March 2, 2009 -- Riley Mers and her Portuguese water dog Rock'O seem like any ordinary pair, but nothing about this 8-year-old girl and her pet is ordinary.
"It might look to you like it's a kid playing with a dog," said Riley's mother, Sherry Mers. "To me, that's a dog that's saving my daughter's life while they're playing."
Riley's peanut allergy is so severe that if the Monument, Colo., girl even touches something with peanut residue it is enough to send her to the hospital.
"I got a peanut shell caught in my sandal when I was really little, and they almost had to do a skin graft on me," she said. "It felt like a hundred ants bit me and stung me."
If she were to eat something with peanuts in it, Riley would have about six minutes to reach the hospital before her body would go into shock.
"Her case is about as bad as they come," said Dr. Daniel Soteres, a Colorado Springs allergy and immunology specialist. "An exposure to peanut could be a life-threatening event to her."
Enter Rock'O and a new approach to help safeguard kids with severe food allergies. Rock'O is one of a half-dozen dogs in the country trained to detect the presence of peanuts and protect their owners from serious allergic reactions.
"Training a peanut allergy dog to sniff out peanuts is much like training a dog to do narcotics or bomb sniffing," said Tina Rivero, head trainer of Angel Service Dogs in Monument. "It's just a different scent that they are hitting on. Instead of the marijuana or the cocaine or the bomb, they are actually finding the peanut."
Dealing with peanut allergies is not new for most schools, but the severity of Riley's allergy has presented some special challenges. To keep herself protected from peanut residue in class, Riley used to have to wear gloves. Now, night and day, Rock'O goes everywhere with her.
"I've gone to school and not had to ask all my classmates like I do every single time, 'Have you eaten peanut butter?'" she said. "With him [Rock'O], I can have a little bit of free will. I don't feel scared anymore about what I'm going to eat."
Peanut-Sniffing Dog Searches Lunchroom
The first week of school with Rock'O, Sherry Mers took the friendly Portuguese water dog to the cafeteria for a safety check.
Rock'O sniffed the tables and floor, scanning for any trace of peanuts left from anyone's lunch. Finding peanut residue on the lunchroom table, he sits in his "alert" position -- a stance he's been trained to make to let Riley know that he's found something she should avoid.
For Riley and her family, Rock'O is more than just an added safeguard -- he's freedom and a chance at a normal childhood.
"I can actually go to the mall. I can actually go to bowling alleys," she said. "I'm wanting to go to college, and I'm going to be able to."
A highly trained dog like Rock'O can cost anywhere between $10,000 and $15,000, which was more than the Mers family could afford. But when friends and family heard about the possibility, they came forward with donations to help.
"I never in a million years dreamed that there were so many kind people that just totally wanted to help a child," Sherry Mers said.
Until now, a deadly allergy has always held Riley back in life. Now, Rock'O has taken this little girl off her leash.
"This isn't just freedom for today, this is her first date without her mom," Sherry Mers said. "This is her getting to do things on her own without us constantly being her shadow."