Sonja McConnell only skimmed the inch-long blurb about peanut detector dogs in a Reader's Digest clipping that her husbands' grandmother sent her. But she remembered that clipping later.
Last year, one week before Thanksgiving, McConnell, 31, crouched next to her four-year-old son Jett in a parking lot and held him down with the help of a stranger as he suffered a violent allergic reaction. McConnell gave Jett, who is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts, two shots of epinephrine and took him to the hospital.
Later, exhausted, McConnell replayed the scene, wondering how her son could cope with his allergies if he were alone or among strangers. Already the McConnell family, who live in Spokane, Wash., must avoid social functions, such as potlucks and birthday parties, and public areas to minimize Jett's risk of peanut exposure. Anything from food to lotions with nut oils to library books can be a potential allergy trigger.
"I thought, oh, my gosh, I have to get one of those dogs!" McConnell said.
The peanut detector dogs McConnell read about are trained to identify allergens in the vicinity and alert their owner. These dogs have the potential to be a powerful tool for the protection of people with allergies.
For a child like Jett, such a dog could also offer him the chance to do things he wants to do, such as attend school or go to the movies, safely.
Sharon Perry, 60, is the co-owner and director of training at the Southern Star Ranch in Florence, Texas, where peanut detector dogs are trained. She began the ranch as a place to train dogs to detect narcotics, but started training dogs to detect peanuts at the request of a friend whose son had a nut allergy.
"The difficult part is finding the right dog," said Perry, who screens about 300 dogs from local kennels before finding one with the correct temperament for detection training.
While Perry tends to use standard poodles or mixes of poodles and Labradors or Golden Retrievers because they shed less and are often better tolerated by children with allergies and asthma, she said that the most important attributes are drive and energy because these dogs are, essentially, working all the time.
"They are always aware of what's around them and what they're smelling," Perry said. "It's their nature, these dogs work because they consider it a game."
Perry spends at least six months training a dog to detect peanuts, beginning with one whole peanut in a baggie, which the dogs are instructed to find, and moving on to peanut butter and other foods with peanut in them or objects with traces of peanut oils or peanut dust on them.
Perry includes much real world training; taking dogs with her out to eat, to malls and libraries, and riding in elevators.
In addition, the dogs are taught impeccable manners and obedience. The slightest sign of aggression can put a once-promising detector dog out of the running.
"One 'grrr' was all it took," Perry said, recalling a dog that was halfway through detection training and growled at a new trainer. "I can't take a chance with a kid."
But safety comes with a price tag, and these dogs are not cheap.
Perry said the total cost of obtaining, caring for, and training a peanut detector dog can be about $10,000, plus the cost of traveling to the prospective family to do additional training for two weeks.