Gluten-detecting dogs?

Willow, a German Shorthaired Pointer, is a gluten detection dog for Dawn Scheu, who is intolerant to the food ingredient. (Photo credit: Dave Wasinger/Lansing State Journal)

According to the National Association for Celiac Awareness one in 133 Americans — that’s one percent of the population in the United States — are diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune illness caused by gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley) that damages the small intestine and can interfere with the absorption of nutrients.

Dawn Scheu began experiencing symptoms of gluten intolerance almost a decade ago. Back then doctors thought she had irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and even colon cancer until finally diagnosing her with celiac four years ago.

While trying to figure out what was wrong, her health got worse, and her weight dropped below 100 pounds. She knew she had to get the disease under control. A few doctors told her that if she didn’t she would have between three and five years to live.

Her solution was to avoid foods with gluten in them. That wasn’t easy. While gluten-free foods are available in a number of grocery and health food stores, Scheu’s sensitivity is so severe she can get sick just from eating food cooked on the same grill as something containing gluten. “Gluten is in everything,” she told a reporter from the Detroit Free Press. “When I’m out in public, I can’t even touch my mouth because it might be contaminated.”

In 2012, sales of gluten-free foods reached $4.2 billion, according to a survey by a marketing research firm called Packaged Facts. By 2017, sales are expected to reach $6.6 billion.

So, in addition to watching what she eats, Scheu, who used to train search and rescue dogs, adopted a gluten detection dog. Willow is a 10-week old German Shorthaired Pointer puppy who was trained to detect gluten.

Within a few weeks of living with Willow, Scheu came home with a few bags of groceries, and Willow began to paw at one bag. At first Scheu was confused, and asked Willow to stop. Then Scheu’s husband asked if any of the groceries contained gluten.

Carefully looking through her groceries, she came across a bag of crackers that she thought were gluten-free. They contained gluten.

Scheu believes Willow has saved her life many times. Finding Willow, though, was a challenge. She called several service dog trainers looking for someone who trained gluten detection dogs. Unfortunately, not many trainers did.

Then she found Kathryn Watters, a FEMA-certified master dog trainer. Watters started training Willow, and the animal responded well. She would pick up gluten in products Scheu never would have suspected.

One unusual product was mosquito repellant. Scheu sprayed the repellant on her, and Willow started to paw at her. Confused, Scheu had no idea the bug spray contained gluten.

She looked at the container, and saw that it did indeed contain gluten. So, she jumped into the shower to wash it off. She felt a bit ill, and knew that if she hadn’t washed off the spray, she would have gotten sicker.

Willow has come to Scheu’s rescue so many times, that Watters and Scheu decided they wanted to help others. They recently launched Nosey Dog-Detection Partners Inc. to train other gluten-detection dogs.

“Willow has given me back my life,” she told the reporter at the Detroit Free Press.

Sources: National Association for Celiac Awareness, Nosey Dog-Detection Partners Inc., Detroit Free Press, Packaged Facts