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The benefits of emotional support animals Article by: Bonnie Chen & Photos by: Joe Frank, judith gibson-okunieff, kate mitchell

University of Massachusetts mental health accommodations are epitomized by Jeanette Manship and her Assistance Animal, or emotional support dog, Polka.

Manship, a sophomore animal science major from Bedford, Massachusetts, has had seven-month-old unknown breed Polka for four months. Manship found Polka among a litter of other puppies at an animal shelter in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

A lot of convincing was done by Manship, who had to persuade her parents into allowing her to adopt Polka, as a lot of uncertainties went along with the adoption. Not only were expenses a factor, but the uncertainty of Manship being able to bring her to school was also an issue. Her parents also did not want the burden to fall on them if she wasn’t able to bring Polka to UMass.

Ultimately, Manship was able to convince her parents into letting her adopt, citing how beneficial it would be in dealing with her anxiety and depression.

“I used to worry about myself all the time. And now I don’t have to. I have her to worry about.”

During the process of searching for a dog, Manship did research and took courses in how to train one. Specific abilities, like complying to the commands “come here” and “wait” as well as the ability to walk alongside her rather than pull at the leash, were very important.

The process of registering Polka, as described by Manship, was relatively straight-forward. It was done over the summer of 2018, and since she already had her mental health disorders registered with the University the previous year, all she needed to do was get a letter from a psychiatrist with a recommendation for an emotional support animal.

After the letter, paperwork had to be filled out entailing that Polka received the necessary vaccinations and her breed. Once the paperwork was sent in, Manship had a phone call in which she was explained all the rules of having an emotional support dog on campus.

Since getting Polka, Manship has noticed significant differences between her sophomore and freshman years at UMass. She has noticed a decrease in anxiety, better grades in school and significant change in sleep habits.

She credits this change to the newfound responsibility of taking care of Polka.

“I used to feel anxious a lot…I used to worry about myself too much. I used to worry about myself all the time. And now I don’t have to. I have her to worry about,” she said. “So, I focus so much less on myself, which is so nice. It’s so refreshing to just, to just like not care about yourself as much as you care about something else. And then you don’t have to worry.”

Jeanette Manship cites improvements in anxiety, academic performance and sleep due to emotional support dog.

Last year, Manship’s sleep cycle was unconventional in that she stayed awake all night and slept during the day. This contributed to her bad grades, as she would often skip her classes. But having Polka has forced her to stick to a schedule and utilize her time more productively.

As Polka is still a puppy, she sleeps when the sun sets and, in the mornings, Manship has to wake up in order to take her out.

Overall, Manship describes Polka as an easy-going, calm and curious dog, one that doesn’t mind being around people or loud music, and one that rarely barks. When she does bark, it is because she is scared.

Polka gets scared usually over random things. Manship explained the times when Polka barked at their neighbor who walked out in a pink fluffy robe and when she barked at a resident’s laundry basket.

On walks, Polka would always be sniffing her surroundings. Around campus there’s often food on the ground that attracts Polka, to which Manship advises people to throw out their trash.

“People, please stop throwing food on the ground,” Manship said. “Neither my dog or squirrels should be eating cones, pizza crusts or chicken fingers.”

“I’m just not stressed,” Manship said. “It’s the craziest thing, like, I don’t know how. I’ve been stressed my whole life. I’ve literally been anxious since I can remember, and this year has been the least anxious and least depressed of my life.

“Even with school, even with organic chemistry. I hate chemistry. But somehow, I’m happier than I’ve ever been honestly. I love being a dog mom. It’s the best thing ever.”

Assistance animals differ from Service Animals in that “a service animal is any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability,” according to the UMass Disability Services website.

Emotional support animals are only allowed in the room its owner is designated to and when alone in the room, they must stay in their crate. They aren’t allowed in any other room or building. Emotional support dogs also must be on a leash when leaving their room.

“Assistance Animals qualify as an accommodation for emotional/therapy support for some disabilities, as an animal has a calming influence and provides affection and stability for the well-being, comfort or companionship,” said the Assistance Animal Policy page. “Assistance Animals are not considered the same as a Service Animal because it does not perform tasks to assist with an individual’s daily life.”

When taking Polka on walks around campus, Manship would regularly get asked questions as to why she has her. She would answer with the truth, saying Polka is her emotional support dog. Oftentimes many are reluctant to ask further questions. Many would also assume that Polka is a Service Animal and therefore is not allowed to be pet. But Manship encourages others to pet her.

While some argue that having an emotional support animal is nonsense or just a fake excuse for having a pet on campus, supporters of emotional support animals claim they are outlets of calm and stability, in which having them ultimately benefits an individual’s overall well-being.

Bonnie Chen can be reached at bonniechen@umass.edu.

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