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Peanut Sniffing Dog Helps Child Stay Safe
An interview with Melissa Caputo Haberzettl


Project Allergy
Please tell us about your child with food allergies. How old were they when they were diagnosed and how old are they now? What was the first sign of a severe food allergy? Do they have any other allergies or asthma? What are they allergic to?

Melissa
My son Dylan was diagnosed with a severe peanut allergy when he was 18 months old. His first reaction was characterized by immediately vomiting and breaking out in hives after dipping his finger into my peanut butter that I was eating, and ingesting it. He also has tree nut allergies, but these appear to be much less severe than his peanut allergy, and he has food challenged successfully to pecans. He exhibited his first asthma symptoms at age 2; they have only ever presented themselves when he is sick. He has been managed on inhaled steroids and has done very well. He just turned 6 in March. Dylan has a younger sibling who has no food allergies or asthma that we are aware of, and he is 4. He has been tested for nut allergies and they were negative.

Project Allergy
What precautions have you, as parents, taken to ensure the safety of your child prior to obtaining a peanut sniffing dog? Had you encountered any triggers unknowingly in school or out in public?

Melissa
We still take the same precautions with Dylan that we did before we had Max, Dylan's peanut detection dog. We always carry epipens, and Benadryl with us where ever we go, and whoever is with him, even if it is not my husband and I, carries epipens and Benadryl and has been trained in when and how to administer. We bring wipes with us and wipe down areas that may be contaminated. We have educated Dylan about his allergy, so that he knows never to eat anything without asking us, or that we haven't given him. He is also aware of signs and symptoms of a reaction and knows to get help right away if he has any. We also have a 504 plan at school. Other than that, Dylan has had a pretty typical life for a 6 year old. We travel, he plays sports, and goes to public school.

Dylan went into anaphylaxis at preschool when he was 4, his first anaphylactic reaction. He was in a nut free school. At the time, there was no food being served, he was simply playing with something new the teacher had brought in that day. Our best guess is that it was cross contaminated with peanuts. It was after this episode that we decided to look into getting a peanut detection dog. His second anaphylaxis was when he was 5, but before Max was done with training, so we did not have him at the time. Again, he was not eating and there was no food around him. He was playing with some toys at the place he goes swimming prior to his swim lesson. Dylan received the epipen, Benadryl, oral and inhaled steroids with both of his reactions, and was monitored in the emergency room for a few hours each time.

Project Allergy
How did you discover the peanut sniffing dog? What is the dog's name, breed and age?

Melissa
I actually learned about peanut sniffing dogs from a co-worker. I was at work when Dylan experienced his first anaphylaxis, so my co-workers were aware of the situation. One of them had recently read an article about allergy detection dogs and shared it with me. Max is a 19 month old black lab.

Project Allergy
How has the dog helped your child? Please give a situation or event that you were thankful that you had the dog.

Max checks Dylan's classroom every day prior to school. Dylan is in a nut free classroom at school. A few weeks ago, Max alerted on the garbage bag/can in his classroom. We are trained to have him verify his find, so we went back to the same spot a few times, and he alerted each time (his alert is to sit). I changed the garbage bag, which was empty but had some residue of something in it. I also wiped the garbage can and the immediate area around it with bleach wipes. At that moment, in my mind, Max paid for himself 10x over. There are both physical and emotional consequences of anaphylaxis and he just prevented a potential reaction for Dylan. It was huge. Additionally, Max has made Dylan feel more confident interacting with his environment. After two anaphylactic reactions where no food was present, he was feeling nervous and anxious, and to be honest, so were we. We all realize that Max checking is not a 100% guarantee, but him checking in addition to our normal precautions gives us a better peace of mind. We do not want our son to live in fear, we want him to be aware, but not afraid. Max has helped tremendously with this.

Project Allergy
Have you run into any difficulties bringing the dog somewhere, like a business, church, or school?

Melissa
Allergy detection is a recognized task for service animals under ADA law. We have not run into any issues, but there are some entities that are exempt from ADA law. I would encourage anyone interested in getting a service animal to become well versed in ADA law.

Project Allergy
Does Max the dog accompany Dylan to school? Does Max ride the bus with Dylan?

Melissa
Max does not accompany Dylan to school. He could if we wanted him to, but that is not how we have chosen to use him at this point. My husband and I are Max's handlers and Max is trained like a detection dog. He is trained to search when we use the word "find". It is not realistic to have Dylan conduct a search with him at his age. We have Max check Dylan's classroom and any other rooms that he will be in prior to school each morning. Max can accompany us on field trips providing my husband or I am with him, and the place where we are going allows service animals.

Dylan attends a public charter school, so there is no bus transportation. I do not know if Max would or wouldn't be permitted to ride the bus.

Project Allergy
How much does a dog like this cost and where could someone obtain a dog?

Melissa
The cost of these dogs vary greatly depending on where you look. I was quoted prices ranging from 10K by private trainers to 20K by organizations who just train allergy detection dogs. I would encourage anyone who is interested in this to explore all options, review the resume and experience of the people actually training the dog, and interview references. No matter how you look at it, it is a big investment of both time and money; it is a very personal decision.

Project Allergy
Has the dog reduced the stress for you and/or your child and if so, how?

Melissa
Yes, absolutely, in the sense that we all feel more comfortable knowing that Max has checked things. We are 100% confident in his detection abilities, and to see him work is amazing. And as I stated previously, he has increased Dylan's confidence tremendously with regards to interacting with his environment. That being said, we still use all the same precautions that we used to. Max could miss something or have an off day, and we have to be prepared for that.

On the other hand, as his handler, there are added stresses too. We now have a young dog in the house who needs daily exercise, and training with peanut odor a few times a week. I also have to get myself ready and out the door earlier to bring Max to school for detection each day, in addition to getting our boys ready for school and out the door on time. There is also the aspect of getting used to traveling with a dog everywhere. You have to make sure your vehicle is large enough to transport the dog, and that you are comfortable handling a dog in public.

Our trainer was honest with us from the start, he told us "this is going to be work". We were on board and we are dog people, so it was an easy transition for us, but there are definitely a lot of factors to consider before making a choice to have a service dog.

Project Allergy
Would you recommend a peanut sniffing allergy dog to other parents?

Melissa
Yes, based on our experience with our trainer and with Max, I would. We want Dylan to experience life as a "normal" child in spite of his allergies, and we saw this as an incredible opportunity to make that happen. Max has been a wonderful and welcomed addition to our family and we could not be happier with our decision. It was definitely the right decision for us.

Project Allergy
Is there anything else you would like to share?

Just a few other bits of information. Dylan is not allergic to dogs, so breed was not an issue for us. We had him retested for dogs prior to our trainer finding a dog, in case we needed to be breed specific due to allergies. We only had Max trained for one allergen, peanuts, because that is his most severe allergy, and at this point we are not 100% sure which, if any, tree nuts he is anaphylactic to. Our trainer explained to us that it is very easy to add additional allergens in once the dog is trained in scent detection, so if we need to do that in the future, we can.

Fundraising is always an option to offset the cost of the dog, whether you go through a private trainer or an organization, there are plenty of ways you can fundraise. We opted not to fundraise, but other families who our trainer worked with did do some fundraising.

This is a process. Don't expect to decide you want a dog and have one in a month. Our trainer ball parked 9 months, and it took almost exactly a year from start to finish. He was honest with us from the beginning that finding the right dog can take some time. I think he trialed 10+ dogs before finding Max.

If you do decide this is right for your family, be involved in the process. Our trainer was great at keeping us in the loop. We were in contact on a regular basis throughout this process, and it was very helpful to know where things were at and how things were coming along.

Project Allergy
Melissa is a mother of two boys, who lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She is a member of the Facebook Page, Project Allergy. Join us today for interesting topics of conversation.

By Janet Haliday Millan