Riley Mers, 9, has a friend named Rocco. Rocco is a Portuguese Water Dog who not only acts as her pet, but is trained to save her life.
Riley has a deadly peanut allergy that is so severe that even breathing in the scent of peanuts can trigger a reaction. Rocco is trained to sniff out peanuts before Mers’s body even has the chance to react.
“He can prevent her from walking down the sidewalk and coming across something like a bakery that could be making peanut butter cookies,” says Riley’s Mom, Sherry Mers.
Rocco has made such a positive change in Riley’s life that Sherry founded the non-profit organization Angel Dogs which works to raise money in order to train dogs just like Rocco. Dogs can be trained to sniff out many different types of allergies like soy, wheat and dairy products in the same way that bomb-sniffing dogs do.
Like bomb-sniffing dogs, what Rocco does is a matter of life and death. Riley’s last reaction was triggered in a matter of seconds. “Her throat had started swelling shut, her lips were swelling to where she couldn’t breathe through her nose,” Sherry says. This was all before Rocco.
Chris Jakuvin trains bomb-sniffing dogs for the military as well as service dogs for people with allergies. “We train the dog to suit the family’s needs,” Jakuvin says.
He trains the dogs by creating real-life scenarios where the dog has to sniff out a certain substance. For example, he uses places like hotel rooms a family might stay at during vacation and hides peanuts in a drawer. When the dog is brought in during a sweep of the room the dog heads right to the drawer with the peanuts and will alert the trainer.
“Then we know get the child out of there, get another room, or clean everything out before they bring the child in,” Jakuin says.
It takes about six months to train a dog and they’re about 95 percent accurate. Jakuvin warns that this is not a perfect system. Families still need to be on guard and the dog should be the last line of defense.