Assistance animals on campus making an impact

For Natalie Bender, the day she went to pick up her assistance dog was a day she will always cherish.

“Her name is Luna and she has made such an impact in my life in so many ways,” said Bender, a senior graphic design and photography major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a native of Humphrey.

Natalie Bender and her assistance dog, Luna.

A service animal, typically a dog, is one that is trained to perform tasks for an individual with a disability. An assistance animal, also referred to as therapy or emotional support animal, is an animal that is not trained to perform tasks but provides companionship.

Bender was willing to go through a long approval process in order to get Luna, but it was important.

“I struggle with depression and anxiety,” she said. “I didn’t want to feel lonely anymore so I started to think about an emotional support dog.”

For Bender, unlike most students with disabilities, the process of getting approval for her assistance animal took longer than expected.

“Since I lived on campus and my assistance dog would live in my dorm with me, my psychiatrist needed to write out a letter of recommendation, kind of like a prescription,” she said.

Bender received the letter of recommendation, which then had to be sent to the head of UNL’s Office of Services for Students with Disabilities at the university. Her assistance animal had to be registered with the office because the dog was going to live with her on campus.

“I then had to get interviewed and had to talk with the resident director and resident assistant to get all kinds of papers signed,” she said. The resident director and resident assistant wanted to go over the rules and regulations with her before bringing her assistance dog into the dorms.

The process from getting her approval from her psychiatrist to having Luna at the dorm took about a month.

One of the complications was that Bender wanted to get Luna as a puppy, younger than six months, which is not typical for an assistance dog. While there are no explicit rules on ages for assistance dogs, there are behavior expectations that a puppy would probably have difficulty conforming to. This was the first time the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities had gotten a request for a puppy as an assistance animal.

The office wanted to make sure that getting an assistance animal under the age of six months would be feasible, so the office told Bender they needed to speak with their attorney to approve the puppy as an assistance animal before approving it for her.

In most cases, students with disabilities that have service or assistance animals have a more streamlined process.

“Service animals do not need to be registered with our office, only if the person wishes to or if they will be living on campus with their service or assistance animal,” said Sam Goodin, the head of the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities.

“I can’t think of a case where we have had to turn anyone away with a service animal,” he said. “We want to make sure everyone gets the assistance they need.”

Service and assistance animals are so important for those who need them their owners say, and going through the approval process is worth it.

“She is the best,” Bender said of her puppy. “I know that when I’m having a bad day I can come home and she’ll be there to cheer me up.”

Tricia Melland, a sophomore marketing major who lives in Neihardt residence hall with her assistance dog, Kenny, also understands the significance of these special animals. Melland suffers from mitochondrial disease, in which the structures that produce energy for a cell malfunction.

“Kenny doesn’t even realize that I have this disease, and I love him because to him I am not a sick person,” Melland said. “I am his best friend and he is mine.”

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