Search & Rescue: From Shelter Dog to Service Dog

Search & Rescue: From Shelter Dog to Service Dog

Rescuing a shelter pet can save both of your lives.


I have two amazing rescue mutts that are going through a relatively new type of service dog training. In fact, my 11-year-old Silver Lab/Chesapeake Bay Retriever/Beagle mix is the first dog to be trained for this particular task for the training facility we're using. My new puppy is following in her footsteps at just 3-months-old.

I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease in 2015. It took two years of being a medical mystery, being in and out of hospitals, as well as being unable to work.

What is Celiac Disease?

  • A serious autoimmune disease
  • Genetic
  • Triggered by consuming a protein called gluten, which is found in wheat, barley, and rye

When those with Celiac Disease eat foods containing gluten, their immune system responds by damaging the finger-like villi of the small intestine. Left untreated, people with Celiac Disease are at-risk for serious health consequences. After I finally received a diagnosis, I was excited to get my life back. Little did I know that the struggle of getting a diagnosis was only the start, for me and the majority of those living with Celiac Disease. An estimated 1 in 133 Americans, or about 1% of the population, has Celiac Disease. It is also estimated that 83% of Americans who have Celiac Disease are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with other conditions.

I was misdiagnosed with Crohn's Disease for nearly a year before finding a new gastroenterologist. Within a week of seeing her, she had me diagnosed with Celiac Disease after getting a biopsy of my intestines and a genetic blood test. Having a knowledgable GI is critical to not only getting a diagnosis but managing this incurable disease. Still, for many of us with a more severe form of Celiac, maintaining a strict gluten-free lifestyle isn't enough. Cross-contamination, hidden gluten, and exposure to gluten in everyday situations leave us in an endless loop of debilitating symptoms. So what's the next best thing after a solid gastroenterologist?

A Gluten Detection Service Dog. Never heard of one? That's because they're as unheard of as Celiac Disease. The most common disabilities or health issues that Service Dogs are used for don't include anything Celiac or gluten related. Most information regarding Service Dogs yield the following results:

There are well over a dozen distinct varieties of Service Dogs, including, but not limited to:

  • Allergy Alert Dogs
  • Autism Assistance Dogs
  • Brace and Mobility Support Dogs
  • Emergency Medical Response Dogs
  • Diabetic Alert Dogs
  • Hearing Dogs
  • Guide Dogs
  • Medical Alert Dogs
  • Medical Assistance Dogs
  • Medical Response Dogs
  • Psychiatric Service Dogs
  • Seizure Alert Dogs
  • Seizure Assistance Dogs
  • Seizure Response Dogs
  • Visual Assistance Dogs
  • Wheelchair Assistance Dogs

Some might argue that Gluten Detection Service Dogs could be categorized under Allergy Alert Dogs. But even within the Service Dog industry, they don't categorize these needs as the same. Take this response to an FAQ on the Allergen Service Dogs site from 2014:

Q: What are your thoughts on a gluten detecting dog? I have Celiac disease and have severe reactions to gluten, corn, and other foods. Are you able to train a dog to detect gluten?

A: Thanks for writing. Gluten detection is highly controversial. While gluten is no more difficult for the dogs to detect than any other allergen, it is incredibly prevalent in the environment. We recognize the enormous burden that Celiac disease and other gluten-related diseases cause for people and their families. The need for a solution is huge.

It is now 2018 and this is still a typical response when someone asks this question. It was the same one I got throughout the year I took to research the validity of these dogs, as well as facilities and trainers that could legitimately train them. That is until I found Compass Key. After explaining what I was looking for, they assured me it was something that they could help me with. And because I had experience training dogs, along with having both Maggie and my Rottweiler, Dillon, as certified Therapy Dogs, Compass Key agreed to evaluate Maggie, even though she was already ten. After passing with flying colors, it was agreed that Maggie would be trained for gluten detection on a trial basis, as no dog had been trained for this particular task here in Virginia.

It's been a year now since we started training. It's been a learning experience for all of us involved, and Maggie has done nothing but amaze everyone. The presidents of Compass Key even came down from Pennsylvania to sit in on one of her lessons, along with a few of their other trainers interested in how we were teaching Maggie to scent gluten. Between her age and the speed she flew through her phases, Maggie has proven that she's the perfect trial dog to use. What makes her even more special is the fact that she's not a purebred, or bought from a reputable breeder that raises puppies to be service dogs. Maggie came from a shelter in Suffolk, Virginia. I adopted her when she was three months old. She's the mutt of all mutts and has every trait of a Chessie, a Lab, and a Beagle. Her energy and need for adventure has never slowed down, and the mental challenge of learning to detect gluten is just the type of activity she craves. The cost of training has been the only thing to slow down our progression, but despite this keeping us from having an official label as a certified Gluten Detection Service Dog, I use Maggie daily to tell me if something is safe to eat. Furthermore, I can say with pride and confidence that I have yet to be glutened from anything Maggie has checked, and several times she has signaled gluten, as well as cross-contamination.

The newest addition to our family was adopted on November 15, 2018. Just a week later he was evaluated during Maggie's lesson - and passed! He's already started the obedience phase of training and will hopefully start the scent trials in a couple months. You can read even more about this training, Maggie, and Elliot in our interview with Gluten-Free Living magazine!

Additionally, you can follow our adventures on Instagram through @celiacwarrior19 and @maggielliot

"Rescue does not mean damaged, it means they've been let down by humans."

"You won't change the world by saving an animal, but you will change that animal's world."

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20 Of The Coolest Animal Species In The World

Animals that almost seem imaginary.

The world is full of amazing animals. So amazing, that narrowing them down to 20 felt nearly impossible. To determine who made the cut for this list, I used very important factors such as, cuteness and how much some of them looked like Pokémon . I know, very official. So here are some of the coolest animals in the world.

1. Pink Fairy Armadillo

The pink fairy armadillo is the smallest and cutest species of armadillo. It is on the list of threatened species and is found in the sandy plains, dunes, and grasslands of Argentina. The pink fairy armadillo is a nocturnal creature that survives mostly on insects and plants.

2. Okapi

The okapi is an animal native to the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa. Although the stripes make many people believe okapi are related to zebra, they are actually closer to giraffe. Okapi are solitary creatures and come together to breed. They are herbivores, mostly eating leaves, grass, and other plants.

3. Glaucus Atlanticus or "the Blue Dragon"

These little dragon-like creatures are often only about a few inches long and can be found in the Indian Pacific Oceans. The blue dragon floats upside down in order to blend the blue side of them with the water, and the silver side with the surface of the ocean. This tiny dragon feeds on creatures like the man o' war and can even deliver a sting similar to it.

4. The Maned Wolf

The maned wolf is often found in the grasslands of south, central-west, and southeastern parts of Brazil. It is neither related to wolves nor foxes despite its appearance and name, but is actually closer to dogs. The maned wolf hunts alone and primarily eats both meat and plants (about 50% of its diet).

5. Fossa

The fossa is a carnivorous animal located in Madagascar. Despite having many traits similar to cats, it is more closely related to the Mongoose. The fossa is only found in forest habitats and can hunt in either daytime or night. Over 50 percent of its diet happens to be lemurs.

6. Japanese Spider Crab

As the name suggestions, the Japanese spider crab inhabits the waters surrounding Japan. In many parts of Japan, this crab can be considered a delicacy but can be considerably difficult to catch. The Japanese spider crab can grow to 12 feet long from claw to claw. There is only one sea creature-- amongst similar species (aka crustaceans)-- that beats the weight of a Japanese spider crab: the American Lobster.

7. Pacu Fish

Look closely at the teeth, do they look familiar? This fish is found in the waters of South America. This fish, while related to the piranha, can actually grow much larger. They can also be found in rivers like the Amazon and is an aid to the fishing industry. Unlike the piranha, pacu mostly only eat seeds and nuts, though can still create nasty injuries to other animals if need be.

8. Slow Loris

The slow loris is a nocturnal creature found in Southeast Asia. While very adorable, the loris's teeth are actually quite venomous. The toxin on their teeth can also be applied to fur through grooming to protect its babies from predators. Often times these creatures forage and spend time alone, although can on occasion be seen with other slow lorises. Apart from their toxic teeth, the slow lorises have another defense mechanism, in which they move nearly completely silently in order to prevent discovery.

9. Angora Rabbit

These cute, fluffy rabbits are among the hairiest breeds of rabbit of both wild and domestic types. These rabbits originated in Turkey although managed to spread throughout Europe and was even brought to the United States in the 20th century. These rabbits are often bred for their soft wool which can be made into clothing, and often get rid of their own coats every 3-4 months.

10. Axolotl

The axolotl or "Mexican salamander" (who looks like a Pokémon , if you ask me) is often spotted in lakes in various places around Mexico. These little salamanders are amphibious although often spend their adult lives strictly in the water. However, the population of these cute creatures is dwindling due to non-native predators and the continued urbanization of Mexico. The axolotl eats small worms, insects, and fish in order to survive.

11. Liger

The liger, however made up it sounds, is a real (and cute) animal created by a lion and a tiger mating. Ligers only seem to exist in captivity or zoos because the lion and tiger don't share the same habitat in the wild. Unfortunately, these animals don't live very long or are sterile despite being bigger than both the lion and the tiger. While these animals are cool and unique, they are not strictly natural or sustainable.

12. Bearded Vulture

I don't know about you all, but this vulture reminds me of a phoenix which was initially why I looked into the creature. These vultures inhabit a range of places from southern Europe to the Indian subcontinent, to Tibet. This vulture, like other vultures, typically eats dead animals, although it has been documented that the bearded vulture will attack live prey more often than other vultures.

13. Goblin Shark

This unusual shark is also known as a "living fossil" because they are the last representative of sharks that lived about 125 million years ago. It is a deep sea shark that can grow between 10-13 feet if not longer. The goblin shark has been caught accidentally in every major ocean. The goblin shark is not a fast swimmer and relies on ambushing its prey.

14. Red Panda

This cute, small panda lives in the eastern Himalayas and southwestern China. The red panda is rather small, only about the same size as most domestic cats. Its eating habits range from bamboo, to eggs, to insects, and several other small mammals. The red panda is primarily sedentary during the day and at night or in the morning does whatever hunting it needs to do.

15. Blobfish

This blobfish is, in a way, so ugly that it is cute (although reminds me of a certain Pokémon ) This fish lives in the deep waters of Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand. The blobfish has a density only sightly above that of water. The fish primarily hunts by just floating along and letting creatures wander into its mouth, rather than expending any energy.

16. Leaf Deer

The leaf deer is usually found in dense forests in the northwest region of Putao. The adult leaf deer only stands at about 20 inches high and the males and females are nearly identical except for an inch long horn on the males. It is called a leaf deer because hunters could wrap the deer in a single large leaf.

17. Tiger

While tigers are a more common animal than many others on this list, it is still one of the coolest animals in the world. Tigers are the largest of all cats and once ranged from Russia, to Turkey, to parts of Asia — almost all over the world. These animals are fierce, powerful creatures, although they are on the endangered species list.

18. Narwhals

Narwhals are a species of whale that live in the waters around Greenland, Canada, and Russia. The narwhal's diet changes depending on the time of year: in the spring the narwhal will eat cod, while in the winter the narwhal will eat flatfish. Narwhals can live up to 50 years and most frequently die of suffocation from being trapped under the ice.

19. Cheetah

Cheetahs, while more commonly heard of then some of the other animals on this list, are still incredibly cool. They often inhabit many parts of Africa and Iran. These amazing cats can reach up to 60 miles per hour in three seconds and use their tails to make quick and sudden turns. These amazing cats also have semi-retractable claws which helps with speed. The cheetah, however, doesn't have much besides speed to defend itself.

And finally....

20. Superb Bird of Paradise

This GIF demonstrates the mating dance used by male superb birds of paradise. Typically females reject about 20 mates before selecting one they want to mate with. They are often found in New Guinea although it is unsure just how many of these birds there are. As far as scientists know, the population has remained stable.

Cover Image Credit: Tumblr

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The Old Oak Tree

A short poem about returning to one's childhood home.


Looming over the burned-out house is an oak tree,

Hundreds of years old at least.

The smell of smoke is gone, but skeleton of the house remains,

A mere speck when compared to the tree.

Whose branches reach out to me like hands,

Begging for me to come closer.

I do.

I sit under the tree like I did when I was young.

The ground is damp from the rain,

I feel the sogginess soaking through my jeans.

I remain.

It is cooler under the branches,

A limitless amount of leaves shades me from the daylight.

I stay there. All day.

Staring at the charred remains of my childhood home.

I stay there until fog begins to form in the crisp night air,

Cold and sharp against my cheeks.

No longer able to withstand the cold, I take my leave looking back once more.

It's nice to know that even when I'm gone,

The old oak tree remains.

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