Education, a necessity to open the doors of opportunity. Just introducing the topic of school and education is enough to spark up some stressful facial expressions in the room. A dog usually isn’t something that crosses the average students’ mind when preparing for school, but for some students, life as a more independent being requires the presence of four paws.
You step onto a high school campus, you look around; familiar faces that are echoed throughout memories of years past. Its four straight years of self-discovery. Now when you step onto a college campus and look around, it’s like entering a microcosm of a metropolis. Like lightning, you’ll never see the same face twice, no matter how many days you attend. Every class is a stepping stone towards your future. The glaring differences in these institutions are to be expected, such expected dissimilarities are surprisingly extended towards the treatment and reception of a student with a working dog.
On the outer edges of Los Angeles County is high school graduate, Dani. She spent half her high school career in independent study before she trained her service dog, Luca, who allowed her to return for her senior year. Word of her return spread through the classrooms like wildfire, along with the new addition by her side. High school administrators tend to greet the idea of a service dog on campus with hesitation, the fear was centered on how the dog would affect the student and her peers’ ability to focus in the classroom, as well as their ability to perform in certain activities. The acceptance of a service dog becomes a production, Dani went so far as to make a PowerPoint video demonstrating the important tasks needed by Luca to maintain her independence, as well as a phone interview with Luca’s trainers. College however was surprisingly inverse. Many of the handlers I interviewed were able to just simply show up to campus after personally messaging their professors individually with the accommodations they require for their disability, as well as a note that there will be a dog in attendance. Some colleges like the one Mary and her service dog, Esther, attended in Texas, have a voluntary registration set up in the disability office that allows the students with disabilities to access accommodations with ease. Sometimes providing more benefits such as proof of the dogs training, health, and need for attendance in the case of an emergency to avoid any miscommunication. Most colleges often approached service dog teams with a sense of support and advocacy for the teams.
The first days and first steps across the high school hallway with the new student come with a lot of “ooh’s” and “aah’s”. At times Dani felt as though she was a student second and the owner of Luca first, as her peers often addressed her service dog primarily. The title of service dog sometimes began to feel like therapy dog for her surrounding peers involuntarily. As time passed, the presence of Luca began to bring on uplifting attributes. A unique ice breaker, a relatively cute reputation of the small cheery golden marching alongside her. The campus quickly began to feel like family to an extent. Many high school teams reported things becoming easier and more enjoyable after about a month or two on campus, and recommend being firm and honest with your teachers and peers early on to avoid continuously struggling with having the dog be used as entertainment by others. For college, negatives are hard to encounter. Mary and her service dog Esther really only had the hardest time while attending the first of two universities. In the Michigan University, Mary had already completed the first year by herself as any other student. It wasn’t until the summer before her second year she introduced Esther into her life. The school and staff were very accommodating and eager to learn alongside the first team on campus, but already having a developed reputation amongst certain groups and friends, there was some difficult accepting Esther into the mix. Starting a new university in an entirely different state the following year, those difficulties became memories. All the teams including Mary attending colleges with their dog were content with the treatment of the staff and peers, they felt as if they were treated equally and for the most part had very little trouble with distractions by others since most students are too busy to stop and admire the dog on campus. Much like high school, it was a walking icebreaker. A way for you to connect with your professors for a more personalized help, because who can possibly forget the student with a dog unique in its own right? A way to stand out and get some recognition in a sea of students coming in and out. So make sure you’re a good student! The main things to keep into consideration is that everyone has to be willing to accommodate each other. Some classes require activities that might not be suited for a dog to be present, or may require additional protection which can mean taking more steps in preparation than the average student. With the campus being massive, there is no reputation to rely on so you’re never too sure what to expect as a first reaction at the start of each semester, so it’s important to be ready to create a positive relationship with your professors to build a foundation of support for critical needs.
Regardless of grade, if you intend to step on a campus with your service dog then walk in with an open mind, a firm heart, and a willingness to learn with your environment! What might seem like a frightening journey to have an animal attending school alongside you can be an opportunity to create positive relationships with a unique trademark of your own. Be open and honest about your needs and it’s recommended to build a strong foundation with the disability staff if ever the negatives come your way and you need support during your journey to advocate. I think in all this, the hardest part with life on campus with a dog is trying not to envy them as they sleep through class and still manage to pass.