Search & Rescue: From Shelter Dog to Service Dog
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Search & Rescue: From Shelter Dog to Service Dog

Rescuing a shelter pet can save both of your lives.

Search & Rescue: From Shelter Dog to Service Dog
Kerri Caldwell

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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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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