Having a service dog living with you on campus is not as fun or as easy as it sounds. Whenever people see me with my dog or find out that there is a dog in the dorm, they usually say something along the lines of “you’re so lucky to have your dog here.” I don’t see myself as lucky to get to live with my dog in a dorm. She is a Loma celebrity because of her cool colors and dye job, but she is not here to look pretty. She is here to do her job to help mitigate my disability. She is my mobility aid, not just an accessory.
While she looks like a very well behaved dog and everyone compliments her behavior, they don’t see the hundreds, if not thousands, of hours I have put into training her. I have been training her every day since she came home at 9 weeks old. The training is not always intense, but it is putting time and effort into shaping her skills daily. It is frustration, financial burden, and disappointment. Some days she makes my symptoms worse rather than better. It has been, and will continue to be, hard work for the foreseeable future. Knowing that she already is helping me so much, and looking forward to how much she will help me when she is fully trained, reminds me that it is worth it. But it is not always fun. Most of the time, training is a struggle that the majority of people don’t get to see.
Many students around campus have seen my dog Yuuki. She is a poodle with a bright pink tail and stands out wherever we go. I dye her for a few reasons. The biggest one is because I like to decorate all of my mobility aids, whether that is braces, casts, or my service dog. It also helps prevent people from stepping on her tail or rolling over it with a cart (it happens more often than you would think). The last reason is that it helps prevent dog theft. Being a purebred poodle and a well trained dog, she is worth more money than a normal pet dog. A fully trained service dog purchased through an organization can be anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000. Yuuki is not fully trained yet, but she is still more trained than any regular dog.
When she is vested and obviously working, she is not just a dog. She is working medical equipment. Legally, a service dog does not need to be labeled at all, so sometimes we will go out without a vest due to the heat. Even when she is not vested, she is working. If people ask nicely, I will let them say hi, but sometimes I politely say that we are training or she’s working.
People always tell me how cute she is, talk to her, or ask if they can pet her. I always see people taking pictures of her or just staring. The majority of people will ask what her name is, with a few following by asking what my name is. But so many people just ask her name and then say “she’s cute” or “I love her” and move on. More people talk to my dog than to me. It is definitely a lonely feeling.
The difference between walking around with my service dog and without is pretty significant. While everyone knows my dog’s name, very few people actually know mine. They will say hi to her and then move on, ignoring me. There are days where I will leave her in my room just because I don’t want the extra attention. If someone is using a wheelchair or a cane, it is very rare for people to take a picture of it, comment about it, or ask to touch it. The same etiquette should apply to service dogs. It is surprising to me to see how many people don’t know service dog etiquette. When a service dog is working, the general rule is no touch, no talk, no eye contact, and no pictures. This is for the safety of the dog and the handler.
I treasure the moments people come up and talk to me rather than my dog. I appreciate the people that get to know me before asking personal questions about my medical history. I am super open about discussing my conditions and spreading information, and if someone asks I will share, but I am definitely more comfortable with sharing if the person actually gets to know me first.
I have been asked if I just bought a vest so I can take her places with me, or if I’m even sick, and questions like those really hurt. I wish I did not need to take my dog places with me. I wish I did not walk around showing everyone my invisible disabilities through my dog. I am very blessed to have the opportunity to train a service dog to help me, but I wish I didn’t need to. When you say “I wish I could take my dog everywhere,” you don’t realize that I take her places because I cannot function like a typical human and need the extra help just to get by.
People don’t realize how inconvenient it is to take a dog everywhere. It takes time to plan ahead for elements like weather, distractions we might encounter, how she is feeling, how I am feeling, her needs, and every little thing I need to bring for her. I can’t just get up and spontaneously go to Target if I need to take her with me. I’m not “lucky” to get to take my dog around with me. Saying that, is saying that I am lucky to be sick enough to need her, or that I’m lucky to be at a point where it is very hard to function without her. Could I survive without her? Yes. But she mitigates my disability and improves my quality of life, so I would prefer to not have to survive without her.
The Educational Access Center (EAC) is for people like me who need accommodations in order to help our quality of life both in and out of the classroom so that we can function at the level of everyone else. However, I have found that it is not as easy as it sounds to get all the accommodations needed.
My dog is a little over 40 pounds and we live in a 9’ x 10’ room in Goodwin Hall. I need the single room for medical reasons, but living in a tiny room with a fairly large dog is not easy. We have been on campus for a few weeks and she already despises being in our room. I don’t blame her. It is very cramped and there is barely any floor space. Not only that, but none of the single rooms get good airflow, so it is always hot and stuffy.
Most universities give service dog teams a double room to themselves in order to accommodate the dog. If a service dog feels cramped, it will stress them out and they won’t do their job as well as they could be. To help Yuuki feel at home on campus, we spend most of our time outside of our room, which takes away the point of being in a single room. I requested a larger room, but was told that it was not possible because PLNU ran out of housing space, so there was not a bigger room that I could be given.
The other issue about having accommodations in Goodwin Hall is that, although it is considered “the most accessible dorm,” it is at the bottom of a very steep hill. My conditions make it extremely hard for me to walk uphill, especially on hot days. I usually have to sit down multiple times just to make it up the hill. I have been told to just use the shuttle or schedule golf cart pickups with the EAC, however my symptoms do not run on a schedule. I never know when they will be bad. There are triggers, however most of the time it is random. Not only that, but I don’t want to be forced on a schedule. I want to be able to do spontaneous things with friends, go grab food at the Caf whenever I want to, and be free to leave for class at any time.
The room size and location of the dorm have made living on campus very challenging, but there is no other option available. It is understandable that there is no space in on-campus housing to allow us to have a bigger room, but there should be things that can be done in order for people like me to feel more comfortable, more at home, and more confident to tackle living on campus. It’s not fun living on campus with a dog. In the end, she benefits me more than she makes living on campus harder, so it is worth the struggle.
Having a service dog is hard. It’s not fun. I do not just get to take a dog everywhere, rather I need to rely on multiple things along with the service dog in order to mitigate my disability. While the EAC does a good job of attempting to accommodate students with disability, and excels in some areas, more effort needs to be put into accommodating service dog teams, as well as other students without service dogs who do not get the accommodations they need in order to be successful. I don’t enjoy the attention that comes with having a service dog. I don’t enjoy putting my invisible disability on display for the whole world to see. But, I do it because it helps me live my best life and try to do at least some of the things I would not be able to do without Yuuki by my side.
Written By: Emi Matsuo