NORTH HAVEN, Conn. (AP) 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.
As their popularity grows, though, some owners are having mixed success 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.
AP Photo - - Jeff Glazer guides his allergy-sniffing dog, Riley, through the ball field before his game in Middlebury, Conn. Riley accompanies Glazer to ensure there are no peanut products or residue that could trigger life-threatening allergic reactions.
They're already 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.
"The dog is just one way we can help our daughter have a more normal life," said Pam Minicucci of North Haven, whose 7-year-old daughter, Gianna, is constantly accompanied by her allergy-sniffing 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 without full General Assembly action.
Gianna's allergy to peanut products, tree nuts and their residue in the air or on surfaces 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 in case she encounters anything to which she's allergic.
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.
State and federal agencies do not track the number of allergy-specific service dogs in the nation, but handlers and trainers say they're fielding more inquiries and orders in recent years.
They attribute it to a growing awareness about the allergy-sniffing dogs and an increase in peanut allergies among many of today's children.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates four of every 100 children have a food allergy, and said rates are highest among preschool-age children.
It's also growing quickly: From 1997 to 2007, food allergies increased 18 percent among American children under 18 years old, though researchers haven't conclusively determined why.
Gianna Minicucci's allergies emerged when she was an infant and though she's grown out of some, others have remained so profound that her family decided the allergy-sniffing dog was a necessity.
Depending on the trainer and dog, the animals can cost between $10,000 and $20,000, including the training to teach them how to sniff out particular allergens and alert the handler with a specific signal. Often, that means abruptly sitting in place, often putting their own bodies between the allergic person and the allergen.