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  • Grace Sigler

Paws with a cause: The impact of Emotional Support and Service Animals on college campuses

Autumn Edmondson's service dog in training, Sirius. (Photo courtesy: Autumn Edmondson)

As the student body grows at Palm Beach Atlantic University, the number of emotional support animals and service animals living on campus also grows. While it is easy to assume that these animals are just pets, they serve an important purpose in assisting students with both mental and physical disabilities. While an ESA and a service animal serve different purposes in helping to accommodate the needs of their owner, both are allowed and protected by law at PBA.

What differentiates an ESA from a service animal is primarily based on whether or not they have specialized training to assist their owners based on their needs. Service animals are specifically dogs who have received specialized training to perform tasks to assist their owners. Although ESAs do not require training, this does not discredit their impact on their owner’s life and educational experience.

Megan Heady's emotional support dog, Nelly. (Photo courtesy: Megan Heady)

Registering for an ESA on campus is not a simple process. Often a student must already have “academic and accessibility accommodations” before they can submit an application. The ESA registration process proved to be a challenge for PBA student Megan Heady and her ESA, Nelly.

“Getting the ESA letter took a long time, and I had to go through a very long and tedious process to get Nelly certified to be on campus,” Heady said.

Despite the tedious application process, Heady expressed that the pros outweigh the cons tremendously when it comes to having an ESA on campus.

“She deflects the attention away from me, which is nice. She helps me get out of bed on days when it’s hard to do so and once I’m up I feel so much better. Having her here helps me balance my stress levels,” Heady said.

Service animals are more well known among college students due to their relevance in many different social settings helping to assist those with physical disabilities. While ESAs and service animals serve different purposes there is some overlap in the bond that an owner may have with either their ESA or service animal. Autumn Edmondson, a senior at PBA expressed some of the emotional benefits of having her service dog in training, Sirius.

“Over the summer it made living alone a lot easier and also helped me emotionally regulate. It’s nice to have a creature around that depends on me, taking care of him reminds me that I have to take care of myself,” Edmondson said.

ESA and service animals are equally important in allowing for a higher quality education for the students who need them.

“But as my condition continues to worsen he will be able to provide me with access to and quality of life that I wouldn’t be able to experience without him. Once his training is complete, he will become a vital piece of medical equipment that assists in my physical and psychological well-being,” Edmondson said.

While both ESA and service animal owners may experience respectful and kind treatment from peers, both may experience negative reactions, behaviors and lack of common courtesy from their peers who do not have an ESA or service animal.

“I don’t think a lot of my peers assume that she is ‘just a pet’ but I do think that some people don’t take it seriously and might question the legitimacy of why I have her here in the first place,” Heady said.

Although the job of a service animal seems pretty straight forward to most college students, not everyone treats service animals and their owners in a respectful manner.

Sirius on Palm Beach Atlantic University's main campus. (Photo courtesy: Autumn Edmondson)

“Apart from my friends, I think a lot of my peers don’t realize that I am disabled. They aren’t familiar with ‘invisible disabilities and I’ve had people assume that I am training him for somebody else rather than for my own use,” Edmondson said.

Animals living on campus help better the lives of their owners. Acknowledging the presence and purpose of both ESAs and service animals helps the owners in prioritizing their own needs and the needs of their animals. With this in mind, there are some things the community can do in order to help support students with ESAs and service animals.

“As a community, it’s important to ask for permission to interact with somebody’s ESA. It’s important to engage with the person first before engaging with the animal at all,” Edmondson said.

Little acts of courtesy and consideration go a long way in showing respect and support for ESA or service animal-reliant students.

By Grace Sigler

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