Gluten-detecting dog a lifesaver for Michigan woman
Last Christmas Eve, Dawn Scheu set a bag of groceries on the floor of the kitchen in her Gregory home and got busy putting them away.
Her dog immediately started pawing at the back of her legs.
“Willow, quit,” Scheu admonished the German shorthaired pointer. From the other room, her husband yelled: “Is she indicating?”
Scheu froze. Is that what was going on? Was her service dog warning her that something in her grocery bag contained gluten?
Scheu, who suffers from celiac disease, called Willow back into the kitchen and ordered her to check.
Once again, Willow began to paw — this time at a bag that Scheu thought contained gluten-free chips.
But the bag Scheu had grabbed in a hurry actually contained crackers packed with gluten.
It was the first time — but not the last — that Willow saved Scheu from ingesting a substance that could make her sick for weeks or, in large-enough quantities, potentially kill her.
Willow is one of just a handful of service dogs in the United States trained to detect gluten — a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye.
Before Willow, Scheu said she felt trapped in her own home, so afraid of cross-contamination that everyone and everything seemed like a threat.
Now, Scheu takes Willow everywhere — to the grocery store, on vacation, to restaurants.
“My husband and I went out to dinner for our anniversary,” Scheu said. “Willow came with us. It was the first time in four years I’ve been able to eat out.”
Gluten-free diets have become almost common in recent years as more people abandon grains and carbohydrates for less-processed fare.
Sales of gluten-free foods reached $4.2 billion in 2012, according to a survey by a marketing research firm called Packaged Facts. That number is expected to continue to grow to more than $6.6 billion by 2017.
Studies vary on how many people actually need to cut gluten from their diets for health reasons.
But for the less than 1 percent of Americans with celiac disease — an autoimmune disorder that causes gluten to damage the small intestine and interfere with the absorption of nutrients — avoiding gluten is not just a lifestyle choice. It’s a medical necessity.
Scheu began experiencing symptoms of gluten intolerance nearly a decade ago. They got progressively worse. She lost so much weight that she dropped below 100 pounds.
Doctors suspected irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease and even colon cancer until finally diagnosing her with celiac four years ago.
By then, doctors told her if they didn’t get the disease under control, she had just three to five years to live.
Surviving with celiac is not just a matter of cutting out grains, Scheu said. Scheu’s sensitivity is so severe that she can get sick just from eating food that was cooked on the same grill as something containing gluten.
“Gluten is in everything,” she said. “When I’m out in public, I can’t even touch my mouth because it might be contaminated.”
In August last year, Scheu — who once trained search and rescue dogs — adopted a 10-week-old German shorthaired puppy and named her Willow.
And that’s when she started thinking.
Could a puppy be trained to detect gluten?
Finding a trainer
Scheu said she called several service dog trainers in search of someone who would give it a try but none were willing.
Then, she met Kathryn Watters, a FEMA-certified master dog trainer from Brighton. Watters was willing to see if it would work and almost immediately started training Willow.
Willow almost immediately responded.
Willow picks up gluten in things Scheu never would have suspected, she said. More than two months ago, for example, Scheu doused herself with bug spray. Willow immediately started pawing at her.
Scheu had no idea the bug spray contained gluten. She immediately jumped in the shower to wash it off, but she’s still recovering from the contamination, she said.
She wonders how worse it would have been without Willow to warn her.
A new business
Willow has been such a success that Watters and Scheu decided they wanted to help others.
Together, they’ve launched a business called Nosey Dog-Detection Partners Inc. to train other gluten-detecting dogs. They also offer their own dogs to “sweep” restaurants or other locations for people who worry about contamination.
Watters said they’re also training a dog who can detect peanuts for children who have severe peanut allergies, as well as a dog that can detect sugar levels in diabetics.
They’ve already fielded requests from around the country, Watters said.
Scheu said she wants people to know that while a service dog can’t fix everything — celiac sufferers still need to pay close attention to what they eat, diabetics still need to take responsibility for their own health — dogs like Willow are an extra level of protection.
“Willow has given me back my life,” she said.
~ Via Detroit Free Press