Genesis Contreras and her service dog in the lab

Paws Up for Science! Student’s Service Dog Gets His Own PPE

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A researcher needed her medical-alert pooch to accompany her to the lab. With help from an alum/postdoc, he now sports ‘doggles’

This story has been condensed from a feature in the Cornell Chronicle.

By Caitlin Hayes

When Genesis Contreras ’24 transferred to Cornell earlier this year, she wanted to gain research experience in a lab. But there was a challenge: Contreras relies on a service dog to warn her of sudden and debilitating headaches and fainting spells—and, due to potential hazards, even service dogs are often prohibited in a lab setting.

In other words, Contreras needed her dog to keep her safe in the lab—but the dog, a four-year-old beagle named Nugget, needed to be safe in the lab as well.

Multiple faculty and staff at Cornell worked collaboratively with Contreras, an animal science major in CALS, to find a solution.

Now Nugget works in the lab in full personal protective equipment (PPE), including booties, a custom lab jacket, and dog goggles—a.k.a. “doggles.” He sits on a designated mat alongside Contreras, as she studies the threatened eastern hellbender salamander in the Cornell Wildlife Health Lab.

“The work we’re doing is important, but it gives me so much relief, too,” Contreras observes. “It doesn’t feel like I’m running a race with an end, which is how classes can sometimes feel: the work is really heavy, and then you get a grade. The research is more ongoing, and I can make mistakes and correct them as I go.”

The work we’re doing is important, but it gives me so much relief, too.

Student researcher Genesis Contreras ’24

When Nugget leaves his mat to lean on Contreras (or even sometimes on postdoctoral researcher Alyssa Wetterau Kaganer ’13, PhD ’21), they both know it’s time to assess how Contreras is feeling and to take a break if needed.

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With Nugget’s warning, Contreras can often take steps—like resting, eating or drinking, or taking medicine—to lessen or even prevent an attack.

Kaganer, who has volunteered with Guiding Eyes for the Blind for more than a decade, researched options for making the lab safe for Nugget.

Service dog Nugget in the lab in his PPE
Nugget on duty, perched on his designated mat in the lab.

She passed the information to Contreras, who made final decisions about what would work best and how to train Nugget with the PPE—a process of acclimating him to and encouraging him with each new piece of equipment.

“My main takeaway from this is that none of this is a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Kaganer.

“Every service animal is unique, every service animal user is unique, and having that open dialogue is key to developing a successful outcome. Genesis is an awesome scientist—she’s going to do incredibly well in whatever she chooses to do. We’ve been really lucky to be a part of that growth and journey for her.”

Photos by Noël Heaney / Cornell University.

Published December 13, 2022


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