First-year animal science major Sadie MacIver, from Bedford, N.H., shares her dorm room with Basil, a German Shepherd. She met Basil through her job at a daycare and adopted him in Dec. 2017 after his previous owners gave him up.
“After just a few months of having him, I noticed, like, how much of a difference he made,” MacIver said of Basil. “Honestly, I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like a Hallmark story. My anxiety levels are, like, so much lower now that I have him.”
A few months after getting Basil, MacIver started going to therapy, where she said she and her therapist agreed that Basil helped with anxiety, depression and panic attacks. When it came time to plan her transition to the University of New Hampshire, MacIver was determined to bring Basil along as her Emotional Support Animal (ESA).
UNH’s Service Animal/ Emotional Support Animal Pol- icy, available on the Student Ac- cessibility Services (SAS) website, states that an ESA is defined as “an animal that provides emotional support which alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of an individual’s disability.”
SAS director Michael Shuttic works with students who request a housing accommodation to have an ESA in their room.
“The SAS process for having an ESA in a residence on campus is the same that is used for other accommodations,” Shuttic said.
“I guess the examples I would give [of ESA accommodation requests] range from people saying, ‘I have an ESA and I’m letting you know,’ which would be inappropriate because it’s a request for an accommodation,” he added. “There are some folks who, based on the information we have received, have great difficulty in getting up or getting to class, and the ESA impacts their ability to do that in some way.”
“I did have a huge struggle with [UNH Student Accessibility Services],” MacIver said. “I did not have a good experience with them. But I was planning on having [Basil] with me no matter what. It wasn’t a question at all, and honestly if anything was an issue and for whatever reason it was gonna be a ‘No,’ I wasn’t gonna come here.”
Students requesting an ESA disability accommodation must obtain documentation of their disability from a mental health professional and send it to SAS, Shuttic said. The students then meet with SAS staff to discuss their disability and possible accommodations. SAS may speak directly to the mental health professional.
According to the UNH Emotional Support Animal Housing Policy, also available on SAS’s website, “Having a psychological/emotional disability does not necessarily qualify an individual to have an Emotional Support Animal in university housing as an accommodation. The student must establish that the animal provides emotional support or other assistance that would ameliorate one or more symptoms or effects of the disability.”
The Service Animal/Emotional Support Animal Policy differentiates between service animals and Emotional Support Animals. Service animals are trained to help people with disabilities with their activities of daily living, while Emotional Support Animals are not trained to perform specific tasks and do not accompany their owners at all times.
“As a result,” the Service Animal/Emotional Support Animal Policy states, “ESAs approved for the residential setting are not permitted in other buildings, and are subject to restriction from any area with a no-pet policy.”
Although caring for a dog on top of classes might sound stressful, MacIver finds the opposite is true.
“I think he totally impacts my day-to-day life, just little things like getting up in the morning and feeding him,” she said of Basil. “I feel like before, I would find myself kind of laying [sic] in bed all day, depressed and not wanting to do anything, having no motivation. But with him here, he gives me that motivation. There are certain things that I have to do, like let him outside and feed him. But they don’t seem like tasks that I have to do; they’re something that I like to do. I enjoy taking him on walks and I enjoy getting up with him and sleeping with him at night. He makes me feel like I’m never alone.”
MacIver has a single room. “If anybody’s gonna think they need to have their ESA with them on campus,” she said. “I suggest getting a single, just ‘cause it makes it really easy.”
Kailey McElhiney, a junior English teaching major from Westford, MA, also has an ESA. Lucy, a Pomeranian, is “really, really happy” to be in college, McElhiney said. “At home, she always thinks that I’m leaving to go back to school and gets excited and tries to get into my car.”
McElhiney got Lucy to help with anxiety during her freshman year of high school. In addition to emotional support, McElhiney said, “[Lucy] has been something that I’ve taken care of since high school. Having her is just really helpful. And I know not only me, but other people like to see her. It really makes them happy. A lot of people in the hallways are really excited to see a dog.”
McElhiney said that getting the disability accommodation through SAS and talking to her future roommates “to make sure they would allow Lucy to be with me in the dorm,” took about a month and a half.
McElhiney and Lucy started out in a triple room, but UNH Housing decided to move them after their sleep mates turned out to be allergic to dogs.
“I had to bring her home first semester, which was really disappointing for me,” she said, “but they had allergies, so there’s not much that I could do about that. And Housing wasn’t thinking about the fact that suitemates are also part of that because we did share a bathroom…. I was allowed to follow up and bring her my sophomore year.”
McElhiney currently lives in a four-person apartment where everyone has their own room. She has a job in addition to school, so her main challenge with having an ESA on campus is time management. Her roommates take Lucy outside on days when McElhiney can’t come home in the middle of the day.
Although SAS does not require that ESAs have obedience training, the Emotional Support Animal Housing Policy states that animals “must not be unruly, disruptive, or a direct threat to the health and safety of others.” The guidelines also state that “[t]he animal must be under the owner’s control at all times (defined as harnessed, tethered, on a leash, or held by the student) …. The ESA will be held to the same behavioral standards as residents (i.e., noise, disruption, destruction).”
Basil is certified through the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen obedience program. MacIver said she took Basil to obedience classes “so that I knew he was fully trained and was going to be an appropriate-acting dog and stuff like that.”
Lucy “is a very relaxed dog,” McElhiney said. “She’s like a weird cat, so there wasn’t really anything to train her for.” Lucy “is a very cuddly type of dog,” she added. “If you’re stressed— It’s not just me, but my roommates—if you’re upset, she’ll just cuddle you. That’s what she does for me, at least. She’s always there. She’s with me right now. She demands attention.”
Because Basil is a large dog, MacIver said that “[s]ome people are kind of intimidated by him, but most people are like, ‘Oh my gosh, you have a dog. Can I please pet him?’”
“People constantly stop me around campus, or they just stare and smile,” McElhiney said. MacIver said she sometimes encounters people who don’t understand the difference between a family pet and an ESA.
“It makes me a little mad because I think a lot of people don’t take [ESAs] seriously,” she said. “A lot of people think they’re abused and people are just trying to get their dogs here and stuff like that.”
MacIver is hoping to combine her animal sciences major with a minor in business and open her own animal shelter. She thinks Basil will fit into her post-graduate life “very easily.”
“I think it’ll just be the same as it always has been,” McElhiney said of post-graduate life with Lucy. “I don’t think much will change. She’ll always be there.”
“I can see him continuing tohelp for the rest of our being together,” MacIver said of Basil. “He’s a reminder that everything happens for a reason and life’s too short to stress about little things.”