Chapman is going to the dogs: Creatures comfort students and staff with disabilities and mental health issues

Jessie Stauber, a junior strategic and corporate communications major, keeps busy training her 11-month-old emotional support dog, Lilah. Stauber has social anxiety disorder, and Lilah calms her down when she anxious at home or in public.
Photo by Ian Craddock

When Jessie Stauber couldn’t receive her anxiety medication due to an error at the pharmacy, she had a panic attack. Luckily, the junior strategic and corporate communication major had a backup solution: her emotional support dog, Lilah. Staying close to her side, Lilah cuddled with Stauber until she calmed down.

When political science and peace studies professor Arthur Blaser drops a paper in class, he is not slowed down by his wheelchair or his disability to use one of his hands. His service dog, Ollie, retrieves items for him.

Even though Ollie and Lilah differ fundamentally in their titles and training — only service dogs are required to be trained, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act National Network — both are crucial in their owners’ everyday lives. Only dogs that are trained to assist people “with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability,” are considered service animals, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Legal protections and rights given to service animals do not extend to emotional support animals (known as ESAs). The animals provide crucial comfort to people, like Stauber, who are often hindered by their mental health issues. To Stauber, her ESA is just as important as a service dog.

Although both provide physical or emotional help, ESAs are not legally entitled to enter all the places service dogs must be allowed, said Director of Disability Services Jason McAlexander.

Service dogs must be allowed anywhere. But entities such as restaurants or hospitals are not legally required to permit ESAs on their property, McAlexander said. However, at Chapman, there is no policy against pets on campus. Any student or faculty member could bring their pet to campus, unless it is destructive or distracting, McAlexander said. But while an instructor can ask a student to remove an ESA animal if it is distracting, service dog owners cannot be asked to leave — or remove their animal — under any circumstance.

Stauber does not bring her ESA to class since she is not fully trained and may be distracting. However, she puts Lilah in her ESA vest and takes her almost everywhere, barring restaurants or other places where she might be unwelcome, Stauber said.

While Stauber copes with her social anxiety disorder through therapy and medication, Lilah fills her day with typical dog-owner responsibilities — feeding her, taking her for a walk and cleaning up after her messes. These additional items on Stauber’s to-do list distract from her looming anxiety, she said.

“She keeps me busy. When I was a kid, I contemplated a lot, and that’s not always a good thing, especially for people with anxiety,” Stauber said. “When you overthink everything, it wears you down and makes you worry even more. With (Lilah), I don’t have time to do that.”

Julia Ross, a junior strategic and corporate communications major, is greeted her emotional support cat, Minerva, each time she returns to her dorm room. Minerva is not a cuddly cat, Ross said, but her presence and “sassy” personality disrupts Ross’ “cycle of stress” that she sometimes falls into.
Photo by Laura Claypool

Julia Ross, a junior strategic and corporate communications major, adopted her emotional support cat, Minerva, after struggling to cope with stress freshman year, which added to her anxiety disorder. Since adopting Minerva, Ross has stopped taking her anxiety medication. Like Stauber, Ross benefits from the added responsibility. Caring for Minerva every day is a rewarding experience, she said.

“One of my biggest issues is feeling like I’m not getting enough done. But at the end of the day, I can look at her and think, ‘Wow, I’ve kept this thing alive. She cares about me, and we’re bros.’ That’s all my work,” Ross said. “It’s really interesting that adding responsibility makes me feel better.”

Ross is one of three students living with an ESA in the Chapman dorms, according to Sherri Akau, the associate director of Residence Life and First Year Experience. McAlexander approves residents’ applications to have ESAs in the dorms, where there is typically a no-pet policy with the exception of fish that can be kept in a 10-gallon aquarium, according to the 2017-2018 Residence License Agreement.

While ESAs are accepted on a case-by-case basis, McAlexander has approved students with emotional support dogs, cats, hamsters and rats to live in the dorms. However, he must see that the animal is not just a student’s pet. There are two major criteria when approving ESA applications for residence: a legitimate diagnosis and a clear link between the animal’s presence and a decrease in the student’s symptoms, McAlexander said.

“I would not approve an animal that just makes a student feel better,” he said.

Doctors who provide online diagnoses for people seeking ESAs contribute to the number of illegitimate support animals, McAlexander said. Since there is no formal registry of service animals or emotional support animals in the U.S., McAlexander said it can be hard to tell if an animal is legitimately helpful to someone’s mental health.

There is only one student who owns a registered service dog at Chapman, McAlexander said, but there could be more, since service animals do not have to be registered through Disability Services. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Chapman faculty and other entities can only ask two questions: “Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?” and “What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?”

“People love animals — especially students who are leaving home and want to bring their animal with them. But we have to institute regulations to control the situation,” McAlexander said. “The people that genuinely need service animals are getting a bad rap because of the abuse of emotional support animals.”

Arthur Blaser, peace studies and political science professor, sometimes receives help from his service dog, Ollie, in the classroom. But most of the time, Ollie takes a nap while Blaser teaches.
Photo courtesy of Arthur Blaser

Blaser has wanted a service dog for more than 20 years. He was only paired with his 4-year-old golden retriever Ollie about two years ago after applying and being put on waitlists for more than two years. Ollie was trained to pick up items – since Blaser can only use one hand – and to help him navigate his wheelchair, Blaser said.

Stauber and Ross received their animals’ ESA certifications within months. He also worries that more regulation of ESAs and service dogs to prevent abuse might have negative after-effects for those who need them.

“Compared to global warming and child-trafficking, it’s a minor issue. I worry that a few examples will be used to limit the rights of service dog owners. Any kind of dishonesty, tax fraud, welfare fraud, service animal fraud bothers me,” Blaser said. “But attempts to counteract it may make matters worse.”

McAlexander believes that the number of ESAs is increasing because documentation is easily available online. People are also more open about having a mental disability and talking about their frailties, he said.

However, not everyone welcomes the presence of an ESA. When Stauber walks Lilah  in public, some people have noticed her ESA vest and asked Stauber questions about Lilah’s purpose, she said.

“I’ve gotten jokes from people saying, ‘What do you need her for?’ or ‘What is she supporting?’” Stauber said. “People should understand that, even if someone has an emotional support dog, they’re not weak mentally. They just have something they need help with too.”

Ross talks about her ESA with people to open up about her mental health to others who might be afraid to seek help. But when she first got Minerva, she was embarrassed to call her an ESA.

“I was so scared that people would think that I’m just a crazy worrier and that I don’t know how to handle my emotions,” Ross said. “I was stigmatizing it within myself. But then, one day, I realized that stigmatization of mental health has to stop somewhere, so today it will start with me.”

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