How do I get a gluten detection and/or allergen detection service dog?
DO I HAVE TO START WITH A PUPPY?
The CreScent program is an owner-training program only. We do not offer in-house training or "board and train" services. We do not place already trained service dogs. Instead we strongly believe in Animal-Assisted Intervention (AAI) (human-animal bond), and the many benefits of the human-animal bond by training your own dog.
Prior to acceptance into the CreScent program, we require prospective clients to fill out a questionnaire and participate in a video-conference interview.
We help in selecting an appropriate service dog prospect. Starting with the right prospect is one of the most influential factors in successfully completing the program for a public access service dog. Some clients will choose to start with a puppy. However, many clients start with a young adult dog (up to 5 years old, depending on breed longevity and previous learning history) if the dog has the right temperament and traits for this job.
All dogs starting this program will be considered "at-home-only" service dogs until the dog is mature enough to determine suitability to work in public. We instruct the owner how to train the dog, educating the owner on how to handle scent properly, the risks of cross-contact, the realities of life with a service dog, and how to navigate the challenges that they may encounter with a service dog in public, should their dog be a suitable public access prospect.
With this foundation of education and training for the owner and their dog, the owner will be able to maintain the scent training for the working life of their dog.
Which breed of dog is The most suitable to become a gluten detection and/or allergen detection service dog?
Choosing a suitable service dog prospect capable of both the challenging task of learning scent detection/discrimination and being able to work in public requires specific temperament traits. Which breed(s) the owner is comfortable working with, and which breed best fits their lifestyle and individual needs also influence the search for an appropriate prospect. Ideally, just looking at the specific task of gluten/allergen detection, an appropriate service dog prospect is one with strong olfactory awareness and persistence with very low predatory instinct.
There are a growing number of gluten/allergen detection service dogs in the world, of a wide variety of breeds, so unlike established programs that train guide or assistance dogs that have proven success with Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers, for instance, there is not yet an identified “best breed” for gluten/allergen detection. That said, the Labrador Retriever breed has the most traits and breed tendencies, generally speaking, that are desirable for this kind of work, particularly for working in public. The highest odds of success for an owner-trainer would be with a carefully selected Labrador.
The most desirable traits to look for in a scent detection service dog prospect consist of: the dog must have a rock solid temperament (no fear, no aggression, no anxiety, no guarding tendencies, no body sensitivities); is social and friendly towards all kinds of people and calm in the presence of other animals; is confident both environmentally and socially; is patient (able to accept delay in communication from their handler); is resilient (able to bounce back quickly and return to a functional state after any startling encounters); has an innate ability for self control (can return to a calm or neutral state after exciting or arousing stimuli or scenarios); has a strong desire to work with humans (biddable with and without the presence of reinforcers); and the desire and aptitude for scent work that is not easily interrupted but directable.
Once a breed is chosen, we strongly recommend finding a reputable, ethical breeder or foster raiser who follows Puppy Culture and/or Avidog and/or Enriched Puppy Protocol for raising their litters. Read a summary of a study about the benefits of early socialization and enrichment protocols here.
Can I train my pet dog to become my scent-detection service dog?
This is determined on a case-by-case basis, and requires evaluating whether your dog can be trained in the task(s) required to mitigate your disability. All dogs enrolling in the CreScent Service Dogs Inc. training program who demonstrate an aptitude for task training will be considered an "at-home-only" service dog prospect until such a time that the dog is mature enough to evaluate for suitability to work in public.
It takes a unique skillset for a dog to become a successful service dog, which requires a specific temperament for public access, as well as the dog should to like to use its nose, (not all dogs, even within a working breed, like to do scent work). Service dogs are typically trained from a very early age (beginning with the breeder or foster raiser) to be able to handle the stress of working in public, and unfortunately, most pet dogs do not have that skillset and training foundation.
It is important to note that although scent sports are open to and encouraged for all dogs, not all dogs can be trained to detect gluten and/or allergen(s), even if that dog will only work in the home. Gluten and/or allergen detection training requires much more from the dog than simply locating a target scent.
Additionally, the health and welfare of the dog is of utmost importance. Prior to acceptance into the CreScent service dog program, all dogs must have a veterinarian clear the dog of any ailments that could impact their working ability. As service dog training takes quite some time, the CreScent trainers will always put the dog's health and welfare as a priority, and a dog may be excused from the program should any health and/or welfare issues develop.
How long does the program take?
This depends on the owner and individual dog. Most teams require at least 4 to 6 hours a month of private coaching in addition to daily training on their own. If starting with a puppy, expect to spend at least 18 months to 2 years to complete scent training, any additional task(s), obedience/manners, and the ability to pass the appropriate scent detection minimum standards test(s) and a public access test.
If starting with an older dog that already has some obedience and public access foundations, it may take less time, depending on where the dog is with obedience and how quickly the dog learns the scent discrimination task. After beginning the scent training, sometimes as little as 8 to 10 months into the program, a dog might be reliable enough on their target scent at home to begin checking foods/products to keep the owner safe in the home environment. These are very general estimates, and vary with each individual dog.
Does my home need to be gluten-free and/or Allergen-free?
Not necessarily. However, if other members of the household use and consume items containing gluten or allergen(s), there is a much higher risk of cross contact in the home. This can be problematic through all stages of training, particularly in the beginning where it is ideal to have truly gluten-free and allergen-free samples for the dog to learn to discriminate between the presence of the odor and the absence of the odor. When items used for training have cross contact with the odor, it can cause many issues for the team. The dog may learn to ignore low levels of odor if the owner insists that the dog is incorrect, this can cause the dog and handler to lose confidence. This can also lead to frustration for both team members if the handler is unaware of sources of cross contact. We always advise, "when in doubt, throw it out," meaning if an item is supposed to be gluten-free or allergen-free and the dog says otherwise, even in the early stages of training, it is best to believe that the dog's nose is correct more often than not.
is a gluten/allergen detection service dog able to work in an environment where gluten/allergen(s) may be present?
Yes, based on the methods we use to train, where we present items, one at a time, to the dog, the dog will check the item and perform a trained indication behavior to indicate whether the item contains or does not contain the target scent (gluten/allergen(s)).
If the owner suffers from anaphylaxis to an airborne allergen, then presumably their dog would need to indicate the presence of the allergen upon entering every new environment. This kind of scent detection may be possible to train, based on the work of the Vapor Wake dogs of Auburn University, however we do not train service dogs for this kind of task.
Does a gluten/allergen detection service dog need to eat a gluten-free and/or allergen-free diet?
Ideally, yes. There are many reasons for this. First, if the dog's owner handles food and/or treats that contain gluten and/or allergen(s), this poses a high risk of cross contact or exposure to the owner. Second, if a dog is consuming food or treats containing the target odor the dog is to be trained to detect, we do not know how long the smell of that target odor will remain in the dog's mouth or on their fur. This can also be problematic for the owner, should the dog lick the owner after eating, as this can be another source of accidental and avoidable exposure.
Ensuring the dog's food and treats are truly gluten-free or allergen-free can be difficult, as in the USA, currently there are no laws regulating labeling of major allergens in pet food. Even if the label does not state a major allergen in the ingredients list, there could be cross contact occurring in the manufacturing of different foods in the same facility. Even in foods meant for human consumption, labels informing allergens "may be produced in the same facility" are considered voluntary, and are rarely found on pet food labels.
The most effective way to ensure a truly gluten-free or allergen-free diet for your dog is to prepare the dog's food at home from plain meats and whole produce. We recommend consulting with a veterinarian or canine nutritionist, to ensure a home-prepared diet is balanced properly.
How many odors can a dog
be trained to detect?
There is exciting new research looking into this topic, looking at odor discrimination, odor memory, and generalization of odors. Paul Waggoner et al. (Effects of learning an increasing number of odors on olfactory learning, memory and generalization in detection dogs, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 247, 2022), suggests that dogs have the ability to learn up to 40 odors, without the previous learning affecting the ability to form new odor associations. Additionally, they observed that dogs did not lose recognition of odors previously learned if not exposed to those odors for up to 12 months. The future of this research is fascinating, and may help guide not only improving the detection training methods, but maintenance training as well.
At what level can a dog detect odor
There is a lot of misinformation on the internet and in news articles and blogs that state a dog can detect at a specific level (parts per million) of gluten or other allergens. While we understand that dogs have a highly specialized olfactory system much more sensitive than humans, currently there is limited but ongoing scientific research on this topic, and none specific to gluten and/or allergen levels of detection.
J.M. Johnston, Ph.D., in "Canine Detection Capabilities: Operational implications of Recent R & D findings," has estimated that dogs have the ability to detect (olfactory sensitivity) some compounds in parts per trillion. That may be the case for a small molecule or volatile organic compounds (VOC), or substances with high vapor pressure, but gluten is a large molecule, with an estimated low vapor pressure (this has not been studied or verified), and may or may not be detectable at such minute amounts. Anecdotally, it appears that dogs trained in gluten may be able to detect at or below 20 parts per million.