When I first learned of a dog that detected gluten, I thought that seemed very far-fetched. How is that even possible? I was listening to an episode of The Celiac Project Podcast. This podcast was my best teacher when I was first diagnosed. I started at the beginning of their episodes and learned so much of what it means to live with Celiac Disease. This episode and future episodes on gluten detection dogs opened up a new world of possibilities to me that I never imagined.
It took several years before I decided to train a gluten detection dog. I needed to learn how to live gluten free and to hopefully heal the damage that years of gluten had done to my intestine.
The opportunity came as my Bichon was turning 17 and the world shut down due to the pandemic. In March of 2020, I started calling breeders to see about getting on a list for a dog.
I was fortunate to find a breeder who added me to her list, and who selected me for one of the puppies that were born at the end of March. I chose a Portuguese Water Dog because I love the breed and had one before.
Not every dog can be a gluten detection dog. They need to have an ability and interest in work, and they need to have a good temperament. They should be friendly, social and eager to please. They can't be aggressive or agitated in any way. They should also not scare easily or be hyperactive.
Suki came home with me May 31, 2020, and the puppy training began. She was a bit of a terror those first few months. She is so smart, she was into everything. We started gluten detection training with a gluten detection trainer at the end of August 2020. We trained over zoom weekly and on our own daily. The training was harder for me than it was for Suki. She took to it easily and had so much fun. I second guessed myself and worried endlessly that I would fail at the task or that she would not ever graduate as a gluten detection dog.
Eventually, we moved from detecting gluten alone to mixing gluten with other other simple foods like carrots or apples. Then we added mixed foods like leftovers from dinner the night before. Eventually, we started checking packages, and finally she learned how to check plates. Imagine putting a full plate of food in front of a dog and having her sniff it without taking a lick. The first few times were very nerve-wracking, but Suki sniffed carefully and didn't ever take any tastes.
When Suki detects gluten in any food, medicine or person care products, she raises a paw. If there is no gluten, she will nose my leg. She graduated in September of 2021, but her training continues. We need to keep practicing with samples of gluten and foods that we know have gluten so her skills stay sharp. We also need to continually work on her behavior in public. Having a gluten detection dog is not a complete the course and you are done. It requires continual fine tuning, training and support.
Gluten detection dogs are definitely not fiction, but Suki has made my life have a much happier and safer storyline.