COLUMBIA — Hollie Dennis bent down, extending the porcelain plate of freshly-picked mulberries toward her dog, Elias. She placed a plastic cover over the plate, and the dog walked forward, sniffed the plate through a hole in the plastic and licked it.
The berries were safe.
Elias is a Beauceron with an exceptional life-saving ability. Dennis said he is the world’s first service dog trained to detect gluten.
"If he sniffs it, I trust him 100 percent," Dennis said.
Dennis suffers from a severe case of Celiac disease, an autoimmune reaction triggered by ingesting gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. The protein finds its way into an array of processed foods, including most condiments and sauces.
In 2009, Dennis was taking a class at Canine Specialty Training in Independence, where she was learning to train dogs for service work. She ate at a restaurant around that time and fell so ill from gluten exposure that she had to go to the hospital. The severity of her illness prompted Susan Bass, a family friend and the owner of Canine Specialty Training, to suggest they might be able to train a service dog to detect gluten for Dennis.
Service dogs begin their training at birth. Training is more sophisticated and complicated than teaching a dog to sit, but the basic process is similar. Scent-imprint training involves repetition, scent isolation, then identification of contaminants, Bass said.
Bass and her colleagues started testing Elias’ abilities with bland foods, screening to see whether he had an aptitude for scent work. They placed potatoes, which are gluten-free, in different containers, then added incremental amounts of gluten to some of the containers. Elias was instructed to alert his trainer to any dish containing gluten. His accuracy from the beginning made it clear he had a nose for the task, Dennis said.
Gradually, his trainers substituted the potato for more complex and appealing scents, such as steak, which like all meat contains no gluten. Elias was still able to identify any steak that had gluten added to it.
Elias learned to identify gluten particles in any form — plain, dry, wet, cooked, mixed in with other ingredients, and gluten transferred to foods that didn't contain it. He could even tell whether a piece of meat had come into contact with a piece of bread.
Elias completed the first half of his training with Bass, then did the second half in Slovenia with Maja Golob, a retired police officer and scent work specialist. She trained Elias using the same techniques she used to teach police dogs how to sniff out narcotics.
Before Elias left for Slovenia, he and Dennis underwent an eight-week "bonding period" in which Elias was required to remain within eight feet of Dennis at all times.
Dennis flew to Slovenia and brought Elias back to the United States after he completed three months of training. Elias cost Dennis between $3,000 and $4,000 but she said she got a special deal because she was friends with the breeder. Otherwise he would have cost Dennis between $5,000 and $7,000.
For their first few months together after training, Dennis said she tested Elias because she didn’t fully trust him. As time went on, he gained her trust by consistently detecting gluten particles. The two have been together for five years.
Elias' ability is so special that it's attracted the attention of National Public Radio, United Press International and USA Today. He even has his own Facebook page. Since word of his talent has spread, Dennis said she has heard of three other dogs who were trained for gluten work but were not certified because they lacked the necessary precision.
A dog that alerts correctly 95 percent of the time is unacceptable for someone with an allergy as severe as Dennis'. One episode of contamination can disrupt her life for weeks or even months.
"From what I understand, they’re not allowed to mess up," Dennis said of other dogs that are undergoing gluten training.
Bass trains many dogs for diabetic scent work with children. If those dogs fail to detect blood sugar problems even once, the child could go into a coma.
"That’s not going to work," Dennis said. "It just takes one time. If they don’t alert on it, they’re out, and she starts over."
Elias goes wherever Dennis goes, and he sniffs whatever she puts beneath the plastic microwave cover. Dennis asks him to sniff anything she plans to eat, drink or put in her mouth, such as food, drinks or utensils. If he detects any trace of gluten, he bites the side of the cover.
Once, while at a party, Dennis and her friends decided to see whether Elias could detect gluten particles on a person. After her friend finished a beer, he lay down on the ground, and Dennis placed the plastic cover over his face. Elias bit the side of the container after detecting gluten in the beer on her friend's breath.
If Dennis ingests even the smallest particle of gluten, she will be sick for weeks, and she often must be hospitalized for dehydration. The only treatment for Celiac disease is a gluten-free diet, which means both she and her husband must be vigilant to prevent her from being contaminated.
When Dennis and her new husband, Brett Dennis, began dating, Brett Dennis inadvertently transferred gluten to her by kissing her on the lips hours after eating chili that had gluten in it. Hollie Dennis was sick for weeks.
"He felt really bad," Hollie Dennis said. "His whole house went gluten-free after that."
These days, Brett Dennis rarely eats gluten. When he does, he must brush his teeth and scrub his hands before touching his wife. If he forgets, gluten could make its way onto her hand — and into her mouth.
With the growing trendiness of gluten-free diets, the number of gluten-free products on the market is on the rise. There is, however, a profound difference between gluten-intolerance and Celiac disease. Gluten-intolerant people have trouble digesting and breaking down gluten, but if people with Celiac disease ingest it, their immune system is triggered and begins attacking itself.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease with a range of symptoms. In Dennis' case, gluten will cause her body to attack her intestines. Others might suffer terrible migraines. Celiac.com lists a range of 300 symptoms that those with the disease might experience.
Many restaurants offer "gluten-free" dishes, but even those might not be safe for Hollie Dennis to eat. She’s even gotten sick from drinking water at a restaurant. After touching something with gluten in it, servers can transfer gluten by simply touching Dennis' glass or straw. Elias' presence gives her a sense of security now.
"If he alerts on it, I won’t eat it," Dennis said. "(Elias) has definitely been a blessing. He makes things a lot easier."
Dennis has been contaminated only four times since she got Elias, and each time it was because she ate something without giving Elias a chance to sniff it. It has been two years since she last was contaminated, and Dennis said she feels healthier now than she can ever remember being.
Dennis didn’t think of Elias as being a "first in the world" kind of dog when she first got him. Rather, she approached the situation with the mentality of "OK, let's do this."
Elias opened up a world that had been off limits to her. He gave her the gift of freedom and peace of mind.
"I was just excited to be able to go eat and have that social aspect," Dennis said, "to feel like a normal, functional human being again."
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.