Emotional support animals provide variety of benefits for WKU students

By Jake Dresman

WKU senior Hailee Bernard says the struggle of owning a dog on campus is worth it because her strong bond with her dog, Beverly, forces her to get out of bed in mornings when she might not have otherwise, giving her a purpose in times of need.

The number of support animals on has increased on college campuses nationwide as more students experience emotional stress, according to US Health News.

There are two types of support animals. Service animals, often wearing a vest as an indication of status, are trained to provide a specific task like alerting their owner of an oncoming seizure. Emotional support animals (ESAs) are essentially pets that also serve as an accommodation for a disability, according to a WKU Counseling Center newsletter by associate director Karl Laves.

Ophelia, Stephanie Affield’s emotional support animal

WKU freshman Stephanie Affield has had her Dachshund Ophelia since she was 7, and she got Ophelia registered as an ESA online in 2018.  

“She was always my mom’s dog, that was her baby,” Affield said. “But after my mom passed away, she just really took to me. She really helped me cope.”

Affield said the process to get Ophelia registered as an ESA at WKU was more strenuous than she expected.

“I had to get her [Ophelia] vaccines, approved through SARC, approval from my therapist, be on medication, and get approval from a doctor,” Affield said. “But it was definitely worth it.”

She said that Ophelia has made college more tolerable, especially since her roommate and best friend moved into an apartment.

“It’s been kind of lonely, and Ophelia’s made that better, because I come into my dorm and I’m like oh, I’m so happy to see you, and she’s happy to see me,” Affield said.

WKU’s Student Accessibility Resource Center (SARC) does not have a set policy for support animals, which are handled on a case-by-case basis. Students can register their dog online as an ESA for about $140 and have a videoconference with a therapist.

According to a comprehensive study published in BMC Psychiatry, pets promote emotional stability through the regulation of feelings, management of stress and helping people to cope with difficult life events. Owners felt that their pets could sense when practical support for mental health was required and acted accordingly.

In their animal-assisted therapy research, UCLA Health found pets had a positive physical effect on owners, such as lowering blood pressure, slowing breathing in those who are anxious, and diminishing overall physical pain.

Layni Hilton, a WKU senior diversity and community studies major, said she’s had debilitating anxiety since she was 13, but her ESA-registered dog drastically improves her mood.

“Bosley will come lay on my chest when I’m stressed, and sometimes he will hop up and touch your hand,” Hilton said. “He’s been at my house this week, and my mood is way worse without him. Other people can notice it.”

In line with the BMC Psychiatry study, which found pets provided their owners with a sense of purpose and gave meaning to their lives, Hailee Bernard, a WKU senior hospital management major, said she might not be in school without her dog.

“I’ve struggled a lot, and often times it’s hard to get up in the morning or feel a purpose,” Bernard said. “On top of everything my ESA physically does to help me, she is vital in the fact that when I feel my lowest and don’t take care of myself, I am reminded that I’m responsible for another life.”  

Olive, Tatyana Fields’s rambunctious pup

WKU sophomore Tatyana Fields said her mother, a doctor, recommended her for an ESA.

She said it would help with my stress, and it definitely has,” Fields said, a double major is biochemistry and mathematics. Her 10-week-old chocolate lab Olive was bred to be a duck hunter, and she has already chewed through two leashes. That didn’t faze Fields though, her family breeds and trains dogs all the time, so she had the rambunctious pup sitting obediently at her command.

“She is very loyal,” Fields said. “One of my friends jokingly pushed me the other day, and [Olive] was pissed. That’s one of the other reasons my parents wanted me to get her: for safety.”

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