Dogs are Tigers, too: Training a Trinity service animal


Photo credit: Genevieve Humphreys

Photo by Genevieve Humphreys

These past few months, students may have noticed a new furry friend accompanying junior Russian major Alexandra Gass around campus and in classes.

Gass currently lives off-campus with her dog, Rye, as required by Trinity policy. Stephanie Ackerman, assistant director for Housing Operations within Residential Life, wrote about the policy about pets in an email interview.

“The Residential Life policy about having pets on main campus is that they are not permitted unless they are an approved Emotional Support or Service Animal. They would need to be approved and reported through Student Accessibility Services. Only fish in tanks of 10 gallons or less are permitted,” Ackerman wrote.

Thus, because Gass’ dog is still in the training process of becoming a service animal, he cannot yet be allowed to live in on-campus housing.

Service dogs in the U.S. do not have any papers or certifications but must have completed training to be considered as such. At Trinity, the “Service Animal Policy” made available by Student Accessibility Services provides a definition of these animals in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Texas state law:

“The ADA defines a service animal as any guide dog, signal dog or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability.”

According to Trinity’s Service Animal Policy, a trained and approved service animal should be allowed the access and ability to accompany the person with a disability to any location the person normally has access to as long as it does not pose any danger to the animal. It is also this person’s responsibility to ensure that the animal has its annual certification of good health and is maintaining good behavior at the risk of having the certification removed.

“A person handling a service animal may be asked to remove it from university facilities if its behavior poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others or if it is disruptive,” the policy states.

In addition to the confirmation of the dog being a service animal, however, students who apply must provide documentation that they are eligible to have one.

Because it is not officially stated that service animals in-training are allowed in the classrooms, Gass also had to get permission from her professors and classmates to have Rye in class with her.

“I did need a recommendation from a doctor showing that I have a condition that qualifies me, but also that a service dog can help in that there are specific skills that I can teach the dog in order to ameliorate the disability,” Gass said. “I have a service dog for a psychiatric condition; he applies deep pressure therapy, [using his body weight and heat to lesson symptoms]. He is also in the process of learning other skills, including how to call for help with a canine phone, as well as interrupting compulsive behaviors.”

According to Ackerman, there are not very many cases of service animals at Trinity. The fact that Gass’s service dog is in-training makes this case even more particular.

“I have worked with at least one other student who had a service animal on campus. Most of the students I work with have been approved for Emotional Support Animals,” Ackerman wrote.

Gass’s dog has only recently begun training but will soon learn to access and use his nose to make calls to any preset number on canine-adapted phones, giving him the potential to get help in the case of an emergency.

“I adopted him in November when he was only eight weeks old to begin training him right away with the assistance of Dog Training Elite, a training company in town that has the capacity to train and has trained over 70 service animals,” Gass said.

To Gass, the training process of a service dog is like raising a child in that it is a long-term project.

“You always have to train them even if they’ve completed their public access test [a test which evaluates if they are prepared in terms of acceptable behaviors for public life], and they know their skills. You have to practice it constantly or they forget it.”

In order to maintain and reinforce Rye’s skills, Gass and her dog practice them on weekends or during off-time.

While he has already learned and acquired many skills, Rye is still quite young and playful.

“He’s kind of going through his teenage years right now, so to speak, because he’s five months old now,” Gass said. “Sometimes he wants to play with a friend or something and I tell him, ‘No, sit, you’re working’ and he’ll loudly complain. We’re working on that. It’s really kind of funny because he’ll sit, he’ll obey and listen, but he wants to complain first.”

Gass added she is lucky because it is very hard to find animals that can serve as good service dogs. She looked at over 50 different dogs in local shelters, stores and breeders before finding Rye.

“They have to pass a puppy temperament test to see if they’re trainable, if they have the right attitude, if they’re not easily startled,” Gass said.

Rye was the only one of his litter to pass this test.

Gass added that students should note that asking which disability a service dog is for is not acceptable as it can be insensitive and is private health information. People can, on the other hand, ask about the animal’s training.

“You can ask what their skills are, to prove that they have specific trained skills.” Gass said.

According to Gass, it is also important to remember the etiquette of always asking and getting someone’s permission first before petting their dog, especially in the case of a service dog.

“One of the things is that [when] I know I’m okay enough and having a good day, I can put him on break really briefly for someone to pet him. He’s not like an epilepsy service dog where I need him always paying attention all the time. Unless I know that I’m not going into a stressful situation or a situation that might trigger my disability, then I don’t want anyone touching my dog because I might need him, and I don’t want him to be distracted,” Gass said.