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.

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