Deb Cunningham was at the Orange County Animal Services Center to check on a dog recommended by staff as having potential for Eyes Ears Nose and Paws (EENP), her nonprofit organization that trains and places assistance dogs. The pup, a larger breed that might have one day helped a person with mobility challenges, had already gone home with an adoptive family. But there was another dog that showed potential.
JJ was a little white fluff ball, a mixed-breed terrier that could never reach a light switch or help someone navigate a crowded sidewalk. But she was attentive, curious and eager to please. Through a special arrangement with the center, Deb took her home for a week to see if she might be a good fit for EENP’s medical alert program, where size does not matter.
“She scored well on everything and, of course, she was adorable,” Deb says, recalling the 2011 meeting, which led to a year of intensive training prior to client assignment. “She was outstanding at alerting to scents.”
Since its founding in 2008, EENP has trained various breeds to assist clients located within a two-and-a-half-hour drive of its Carrboro office. Medical alert training focuses primarily on diabetes, where spikes or drops in blood sugar can render a person unable to manage their medical emergency. Dogs are taught to identify the discrete scents emitted by an individual shortly before a severe reaction, allowing essential time for potentially lifesaving intervention.
ONE RESOUNDING YES
While JJ was in the early stages of training, Michelle Krawczyk and her family had relocated to North Carolina. They left hot, humid Florida for the Triangle’s more moderate climate to benefit their then-toddler daughter KK, who was diagnosed at 2 months old with mastocytosis. The rare disease triggers production of excess mast cells that cause skin lesions and digestive distress as well as affects blood pressure. It also can produce dangerous anaphylactic shock.
“We were afraid to let her out of our sight,” says Michelle, a former nurse who had been reaching out to animal assistance programs across the country before discovering EENP, which is close to KK’s doctors at UNC and Duke. “We wanted her life to be as normal as possible. Everyone I called said no – there was nothing they could do for KK’s condition. When Deb asked if there was a smell associated with her alerts, I thought she was a nutcase. But she was the only nutcase willing to talk to me.”
Michelle provided clothing KK wore during an alert in which she needed immediate medical intervention. The garments became key tools in JJ’s training, as she now can identify an alert early enough that calming techniques and rest often can resolve what previously required a trip to the emergency room.
JJ’s abilities have astounded medical professionals, who have seen proof of her skill when she barks out a warning before monitoring equipment detects evidence of a problem. She’s even been allowed to stay by KK’s side and serve as a recognized medical tool during two surgical procedures. JJ’s accomplishments led to her being honored as a 2014 Hero Dog by the American Humane Association.
“To think she was left, unwanted, at the overnight shelter drop-off,” Michelle says as her daughter, now a happy third-grader, snuggles JJ in their kitchen. “It would be impossible for KK to attend school, or do so many things, without JJ. What she has done to improve KK’s health, and our family’s well-being, just can’t be put into words.”
MAN’S BEST FRIEND–AND HERO
Michelle works to give back through fundraising – the cost to train a dog and provide ongoing support is $20,000 – and by serving as a member of EENP’s board. Board chairman Josh Gurlitz, a Chapel Hill architect, welcomes opportunities to educate the public about the astounding ability of canines to help humans in need.
“It’s not unusual for our clients to refer to their dog as their hero,” he says. “It’s very different from being a helpmate. A hero aspires to do something very emotional and personally be involved. ‘Life-changing’ is an overused phrase, but it legitimately applies here. Thanks to Deb and Maria, this happens more often than you might think.”
Deb, the program director, and Maria Ikenberry, the executive director, both have dedicated their expertise in canine scent detection to public service. Deb is a member of the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services’ Service Animal Rules Development Working Committee, and Maria was the founding president of the nonprofit Central North Carolina Search and Rescue. Josh himself has been involved with disability services since the 1970s, when he helped draft the original National Handicap Code for the American National Standards Institute while a graduate student at Syracuse University.
Josh says that EENP will provide assistance dogs to more North Carolina clients in the future through its partnership with Franklin Correctional Center in Bunn. Qualified inmates are training puppies for the program, which hopes to eventually offer post-release employment opportunities.
“These men are given a huge responsibility to live with and train the dogs,” says Deb, who currently works with 17 inmates. “They benefit from special relationships with the dogs that are just not typically present in prison. There’s no hugging in prison, no visits with the family dog. It makes a big difference in their daily life and outlook.”
And just as KK’s classmates gain empathy for people with disabilities and appreciation of the role of service animals, fellow inmates benefit from contact with sweet-tempered dogs and aspire to gain job skills that might impress an employer.
“I can’t give you hard data because we’re new at this, but similar programs have been shown to create a decrease in disciplinary infractions,” Deb says. “They help themselves by playing an important role in helping people with disabilities to live their lives more safely.”
KK agrees. “I couldn’t even go to the bathroom by myself before,” says the 9-year-old, who credits still-small JJ for making her world much bigger. “Now I can play outside during recess and do all kinds of things. She’s my best friend in the whole world.”