Student service dog handlers share stories, experiences
A blonde German shepherd named Memphis was dressed in booties and goggles, for safety precautions, while his handler attended her chemistry lab. This safety attire allowed Shannyn Bessoni, who graduated from UC Davis in 2014 with a degree in chemistry and animal science, to stay close to Memphis, her service dog.
“Memphis [has] kind of become known as the benchmark for how a service dog should behave,” Bessoni said. “Protocol for having [service animals] in the lab were developed because of [Memphis]. The chemistry department was really, really exceptional in accommodating him [and] they went above and beyond what would be safe for him.”
Memphis continued to be an active service dog until a cancerous lump was found in his neck. Now, Memphis has recently finished his last round of chemotherapy and has retired from his duties. Throughout campus, a wide array of service dogs and comfort animals like Memphis are specially trained to assist those with disabilities.
“You can’t think of a service animal as an animal at all,” Bessoni said. “A service animal is considered to be medical equipment.”
Official service dogs are medical necessities to their handlers and have passed Public Access exams. Lysi Newman, a first-year animal science major, is always with her 3-year-old German Shepherd, Missy.
“[Missy] is permitted almost everywhere, including the dining commons, classrooms and places like the Silo and the Memorial Union […and] those with service animals do have the option to meet with faculty to discuss the allowance of the animal in labs,” Newman said.
Jennifer Barnhard, a third-year neurobiology, physiology and behavior and animal science double major, has had her service dog for over two and a half years. She adopted Lupus as a companion pet but later decided to train him as her personal service dog. The change in duties was followed by a change in title, and Barnhard renamed him ‘Spock’.
“Lupus was adopted to be a pet, [but] Spock chose to break the misconception and participate in the training process, and he is now a national poster pup of service training,” Barnhard said. “Spock’s training in escalation means that if he thinks something is wrong with my vitals, or that a situation is unsafe, he will keep alerting until I listen to him, a truly life-saving quality.”
Additionally, Barnhard co-founded Starfleet Service Dogs, Inc. (SSDI), a nonprofit organization that trains service dogs. SSDI has seven trainers in Cabin John, Maryland and nine more in Davis with a variety of specialties and knowledge, including search and rescue and K9 training.
“SSDI has rescued 100 percent of our own dogs that we train for service work,” Barnhard said. “Every dog that we graduate has a basic foundation comprised of 50 skills [and] will be in continuous training for the rest of their careers to make sure they perform better every day — and because they love to work and learn.”
Katerina, who wished only to be identified by her first name, is a first-year food science major and has no closer bond than that with her 3-year-old service dog, Lady. Lady allows Katerina more independence because of her specialized training.
“Freedom and independence is a huge part of why service dogs are so important,” Katerina said. “A disability of any kind hinders your life in a significant enough way that you are limited and restrained. A service dog helps me […] carry on and live life with fewer inhibitions.”
Katerina said UC Davis’ policies on service dogs make having one easily accessible. Although both Katerina and Bessoni have experienced instances of ignorance and even targeted malice toward their service dogs, they both have seen that, overall, students and faculty accept their animals on campus.
However, a situation between Newman and student housing escalated after students in Newman’s residence hall repeatedly complained that her dog Missy was “scary.” Newman was told she had 72 hours to remove Missy from student housing.
“I actually requested […] that I be able to write up a short notice about service dogs and have it sent to all students as a general informative message […but] I was rejected,” Newman said. “Then I requested to post said write-up on message boards in the nearby dorm buildings, so that other students nearby would at least know how to act around Missy. I was rejected again. I finally requested to put my message up in the services center, but was denied once again. I believe [my piece] would have made a lot of difference [for] the students who were afraid of dogs; Maybe it could have curbed their fear into tolerance of me and my disability.”
A petition was started by a friend of Newman’s in efforts to fight Missy’s removal notice and to prove that Missy is not only a medical necessity, but also a “sweet dog.” Although the petition collected 1,286 signatures, Newman eventually decided it would be best for both Missy and herself to move out of the dorms. While a representative from Student Housing declined to speak about Newman’s case, the representative did say that a professional staff member deals with “special accommodations requests” and that issues of this kind are “taken very seriously.”
After her own serious situation involving Memphis, herself and other students, Bessoni decided to become more active in spreading information and awareness about service dogs by creating the Facebook page “Service Dog Handlers at UC Davis.” Bessoni, like Newman, thinks spreading information about service dogs is effective in eliminating ignorance.
“[Students might ask] questions out of curiosity, but nobody should have a problem with that,” Bessoni said. “If anything, [it’s] an opportunity to educate and explain.”
One of the specific points Katerina would like other students to be aware of is that petting a service animal without asking is not acceptable.
“This isn’t because she is mean or unfriendly, but she has a job to do and if you pet her she gets distracted and that puts me at risk,” Katerina said. “The same goes for feeding or making noises at service dogs.”
Additionally, the seriousness of the functions that service dogs perform should not be downplayed.
“One huge misconception is that it is all fun having a service dog,” Katerina said. “Many view service dogs as just bringing your best furry friend around with you, and though I love my service dog more than anything, having her with me is a medical necessity.”
Barnhard said she is passionate about training other service dogs through SSDI because they bring independence, a freedom that is “often taken for granted.”
“[SSDI is] not in the business of changing anyone, just merely helping them negotiate the world around them in the most comfortable, and enjoyable way they can,” Barnhard said. “I can enjoy the world and count on Spock to warn me and help me if things start to go wrong. I also have a new best friend! If I can give others the freedom I have granted myself from my disability, than I have put my professional training skills and love for animals to good use.”
Written by: Hannah Holzer — firstname.lastname@example.org