The idea was born of the desperation that only parents of children with food allergies so severe they are virtual prisoners in their own homes can fully appreciate: If dogs can be trained to sniff out bombs and narcotics, why not allergens such as peanut protein?
This is the idea that came to Sherry and Brett Mers of Monument, Colo., whose daughter, Riley, is so allergic to peanuts that simply touching a bit of peanut shell can burn a hole in her skin and send her into life-threatening anaphylactic shock.
“I was just running through the park playing with my sister in the sand, and I thought a bee had stung me,” Riley said, recounting the story for TODAY correspondent Jenna Wolfe Thursday from her home. “I started jumping up and down and screaming. And I jumped to my mom and dad and they took the peanut shell out, and I almost had to have a skin graft.”
Today, 8-year-old Riley doesn’t have to fear a repeat of that frightening and painful experience. As she sat next to her mother on their couch, her arms were wrapped around the neck of a 2-year-old Portuguese water dog named Rock’O. Thanks to the dog, Riley has been able to do simple things she couldn’t do before, like going into a candy store and walking without fear through a mall.
Riley was born with her allergy, which was diagnosed when she was 5 months old. Peanut and other allergies run a range of severity, and Riley’s doctors told her parents that the girl’s allergy was as extreme as it could be. Inhaling even a minute quantity of peanut dust can be life-threatening.
“Anytime peanut protein gets into her bloodstream, what happens with Riley and other children that have anaphylactic allergies is, a lot of times they’ll have eczema, also,” Sherry Mers told Wolfe. “So her skin cracks, and then whenever she touches something, it gets straight into her bloodstream, and that’s what causes her to go into anaphylaxis.
“If there’s a heavy peanut protein in the air, and she breathes it in and it gets in her lungs … it can be very serious very quickly,” Mers added. “And there’s no way for you to be able to tell all the places where a peanut might be.”
The Merses had peanut-proofed their home when they learned of the allergy, but Riley was a virtual prisoner there until she got Rock’O. She did go to school occasionally, but had to stay in an isolation room. For the most part, she studies online from her home. But now, because of Rock’O, she can finally think about going to college someday.
Special trainingThe idea of training a dog to sniff allergens came to Sherry Mers independently. She asked around and found out that there were at least two organizations that train dogs for that purpose. The family got their dog through one of them, Angel Service Dogs.
The training isn’t cheap. The dog can’t make mistakes; it has to detect allergens 100 percent of the time to protect its owner. Rock’O’s training cost $10,000, which was more than the Merses could afford. But family and friends donated the funds so Riley could gain some freedom and security.
Sherry Mers and her husband have gotten involved in training dogs themselves. To keep Rock’O up to snuff — and sniff — Brett Mers has to put him through peanut-finding exercises. Sherry has gotten involved by writing a kids’ book about allergen service dogs called “The Allergy Friend” that’s due to be published in the fall.
As for Riley, she’s just happy to be able to go out into the world. Since getting Rock’O last month, she’s been saved several times from life-threatening exposure to peanuts. One time was in her own backyard, where Rock’O stopped her before she got near the shells of peanuts that squirrels were eating in a tree.
Wolfe asked Riley about her first trip inside a candy store, made possible by Rock’O.
“That was really cool, because the closest I ever get to a candy store is at the checkout place where they have those shelves that have some candy on it,” Riley said. Rock’O, who wears a bright yellow service-dog vest, steered her away from the chocolate aisle and even detected peanut M&Ms that Sherry Mers never saw. Riley ended up in the gummy candy aisle, where she bought a big gummy butterfly.
“Would you say Rock’O changed your life?” Wolfe asked Riley.
The girl hugged her pal and guardian, smiled and replied with feeling, “I would say that.”