Students depend on pets for emotional support, but forget to emotionally support their animals By Jordana Colomby

Scotty waits for a day of Queen’s University classes to end so he can greet his housemates at the door. His owner, Jane Smith, who prefers to remain anonymous because her lease does not allow pets, rushes home to unwind by playing around with her half Maltese, half miniature poodle.

The former Smith family dog moved to Kingston, Ont. at the beginning of the school year to emotionally support Smith.

“I actually went through a lot of trauma this summer,” said Smith. “I had a pretty severe heartbreak and I was dealing with a lot of anxiety and stress.”

Maze is part of a group of pets that visits Carleton frequently to help students cope with stress.

“I grew really attached to my dog,” Smith admitted, recalling this past summer. After her breakup Scotty started keeping Smith company at night by replacing her boyfriend’s spot in bed. Now the two sleep together every night and Smith has gotten used to having him there.

The attachment is not one sided. “A lot of time animals are aware of people’s emotions,” Smith explained, “so he became a lot more attached to me this summer.” A report published February 2015 in the journal Current Biology found that dogs can detect the different emotional expressions of humans, so they likely know when their owner is upset.

While Smith’s emotional state might be temporary, she is just one of many students who have these negative feelings in university. Student depression and anxiety rates have increased in the past three years, according to an Ontario University and College Health Association survey from 2016. Experiences of overwhelming anxiety increased from 57 per cent to 65 per cent and accounts of extreme depression rose from to 40 per cent 46 per cent since 2013.

One of the ways students conquer these feelings is through animal therapy or by spending time with their own pets.

Carleton university Students manage stress in many ways, including sessions with the school's therapy dog, blue.

A Washington Post article from earlier this year stated that bonding with animals can boost both the pet and the human’s oxytocin levels by something as simple as making eye contact. It explained that oxytocin is partially responsible for decreasing stress and it is the same calming hormone released when parents look into their baby’s eyes.

Smith said she notices how Scotty lifts everyone’s spirits in the house. “We all get so happy when we open the door and he runs up and he greets us,” she said, “he’s like a de-stresser.”

“He’s like a de-stresser.” - Jane Smith

For Dakota Abramovitz a pet is more than just a pick-me-up. Having a dog helps her deal with her recently diagnosed depression. After taking the first three semesters off university, she is finally ready to enroll in King’s University College this January with support from her new puppy, Kennedy.

Like Smith, Abramovitz does everything with Kennedy, or Kenny as she called her. Occasionally she has to leave her, but between her parents in Toronto, her roommate, and her friends, Kenny is never alone for more than three hours.

Kenny is used to doing everything with his owner, including sleeping in her bed. Photo courtesy of Dakota Abramovitz

While some young pet owners might feel bad about leaving their dog alone, Jessica O’Neill, a canine consultant for 10 years, said that leaving the dog alone might help the animal in the long run.

Spending a lot of time together becomes an issue if that lifestyle has to change at some point. “Set your pet up for reasonable expectations in life,” O’Neill advised. Students might have a lot of time to spend with their dogs while in school but when they join the workforce, suddenly the dog freaks out because he has never been alone.

“Separation anxiety can become a concern … If the dog has not learned how to be comfortable when his owner isn’t present,” O’Neill warned.

Owners like Smith, who O’Neill described as “self-medicating” with her dog, not only risk separation anxiety for the animal but also risk overworking their dogs. This can lead to mental breakdowns. “They put a lot of pressure onto the animal and a lot of times that animal doesn’t have time off from working,” she said.

Jacques marinier takes good care of his dog Maze so that he can do his job well.

Kenny, however, is in the process of becoming a verified emotional support animal (ESA) through the National Animal Service Registry so he can accompany Abramovitz to class. “You send in a picture and pay $200,” Abramovitz said with ease. Even though the National Animal Service Registry actually only advertises a $64.95 fee plus shipping, the process is still fairly simple. With a doctor’s note, it is only a three-step process to certify an ESA online.

“They put a lot of pressure onto the animal and a lot of times that animal doesn’t have time off from working." –Jessica O'Neill

The issue with ESAs is that they require no specific training and they treat an invisible disability. The pet’s only qualification is that “the presence of the animal is necessary for the disabled person’s mental health,” according to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

There are a variety of places in Ontario to certify a pet. Blue was certified as a therapy dog through St. John Ambulance.

There is speculation as to whether ESA owners really need their pets or just like having them around, but for Abramovitz, there is no question that Kenny makes everything better. “It gets me out of bed,” she said, which is something she struggled with over the past year and contributed to her dropping classes.

Therapy pets, however, require a certain temperament and training to provide emotional comfort. Universities are taking advantage of these animals with pet therapy programs. Shannon Noonan runs the Carleton University dog therapy sessions with her dog, Blue. “Even just a five-minute visit with Blue brightens people’s day,” she said.

During Blue’s office hours, students come in to pet him, feed him snacks, and play with him. “Just the act of petting, as well, in another sense is really a mindful activity and it brings you away from all the screens that we have and all the pressures of everyday stress,” Noonan said.

According to O’Neill, a dog should only be doing therapy for six years in order to prevent deteriorating mental health.

Having just started Blue’s therapy sessions in March, Noonan has not considered how long Blue will work, but she is very mindful of his mental health. “He’s just my normal dog on a normal day,” said Noonan. She walks him, feeds him, and makes sure to limit his office hours to two hours a week.

Watch the full interview below:

As O’Neill said, it is important to keep a balanced schedule for a dog. Both Abramovitz and Smith try to get their dogs out of the house, even if that just means the front yard or the apartment balcony.

Smith said she feels bad Scotty does not have a big yard to run around, and she cannot always take him out front because the landlord might catch him, but she plans to keep Scotty for as long as possible. It is amazing she said, “to come home to someone who loves you so much.” The emotional support Scotty provides is far greater than the risk of having to send him back home.

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