If dogs can check for cannabis, paper money, explosives, cancer, diabetic insulin levels and to predict an imminent epileptic fit, then it seems a very small leap to get dogs to detect the presence of something in food.
ICTS (UK) says: One notable quality of detection dogs is that they are able to discern individual scents even when there are dozens of other scents around. Their sniff reshapes their nose so that air and odours from the substance, hit their odour receptors. The signal then moves from their nose to their sensory cortex, which is an area of the canine brain that processes sensations, as well as smells. The sniffer dogs then interpret the smell and indicate to the handler that s/he has detected the substance.
Dr. Stanley Coren asks if we can create a gluten-detecting service dog for people with celiac disease and the answer is yes. He tells us that in North America there are dogs who “sweep” restaurants or other locations when people are worried about possible contamination.
4-Paws is one organisation that trains dogs to sniff peanuts in a child’s food or environment, which has transformed the life of some children.
Getting a dog to sniff food and not eat it presents its own challenge, as dogs that are used for allergies are often those that are thought not to moult – like Labradoodles and Goldendoodles. That can be 50% greedy labrador!
Detecting the substance is one thing, pointing to it is another – and the dog knowing not to eat it is yet another challenge – one that as a behaviour practitioner I’m particularly interested in.
A dog that is trained from a puppy to sniff for, say, peanuts in food also has to be trained NOT to eat the food.
I recently worked with a dog that was trained as a peanut sniffer dog and this had backfired. He was brought all the way over from America to the UK at just one year old, ‘ready trained’. When he arrived he steadfastly refused to work. He showed fear and avoidance as he refused to react when introduced to the peanut-laced training tool.
The young dog was so afraid of eating that it was days before he would dare eat his regular meals – and this dog was a Retriever mix, a breed known to have a good appetite. They enticed him and even tried hand-feeding. He would only eat if left all alone – sure that nobody was watching. If he was offered even the most tasty treat he would look away from it.
It’s hard to see how the training uses just positive reinforcement. It may have involved reward of some sort for detecting the smell of peanuts but I’m sure it wasn’t food reward; it was all too obvious that this particular dog had been trained using punishment to stop him eating the food. I wouldn’t like to try to guess what form this took.
The dog was afraid of food.
The family gave up on using him as an assistance dog for their severely peanut-allergic child, and now the dog is just a family pet, eating normally.
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