NORTH HAVEN, Conn. -- Boo and Riley are more than affectionate, protective family pets. To their owners, the specially trained dogs are a furry layer of security to sniff out peanut products and other life-threatening allergens.
The dogs' Connecticut owners are among many people nationwide turning to allergy-sniffing service dogs, who accompany their handlers to detect allergens and their residue at school, during social events and in other everyday activities.
Some owners are having mixed success, though, in convincing businesses, schools and those in charge of other public venues that the dogs must be accepted as service animals, just as dogs whose handlers' disabilities are more readily apparent.
They're specifically recognized as medical service dogs in recent updates to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, but some parents are taking it a step further by lobbying their local and state officials to update their regulations, too.
'More normal life'"The dog is just one way we can help our daughter have a more normal life," said Pam Minicucci of North Haven, whose daughter, Gianna, 7, is accompanied constantly by her St. Bernard named Boo.
Minicucci asked Connecticut lawmakers this year to add allergy-sniffing dogs to the state statutes to mirror the ADA language, but the bill languished in a committee.
Gianna's allergy to peanut products and tree nuts is so severe that even minuscule particles can trigger hives, itching and difficulty breathing that has sent her to the hospital several times. She carries an inhaler, wipes, Benadryl and EpiPen injectors everywhere.
She and Boo get mixed reactions as they go to public venues and school, even though the dog wears a vest identifying it as a service animal.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates four of every 100 children have a food allergy, and says rates are highest among preschool children. It's also growing: From 1997 to 2007, food allergies increased 18 percent among American children under 18, though researchers haven't conclusively determined why.
Depending on the trainer and dog, the animals can cost from $10,000 to $20,000, including training them how to sniff out particular allergens and alert the handler with a specific signal. Often, that means abruptly sitting in place and putting their own bodies between the allergic person and the allergen.
Finding potential dangerOwners tell of almost-daily incidents in which the dogs found something that their young handlers never would have spotted on their own.
Boo once was so insistent on blocking Gianna Minicucci from a non-food aisle in a big-box store that her mother questioned whether the dog was ill. Below the shelves, Pam Minicucci found a minuscule amount of peanut butter on a mouse trap, close enough to potentially trigger Gianna's allergies.
In a few cases, disputes about the dogs have attracted widespread attention. In Indianapolis, when a woman with a potentially life-threatening allergy to paprika took her specially trained dog to work, a co-worker allergic to dogs had an asthma attack. The dog's owner filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after she was asked to leave the dog at home or take unpaid leave. The case is pending.
In other cases, though, the dogs have been welcomed.
In Ansonia, Conn., school officials have been so accommodating of 13-year-old Jeff Glazer's dog, Riley, that they installed special HEPA filters to the schools' air-circulation systems to ensure that the yellow Labrador's presence wouldn't cause problems for children allergic to dogs.
"Now that I have Riley, I can go to restaurants and movies and my friends' houses and not have to worry about it," Jeff said on a recent sunny afternoon before a game with his traveling baseball team on a Middlebury sports field.
Before Jeff enters the dugout or touches the gear, though, Riley sniffs down everything for lingering residue from previous players who might have eaten peanut butter sandwiches, candy or other items. If Riley finds something, Jeff and his family use sanitary hand wipes --which they carry -- to clean the surface thoroughly so he's not endangered.