Kaelyn “KK” Krawczyk woke up feeling well-rested and safe. JJ, her terrier mix, greeted KK with a sniff and a lick as she felt her owner begin to stir — one of several checks the service dog would make throughout the day.
After five years of being paired with service dog JJ, 10-year-old KK finally knew what it felt like to sleep soundly and go about a normal day, unafraid of a sudden reaction from her disease, mastocytosis.
She knew that JJ would be there — a spunky, brown-eyed alarm protecting her from her silent disease.
After a few moments of cuddling, they both begin their days. On the agenda is a busy day at elementary school and piano lessons.
But for JJ, it’s not just about hanging out and having fun with her owner. Every day, she has a job: to keep an eye on KK and make sure she knows when she’s about to have an episode.
Without her canine friend, KK would often be caught by a sudden reaction, ranging from hives to anaphylaxis.
According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, mastocytosis causes an abnormal accumulation of mast cells, a type of white blood cells. This causes KK to have a sort of allergic reaction to things like temperature fluctuations, stress or chemicals.
Through her keen sense of smell, JJ can determine if KK is in need of medication to limit her body’s response to a stimulus, stopping the reaction before it starts.
The human body emits certain scents depending on its chemical makeup, which JJ was trained to detect. When KK’s body emits an odor associated with a reaction, JJ alerts her.
“She barks and then she jumps up and tugs at my clothing,” KK said.
This gives KK enough time to take medication before she notices symptoms from the reaction.
Many like KK owe their increased independence to a nonprofit organization that trains service dogs.
Eyes Ears Nose and Paws, located in Carrboro, helps train service dogs to meet the individual needs of each client, including those suffering from mobility impairments and diabetes.
Training in town
When Deb Cunningham decided she wanted to train service dogs, her friend Maria Ikenberry fully supported her.
However, there was small obstacle to her plan. While there were service dog training organizations in eastern and western North Carolina, none existed in the central part of the state.
“When it became apparent that there wasn’t an organization in the area, I encouraged Deb to start a nonprofit and very quickly realized that I needed to put my money where my mouth is,” Ikenberry said.
Ikenberry volunteered as the administrative head, and in 2008, the two women founded Eyes Ears Nose and Paws.
By 2010, they were placing their first dogs.
Finding the right match
Trevor Bell, a Ph.D student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, will be getting a service dog from Eyes Ears Nose and Paws in March.
Diagnosed 15 years ago with diabetes, Bell decided to get a service dog after moving to North Carolina from Lubbock, Texas, to study health communications at UNC’s School of Media and Journalism.
Bell’s disease often poses an obstacle for daily life. A sudden drop in his blood sugar will leave him with a migraine and feeling lethargic for the rest of the day.
These episodes are especially prevalent while sleeping. Bell often wakes up to low blood sugar and has to take a glucose tablet to bring his body back to equilibrium.
“Luckily I’m young and take pretty good care of myself and my blood sugar, but there are times when people just don’t wake up when their blood sugar drops,” Bell said.
A service dog can provide Bell with a warning before his blood sugar drops, allowing him to treat the episode before he even experiences the symptoms — similar to KK and JJ.
With Eyes Ears Nose and Paws just five minutes down the road from his new home in Chapel Hill, Bell decided to apply for a service dog.
After an initial interview with Cunningham and Michelle Krawczyk, KK’s mother and a board member at the organization, Bell was put on the waitlist.
“It’s not just a fit for me; it’s a fit for the dog,” he said.
Bell met the five dogs in training in a round of ‘speed dating,’ which included walks, playing and lots of petting.
After seeing him interact with the dogs, Cunningham decided that he was a good fit for at least one. Bell would be meeting his new sidekick three short months later.
The cost of growth
Since 2010, Eyes Ears Nose and Paws has placed 14 dogs, and it’s expecting to place five to six more this year.
“In seven years, we hope to be at a place where we’re placing 12 to 15 dogs a year,” Ikenberry said.
But all of this training comes with a price tag. While they receive money from donations and grants, the majority of their funding comes from the clients.
The cost of one service dog is a hefty $20,000 for up to two years of training. The organization helps as much as it can by providing scholarships based on the client’s personal income.
“I’m a Ph.D student so I don’t have a lot of income right now,” Bell said, “So, I was fortunate enough to be granted a $15,000 scholarship. Which really helps out — that’s 75 percent.”
The rest of the cost is either paid for by the client or obtained through fundraising. Michelle Krawczyk raised the entire amount for her daughter’s service dog through a series of fundraisers.
These funds are funneled directly into the program, helping Eyes Ears Nose and Paws continue to grow and train more dogs — the organization now has 17 dogs in training.
As it grows, Eyes Ears Nose and Paws, is not only able to help more people, but is also able to shorten the amount of time clients wait for their service dogs.
The early stages of training
The graduation rate from Eyes Ears Nose and Paws is about 50 percent.
“We want our dogs to be the best of the best,” Ikenberry said, “This work could stress them out, and we don’t want to put a dog in a stressful occupation. We want to ensure their happiness and the client’s happiness.”
Training begins when the dogs are just eight weeks old with a community volunteer.
They learn puppy manners such as house training, learning to sit on command and socializing with people and other animals. After about five months, the dogs are taken to a prison.
Eyes Ears Nose and Paws began partnering with Franklin Correctional Center in Bunn in 2014, pairing inmates with potential service dogs to complete their training.
Service dog training requires up to 18 months of commitment and is essentially a full-time job. Because of this, Eyes Ears Nose and Paws is always in need of more trainers.
After reaching out to the prison, Eyes Ears Nose and Paws was able to set up a group of 18 trainers that committed 18 months of their prison stay to training the service dogs.
The inmates were able to provide constant care for the dogs as well as daily, in-depth training.
At first, the dogs are trained for both assistance and scent work. As large breed dogs, they easily fall into the role of either a mobility assistance service dog or a medical alert service dog.
Those who need a medical alert dog often also need help with things like retrieving medicine or picking up things from the floor. Training the dogs for both jobs allows them to better meet their owners’ every need.
Once they learn the basics, the dogs begin specialized training depending on the assigned owner. JJ was taught to distinguish the scent KK’s body emanates when she has a reaction.
Ikenberry likens it to a human learning to stop at a stop sign. By learning a patterned response to the sign, we know to react when we see it, even if we only notice it in our peripheral vision. We’re taught that this sign supersedes everything else in that moment.
After 18 months, the dogs attend a leash ceremony and graduate from their initial training. Then they meet their new owners and spend two weeks in intense training sessions lasting eight hours each day, preparing both dog and owner for their new lives.
Eyes Ears Nose and Paws has already placed 14 service dogs, helping owners increase their independence and gain peace of mind.
“JJ is just so amazing,” Michelle Krawczyk said. “She is really just life-changing for us. It’s better than any medial equipment or medication that has been provided before.”
But it’s not just the lives of the clients that Eyes Ears Nose and Paws is improving.
“Our mission is to train and place service dogs, but I think what we’ve found is that the impact on the inmate trainers is just as profound as the impact on the clients,” Ikenberry said.
“We’re not just impacting lives in the final stage of placement, but all throughout the training. That’s a powerful thing to be a part of.”
Edited by Sara Salinas.