By Brian Newsome
The Gazette, Colorado Springs, Colo.
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Eight-year-old Riley Mers still has a scar on her foot from a time when a peanut shell slipped into her sandal at the park, burning her skin like an acid. She's gone into hives and struggled to breathe from inhaling peanut residue too faint to smell. In her short life she's learned enough about emergency rooms to know she doesn't like the "dresses" they make her wear.
But the Monument, Colo., child with the dangerous food allergy now has a new ally that might restore some sense of normalcy to her life: a Portuguese water dog named Rock'O. The dog has been trained to detect the presence of peanuts before she can, potentially saving Riley's life while allowing her to get out in public. Until now, every encounter with strangers or even friends has been a rare and nerve-racking experience.
"It's just so life-changing you wouldn't believe it," she said, calling the black, curly haired dog her "guardian angel."
The girl received her dog this month after he underwent six months of training. Rock'O will go wherever she does, alerting her to the presence of peanuts. Peanuts are used in far more ways than providing spread for a sandwich or a salty snack, and her allergy is sensitive enough for the most minuscule exposures to cause problems. Some potting soils, for example, contain peanut shells as filler. Riley's parents learned that the hard way when the girl, as a toddler, had an allergic reaction as they were potting plants.
That's meant a life where going to a friend's house requires an extensive sweep of the home and a crash course for the parents. She attends a few classes at Kilmer Elementary School, but gets most of her education online. The school does not serve peanut butter, but a child bringing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to school could create a danger for Riley.
Such situations won't change, but Rock'O will provide "long-range radar" for Riley, said her dad, Brett Mers. The dog might stop her from going into a room if it smells peanuts.
If a parent or someone is with her, they can enter the room with Rock'O and, like a bomb or drug dog, sniff out the source and remove it.
Rock'O was trained at the Florida Canine Academy under Master Trainer Bill Whitstine, who donated his services to the family. Although Whitstine has long trained dogs to detect bombs, narcotics, flammable materials and bed bugs, this was his first for peanut allergies.
"This really is a bomb dog for this child," said Whitstine, "because the peanut is a bomb for her."
While the new use of canines holds promise, it is not without potential problems. Chief among them is cost. The labor to train a dog to detect peanuts drives the price to about $10,000. And if a dog has an off day or is not properly trained, the consequences can be severe.
"It has to be done right because somebody's life depends on this dog," said Sharon L. Perry, who claims to have trained the first peanut-detecting dog and is director of training at the Southern Star Ranch Boarding Kennel, in Florence, Texas, "If these dogs miss a peanut the child is dead."
Perry, who said she trained the first peanut-sniffer three years ago, spent a year training the dog and two weeks training the family in using the dog. The idea came from a narcotics officer who knew the family and suggested that they get a narcotics dog trained in peanuts.
Since then, she's delivered five dogs to families and has nine still undergoing training. Perry was contacted by the Mers, she said, and did not know until interviewed by The Gazette newspaper that other trainers were doing peanut detection.
Her worry, she said, was that people in a rush to deliver dogs won't do it right. "If it is not perfect, you've just made a child sick."
Riley's parents, Brett and Sherry, are hoping to provide more than just their daughter with such a dog. At the same time Rock'O was being trained, they were organizing Angel Service Dogs Inc. Formed on Feb. 6, according to the Colorado Secretary of State's Office, the business would like to provide allergy-detecting and seizure-detecting dogs at reduced costs and eventually for free.
For Riley, Rock'O means a chance to go to birthday parties and the mall with a little less fear. "I could do a back flip," she said about her excitement. "My friends - it's not their fault that they eat peanut butter."