The Canine Campus Link: Roles For Dogs In The Lives Of College Students (Purdue University Press) is a serious book, not a collection of pictures of dogs on a quad bike. Mary Renck Jalongo, the editor, has collected (and written) essays on the history of dogs on campus, service dogs, dogs in class, etc.
Jalongo has written, co-written, or edited more than 30 books. She is a tester / observer for the Alliance of Therapy Dogs and has done hundreds of visits and presentations with her four therapy dogs since 2006. Working with a state prison, she works with inmates to train service dogs for people with disabilities. She responded to questions about her book by email.
Q: Why are dogs important to the campus? How long has this been true?
A: If the interactions between humans and dogs are positive and mutual, neurophysiological changes are documented in both species. The oxytocin level, the “feel-good hormone”, tends to increase significantly, while the cortisol level, the “stress hormone”, tends to decrease. National surveys of college students suggest that mental health problems – particularly stress and anxiety disorders – increased before COVID-19. Research into previous pandemics suggests that they have long-term negative well-being effects. Therefore, providing opportunities for positive human-dog interaction is part of a comprehensive strategy for reducing stress on campus.
The presence of dogs on campus was the relative rarity prior to the advent of trained visiting dogs, known as therapy dogs or sometimes comfort dogs. Therapy dogs are home-trained, non-aggressive dogs that are trained beyond basic obedience. Their owners / managers are usually affiliated with a national or international organization and the team has liability insurance. One activity that gained attention in the 1990s was bringing dogs into contact with students during the exam week as a stress reduction strategy. It is now a popular event in many locations. Therapy dogs are increasingly involved in wellness and counseling centers, and in some cases a therapy dog owned by a staff member accompanies them to work every day. If you see a group of people / dog teams on campus, they are likely therapy dogs.
Dogs on campus can be a recruiting tool, with various higher education institutions promoting that they offer at least one pet-friendly dormitory. Additionally, some security guards on campus are finding that a law enforcement work dog can detect explosives (e.g. bomb hazard), identify illegal substances (e.g. drugs), or track down a missing / abducted person. Increasingly, campus security personnel are realizing that crime victims and those questioned as witnesses choose to have a therapy dog present during these stressful events. Some security facilities on campus now have dogs on site to assist students and staff.
Q: Service dogs are a special category of dogs. How common are they in higher education? What changes do you see in them?
A: It is difficult to determine the number of service dogs as there is no central register. However, it is estimated that there are a total of 500,000 service dogs in the United States. Statistics for students and faculty are not available. The Disabled Americans Act guarantees public access for service dogs. Therefore, higher education is required to make arrangements to accompany a person with a diagnosed disability. This is the only category of dog that is allowed anywhere on campus – for example, in classes, dining areas, and dormitories.
A service dog is, by definition, individually trained to help a person with a disability. It is acceptable to ask only two questions: (1) Is the animal needed because of your disability? and (2) What tasks has your dog been trained for for you? It is not acceptable to ask the person to explain their disability. Some examples of assistance dogs are mobility assistance assistance dogs that provide assistance with walking and retrieve items for their person. Hearing aid dogs who become aware of noise; Guide dogs for the blind; and, more recently, seizure alert dogs (who may anticipate an upcoming seizure, presumably by smell, and guide the person to a safe place, stay with them, or get help) and dogs who alert of dangerously high or low blood sugar levels in humans with diabetes.
An interesting development is that some campuses are offering college students the opportunity to be service dog puppy breeders. The dogs then “complete” the on-campus program, which normally lasts the entire academic year. The dogs then took part in advanced training to prepare them to work as a team for a person with a disability. The training of service dogs usually takes about two years – longer for guide dogs.
Q: What about dogs with emotional support? How common are they in higher education?
A: There is considerable confusion about emotional support dogs. They are not covered by the Disabled Americans Act and have no public access rights. Many people mistakenly believe that a dog with emotional support can go anywhere when it definitely cannot. Emotionally assisted dogs are brought onto campus in accordance with the provisions of the Fair Housing Act so that emotionally assisted dogs are allowed to live with the student as well [be in] outdoor areas intended for them. Dogs with emotional support do not go to class, do not ride the bus, do not go to the library, or accompany the student into areas designated as a pet-free zone. You will not necessarily be trained beyond house training.
A person asking to bring their dog to campus for emotional support has a diagnosed mental health problem, is treated by a licensed psychologist, and receives a letter on professional letterhead stating the animal’s need for emotional support Support is documented. Many post-secondary institutions have an application / permit process to bring emotional support dogs (and some other animals) onto campus. The dog’s owner must sign a contract that sets out their obligations to the animal, other residents, and the entire campus community. The dog’s owner is responsible for proper grooming and medical treatment, and is liable for any damage caused by the dog. When it comes to accommodation on campus, the roommates must of course agree to the living conditions. Emergency preparedness procedures need to be outlined, and colleges need to establish a policy on how to remove a dog if it causes problems. The presence of emotional support dogs on campus is not currently widespread, but requests from students are expected to increase.
Q: Would you describe the role dogs play in college courses?
A: When a dog comes to class it is usually at the invitation of the instructor, as the role the dog plays is relevant to the professional training of students. Some examples are: a military war dog and handler attending a ROTC group, therapy dogs and handler attending a counselor wellness class, a search and rescue dog team attending first responder classes, or a service dog attending training a class in special education. The dog’s presence in the class should be clearly linked to the objectives of the program and the course objectives.
For example, many nurses will encounter therapy dogs who visit to improve positive moods and encourage their patients to adhere to treatment plans. Some health facilities have specially trained dogs that are regularly at work. The nurses’ orientation to these situations prepares them for what they will experience during their internship and beyond after securing employment. Special Education majors may have a guest speaker and meet a child with their service dog so that future teachers will be familiar with this type of working dog that may be in the classroom. Another role for student-dog interaction is to volunteer for animal welfare groups to fulfill the charitable hours. Students may offer direct animal care (e.g. feeding, walking, post-surgery health monitoring) as well as other tasks related to their majors (e.g. web design / care, promoting social media adoption).
Q: I grew up with cats (and I love cats). Why did you stay behind on campus?
A: Cats are not pack animals and are generally less trainable than dogs. However, Pet Partners, the only organization in the United States that tests and registers a variety of species as therapy animals, reports that there are 200 therapy cats nationwide. It is possible to have a therapy cat, but contact with many different people would have to be accepted. It takes an exceptionally relaxed, sociable, and trained cat. A more likely role for cats on campus would be an emotional support animal for an individual student. The university would need to have pet-friendly accommodation, ensure that other students are not affected (e.g. due to allergies), and arrange the situation so that everyone accepts the cat’s presence.