When I was younger, I would always make my friends who had dogs place their animals in a separate part of the house. I didn’t care if they were small or big; I just couldn’t stand the barking. Flashbacks of when I almost got bit by a dog when I was younger get triggered when new dogs I meet start to bark. This has affected my ability to see how a dog could really be a person’s rock. That changed when I met Dolly, the service dog that lives in my hall.
When I found out that there was going to be a dog living next to me, I had so many questions. Who would bring their dog to college? Why did I have to be stuck living next to it? At first glance, there wasn’t an apparent need for the dog because I had met everyone on my floor and no one seemed to have a physical disability. Then, I learned that Dolly was a service dog specifically for emotional support.
Service animals for emotional support should be validated and welcomed on this campus. A person who has a service animal is not making an excuse to bring a pet to college. We should not automatically assume that just because an owner doesn’t have any physical impairments, a service dog has no use. I was wrong in thinking this way as I believed this was an easy way to bring your dog to school — because what pet owner wouldn’t? It’s okay to be curious, but to even question if emotional support is a real thing is absurd.
Dolly’s owner, a Wharton freshman, said that people kept coming up to her during the first weeks of school during her walks.
“It was difficult getting around with people interrogating me about her instead of getting to know me," Dolly's owner said. "After revealing that she was my emotional support dog since eighth grade, a group of students responded back: Is emotional support even a thing? I want people to know that Dolly’s more than just my pet. She has become an integral part of not just my life, but the rest of my floormates' lives too.”
Students who have a service animal similar to Dolly should not have to go through the same experience my floormate underwent. To simply assume that emotional support is not something important contributes to the lack of an ongoing conversation about mental health on campus. When you see students walking around campus with their service animals, you shouldn’t see them as having their house pet at Penn. Instead, get to know them and don’t invalidate the support they need from their service animals.
All of my floormates have gotten acquainted with Dolly since the beginning of the year. Having her owner allow us to play with her and bask in the comfort of having a so called “community pet” has helped us bond. As the semester has progressed, every time I visit my friend and Dolly, I grow fonder about having her around. However, it took some time to get Dolly approval for her stay at Penn.
The process to bring an emotional support pet on campus is long. Students must provide documentation to Student Disability Services and state the reason to have their service animal. This requires a note from a physician that knows the person’s needs and their personal history with mental health. From there, the animal becomes approved and the owner must follow strict compliance guidelines to allow the service animal to live on campus.
The Pennsylvania Human Rights Act protects people with disabilities from discrimination when they need public accommodations when using a guide or a support animal for their disability. However, there is no mention of emotional support animals whatsoever. On the federal level, the Americans with Disabilities Act also does not acknowledge regular emotional support animals, but does protect those who have "any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” These laws should be expanded, however, to include emotional support dogs that don’t have formal training or some legal certification.
Since beginning my first semester at Penn, I’ve been exposed to so many new people and have had to adapt to my surroundings. This included living next to the thing that I was most scared of. Originally, I questioned its existence on this campus. All preconceived notions that emotional support animals are just an easy way for anyone to get their pet on campus need to be eliminated. After experiencing a hard time transitioning to Penn, I looked for solace in the place I would never have thought in looking in and that was in a Bichon Frise and toy poodle named Dolly.
CARLOS ARIAS VIVAS is a College freshman from Stamford, Conn., studying communication. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Convos with Carlos” usually appears every other Tuesday.
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