A Student's Best Friend

by Maggie Baird and Kate Hildreth | 5/21/15 8:32pm

Allie Fudge '18 hangs out with her support dog, Kelsie Iris, on the Green.

Frat dogs have long been the undisputed top dogs on campus, many sparking followings of their own, but there is another class of up-and-coming canine. This fall, Student Accessibility Services implemented a new support animal program, which now allows students to live with their support animals in campus dorms.

The idea of a support animal seemed pretty straightforward at first, but we did not realize how complicated the legal classes of animals are until embarking on this article. While the terms are likely used interchangeably by those that are less familiar with the concept, therapy dogs, emotional support dogs and service dogs all have very different rights and roles on college campuses.

A therapy dog is one that has been registered with a therapy organization, but these dogs have largely the same legal designation as any household animal. Most therapy organizations mandate that therapy dogs pass an exam ­— the Canine Good Citizen test. Therapy dogs are often seen frequenting hospitals, nursing homes or schools, and their primary job is simply to provide psychological or physical therapy for people.

You won’t find any permanent therapy dogs on this campus, though, as they are not guaranteed housing and therefore not allowed to live in dorms. You are more likely to find therapy dogs at events like Active Minds’ mental health fair. The puppies are trained to visit places like college campuses and senior centers to provide a general feeling of joy, relief or a moment to de-stress.

Penelope Williams ’16 has been spending a lot of time this term with a particular dog that many of us likely recognize — Kappa Kappa Kappa fraternity’s border collie, Zeus. Williams said that she was drawn to Zeus for his intelligence and for his breed. Though Zues is not a certified therapy dog, Williams derives therapeutic benefits from spending time with him.

“It’s been a definite mode of therapy for me because I can’t run,” she said. “I turned to meditation and to dog therapy.”

Williams explained that she has gone to see Zeus at least once a week throughout the term. They regularly enjoy walks around Pine Park and time on the green together.

Could frat dogs do more? Maybe, but many regulations exist for emotional support and therapy animals.

“The problem is that they have to be very well trained,” Williams explained. “They have to have a single handler who would be willing to take them all the time.”

In many fraternities, there’s often one member who takes responsibility for the organization’s dog, and the animal will often “graduate” with this designated member. Sororities, though, don’t seem to have the same affinity for a house dog. This is another issue that often arises with dogs on campus, as the ownership of land can determine if an organization can have a pet. If a Greek organization owns its own land, it can have a dog. This presents a problem for many of the national sororities and fraternities, which are located in college-owned houses.

Support dogs, on the other hand, are closer to a service dog than to a pet. Allie Fudge ’18, who lives with an emotional support dog, calls them “pet[s] with privileges.”

Student Accessibility Services director Ward Newmeyer describes support dogs as “animals that are not service animals, but also aren’t pets.”

The role of a support animal, however, is not always a simple and uniform one. Fudge said her dog, Kelsie Iris, is learning commands specific to her needs, but other dogs can provide support for their owners with just their presence. As Newmeyer describes it, some people find solace or encouragement just by knowing that there is someone waiting for them at home or by having the responsibility of taking care of an animal.

With each of these designations, though, comes a different set of training, and it is easier to train pets to become emotional support animals than service animals. With proper documentation from a mental health professional and a series of paperwork from SAS, students can have live-in support animals. SAS’ support animal policy has allowed a few dogs across campus, as well as a miniature horse and chinchilla, Fudge said.

Although it is not as difficult to designate a dog as an emotional support animal, being the tier below service dog poses some problems. Service dogs have full access. As Fudge puts it, “wherever a wheelchair can go, a service dog can go.

The Fair Housing Act of 1988 is the important legal precedent that distinguishes support animals from pets. While establishments like restaurants and movie theaters sometimes feel they have a good reason not to allow pets, housing is different, particularly because these animals often provide the most support because they can live with their owners. Although the College is a private institution, it uses the Fair Housing Act as a vital element in determining support animal status on campus.

Although he explained that these pets are not “specifically trained to mitigate a disability,” he said they have equal housing rights and provide a lot of support, particularly for issues of mental health and wellbeing.

Emotional support dogs, on the other hand, only have guaranteed access to airplanes and housing. Fudge has had to ask for explicit permission to enter each individual building with Kelsie Iris. Many spaces on campus have refused to allow her to bring Kelsie Iris inside, which is why she said she is working on training Kelsie Iris to be a service dog.

Fudge says Kelsie Iris gives her “a lot more independence from myself.”

Aside from just entering buildings on campus, emotional support dogs are not guaranteed to be allowed in class, and Fudge said professors “aren’t allowed to give permission” to let them in.

Engineering professor Jason Stauth said one student brought a dog to his class for parts of the term. The student told him about it at the beginning of the term, and he said there have not been any issues since.

“I was perfectly fine with it,” he said.

He said it has not been distracting in his class, and he “hope[s] that the student wouldn’t feel shy about having the animal.”

It may seem counter-productive that professors are not allowed to choose whether or not they are comfortable with an emotional support animal in their classroom. The animals are generally well-trained and help to make their students healthier and happier. Stauth said he wanted to make his student feel as comfortable as possible.

Newmeyer said that the College’s legal counsel advised against allowing animals in class and that the policy on faculty not being able to make decisions on the matter has been in place for a long time.

Although it is a significant life adjustment to take care of another living creature, Fudge feels it is worth the extra time. Kelsie Iris has already helped her in real-life crises. As part of her training to gain service dog distinction, Fudge has taught her more than 50 commands and six disability mitigating tasks.

Fudge said that awareness of these animals and their roles are not very high on campus, and this is another problem she has had to deal with. People will often pet Kelsie Iris even when she’s wearing her “on-duty” vest, which has multiple “do not pet” signs on it.

Kelsie Iris has a blog, lots of social media and an email. The blog features tips for interacting with service dogs and is a great resource for people who are not aware of how to interact with these animals.

With the College’s relatively new policy, it will be interesting to see how support animals on campus develop over the years. Frat dogs and service animals aren’t the only species on this campus, and it’s important that people are aware of how to treat support animals.

Fudge is a member of The Dartmouth staff.