We’ve loved Detective Harley F.A.D.D. — the peanut-sniffing service dog — ever since we first came across her videos on Instagram. Since that time, Harley has become an internet celebrity, so we invited Natalie Rice, her co-star and owner, for an interview to tell us about Harley and the launch of a new app featuring the star.
Dave from SnackSafely.com: Natalie, Thanks so much for joining us! We know you have some big news, but let’s start by telling us a bit about yourself.
Natalie Rice: These days, I’m a food allergy mom, which as many people know is a full-time job. Before kids, I worked in television development on the creative side. Later, I pursued a Master’s degree in Accounting and an MBA, and then returned to television on the business side. Family and kids came along after that, as well as this wild ride in the food allergy world. A number of factors led to me staying home with my kids, including food allergies.
Who in your family has a food allergy and how did you first find out about it?
My 14-year-old daughter has a peanut allergy. As a baby, she had eczema and was a selective eater, but we didn’t discover her allergy until she was almost four years old because we rarely ate peanut butter and she wasn’t interested in it.
One day we were in the kitchen with my mother and I was so tired of making turkey sandwiches – the same thing all the time – that I decided to make my daughter a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. As I was slathering on the peanut butter, I paused for a moment and thought that I should have her taste it because she hadn’t tried it yet. I put a tiny amount on the end of a spoon and walked around the kitchen island and gave it to her and turned around to walk back. Before I could even get back to the sandwich, my mom said, “Natalie!” and I turn around and my daughter was turning her head – ear to shoulder, ear to shoulder. Her ears were fire engine red and she was saying they itched and her mouth was itchy. I had no epinephrine on hand and barely knew what it was. Fortunately, she didn’t have trouble breathing, and we were able to manage the reaction with Benadryl and a call to her pediatrician.
The next week, we visited the allergist, where skin testing confirmed her allergy, and we were given EpiPens and a wealth of information about managing food allergies in all aspects of our lives. And we’ve been managing it ever since.
That’s awful but unfortunately, a story we hear quite often. So explain how Harley, your peanut-sniffing dog, enters the picture
When we initially discovered my daughter’s food allergy, I had read about allergen detection dogs, as I was concerned that my daughter was too quiet and may not speak up for herself in case of an allergic reaction. My family thought I was crazy so I let it go and we pressed forward.
I had always felt we had a pragmatic approach to her food allergy – we prepared safe food, let people around us know, and always had EpiPens or Auvi-Q with us at all times. But when she was in second grade, she was threatened and bullied by a kid who said they would bring a spoonful of peanut butter to school and shove it in her mouth.
When she told me she was in tears and said, “But Mom, I could die.” At that age, I had not discussed the potential consequences of anaphylaxis with her, always keeping the conversation around the need to take the shot and rush to the hospital. But this bullying incident sent her (and consequently me) into a bit of a tailspin and our once pragmatic handling of her food allergy became front and center with everything, making social situations and simply eating out incredibly difficult. That’s when I revisited my allergen detection dog idea and the more research I did, the more I realized this was the right fit for us (and we are dog lovers, so it was a natural fit for us).
Tell us about Harley… How was she trained? How did she come to your family?
Harley is a 4½-year-old golden retriever trained to alert to peanuts – she’s a peanut detection dog, an allergen detection dog, an allergen alert service dog, or as we have coined it, our Detective Harley, F.A.D.D., Food Allergy Detection Dog.
There are no organizations, at least that I know of, that train allergen detection dogs. I only know of private trainers. After researching allergen alert dogs and trainers, we chose Kathy Watters of Nosey Dog Detection Partners. Kathy and I researched breeders and, after testing Harley as a puppy, she chose Harley to train for us. Harley spent a year at Kathy’s facility and came home to us in November 2019.
How does Harley help keep your family safe? Do you have any stories on how she saved the day?
Harley keeps my daughter safe by checking all food that comes into the house that is either from a restaurant or bakery or is not “allergen safe” (peanut-free from a peanut-free facility). She comes to restaurants with us, travels with us, and checks all of my daughter’s meals outside of the house.
Harley also opens us up to things that we previously would have avoided because they were probably okay, but we just weren’t sure. If Harley clears it, my daughter can eat it – she’s actually been able to eat more things since we’ve had Harley.
The biggest save actually happened during the pandemic when we were supporting our favorite restaurants with takeout. One of the restaurants that knows us well had a holiday dinner and everything on that dinner menu appeared safe. When it arrived, Harley checked everything and she immediately alerted to the pasta dish. Nothing on the menu indicated it would be a problem, but Harley was adamant about it so we set it aside and my daughter didn’t eat it. We called the restaurant to let them know, and they said they’d look into it. They called back the next day and apologized – it was a Thai noodle that had peanuts in the ingredients. It was a huge save!
No wonder Harley is an internet celebrity! What is the message you (and she) are promoting?
We never intended for Harley to become an internet celebrity – I barely knew how to use Instagram. As I mentioned earlier, she came home to us in November of 2019 to make life outside the house safer, which was just in time to get stuck at home for a pandemic.
But Harley still needed to work, so we started posting to Instagram just for fun. A couple of our reels went viral – we had two reels hit over 20 million views – and we started seeing the responses, both positive and negative. The positive ones showed how the visual of Harley checking for food really made cross-contact more understandable to people. The negative ones showed just how uninformed (and mean) people can be about food allergies.
This is what inspired us to create Detective Harley, F.A.D.D. with the message of spreading food allergy awareness, empowering those with food allergies, and fostering empathy and understanding in those without food allergies from a young age. The hope is that by doing this, we can change the narrative on food allergies once and for all.
OK, now for the big news: tell us about your new app. Who is it for? What does it do?
Our app is for everyone, although I would say the cartoon version of Harley speaks most to the 10 and under crowd. It is a game that can be customized to teach kids and adults about food allergy safety and the top 9 food allergens.
Users can choose which allergens they want to learn about each time they use the app. The app always includes a food allergy safety section, which is important for everyone to understand. In addition to this, there are four sections for each allergen, each section consisting of a learning page and a quiz page.
The quizzes are designed to reinforce the user’s learning and are not meant to be overly challenging. After each correct answer, the user is rewarded with a star and a joke, which were particularly fun to create. If they answer incorrectly, they get to try again until they answer correctly. With over 100 screens, the app is informational and entertaining, designed to keep users learning and laughing for a long time.
Thanks for giving us a preview of the app. We love it and think it will go far to drive awareness for kids with food allergies, their families, friends, and classmates. Here’s a look at the teaser reel introducing the app:
Where can our readers download the app?
You can download our free app for iPhone and Android devices by clicking here:
We’re also big Joey fans! Is he your support dog’s support dog?
Joey is a cherished member of our family and a loyal companion to Harley – her cheering section and treat buddy. He’s a nearly 9-year-old golden retriever and has been a part of our lives since he was a puppy. He’s the fifth golden retriever that I’ve owned, and every single one of them has been my best friend.
Joey is particularly special, with his gentle disposition and sweet, patient, loving personality. He and my son have grown up together, which has been a joy to watch.
Joey is also quite the foodie, as our followers have probably gathered. At his age, he is now considered a senior dog. So, as long as it’s safe for him to eat and it doesn’t affect Harley’s behavior, we let his table manners slide sometimes. But despite Joey being significantly larger than Harley, Harley is definitely the boss.
Thanks so much for your time, Natalie. Any closing remarks you’d like to leave for our readers?
First of all, thank you for featuring us today — I couldn’t think of a better way to launch the app than an interview with SnackSafely. I also want to thank all of our followers for welcoming us into the food allergy community. We know our account is a bit different, but we hope everyone finds it informative and entertaining. While food allergies are a serious matter and should always be treated with the utmost care, if we’ve managed to lighten the mood, maybe even made you laugh, and at the same time provided helpful information, then we’ve achieved our goals. We truly hope that everyone enjoys using the app, and we value and appreciate all of your support!