Canines have been used historically to detect drugs, criminals, and obstacles for the blind — and now, companies have taken their dogs’ training to a new level. Some dogs are now being taught to sniff out gluten, a substance found in many grains that causes stomach upset for millions of Americans with celiac disease.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder wherein a person is genetically predisposed to be unable to tolerate gluten once it’s ingested. The gluten can actually damage the small intestine, resulting in a great deal of pain and discomfort. (Though apparently, going gluten-free when you don’t need to may also do your intestine some damage.)
For people afflicted with the condition, these dogs could be a godsend. Gluten is most commonly found in wheat products but is often undetectable to the naked eye. This is especially true when eating out at restaurants; people with celiac disease struggle with a lack of restaurant transparency, and often are unable to avoid the compounds causing their stomachs so much duress.
Evelyn Lapadat, a thirteen-year-old from Indiana, experiences severe gastrointestinal distress when she eats gluten. Evelyn’s mom told Today, “If someone puts a crouton on a salad in the back at a restaurant and takes if off and says, 'Oops, this needs to be gluten-free,' and brings Evelyn her salad, previously, she would say, ‘Looks good to me,’ eat it, be sick for three days.”
But with one of these dogs by their side, celiac sufferers may no longer need to worry. Evelyn reports being stress- and stomachache-free now that she has Zeus, a gluten-trained Australian Shepherd, at her beck and call.
“I haven't gotten sick in a really long time and it's like a really big relief,” Evelyn told Today.
The dogs are trained humanely, using basic Pavlovian techniques. They are presented with two hands, one with gluten and one without. When they identify the gluten-holding hand, they get a treat. The tactic is repeated with a myriad of glutinous products, ranging from bread and pasta to shampoo and soap.
Though they have yet to gain widespread popularity, the availability of these dogs has serious implications for the future of people afflicted with celiac disease. And for the thousands of others pretending to have a gluten intolerance, it could be a great excuse to buy a dog.