These Dogs Can Hunt: Sniffing Out Peanuts

Dogs that can detect peanuts may be a powerful tool for peanut-allergic people.

January 16, 2009, 11:13 AM

Jan. 16, 2009 — -- 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.

McConnall said she inquired about insurance coverage for the dog, but was told that would not be possible. She did not pursue the matter further at the time.

And some doctors are not convinced that a dog will trump caution and good allergy education.

"Although a dog might be able to smell a peanut, the danger does not come from the oils that create the smell; they come from proteins that a person ingests," said Dr. Dan Atkins, a pediatric allergist and professor of pediatrics at National Jewish Health in Denver, Colo. "What could probably help them more than a peanut-sniffing dog would be better education about allergies, potential exposures, how to avoid them, and how to cope with an accidental ingestion."

The McConnell family has not confirmed that they are getting one of Perry's peanut detector dogs though they are trying to raise money to buy one.

If they purchase one of Perry's dogs, McConnall said the family plans to remain vigilant about reading food labels and taking every safety precaution. But McConnell is realistic about her son's future.

"I know he's going to have more reactions, that's not what I fear," McConnell said. Instead, she wonders if she will be there, how bad the reaction might be and if others will recognize and respond to the emergency. "I think that this dog will help improve our security net."

Jett is involved in protecting himself. He packs his own backpack with the emergency shots of epinephrine that can stop an anaphylactic reaction and McConnell said he always tells her quietly if anyone touched him or held him.

But as Jett grows older and recognizes more and more how he is different from other children, McConnell hopes that a discrete alert from a dog could help him avoid catastrophe without drawing unwanted attention.

And the peanut detector dogs are trained to be subtle. If they detect peanuts, they will not touch it, drool, or try to steal it. Instead, they perform what Perry calls a passive alert and response.

"They're trained to sit and you can't get them away from that sit," Perry said.

Then the owner tells the dog "show me," and the dog points at the contaminated item, whether it is a plate of food or a jacket with peanut candy in it.

McConnell can protect him now, but as Jett gets older, she wants to be able to let him be independent as much as possible.

"If he had this dog, he can climb up on his grandma's lap and love on her without any worries," McConnell said. "It will definitely be dramatically different. He will get to go to birthday parties, have play dates. Give him a bit more freedom."

ABC News' Lauren Cox and ABC affiliate KXLY's Annie Bishop contributed to this report.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events