A Bomb-Sniffing Dog for Peanuts

My short-hand description of Tracy is that she’s a bomb-sniffing dog for peanuts. What I mean by that is literally that she has been trained in the way that many military or police dogs have been trained (for explosives or illegal substances), but that her training is specifically to detect allergens.  Tracy is currently certified on detecting peanuts, peanut shells, peanut oil, cashews, and pistachios.  Those are 5 different scents to a dog — and we selected those 5 because Benjamin’s highest reactivity, to our knowledge, is to peanuts and then cashews and pistachios.

When Tracy searches an area and locates the smell of one of these allergens, she is trained to “alert” to it.  She does this by exhibiting a change in behavior once she finds the scent, and then sitting right where it’s the strongest.  If it’s not clear to the dog handler what she is doing or where the allergen is, she is trained to respond to a “show me” command – where she will get up from sitting and then nose the exact area again where she found the scent , or sometimes, if it’s obvious to her, she’ll even kind of paw at the area where she found it.  Then the handler gives her the biggest treat of all: a squeaky tennis ball!  When she finds something for us we praise her and give her the ball right in spot where she found the allergen, since she associates finding the allergen with playing a great game that gets her the prized-possession of a tennis ball!

Tracy needs to be able to alert to unknown amounts of peanuts or tree nuts.  One thing we’ve been asked is how we’ll EVER go grocery shopping since she will be alerting to things all over the place.  The answer is – yes, she can show us where the Butterfinger bar is or the bag of nuts (and she likes to, since it leads to getting a tennis ball!), but she does not need to alert all the time.  Tracy is trained to find nuts mostly when we ask her to.  That is, when she is given a command (“check it”), she knows that we want her to check an area or location. Otherwise she can be on a short leash so that we can walk through the store and get what we need (and just avoid the things that we can see!).  So she could check the shopping cart handle and cart, but need not check everything else out that Benjamin could just see and avoid.  We tried this successfully in a couple of stores today.

One other piece of detection work is that Tracy has to practice. So we have been learning how to do “hides” for her – both to maintain and increase her skill, and to let her know that WE like to play the “find the allergen game” just like her other handlers did.  So “hides” (for example, a single peanut in a sealed plastic container in a sealed black vinyl bag) are placed by one of her trainers in an area and we get to go find it with her.  For example, we did a practice search of a seating area around a fire pit today. Tracy could locate the “hide” under a seat cushion, or under the couch, or in the corner about 4-5 steps away from the seating area — all without seeing it.  Or, at Lowe’s, there was a “hide” placed inside a stack of plastic tarps (which have their own funny smell) and Tracy could find it successfully; she also could find it hidden inside the underside of a gas grill on display. When she can find hidden nuts on command, it increases our confidence in her whenever she alerts and increases her drive to find nuts whenever we ask (since it pleases us) and increases her ability to find small amounts in any place that they might be lurking when we ask her to search.

Good dog.

Under a mountain – and then on top of one…

There are (at least) two big things happening here at once for us in Colorado Springs. We have to get used to handling Tracy both as a come-with-us-everywhere service dog AND as an allergen detection dog.  So, we alternate between doing “hides” for detecting allergens with a number of trips and tasks with the dog just to make sure that we’re all comfortable with obedience expectations in Wal-Mart, under the table in a restaurant, on a tour to the Air Force Academy Chapel, etc.  And some of the time includes “mixed” trips – like Monday morning when we went to the new Brunswick bowling alley and arcade to encounter a tremendously over-stimulating environment, where we did some practice “hides” in the black light of the Lazer Tag room after bowling.  Wow!  That’s a lot of smells/sights/distractions, and Tracy is a pro on both her behavior and her detection.  I’ll write more about “hides” and the detection work in a later post …

One of the biggest things that showed how well Tracy is fitting in was our Father’s Day trip on Sunday.  Benjamin and I went with part of the group to a nearby cave – Cave of the Winds.  A cave tour could be very difficult for a service dog, but Tracy was totally nonplussed by walking into a dark place where the lighting was poor, that was underground, and where you weren’t allowed to touch the walls.  She went up and down narrow steps without much issue or even command.  She hesitated just once at one particularly steep and narrow metal staircase, but when coaxed just a little she did great.  And all this was without me holding the leash once; Benjamin handled her the entire time.

For lunch we went to a restaurant in Manitou Springs that had an old stagecoach out front.  She was willing to get into the stagecoach and let the kids rock her up and down like it was bumping along on the old West jutted trails.  She didn’t look especially thrilled about it, so I did invite her down to stand by me before we went to eat.  🙂 She then “downed” under the table at lunch very nicely and didn’t disturb anyone.

After our late lunch, Benjamin and I hiked up the Manitou Incline with a couple of friends.  This is a famous spot here – because it has a straight-up hike up an old cog-railway trail near Pike’s Peak, in what is already a pretty high-altitude environment.  The Incline has a vertical rise of about 2100 feet in about a 1.0 or 1.1 mile span.  So it averages a 40% rise on the hike, and one source says the rise is 67% at one point! (There’s no actual scrambling or rock climbing, just navigating up and around old railroad ties.)  To hike down we used the Barr Trail, which winds down the backside on more of a traditional switchback style at a more moderate slope, and therefore a longer mileage down.  Tracy loved the hike.  We joked that she might be part mountain goat, since she could handle the hiking even better than we did.  She was actually better off-leash hiking, because she was so willing to go just a bit ahead of us and run right back … and everytime we paused to get a drink (often on the way up!) she came to me and wanted to be re-leashed to sit comfortably with us.

I got home on Father’s Day evening with a tired but very happy 13 year old – and a happy dog.  If we can spend a day trekking in caves under a mountain and then hiking up the steep incline of a mountain and down again, then yes, we’re gaining confidence that she’ll be able to “hang” with Benjamin … just like we want.

Tracy is here! (by Natalie)

Hello! Guess where I am right now! If you guessed Colorado Springs, Colorado, you guessed right! Even as I am typing this, my brother Benjamin is hanging out in the other room with our very newest member of the family, Tracy!!! We got Tracy yesterday evening. She is the cutest dog ever, and her eyes are just so intense. She is very well trained, and we love her.

Tracy LOVES tennis balls so much that she goes crazy around them. She loves Frisbees too! Also, she is really athletic. We have met a lot of people with allergies here. It’s really cool to be around people that “get it” with food allergies. We all understand each other and each others’ restraints. The hotel is trying to be really allergy-friendly, and Benjamin was excited because he can eat breakfast here, and he can have the waffles that the hotel serves. This may not seem like a big deal to you, but usually the breakfast at hotels isn’t safe for him to eat.

I still cannot believe that Tracy is finally here, and I have to keep pinching myself to make sure it’s not a dream. Thank you for helping to make this opportunity possible, because it’s the best opportunity ever! As I watched my brother take Tracy for a walk yesterday, right after he got her, I started to cry because I knew that Tracy is my brother’s ticket to freedom, his ticket to be able to live like a “normal kid.” Benjamin will be able to do things that he’s never been able to do before, things that you and I take for granted every day. Things like sitting at a lunch table and not worrying about what the person before you ate. Just talking with your friends at the lunch table, having a regular conversation. Things like sitting down in your desk, and not having to worry about what the kid before you had for breakfast and what he/she touched. These are all things that Tracy can help him with. She can sniff his lunch table before he sits down, and tell him if there is nut residue on the table. Tracy will sniff his desk and let him know if it’s okay to sit at. I just can’t believe that she is really here, and this is a possible new kind of life for Benjamin.

I don’t get to hold her leash much, and I don’t give her a whole lot of commands. I try not to interrupt when Benjamin and Tracy are practicing commands, and frankly none of us but Benjamin do all that much with Tracy. But it’s okay. It’s okay because I know that this dog might save Benjamin’s life. I know that she is primarily his dog, and that Tracy will know my brother the best, and she will trust him the most. She will look to him for the next move, and she probably won’t ever have that kind of relationship with me. Again, that’s okay. I am enjoying watching them bond, and seeing how even after only 24 hours how close the dog and Benjamin are getting. The trainers said that it will usually take 10-14 days for your dog to really trust you, but I think that Tracy is going to trust Benjamin before that.

Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you THANK YOU!!! I could say that forever, and I wouldn’t have said it enough times. I am just amazed by this dog. Everyone who has donated, or looked at my blog, or just supported us by themselves in their heads, helped SO much to bring her home. Also, thanks to all of the trainers that took Tracy in along the way, and to the leaders of Angel Service Dogs for making it possible for Benjamin to get Tracy! Thanks again to everyone who donated or supported us, and I can’t wait to post pictures when I get back home! I’ll see you all later!    -Natalie

[cross posted at my 30dogbookblog]

Meeting Tracy: the “I Save Benjamin’s Life” dog

The second full day was very full, with classes on reviewing commands, redirecting and succeeding with a dog, pack leadership, and really interesting stuff on understanding air flow and how to search to maximize the dog’s sniffing capabilities.  But, on reflection, all that seems overwhelmed by the culminating event at the end of the day (at 7:30ish), when Benjamin met Tracy for the first time. The first meeting was a little teary for several of us – and unbelievably full of energy for a 13 year old boy who had been waiting so long for this dog and for a dog meeting a new friend, with lots of other dogs and people around, too. They are both in the other room now, sleeping next to each other, after Benjamin walked her, played with her, gave her commands, fed her, and worked on the basics of bonding.

What’s obvious even at first reflection is that Tracy is highly trained and will do her jobs well – even though we’ve only seen some basic obedience commands right now.  What’s also obvious is why we’re here: Tracy and Benjamin need to bond and grow in trust with each other, and Benjamin (and the rest of us) need to be trained so that we can handle Tracy properly and maintain her.

Did Tracy pull him and get distracted when he took the leash and walked her? Yes. Was he able to redirect her all the time yet? No. Did she look to her trainer at times rather than Benjamin for commands? Yes, but not always.  Did Tracy and Benjamin already start understanding their commands and rapport better together, such that he could give her a sit/stay or down/stay command and then walk away and do some other things before releasing her? Yes.  And that’s good.

I didn’t ever take Tracy’s leash today, and I barely even got a chance to touch her.  But we don’t want her to think I’m the main one in charge of her.  She’ll need to obey me, but this is Benjamin’s dog. We’re all still figuring out what that means — but one thing the trainers expect is inscribed on a new collar they gave as a gift when he received the dog: The collar reads —  “Tracy: I Save Benjamin’s Life.”

First full day

Did I mention that Benjamin has a broken arm?  He is sporting a very green cast on his left (dominant) arm, which he got on the next-to-last day of school.  Bummer.  He’s a really good sport about it but it makes several things more difficult.  He is taking it in stride now, though, leading his full-sized stuffed animal stand-in service dog around everywhere.  At one point I didn’t know where he went today and then he showed up – and when I asked he looked at me matter-of-factly and said that he was taking his (stuffed-animal) dog to potty outside.  He’s very ready for the responsibility of the dog at this point J

Today (Monday) was a full day of training.  The morning included basic dog commands and obedience, and a discussion about “pack leadership.”  We also talked about realistic (and unrealistic) expectations for the dog.  We learned some good things that I’ll try to write about later as we practice them…

A highlight of the day included a demonstration kind-of-gone-wrong, actually.  After lunch the lead trainer was talking through the basics of dog-handling and “clearing” a room of allergens.  She talked through how to do a wide-scale look over the room with the dog, then a slightly more detailed search of the whole room and any potential problem areas, and then a very detailed search of a place or chair or something where the food-allergic individual would be. This would ensure that the allergic individual has the least chance of encountering even a surface amount of allergen that could be very dangerous for them.

The trainer next decided to show us by using a dog-in-training.  (Backstory: Because of the severe allergies of the individuals in this group, the hotel has gone through some pretty extensive cleaning measures in the rooms – including deep cleaning the carpet in the meeting room, wiping tables/chairs, etc. And a service dog had previously searched the room … but then some extra chairs were brought in.) As she used the dog to “clear” the room the dog alerted to a chair she had pulled out.  There were so many distractions that it didn’t seem like a real alert at first, so she had the dog check the chair again – and another “sit” for an allergen “find.”  The trainer was still skeptical given all the other precautions that had been taken, so she had her daughter (the dog’s primary leader/handler) check the chair – and same thing.  Obviously despite all the precautions an extra chair had come into the room that had some very small trace residue of peanut on the back of it.  (It was removed, all were safe, and the organizers and the hotel were very regretful and apologetic that something slipped through despite their good precautions.) We didn’t talk about this aspect – but this also fit into yesterday’s discussion of risk and that there are truly no “risk-free” situations, even at a training session like this one.   But it was a great illustration (though accidental!) of the way that Tracy will help reduce the risk of a severe reaction for Benjamin.

Arriving in Colorado Springs

We arrived in Colorado Springs on Sunday, after a 900+ mile drive.  Sunday afternoon was the welcome session for our group of families receiving Angel Service Dogs.  There are families and individuals here from California, Colorado, Minnesota, and Virginia.  The individuals here are allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, dairy, eggs, sage, soy, wheat, and even more.  Benjamin felt fast camaraderie with the gang of 7 to 13 year olds hanging around together, and he was reflective about the fact that others shared severe allergies – and that some others here have food challenges that are potentially more complex because of their multiple allergies.

The first formal session was an “operational risk assessment” session.  The facilitator teaches strategic theory and other courses at the Air Force Academy, and he walked through how to “optimize operational capability and readiness by managing risk to accomplish the mission with minimal loss.”  (I think that’s military-school language for: Our goal is to live as full a life as possible by making good risk decisions.)  I really liked his approach of describing a metric for measuring the possible hazard multiplied by the vulnerability of the victim equaling the risk level – and then you decide if the risk is acceptable by asking whether you can implement sufficient controls to minimize the risk to an acceptable level.  Again, that’s a long way of saying that the facilitator described a process of assessing the likelihood of the situation for a potential deadly allergen, the vulnerability of the person (Benjamin) to that allergen, and the level of “controls” that could be implemented – and then asking whether the situation was still worth doing.  We talked with Benjamin that this is a method of decision-making that we’ve been trying to do for him and with him for a very long time, and that we’re trying very hard to hand off to him.  We have always wanted him to live absolutely as full a life as possible while avoiding unnecessary risks.  That’s a very hard thing to balance and figure out.

The last part of the session for the evening was an exercise where Benjamin had to simulate the thought process of thinking through a risk situation and assessing it.  He did a great job identifying potential problem spots and how he would try to avoid or fix the problems.

Benjamin was disappointed that he did not yet get his dog Tracy.  BUT, he did a great job with the very large carnival-sized stuffed animal dog that they gave to him to keep up with (wearing a service-dog vest and everything).  The thinking is that he needs to start taking it everywhere he goes already, taking it to potty and eat etc., so that he gets used to the dog right now.  He will get the actual dog Tuesday night.  The “wait” is just so that there is enough time to teach him (us) how to handle the dog properly so that the first meeting is really successful and sets the tone for a great working relationship, rather than letting the dog and handler settle into any bad habits from the beginning.

Here’s a transcript of an interview we did just before coming to Colorado. We were talking to Ted Katauskas, who was Tracy’s first puppy-raiser. We’re looking forward to meeting Ted next week. Ted helped prepare Tracy for Benjamin, “Tracy’s Forever Boy.”

June 1

THANKS to all who have been reading — and a special thanks to all who donated to Benjamin’s service dog.  We have finished the fundraising for his dog (hooray!), and we’re really grateful for all your help.  I’m leaving up the “donate” button for now on the top left in case you still want to donate to Angel Service Dogs, since they are a great organization and still need support.

Today Natalie posted her 31st “dog book” review at the sister blog to this one.  (She had a goal of reading and reviewing 30 dog books to raise money for Benjamin’s dog but one-upped herself!)  She’ll keep posting some things there, including — I think — some summaries/analysis of the dog books that she’s read.  But I want to say thanks to her for great work!

Benjamin completed riding the 30 mile version of the Ironman bike ride while pulling a dog-trailer.  He sought and received a number of sponsors for that ride and worked very hard himself.  He has done a number of other “odd jobs” and writing fund-raising letters to raise money, too, and is also finishing a successful year at school — and is now working on a bunch of thank-you notes! (keep it up, Benjamin! 😉  ) 

He plans to contribute some more posts to this blog as well over the next stretch of time, and we will generally keep the blog going to help others learn about life with a food allergy and life with a service dog. And maybe there will just be posts about life. 🙂

One week from tomorrow we’ll head to Colorado Springs to get Trac-E (Tracy), Benjamin’s new service dog.  We’re excited for the all the ways that she will help Benjamin.  In fact, we’re wishing she were around next week for his end-of-year school party.  The school team has been good to help trouble-shoot that, but it’s exactly the kind of place where things unexpectedly turn up.  We’re hoping the dog will make events like this a bit easier for Benjamin to manage…

Italy (Guest Post by Amanda Fenolio)

[Amanda was a law student, friend, and guest in our house in Italy when Benjamin had an anaphylactic reaction there. She submitted this guest post.  For related recollections of this day see Hayley’s post, and Jennifer’s posts here and here.]

I first remember Benjamin because he sat in on my contracts class during my first year of law school.  His dad was teaching the class, and I recall that in our next class session, Professor Nichols said that he and Benjamin discussed the class on the way home.  We law students were really impressed, especially since we were not always grasping the material.  I also remember hearing later about his deadly peanut allergy, and how the law school student body president, Zaylore, had jumped over a table to stop someone who had just eaten peanuts from picking up Benjamin’s pen.  I didn’t realize the severity of the allergy at the time, but this story certainly made an impression. 

The summer after my first year of law school, I decided to study abroad in Rome through our law school.  Professor Nichols and Professor Wiebe were the two professors from our school who went to teach a class, and they each brought their families.  Four of us law students took a weekend trip to Assisi and Florence together, and happened to meet the Nichols’ family in both cities.  What a small world!  I recall that the four of us were dazzled by the intellect of Benjamin and his sister Natalie, as they beat us in games while we waited in the train station. 

I also remember the night Benjamin had to be rushed to the emergency room after an encounter with cashew powder in the tomato sauce.  Three of us girls, Jennifer, Hayley, and myself, who were roommates, had been invited over for dinner at the Nichols since we happened to live nearby, and we had gotten to know the family pretty well.  We began our delicious home-cooked meal, and as soon as Benjamin had tasted the pasta, he said that his lips felt funny.  All of us knew of his peanut allergy and were very concerned. 

We tried to hide our concern because we didn’t want to alarm Benjamin even more and make things worse in case it was a false alarm.  Unfortunately, Benjamin got even sicker, so his parents gave him an EpiPen and rushed him to the ER.  What a scary moment!  We were so worried, especially since none of us spoke fluent Italian, and we were guessing that the doctors might not speak much English.  The three of us tried to keep Natalie occupied by playing some games so that she wouldn’t be worrying about her brother as much.  I think we also played games to keep our minds off the frightening events. 

Professor Wiebe and his family lived in the same building as Professor Nichols’ family.  After receiving a call from the Nichols’, Professor Wiebe’s wife came to take Natalie for the rest of the night.  We, of course, thought this would be good because she could be with others near to her age.  The three of us proceeded to do the dishes, and took the pasta with us. 

We didn’t know at the time why Benjamin had the allergic reaction.  The Nichols family had a list of all the possible nuts in Italian, so they were always careful to check ingredients.  The cashew powder was an obscure term, but when they showed the label to people fluent in Italian, the Italian-speakers instantly knew what the problem was.  We all thought, “Who puts cashew powder in tomato sauce?”  I guess Italians do.

All of us are very happy that Benjamin survived his encounter with the pasta.  After seeing Benjamin’s reaction to such a small amount food, I am much more aware of the severity of food allergies.  I can’t imagine what would have happened if not for his fast-acting parents, and their knowledge of how to use EpiPens.