With an increase in awareness of mental illness, and a growing acceptance for animal services for disabilities, the UMHB campus has seen a spike in the number of Emotional Support Animals (or ESA’s) and Service Animals. Seeing a service animal in class is becoming more and more common on campus. To date, there are 21 ESA’s on campus and 4 service animals on campus. Service animals are allowed in all buildings at UMHB, and allowed to live with their handler. For those who are unaware of the etiquette of approaching or encountering the animal, the experience can be new and confusing.
“A service animal is a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” Said Dr. Nate Williams, head of both counseling center, and overseeing support and service animals. “Other animals, whether domestic or wild, do not qualify as service animals. Examples of such work or tasks may include guiding a person with impaired vision, alerting a person with a hearing impairment, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with a mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, and/or performing other duties. Service Animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a Service Animal has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. These animals serve important purposes in the lives of people with disabilities. ”
When asked about his own personal experience with service animals, Dr. Williams was eager to brag on his diabetic alert dog, Lucy. “My service dog has been a life saver for me. In many ways, she is another reminder to me of my disability, but at the same time she is one of my greatest allies in my fight for ongoing health. She amazes me almost daily.”
There are a few simple things to remember when encountering a service animal, that can ultimately benefit both your and the handler’s experience over all.
First, make sure to remember that the animal is working. When a service animal has a vest on, or even when it doesn’t, it is expected to focus on the tasks it has been trained to perform. This means that distracting the animal by petting or cooing at them can deter them from their work. If you want to pet the animal, but are unsure if it is appropriate, ask the handler. Some handler’s do not mind this attention; however some find it detrimental to the training.
Next, be sure to read the patches on the animal’s jacket. Some working animals have specialized patches made specifically for the public.
These patches include “Do Not Touch” “No Photos Please” as well as the disease in which the handler has the animal for. It is important to read and familiarize yourself with these patches. By familiarizing yourself, you are able to not only respect the handler’s wishes, but also act in an emergency if the handler becomes incapacitated or separated from their animal.
“It’s helped me so much, having her with me,” said a senior marketing majro who wished to remain anonymous. “She notifies me when I’m feeling stressed and helps to keep me focused in class. She’s trained to perform certain tasks, and that’s what makes having her as a service animal all the more worthwhile. She really helps me.”
When asked about etiquette and how others should go about interacting with her, the senior was excited about informing others.
“It’s so important to ask someone in general before petting their animal, but with a service animal I think it’s so necessary. I know for me, if my dog is distracted while working she can miss serious cues that would ultimately impact my entire day. While she’s working, it’s always nice for people to ask before trying to pet or play with her, especially in class.”
There are other animals that live on campus as well that are not service. These animals provide emotional support for students in their homes, and are labeled as an Emotional Support Animal. Animals labeled under such title are not permitted in any of the buildings on campus except the handler’s apartment or dorm.
“First, you have to get a letter from your psychiatrist saying that you would benefit from having an ESA.” said sophomore mass communication major, Madeline Harris of the process of getting an ESA. “Then, you submit that along with a disability request to the Counseling department at UMHB. They look over your application and if it’s approved, they send you paperwork to fill out. After you turn in the paperwork, you meet with the person in charge to go over the final rules and whatnot. If you live on campus, you have to meet with ResLife. People should know that the process to get an ESA approved, especially if you live on campus, is full of paperwork and meetings. If you don’t need an ESA, trying to get approval for one would be an exercise of frustration.”
Harris is a handler of an on campus ESA, and was excited when asked about her experience thus far with her animal. “So far, my experience with having an ESA has been quite eye opening. Taking care of a living being other than myself is work, but it’s worth it. I most definitely have benefitted from having an ESA. She helps calm me down when I’m stressed and is just a good companion in general. I wish students knew that having a support animal is not the same as having a pet. I also want people to know that if you want to pet an ESA, all you have to do is ask the owner, just like with any other dog.”
Etiquette for interactions with an ESA is different than that of a Service Animal. Though ESA’s are great for destressing their handlers, they are not necessarily performing tasks. Though it is still important to ask the handler before attempting to pet or play with an ESA, it is more likely the handler will be more open to allowing play time with an ESA.
Both service animals and ESAs that are brought on campus have to be cleared with both housing and the counseling center, as well as have a designated doctor’s note stating the reasoning behind the need for such. These animals are trained to serve their handlers to the best of their ability, and are not considered simply “pets”.
When interacting with a service animal or ESA, it is important to speak to the handler before playing or petting the animal. Educating yourself on the various ways to properly approach a working animal or speaking with the handler can greatly benefit both yours, the handler and the animal’s experience overall.