Paws-itive change with service animals

By Becca Brandel

Features Contributor

After years of living together, many teenagers fear leaving behind their beloved pet when heading off to college. Samantha Thomas, a sophomore ABEC major whose home is more than 300 miles away, wasn’t planning on doing that.

Thomas’s four-year-old dog Penny is much more than just a pet to her. Having rescued Penny when she was just twelve days old from horrific conditions, the two have been each other’s support system for the past four years.

Penny is not only Thomas’s pet; she is also her Assistance Animal, an animal registered to provide emotional support to students who benefit from being able to take care for and spend time with an animal. Students can apply for and live with an Assistance Animal to aid in a variety of their needs, some of the most common being stress, anxiety, depression, or anger management.

Assistance Animals, as described by the Canisius College website, are: “A category of animals that may work, provide assistance, or perform physical tasks for an individual with a disability and provide necessary emotional support to an individual with a mental or psychiatric disability.”

“Having Penny is like having a companion with me always. I love a lot of things about college, but there are things that are really difficult, and having Penny with me gives me an out I couldn’t get otherwise,” said Thomas.

Some Assistance Animals are professionally trained, but in other cases they provide the necessary support to individuals without undergoing any formal training or certification. Dogs are commonly used as Assistance Animals, but any animal may serve a person with a disability as the pair require only a strong bond.

“With her there, it’s easier to deal with all the other things I have to stress about,” said Thomas. Sometimes Assistance Animals are looked at as being very different from the typical service animals, because technically no one is required to have an Assistance Animal. However, for many, having one is an advantage to their lives, allowing them some company while living at school.

Once an Assistance Animal is registered, they are registered for life and they are able to be taken into any living situation, whether that be an apartment complex, hotel, or dormitory.

When Thomas first moved to Canisius, she was one of the very first students to have an Assistance Animal. Only two other students had registered animals on campus with them.

A student must have a documented disability to get an Assistance Animal.  Sierra Bonerb,

Assistant Director of Accessibility Support, Veteran Support, Academic Mentoring, approves the documentation for the animals. “My goal is to create equal access for all students and provide reasonable accommodations,” said Bonerb.  

Taking on the responsibility of an emotional support animal is a big commitment. When considering if an Assistance Animal would be right for you, it is important to take into account everything that goes into caring for an animal and to make sure you are ready to ensure they have the best life possible. You have to set aside time as well as an emergency fund for your animal because you never know if any medical expenses could come up.

Each student with an Assistance Animal must sign a policy acknowledging that they have read and understood what will be expected of them for the year with their animal.

In Thomas’s case, she schedules all of her classes around what will work for her and Penny. Each morning, she wakes up at 6a.m. with Penny to play with her or take her on two-mile walks to make sure she is able to have enough physical activity before Thomas has to go to class. “Even if I’m feeling like I need exercise, Penny needs exercise first,” laughs Thomas.  

While we sat talking on the benches surrounding the Tower, at least two students stopped by say hello to Thomas, and to pet Penny. Not only does Penny brighten Thomas’s daily life, she also brings a smile to dog lovers across the campus. “Penny is my lifeline,” said Thomas, “She’s been with me every day for the past four years and I would give up my life for her.”

Thomas was one member of the the starting generation for Assistance Animals on campus, so it was difficult at first. When Thomas and Penny first moved in, Canisius had not yet set any guidelines for students with Emotional Support Animals, but from last year to this year, clear guidelines have been set.

Assistance Animals are not allowed to go into any buildings on campus, or any school functions. The only school property Penny can stay in is Thomas’s dorm. The new code is “easy to follow,” says Thomas, so she doesn’t feel restricted.

“I’m known on campus as ‘the girl with the dog,’” laughs Thomas, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

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