By Shinae Lee ’19
Have you noticed anything different at Gordon this year? Perhaps the sudden rise in canine population on campus? Since January 1st, 2017, Gordon’s Resident Directors have been allowed to have dogs as pets, but there are even more dogs living on campus this fall. The school’s pet policy has not changed; it’s still restricted to fish and small turtles. However, Gordon College does have a policy on Emotional Support Animals and service dogs to accommodate those who need and qualify for one. So what’s the deal with these dogs?
Let’s first get our terminology straight. As stated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, “a service animal is any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not considered service animals.” The ADA also provides legal protection, stating, “Individuals with disabilities can bring their service animals in all areas of public facilities and private businesses where members of the public, program participants, clients, customers, patrons, or invitees are allowed.” So if you see a dog with someone inside a classroom, or at Lane, Jenks, Chapel- that’s a service animal.
The other students’ dogs on campus are Emotional Support Animals (ESA). The ADA is very clear that these animals (not exclusive to dogs) “are not considered service animals under the ADA. These support animals provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias, but do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities.”
It’s not hard to get away with certain loopholes and technicalities if one does enough research. It is a growing issue in the country. Some people play the system to get a dog in residential settings where one would normally not be allowed. I wondered if students at Gordon would take advantage of the policy to do the same. My questions don’t intend to be accusatory of anyone, and it is not trying to belittle those who live with an Service or Emotional Support Animal at Gordon, or anywhere else, but I was curious about potential problems and risks.
First, there is a process at Gordon in requesting approval for an ESA. The student must fill out a “disability accommodation form” explaining why an ESA is being requested. Then, the student needs to have a mental health provider explain the circumstances of the student’s disability, the “necessity” of the ESA, and the role and relationship between the ESA and the student. The same mental health provider must also vouch for the student’s ability to look after the animal. There is, then, a contract that the student must sign. The contract outlines the expectations that Gordon has regarding the student’s responsibility of having an ESA on campus. For example, the animal must be kept under control by the owner, and be housebroken. The owner must also properly dispose of all animal waste (For more details, contact CSD).
I reached out to some RDs for their input and attitudes regarding these support dogs. One of the biggest concerns seem to include the animal’s well being. Tim Son, the RD of Evans emphasizes that “it cannot just be about the person who gets support from the dog, but the person should also give back to the dog.” He cares about the thought process, in which a student must be able to thoroughly consider the responsibilities of having an animal in a small dorm room on a college campus full of other students.
However, Elizabeth Lyons from Wilson Hall believes that “there’s a lot that goes into caring for an animal, but having to take care of an animal makes you be mindful for something other than yourself.” Thus, ESAs can truly have positive influences on those with mental health problems.
However, she does think that “there is a potential for abuse of the system, since particularly today, we can be more focused on the self and our own needs rather than the people around us; and confuse need versus want.” Lyon also admits that “the students at Wilson have done a really good job taking care of their animal,” despite initial difficulties with adjustments. Pertaining to students who are afraid of dogs, Elizabeth believes ESA situations are handled mindfully and respectfully, ensuring that everyone can feel safe and at home in Wilson.
There is also a concern about long term commitment in taking care of an animal. Whether the animal is for emotional support or pet, one must consider all the expenses and restrictions that come with having a dog. It is a lot of responsibility, and it wouldn’t be fair to the dog if you can’t take proper care of it. As for the noise and barking, it is a difficult adjustment for both students and animals. But remember, in the contract that the student signs with the school, barking and other disruptive noises are expected to be minimal/controlled in order for the animal to stay. Pollyana Woods, RD of Chase Hall, adopted a dog in January, who resides in her family’s apartment. She is hopeful about the many different effects that these support animals could have on students. In Polly’s experience, “an apartment is a really small space to raise a dog,” and dorm rooms are even smaller. It must be a difficult transition for both ESAs and their owners, as well as everyone else sharing the same living space. But with a lot of exercise, she believes it shouldn’t be a big issue.
For those who are not big fans of dogs, or dogs on campus, there’s not much that can be done. These animals have been approved on a need based criteria that we need to respect, and are expected to stay out of your way. However it is up to you to speak up for yourself and let your concerns be heard; you live here too.
Regardless, I feel that animals have this wonderful ability to bring people together. The RDs have noticed that seeing a dog puts a smile on students’ faces and brings them joy. I, personally, think it’s great that students at Gordon are also working together to help each other out. People are walking and dog sitting other students’ ESAs, which shows an impressive initiative from the students to ensure that the animals also receive proper support and care. Owning a dog is not for everyone. While they may provide relief for some, it can be a very stressful experience for others. But I think that it’s great that Gordon is being very open to service animals and ESAs on campus, as well as the RD’s dogs. It’s only been a few weeks since the start of this semester, but in the long term, the benefits of having ESAs at Gordon have great potential to pay off in the future. I personally hope that these animals will help us lift the taboo on the topic of mental illness, and that conversations will address stigma toward people living with emotional difficulties.