The growing presence of animals on campus in recent years has created curiosity and prejudice surrounding service and emotional support animals.
By definition, a service animal is a dog trained to do a specific task which benefits a person with a disability, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) National Network website. Emotional support animals (ESAs) differ in they can be any animal that provides comfort and overall companionship to their owner, but they are not trained to do specific tasks.
Kristie Orr, the director of Texas A&M’s Disability Resources, formerly known as Disability Services, said emotional support animals must be registered with their department in order to live in on-campus housing. However, service dogs do not need to be registered and can go anywhere on campus where they do not pose a health and safety threat to the animal.
There is no national registry for service animals. However, Orr said they can be trained at agencies or organizations across the country where they learn how to perform specific tasks for owners, such as to recognizing when their owner’s blood pressure is too high or when the person is having an anxiety attack.
The handler’s rights, defined within the Americans with Disabilities Act, prohibits anyone from requiring a person to provide proof their animal is a service dog, which can make it difficult to distinguish emotional support animals and service dogs in public areas. Rachel Fournier, a former student with an emotional support dog named Maggie, said some people take advantage of this law and purposefully mislabel their ESA as a service dog so they can bring them into stores or other public places.
“People need to educate themselves on what qualifies as a service dog, and if they really want to train their dog to do a specific task for them, then they should research it instead of just buying something online or throwing a vest on it,” Fournier said. “There are people out there that have medical illnesses that will cause them to get dangerously hurt if their dog gets distracted by yours.”
Orr said there has been an increase in the amount of dogs on campus in recent years, which is both exciting and challenging. The university does not have a rule against bringing pets on campus, but they cannot go inside any buildings unless they are is a service dog. Orr said it is common courtesy to be aware of the pet and only bring it on campus if it is well trained so it does not distract a service dog from its work.
“I think it’s important for people to be aware of their animal, so if they’re bringing a pet on campus just be thoughtful … about the dog’s behavior,” Orr said. “We know that when people are falsely using service animals, that it makes it much more challenging for those that need them.”
For those who respect the difference, emotional support animals can provide comfort for their owners without necessarily needing to always be by their side, said Lexi Ong, a business sophomore with an ESA named Maya.
“The presence of them helps in day-to-day life; alleviating whatever issues you deal with so [you] can be more independent and productive,” Ong said. “Having emotional support animals keeps people accountable and puts more structure in their lives. It gives us something to put focus into that is something we want to take care of.”
Despite the negative connotation often surrounding emotional support animals, Ong and Fournier both said ESAs could provide emotional comfort for people who legitimately need it.
Disability Resources advises the campus community to recognize that regardless of any preconceptions or assumptions, students should be more aware of the need for both service animals and emotional support animals.
“I think there are times when people see a dog on campus and the person with the dog does not appear to have a disability that there may be a bit more questioning there,” Orr said. “I assume if I see a dog that it is a service animal, and I don’t try to question that because it is not my place.”
The Disability Resources website highlights service animal etiquette everyone on and off campus should follow, as defined below:
“Keep fellow Aggies safe: Touching or interacting with a service animal can be dangerous or life-threatening.
“Consider leaving pets at home: Other animals can interfere with the work of a service animal and put your fellow students at risk.
“Respect the privacy of the service animal team: Ask permission before taking photos or videos and before posting them online.
“Think of the service animal like a wheelchair: Understand the service animal plays a critical role for a student.”
Orr said one of the biggest challenges students with service animals on campus face today is the attention through social media. People often want to take photos or videos of service animals because they think they are cute, but this can make the person with the dog feel uncomfortable. Orr said it is important to realize that a person with a service dog does have a disability, and they may or may not want that posted on social media.
“People just want to be treated like a person,” Orr said. “Respect the privacy of the individual.”