Complete with 'doggles,' service dog accompanies student to lab

November 9, 2021 (Volume 45, Number 6)
Article by Peg West

When Julia Woolman, who is studying pre-veterinary medicine, is working in a laboratory, her service animal, Zeek, follows safety protocols that include wearing personal protective equipment.

The protocols are part of a university process where representatives from Disability Support Resources worked with laboratory coordinators to ensure Zeek can safely accompany Woolman in the lab.

"The university's safety program is dedicated to providing a safe laboratory environment to Grand Valley’s employees, students and visitors," said Shontaye Witcher, DSR senior director. "The guidelines ensure safe lab practices and training programs to keep everyone safe by reducing the hazards and minimizing the risk of injury or illness."

Witcher noted research laboratories are not public spaces, so exemptions are needed for service animals, which can carry natural organisms that can negatively affect research outcomes. In addition, she said, officials must ensure the safety of the dogs or miniature horses, as they could face potential harm because of chemicals or organisms in use. They are working animals, not pets nor emotional support animals, she said.

Woolman said that Zeek, a Chesapeake Bay and Labrador retriever, assists her with the effects of the sleep disorder idiopathic hypersomnia with sleep inertia. Woolman said the condition causes exhaustion and feeling chronically sleep deprived, along with needing extra stimulus to wake up from sleep, among other effects.

Zeek is trained to detect Woolman's alarm and persistently nudge her awake, she said. He also is trained to "boop" her if she nods off, such as in class, and escalate to pawing at her if necessary.

"I'm forever grateful for this dog," Woolman said of Zeek, whom she rescued from an animal shelter before he went through training. "If not for him, I would not be living on my own."

While in the lab, Zeek wears PPE such as booties, a coat and "Doggles," which are goggles made specifically for dogs, said Mary Jo Smith, general chemistry laboratory instructional coordinator. He also is trained to lie on a specific mat while Woolman works; the mat is stored when Woolman is not there.

"By reducing the risks for Zeek we are protecting Julia," Smith said. "She has spent a lot of time training with Zeek and he is very important to her independence."

Woolman said she is grateful for the work done to ensure Zeek can join her in the lab. "It has been very smooth. DSR has been phenomenal," she said.

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This article was last edited on November 9, 2021 at 12:58 p.m.

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