Thursday, September 22, 2011
The handsome Beauceron — from a 400-year-old breed that became almost extinct serving as messenger dogs in Europe during two world wars — regularly wows judges, though he's only 2 years old.
Indeed, he's an AKC Grand Champion (the first male Beauceron to receive that title), and just last month he received an Award of Excellence at the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship in Long Beach (which will be televised Jan. 23 on ABC).
But all that strutting of his stuff in the show ring keeps him busy for just a fraction of a year. The rest of the time, hour after hour, day after day, Elias, as he is known, is a hardworking gluten-detection service dog.
He accompanies his owner, Hollie Scott, 22, whose celiac disease is so severe that she's ill for weeks if she eats something that has merely been sliced by a knife used previously to carve something with minimal gluten content.
The big dog is a familiar presence around the University of Missouri campus, where Scott is a first-year student in the College of Veterinary Medicine, and Elias accompanies her on social outings, to any of the rare eateries she dares frequent, and anyplace else she ventures.
Although he's nearly a 100-pounder — at the extreme end of the breed standard — Elias "curls up in an amazingly small ball" in lecture halls, on buses and trains, and on planes, Scott says.
The dog spent weeks in Slovenia completing gluten-detection training late last year (he and Scott returned at the very end of November, then rested a couple of days before heading out for the Long Beach competition), and now he can detect and warn her away from anything containing gluten, hot or cold, in all its many manifestations.
Teaching a dog to be alert to the scent of gluten is much more complicated than most scent-detection training, because gluten comes in so many forms. A type of protein commonly found in wheat, rye and barley, gluten is widely used in products other than the obvious — cereals, breads and pizza — after being processed in various ways.
Gluten, in fact, can be used as a filler, binder or thickener, hidden in all manner of food, including, for example, soy sauce, many salad dressings and even some toothpaste.
Scott was diagnosed with celiac disease about two years ago after having spent much of her high school years "in and out of hospitals." She's now acutely vigilant about checking labels and trying to avoid cross-contaminations.
"You can't drop your guard for even a minute," says Scott, who likens an attack to "a really extremely bad case of stomach flu" from which her body doesn't recover fully for nearly three weeks. But even hyper-vigilance isn't a 100% guarantee.
"I was never a picky eater," says Scott, but the celiac disease "brings a whole new level of stress" to the very notion of mealtime, and the extra layer of protection Elias provides is "comforting."
When it's time for him to do the sniff test for Scott, she places a cover with holes over the item, and Elias does his thing. She practices with him every day with known gluten-containing foods to augment the products she hopes are gluten-free so he doesn't lose his edge. When there's gluten, Elias tries to pull it away from her; if it's safe, he simply looks away.
Elias is a hard worker, but he has many outlets for doggie joy. Scott's study group includes some dog owners, so he gets to hang out with other animals. "His favorite is a little Havanese puppy," says Scott. There are also regular trips to the dog park, and, when it's not too cold, visits to the swimming hole.
He'll continue on the show circuit, too. His next competition: the Westminster Dog Show in New York City next month.