child ready to be an allergy ambassador everywhere you go with the dog?
- What will happen if the dog can’t work as a service dog? Do you have a recourse with the trainer? How will your child handle it?
- Is your child or someone else in your home dog-allergic?
- What if your child’s school is unsupportive? Is that another battle you want to have?
- How many allergies does your child have? Can the dog be trained on all of them? What if your child’s allergies change over time?
- Detection dogs don’t typically work well in the home. It’s their down time and also too ‘comfortable’ for them. Some families use strategies to have their dog work at home, e.g. have the dog sniff groceries in the garage before they enter the house or sniff guests shoes when the enter the front door.
- The dog will not alert for an allergen unless you ask it to find one. The dog won’t be looking all the time.
- Most pet dogs can not be service dogs. It takes a rare dog to have the personality for it. There are exceptions of course.