- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 22, 2017

GOSHEN, Ind. (AP) - Inside Bethany Christian School here on the southern edge of the Maple City, 13-year-old Evelyn Lapadat goes about her normal school-day routines with renewed assurance at her side.

It follows her home to Elkhart each night and stays with her when she and her family go to the grocery store, out to eat, or anywhere else.

That reassurance has a little frame, a big name and a monumental role in Evelyn’s life.

“I named him Zeus,” Evelyn explained earlier this month, “because he’s so little and I thought it’d be ironic.”

Zeus, named after the mythical king of Mount Olympus, is a miniature Australian shepherd who weighs about 10 pounds. But most importantly, he has an extraordinary power: Zeus can protect Evelyn by sniffing out gluten and alerting her of its presence.

Like approximately 3 million other Americans, Evelyn lives with celiac disease, a serious genetic autoimmune disorder that is triggered when digesting gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Eating gluten triggers a response in the small intestine that can prevent the absorption of nutrients.

Though humans cannot detect it, gluten shows up almost everywhere - foods containing wheat, some foods and candies not containing wheat and even Soft Soap.

For those inflicted with celiac disease, which is incurable, this constant possibility of contamination and the accompanying worries can be exhausting. Evelyn has a high sensitivity to gluten and has avoided it as much as possible for the last three years since being diagnosed. The only way to manage the symptoms of celiac disease is to adhere to a strict gluten-free diet.

With such a high sensitivity, however, that often proved difficult for Evelyn and her parents, who are both pediatricians in Elkhart. When exposed to gluten Evelyn could become quite ill.

“I was up at night and upset, and wondering what we were going to do,” explained Dr. Wendy Lapidat, Evelyn’s mother. “I started looking up devices, electronic devices and I was dissatisfied with them. (Then) out popped this website for Nosey Dog Detection Partners.”

The website said that the company specialized in training gluten-detecting service dogs. Wendy said she called that night.

Nosey Dog Detection Partners’ owner and trainer Kathy Watters answered and a few weeks later Watters had found a puppy that she thought might be a fit for the family: Zeus.

“I need a dog that doesn’t care what’s going on, distractions or whatever,” Watters explained about the qualities of a service dog. “If I ask him to work I need him to work.”

Zeus had that drive and his extensive training began, which is rooted in how search-and-rescue dogs are trained, Watters said.

The key, she said, is “you can still read your dog, it’s just a different kind of reading.”

After nearly a year of training, the Lapidats traveled to Lansing, Mich., in January to pick up Zeus and learn how to read him and about all he could do. In February, he started attending Bethany Christian School with Evelyn. Zeus spends most of his time in public by Evelyn’s side. He wears a vest that explains that he is working and should not be pet.

When suited up in the vest, Zeus acts with professionalism. He walks in step with Evelyn. When she gives the command, “check it” he sits up straight, ready to work.

When Evelyn lowers a food item in front of Zeus and he detects gluten he puts his paw on the item or Evelyn’s hand to let her know. If he does not, he slightly turns his head away as if to say, “No gluten here.”

“It’s subtle,” Wendy said, “but you got to look at his eyes and we know when he’s working or not.”

According to Watters, Zeus can detect the scent and presence of gluten in food and other products down to .0025 parts per million.

What the Lapidats have discovered, is it is relatively unknown that some products contain gluten in the absence of wheat. The gluten molecule can be removed from wheat protein and solubilized for use in cleaning supplies and as a thickener.

Under current food industry regulations, “if it’s not encased in wheat we don’t have to know that it’s there,” Wendy said. “So that’s a problem for us because we don’t know where gluten is.”

Often times, gluten is used as a “natural flavoring” and the only way for a consumer to tell if a certain product contains gluten would be to call the company.

Before the Lapidats had Zeus, Wendy said she would spend hours in the grocery store line calling companies, waiting to talk to someone who could tell her what their product’s natural flavor was.

“So now I can take Zeus and he can detect through a lot of packaging,” Wendy said. “. I can ask him right in the grocery store and he can tell me right away if it’s safe or not.”

Zeus also checks Evelyn’s meals at school and in restaurants. He pretty much monitors anything she might end up putting her hands into, including the glue used for a paper-mache project in a recent science class.

While Zeus has been a hit with Evelyn’s Bethany classmates, Wendy said he is also a hit at restaurants.

“I’ve even had managers bring out food and ask to watch the dog check it,” she said. This first happened at a Chick-fil-a in Lansing. “(The manager) went back and told everyone that they passed,” Wendy said. “I think a lot of restaurants really do take food safety seriously.”

Zeus was a significant investment for the family that many with people with celiac disease would not be able to afford. Wendy said the family plans to maintain a Facebook page for Zeus to share observations with others regarding his gluten-detection skills.

Bethany Christian has been very accommodating during Zeus’ transition, Wendy said. Without Zeus, and Bethany’s cooperation, the other option would have been for Wendy to quit her practice and home-school Evelyn.

Zeus empowers the Lapidats to continue living their life with relative ease. He is Evelyn’s partner, at her side and together they are attacking middle school with no worries. Zeus has also quickly developed an uncanny instinct of love and devotion for his owner.

If Zeus is left in a room without Evelyn, Wendy said the service dog will often cry for her and scratch at the door until she returns.

And when Evelyn returns, Wendy says, “He’s like, ‘Oh that’s what I wanted. My person.’ He really loves her.”

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Source: South Bend Tribune, https://bit.ly/2mRAayr

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Information from: South Bend Tribune, https://www.southbendtribune.com


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