Sixty five assistance animals are housed all over the University of Connecticut Storrs campus, Jennifer Lucia, associate director of the Center for Students with Disabilities, said.
Four UConn undergraduates talked to The Daily Campus about what it is like having an assistance animal and why they need one.
Jessica Elizondo, a sixth-semester anthropology major with an animal science major, brought her seven-year-old chihuahua named Taco to campus for this academic year. Elizondo said that she was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and depression at age 10 and Taco has become her support system away from home and helps with her panic/anxiety attacks.
“He is the reason why I wake up in the morning,” Elizondo said. “Having a life that relies on you waking up, feeding them [and] walking them helps me accomplish these tasks. I know that I need to get out of bed in the morning or else he will not be taken care of. He is one of my biggest motivators.”
An assistance animal or an emotional support animal can help aid symptoms of an individual’s disability, according to the Center for Students with Disabilities (CSD) website. Lucia said the main difference between a service animal and an assistance animal is the amount of training a service animal must undergo.
“A service animal is defined as a dog, it can only be a dog. It is specifically trained to provide tasks for an individual with a disability,” Lucia said. “So, whether that is pulling someone in a wheelchair, helping an individual with a visual disability. Some are trained to detect when someone is about to have a seizure. Assistance animals are not trained. They don’t necessarily have to provide a specific task and they can be other animals beside a dog.”
Assistance animals, as compared to service animals, are only allowed in the student’s housing and designated places on campus, Lucia said. Service animals are permitted anywhere on-campus. The difference is due to legal guidelines.
Before students can bring their assistance animals to campus, they must go through a two-step process, Lucia said. Step one is requesting the animal and registering with the CSD with an online application and a Student Self-Report Form. Step two has the student provide documentation from a medical professional in order to prove there is a medical necessity to have their animal. After this, students get provided with a Disability Service Provider to talk about the specifics behind the request for an assistance animal.
Sydney LaFrance, a fourth-semester animal science major, has had Leland, her five-year-old chow chow mix, since her senior year of high school for her anxiety and severe depressive disorder. She brought Leland the day she moved into UConn as a freshman.
“He knows when I’m depressed and will just lay next to me or jump on me to make me smile and laugh,” LaFrance said. “He also makes me get up out of bed every morning because he relies on me to take him out and feed him. He keeps me active and that’s very good for my mental health.”
LaFrance said she was not a fan of the two-step process because she felt it violated her privacy.
“I thought I could just show them my [Individualized Education Program] from high school stating why I had him, but that wasn’t enough,” LaFrance said. “They needed documentation from a doctor stating specific and detailed reasons of why I had to have him. I had to express my issues when I didn’t feel comfortable doing so. I felt they violated my rights by requiring such detailed reasoning.”
Lucia said the detailed progress is legally mandated.
“It’s important for the student to establish themselves as an individual with a disability because that’s what triggers protections under the law,” she said. “In order for them to require accommodations, they have to be seen as a student with a disability.”
The review process with the CSD can take up to a week, Lucia said. Once approved, it can take another week in order for students to meet with their hall director and Residential Life to review the assistance animal agreement that explains all of the student’s responsibilities when they bring an animal to campus.
Lucia said that CSD advises students who are requesting assistance animals to have a conversation with roommates or suitemates before bringing their animals. Everyone in the room has to approve the animal living there.
“If the roommate has a problem, say they are allergic or has a fear of dogs, they are still entitled to accommodation but we will work with ResLife to make a new assignment to maybe a new roommate who is okay with the animal,” Lucia said.
Julia Trafaconda, a fourth-semester animal science major, rescued her dog, Thor, on Oct. 1, 2019 and he moved on campus with her about a month later. She said that her roommate, Tatyanna Molina, was allergic to cats and she had to make sure that she got an animal that would work for Molina.
“Honestly, I had always wanted a dog for an emotional support animal, but I did consider bringing a cat at one point because they are very low maintenance,” Trafaconda said. “However my roommate turned out to be allergic to cats and when I saw Thor’s face on the adoption page I knew he was for me.”
Molina, a fourth-semester sociology and women’s gender and sexuality studies major, said that Thor has become a great addition to her life as well. With the way the pair set up their room in North campus, Molina said that Thor does not bother her and that it’s “really nice having a dog in the room regardless of if he’s mine or not.”
“Thor’s crate, bed, toys and supplies are all under Julia’s risen bed and his food and bowls are on the floor under the window,” Molina said. “I really don’t feel as though he takes up too much space or interferes with my belongings. He tends to gravitate more towards her side of the room or wherever she is.”
Lucia said that it is completely up to the student to how they set up their room for their animal because every housing situation is different. Again, as long as the roommates or suitemates approved and nothing violates housing regulations, it is acceptable.
Courtney Gavitt, a sixth-semester English and journalism double major and The Daily Campus’ digital editor, said she got her cat, Holden, on Aug. 31, 2019 and brought him to UConn that day. She said her three roommates in Charter Oak apartments are all on the pre-vet track, so they were eager to have a cat in their apartment.
“I actually got certified to have my emotional support animal in April but waited until the end of August to get my cat because I didn’t feel comfortable keeping a cat in a dorm room,” Gavitt said. “I’m living in Charter Oak apartments this year, so I was more confident in him having enough space to live. His litter box is in my bathroom, his food is near my sink and he has several beds in various places around the apartment.”
Elizondo said that she and Taco currently live in a single dorm in East campus. The layout allows him to roam in the room throughout the day while she is in class.
“I have a soft walled crate beside my bed that I always keep open, which acts like a home for him and he finds comfort in. He always tends to sleep in his crate when I am away from the room,” Elizondo said. “Taco is house trained, so I keep disposable pee pads around the room so that he can relieve myself when I am not in the room. However, I do frequently return to my room throughout the day to walk him, and I try not to spend too many hours away from my dorm.”
In addition to the roommates, Residential Life does notify other residents in the building that an animal will be living in the building, Lucia said. They do not disclose the name of the student or room number to protect their privacy.
Residential Life will also notify Public Safety that an assistance animal is living in the building in case of an emergency, Lucia said.
“[Reslife will] share their list of students who are approved and what rooms they are in so that in the event of an emergency, the fire personnel will know,” Lucia said. “If there is an emergency in McMahon and [Public Safety] gets the list that says two cats and a dog, they will know to go to those rooms first to make sure they evacuate the animals.”
Students can pick whatever animal they want for an assistance animal either before or after getting approved, Lucia said. She said to The Daily Campus that she could not be specific with how many unique types of assistance animals are currently on-campus because it could “potentially ‘out’ a student as being a student with a disability if the type of animal is more rare than a cat or dog.” She did confirm that the majority of animals on-campus are cats and dogs.
The four students said that they have received mixed reactions when they are with their assistance animal from passerbyers.
LaFrance said the most common comments are positive but she has had her fair share of people not understanding why she has an assistance animal.
“I have had people give me dirty looks. Many people don’t understand that these animals are here for a purpose and many of them are bred to work,” LaFrance said. “It’s our responsibility to take care of them and ourselves. Having an emotional support animal on-campus will always start a conversation because some people do take advantage of the privilege that we have.”
Gavitt said that sometimes people do not understand the medical necessity to an assistance animal.
“Having an emotional support animal has largely been a positive experience,” Gavitt said. “Most of the time, people are really excited to meet him and want to visit us. … I will say, though, I think sometimes people look at emotional support animals as a joke or just a way to bypass UConn’s no-pet rule. But my cat does actually help me! He does have a purpose larger than being just a pet.”
Elizondo said that she thinks assistance animals are valuable resources for people who believe it can help them. However, she doesn’t like when she sees people abusing the philosophy behind an assistance animal.
“Emotional support animals are not service dogs, but they are a reliable resource,” Elizondo said. “When people fake emotional support animals, it takes credibility away from emotional support animals and service dogs.”
Trafaconda said that any responsibility is worth having a dog that just wants “love and attention.”
“As exciting and fun as it sounds, owning an emotional support animal is not easy,” she said. “You have to be willing to make sacrifices and take on a lot of responsibility. I often find myself sounding like a mom when referring to Thor because the amount of care he requires can be quite demanding. However, if you give them everything they need, they will give you the world in return.”
Rachel Philipson is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.