Vijay Viswanathan with his service dog Kane. (Anna Blanco/CU Independent)

Service Animals of CU: Understanding emotional support animals and disability service animals

A dog wearing a service animal vest is not an unfamiliar image to most people. But what is it actually like to have a service animal? The CU Independent talked to Vijay Viswanathan, a CU Boulder senior studying business, about life with his service dog Kane.

Viswanathan was paralyzed from the chest down at the age of 18 due to a back injury, and he now uses a wheelchair. He was injured in 2003 and got Kane in May 2009, about six and a half years later.

“The hardest thing to get used to was a little bit of everything, all the little things compounded, and just made my days harder overall,” Viswanathan said. “Just how much it slowed me down. It takes more time to do things. It was hard, but I was still pretty independent. I could still do everything on my own — I didn’t need a nurse to come by or anything.”

For Viswanathan, the transition to using a wheelchair was about learning to adapt to his daily life and activities without the use of his legs.

“I didn’t really think I needed [a service dog] except for certain things, like when I would drop my phone under my truck or something,” he said. “I just wasn’t aware of what service dogs were trained to do. Once I learned how much they could do, I realized how much they could increase my independence.”

Viswanathan got Kane to help with things he was no longer able to do, like retrieve items from hard-to-reach places. He can also assist Viswanathan in case he falls. Viswanathan said his dog has increased the independence of his life.

Kane came from a non-profit organization called Canine Companions for Independence. Dogs from the organization are raised by puppy raisers until the age of 2, when they are returned to the main training facility. Professional trainers work with the dogs during an intensive six-month period. All of this occurs before a dog is matched with a compatible recipient.

“Only about 55 percent of the dogs successfully make it through the training process, a testament to the high standards that must be achieved to become a working service animal,” Viswanathan said.

After training, service dogs are able to perform a myriad of tasks, depending on the needs of the owner. Hearing dogs can alert someone with hearing loss to a sound by nuzzling them. Others are trained to help veterans with PTSD. Service dogs like Kane can help people get dressed, retrieve items on command, pull a wheelchair and help do laundry. Viswanathan also says he enjoys the element of companionship that comes with having a service animal.

“I have a lot of shoulder problems from using a wheelchair, so if I injure my shoulder or something like that, he can help pull me a little bit. He carries stuff, he’s like an extra backpack sometimes. If I don’t have room to carry something from the grocery store, he can grab it and carry it for me. He was actually trained to do a lot more originally than I need help with,” he said.

As with any dog, it can be tempting for passersby to approach and give Kane attention. But with a service animal, it is important to recognize that the animal is working. The best thing to do for both the handler and the dog is to ignore the dog.

“People will ask if they can interact with him at all and I’ll say ‘sure, no problem,’ then I’ll ‘release’ Kane, and he realizes that that moment is not a working moment, that it is okay for him to go up and greet that person,” he said. “That gives him permission for that minute to go say, ‘Hi,’ and then as soon as I give him another command, that is his indication that it is time to go back to work.”

Kane was 2 1/2 years old when he was placed with Viswanathan, and is now 9, nearing the age of retirement. CCI retires their dogs after about seven years of service. When a dog retires, they can either stay with their handler, or will go to a good home if their handler is given priority to receive a new service dog.

“Luckily I am independent, even though he does help me with things I can’t really do on my own. I can still go to class; I can still be independent without a dog, so I made the decision to keep him until he dies and potentially look at getting another one,” Viswanathan said.

On the other hand, while Kane provides assistance for a physical impairment, some support animals on the CU campus help students by giving them emotional support.

“The difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal is that a service animal is specifically for a person who has a disability and the disability has been substantiated, and that service animal is doing a specific task for the person,” said Carla Hoskins, assistant director at CU’s Disability Services.

“A service animal can be a dog or a miniature horse, believe it or not,” Hoskins said.

Unlike service animals, emotional support animals do not have a specific task to perform. They are there to help someone who has a disability, or something that interferes with his or her comfort in daily life.

On campus, individuals with service animals do not need to register their animals, but emotional support animals do need to be registered, as most are only allowed in the room of their owner, and the common spaces in the residence hall. Because they are not trained to the level of service animals, emotional support animals cannot accompany their owner in all places on campus.

“I think it’s important — if the person really needs a service animal, I’m all for it,” Hoskins said. “I think that if that helps them feel comfortable in their living environment, by all means, follow the process and get it approved through [CU Housing and Dining Services].”

Hazel Jeffrey is a freshman at CU majoring in environmental science. She has an emotional support cat named Mary, who she adopted from the Boulder Humane Society in September 2016.

“I got through August and realized that my panic attacks were worse, and that my anxiety was more difficult to deal with,” Jeffrey said. “It was at that point I was pretty sure that I needed a cat.”

In order to have an emotional support animal in residence halls on campus, students must go through a process with Housing Accommodation Services.  

“You go in and talk to them, and they tell you ‘we need documentation and we need a personal statement,'” she said. “So I got documentation from my psychiatrist that an emotional support animal would be helpful to me, then I wrote a personal statement that said why I needed one, why it would help me. It got submitted to the board that reviews these things, and they approved. Then I got to adopt Mary.”

Mary’s presence has significantly helped Jeffrey manage her anxiety and panic attacks.

“I get very random panic attacks,” she said. “Sometimes they’re triggered; sometimes they just happen. So, she helps with that. She’s just kind of there when I’m having a panic attack, and it’s helpful to pet her, and just have something there that’s stable.”

It is important to note that there is a difference between pets and emotional support animals. Even though emotional support animals do not receive formal training, they do serve a specific purpose for their owners.

“People tend to freak out — animals don’t. Animals are like ‘okay, it’s just another state my human is in,'” Jeffrey said about why emotional support animals can be crucial to those with mental health issues.

Jeffrey also explained how great of a resource these animals can be to those who need extra support when therapy or medication may not be quite enough. She emphasized that it is never an option one should choose lightly. Animals are are a big responsibility, and they require a lot of care.

Contact CU Independent News Staff Writer Anna Blanco at anna.blanco@colorado.edu.

About Anna Blanco

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