This post originally appeared as part of a campus-wide email to the Wheelock community to explain the importance of service dogs and their impact on our students.
How many dogs have you seen living down the hall from you or sleeping under the table in class? Do they eat off a plate in the dining hall? Who can touch them? Why can’t you touch them? Who gets to have a dog on campus? All these questions and more will be answered for you as I describe my experiences and what I know from having my Seeing Eye dog on campus at Wheelock. (Please note that these are just my experiences with a specific kind of service dog. Some other service dogs and their handlers may have different rules and standards, but these are what I’ve found to be pretty typical for me and my Seeing Eye dog.)
First, let’s define a service dog. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service dog is one that has been trained for or by someone with a disability in order to do a task that will assist or support that person with a disability. I have a significant visual impairment. Mandy, my Seeing Eye dog, was trained at a guide dog school in New Jersey to assist me in traveling and avoiding obstacles. She does not read signs, memorize my class schedule, or tell me when it’s safe to cross the street. She simply follows my hand signals, verbal commands, and body movements that give her directions; she ensures that I do not walk into any sidewalk furniture or trip over any curbs. In addition to all that, she is great for relieving stress and for making me laugh.
Now to answer some of those questions I hear all the time.
Where does your dog sleep and live?
Mandy is allowed to live with me on campus. I first had to meet with Disability Services to let them know I had a service dog and to work out any accommodations I would need for her, such as a relieving area and determine some general rules about service dogs like Mandy that other students should know. Mandy gets to stay with me and my roommate in our dorm room. She sleeps in her dog bed under my lofted bed. She sleeps with me in my bed at home, but since the bed is too high for her at school, she gets her own bed.
What does a service dog do during class? Is she allowed in class?
Because Mandy is a service dog, she is allowed in any public area that I am allowed in. There are very few places she cannot go, such as an operating room. Some other places, like a rock concert venue, just aren’t safe for her, so I don’t bring her with me. Mandy and I go to class bright and early Monday mornings just like any other student. Mandy helps me locate a chair and I tuck her under the table or desk. She lays down and usually takes the opportunity to nap during class time. She gets a degree while sleeping.
What does a service dog eat?
Since service dogs like Mandy have to be in the public quite often and she has a very important job to keeps me safe when I travel, Mandy needs to have good manners and avoid distractions. That means she has strict rules about what she can eat. Mandy eats dog food and dog treats only. Before offering anything to someone’s dog, people should ask the handler if it is okay to do so. There are many human foods that are toxic and harmful to dogs. When walking through a restaurant, cafeteria, or dining hall, Mandy is not allowed to eat things off the floor, accept scraps, or have a plate of her own.
Can I pet the dog? When can I pet the dog? Why should I ask first?
Like anything else, handlers have different feelings and rules about letting people pet their dogs. The best advice here I can give is: ask first. It upsets handlers when you put your paws on their working companions without even asking, never mind if you are allowed to in the first place. It distracts the service dog and makes it difficult for them to do their job when you say hello, whistle at them, wave, or make kissy noises in their direction. Think of it like this: If you were a passenger in a car, and all of a sudden, someone was waving, honking, flashing their blinkers, and otherwise distracting the driver of said car, would you be happy, feel safe, and be likely to avoid injury in the impending car crash? The answer is an emphatic no. Most times, I will let people pet Mandy if 1: They ask, 2: I’m not busy, 3: Mandy is not working and is not wearing the leather handle on her back called a harness, and 4: Mandy has been behaving. I am also more likely to let someone I know pet Mandy rather than a complete stranger.
Does the dog get to play?
The answer is yes. I would be a monster if I didn’t let my dog play. Although she is very smart and does a great job helping me, at the end of the day, she is still a three-year-old dog. The rule for a Seeing Eye dog in particular is: Equal work time, equal play time. So before people think poor puppy, consider the time I spend cuddling with, wrestling with, running with, hugging, chasing, and taking care of my dog.
What is fun about having a service dog on campus?
Having a service dog on campus is fun for a lot of reasons. For one, you have a second roommate to help you procrastinate doing your homework. Second, Mandy gets to go to campus events with me and be a part of Wheelock. You never have to truly eat dinner alone in the dining hall. You always have a buddy to binge watch The Fosters or The Secret Life of The American Teenager with. If you want to start a conversation with the people around you, but don’t know how, your dog’s wet nose or wagging tail does. If you’re stressed because of finals, papers, or school drama, Mandy is there to listen. When you don’t have anyone to party with on a Friday night, consider the party animal that lives in the room with you and is always up for some fun. Most of all, consider the furry best friend that is always by your side and never judges you (even if she warned you that curb was there but you decided to trip over it anyway.)
I hope this article has helped to answer some of the common questions about service dogs and the college experience with a furry companion by your side.