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Going to the Dogs

Puppy love leads Deb Cunningham ’94 to train dogs to sniff out trouble

With dread, Deb Cunningham ’94 recognized the jingling collar and the clicking nails in the hallway. Head lowered in acknowledgement of her broken sit-stay command, JB, her black Lab, entered the physics lecture and curled up at her owner’s feet. 

“I thought, ‘Uh oh,’ ” says Cunningham, whose voice even now belies her freshman-year moment of anxiety when her dog crept into the science building. “But [Physics Professor] Frank Moscatelli said it was fine for her to come in, that she was obviously well behaved.”

Thereafter, JB—so named as a pup for her jet-black coloring by an 11-year-old Deb—audited an engineering degree. 

“She didn’t go into the computer lab, dining hall, or libraries, but otherwise she was welcome and embraced by the entire community,” says Cunningham, who had to bring JB, a beloved 11th-birthday present, from home in Rolla, Mo., to campus after holiday break. A sympathetic College grounds crew staffer housed JB each night, returning her to Cunningham every morning for the rest of the school year. Thereafter, professors welcomed her—and JB—to board with them.

More than two decades later, Cunningham is still accompanied most places by a dog—only this time, it’s likely a service dog in training. A former electrical contractor, Cunningham began volunteering for a local Chapel Hill, N.C., search-and-rescue team in 2001 with her Lab-shepherd mix, Finner. She soon shifted from dog lover to trainer.

“What I loved most was the partnership with the dog. Finner had answers that I didn’t, and we would work together to find someone,” says Cunningham. “I love that relationship.”

The duo continued to help local law enforcement sniff out missing people until 2007 when Cunningham quit her job to attend a one-year program at Bergan University of Canine Studies in California, which specializes in service-dog training.   

“I realized that people with mobility issues rely on service dogs just like I did with Finner. They can’t do something, but a dog can,” says Cunningham. “When a person and a dog are dependent upon each other, a very, very special relationship forms.”

 In 2008, Cunningham started Eyes, Ears, Nose & Paws, a Chapel Hill–based nonprofit that trains and places service dogs, which help retrieve needed items, open doors, push buttons and switches, and prevent falls. Cunningham also trains medical-alert dogs, which notify people of medical concerns such as plummeting or elevated blood glucose levels through nose bumps or barking. 

Recently one of Cunningham’s pooch protégés, JJ, garnered national attention after she accompanied a little girl—coincidentally named KK—into surgery at the doctor’s request. JJ’s olfactory-based training could help detect the onset of KK’s characteristically adverse reaction to anesthesia before any machine could.

“KK and JJ make me excited about my field,” says Cunningham. “KK’s disease is rare enough that there will never be a monitor developed for her, but through medical-alert dogs, we have a way to help make her condition a little safer.” 

Cunningham now focuses on placing pups in training with inmates in the North Carolina Prison System—citing the significant real-world benefits incarcerated people gain from the experience, like increased empathy, job skills, and dependability. Through the prison collaboration, Cunningham hopes to provide up to 12 to 15 new medical-alert and service dogs each year—a sixfold increase from her two-a-year average so far.

Although her first dog was a pet, even Cunningham’s JB performed a service. “Most people from back then probably remember the black dog that lived on campus,” Cunningham says. “JB made a positive impact on the College—lots of people missed their own dogs. She provided a good morale boost.”