Medical students learn ways service dogs assist diabetics

As part of the Endocrine block in the Medical Science course in the Foundation phase of the TEC curriculum, second-year medical students attended a special session on the ways service dogs aid diabetics.

Medical students learn ways service dogs assist diabetics click to enlarge Deb Cunningham (right) answers additional questions for medical students after the presentation.
Medical students learn ways service dogs assist diabetics click to enlarge Woofy, a diabetic assistant dog from Eyes Ears Nose and Paws.

by Hannah Crain -

Despite access to glucose monitors and other tools, many diabetics struggle to control blood sugar levels. Earlier this month, medical students in their third semester of the 16-month-long Foundation attended a special Endocrine block session in the MBRB auditorium that exposed them to the ways service dogs assist diabetics with blood sugar control.

“Our students are currently learning about what it’s like to live with diabetes,” says Marianne Meeker, PhD, Lecturer in the Dept. of Cell Biology and Physiology. “We thought this was the perfect way to provide an interesting and unusual educational session while making students aware of alternative strategies for helping their future patients.”

Deb Cunningham, founder and director of Eyes Ears Nose and Paws, a nationally renowned medical alert dog program located in Carrboro, just minutes from the School of Medicine’s campus, led the session.  

“Psychologically, people with diabetes tend to keep their blood sugar levels high because they’re afraid of collapsing, having a seizure, or not waking up in their sleep,” Cunningham told the students. “Our dogs help individuals with diabetes stay in a healthy range by touching them with their nose when their blood sugar is low, which makes our clients feel more comfortable keeping their levels lower.”

Established in 2008, Eyes, Ears, Nose and Paws, a nonprofit, has trained and placed several diabetic assistant dogs for families and individuals who have problems managing their glucose levels on their own. These dogs use their sense of smell to detect a person’s blood glucose level as it moves out of normal range.

In addition to helping their owners monitor their health, the dogs also save thousands of dollars in health-care related costs.

EENP Presentation
Deb Cunningham explains the significant health improvements medical alerts dogs produce within one year.
“They notify their owners quickly, and our clients are able to take action before the situation becomes uncontrollable and forces them to the hospital,” said Cunningham.

Using a simple phone application, Cunningham and her team track clients’ glucose levels and the exact times that their dogs alert them, which allows the organization to make sure that dogs are performing their duties effectively.

Although intensive training is vital to the dog’s ability to serve its owner well, the relationship between dog and owner is also a critical element in the service dog’s success.

“The dog’s performance is highly dependent on the client’s ability to work with the dog and have a relationship,” Cunningham told the students.

Woofy with Medical Students
Second-year medical students introduce themselves to Woofy.

Throughout the hour-long session, medical students jumped in with questions. When asked what future physicians should know about patients with service dogs, Cunningham responded that the dogs should be treated as essential medical equipment during medical appointments and procedures, unless the dog is posing a hazard to the patient’s treatment.

“People see these dogs as part of their bodies -- part of who they are,” she said. “And it’s imperative that physicians recognize that relationship.”

The session contributed to ways the new curriculum is helping transform how medical students learn the art and science of medicine.

“I thought the lecture was informative and adorable,” said second-year medical student Elena Fenu. “I love finding out about the different health-care resources.”