This article is the second in a mini-series examining how the challenges and concerns of on-campus housing affect student lifestyle and well-being at Stanford.
During the afternoons, in the open grassy space between Escondido Village Studio 5 and Studio 6, it is easy to spot dogs running around in the grass. Their owners sit close by, tossing frisbees and balls, chatting and calling out to their animals.
“Everyone comes out here every day,” said Nina Horowitz, a second-year bioengineering graduate student, Community Assistant and self-proclaimed “dog encyclopedia” for the surrounding studios. “They all play around here, they tire each other out.”
Stanford has a strict ‘no-pets’ housing policy, but these dogs are not pets — they are support and service animals. For many students, these animals are a vital part of the reason they are able to thrive at Stanford. Because service and support animals assist their owners with disabilities, the University is required by law to allow them to live with students on campus.
The Daily spoke with support and service animal owners about the difficulties of housing animals on campus, as well as the stigma they often face for having their animals.
How it works
“There’s a lot of evidence that shows that animal therapy does help people a lot, and I know for me, [my dog] helped me so much, even just with depression,” said Ellis, a member of the Class of 2018 identified here under a pseudonym due to safety concerns. Ellis has a service corgi named Moon Pie. “It gets really unbearable sometimes — people don’t exactly know what the biological mechanisms are for it — but he really, really helps me.”
In order to be certified as service animals, dogs like Moon Pie have to undergo a rigorous and specific training process that can take up to two years. Service animals — which have to be either dogs or, in some special cases, miniature horses — can be trained to serve as tools for those with visual and hearing impairments, autism, seizures or mental illness. One way Moon Pie assists Ellis is by helping her through panic attacks.
“He puts pressure onto my body, and then I pet him and try to match my breathing to his, and eventually I’ll be able to get back to my house,” Ellis said.
Because of their extensive training, service animals are allowed to accompany their owner at all times. According to R&DE Director of Communications Jocelyn Breeland, students with service animals “may live in almost any residential building which provides an accommodation consistent with their needs as dictated by the disability.”
Registering service animals with the Office of Accessible Education (OAE) is not required for owners to obtain housing accommodations, but OAE recommends doing so. To register, students fill out an OAE Intake Form, submit documentation about the service animal if the function the animal provides is not immediately clear and meet with an assigned Disability Adviser.
However, gaining University permission to have support animals is a slightly different undertaking. Next year, Mark Laurie ’21 says he intends to bring an emotional support cat on campus.
“I’m better now, but overall, my anxiety levels have been through the roof,” Laurie said. “It’s hard for me to sleep sometimes; I can’t think properly other times. Having my cat would help me alleviate my anxiety.”
Support animals like Laurie’s cat provide emotional support and alleviate some symptoms of their owners’ disability. Unlike service animals, they do not have to be trained — and on Stanford’s campus, they have to mostly remain inside the owner’s room.
“Due to space as well as other environmental considerations, housing choices for students with support animals are more limited,” Breeland wrote in an email to The Daily.
Registering with the OAE to obtain a housing accommodation for support animals is a lengthier process. In addition to the OAE Intake Form and meeting with a Disability Advisor, students are asked to submit an OAE form requesting a support animal in Stanford housing and to submit medical documentation, as well as a form signed by a medical professional that verifies the owner’s disability.
After students go through the process of registering with the OAE, they have the option to apply for the medical draw with their accommodation. This is what Laurie chose to do — but while he was applying, he found it hard to figure out which dorms allow support animals.
“I asked OAE a couple of weeks ago, and they said, ‘You’ll be put into a four-class dorm, or you’ll be put into Mirrielees,’” Laurie said. “I asked them [about] specific dorms, but they wouldn’t tell me. They just said, ‘Look at our website.’”
Starting last year, Eucalipto and Granada were approved as dorm residences where support animals could be accommodated, according to Breeland. In the 2018-2019 academic year, students with support animals can also request to live in Crothers. In previous years, students with support animals were limited to single-occupancy apartment-style houses, like Mirrielees or the Escondido Village Studios.
Housing environment issues
According to Horowitz, the studios have the highest percentage of service and support animals. However, animal owners have voiced concerns about the overall community experience in studio apartments, which they say can get lonely.
“No one really interacts,” said Emily Been, a first-year Ph.D student. “Struggling with anxiety and stuff, it’s hard to be alone all the time. All the friends I’ve made in the studios have been through the dogs.”
According to the OAE website, students with support animals are often placed in single occupancy housing.
“In deciding upon locations, we are trying to accommodate the diverse needs that are [in some cases] contradictory and expectations of students who want to live with animals and those who do not or cannot,” Breeland said. “We will continue to work with individual students, Graduate Student Council, Graduate Housing Advisory Committee, Undergraduate Housing Advisory Committee and others to address student needs.”
For students with service and support animals, the hope is that they can live somewhere that both accommodates their animal and allows them to interact and build community with other residents.
“I hope I’m not put in ‘secondary’ housing,” Laurie said. “I still want to have a social life and be with people I know well.”
Ellis emphasized her belief that support and service animals are far more than simple amenities. Rather, they are crucial for the health of their owners. According to Ellis, many people are concerned with the mess and noise that can come with having an animal. However, she stressed the importance of prioritizing mental health when talking about emotional support and service animals.
“People who have emotional support animals … don’t just have a dog because they want one, they have a dog because they need one,” Ellis said. “They have a documented illness.”
Other students cited additional challenges to having a service or support animal on campus. One issue many graduate students living in studios raised is the lack of an accessible place for animals to exercise.
“The biggest issue is that there’s nowhere that these dogs can get exercise,” Horowitz said. “Stanford wants this to be a total-use campus, except they have hundreds of people with service and support animals who have nowhere to run their dogs.”
There is no dog park where dogs can run without a leash on campus — the closest one is a 15-minute drive away, which can be inconvenient for students without cars or with busy schedules. For this reason,some studio residents let their dogs run around in the grass between Studio 5 and 6 — on a leash, due to Stanford’s “leash-only” policy. Some dogs have brightly colored, 30 foot long leashes – enough length for them to run around and stay healthy while keeping in line with Stanford’s leash policy.
“I talked to housing and several other people, and we basically got no response whatsoever, which is really frustrating, because it would be so cheap to just put up a fence somewhere and solve this problem.” Horowitz said.
Graduate students Amelia Stillwell and Sarah Malik brought this concern to the Graduate Student Council (GSC) in early February, and the GSC began working with R&DE to build a dog park on campus.
“Earlier this year, Student Housing Operations received a request from the Graduate Student Council to construct a dog run in Escondido Village, to minimize the effect of providing needed exercise for dogs on other residents.” Breeland said. “The University is reviewing this request.”
Some residents said they feel that because Stanford promises to accommodate service and support animals, the school should also commit to facilitating healthy environments for them to live in.
“If Stanford expects us to work so hard — and usually we’re not paid adequately — then the least it can do is allow us to have a support dog, and actually have that support dog, which includes the exercising,” said Meghan Warner, a first-year Ph.D student in sociology.
Facing social stigmas
For some people with both service animals and support animals, it can be hard to live with animals on campus due to the stigma that can come along with them.
“People always expect you to have to justify why you need it. It’s harder for people to understand what your experience is,” Ellis said.
Laurie said he feels the same way. When he was first considering bringing an support animal onto campus next year, one of his friends jokingly told him not to be a “weak b**ch.”
“I mean, we’re friends,” Laurie said about the incident. “But that still caught me off guard. I got the feeling I would be attacked [or] insulted [for getting a support animal].”
In addition, owners of support or service animals may feel pressured to justify having their animal to other people.
“When people see us, the first thing that they think is — ‘Oh, they’re lying,’ or ‘Oh — she just wants to bring her dog.’ But he’s not [just] a dog, he’s a service animal — he has training to help me with my disability. It’s not a luxury thing,” Ellis said.
Ellis further emphasized the importance of her service animal in helping her on a medical basis.
“If I could choose to not have Moon Pie with me at Stanford, but to not have a debilitating mental illness, I would take that in a heartbeat,” she continued.“I would literally give anything not to feel this way — but I can’t control it, so the best I can do is just live with it, and in order to do that, I need Moon Pie.”
Ultimately, students with support and service animals say they are just trying to be as healthy as possible, and their animals help them achieve that.
“You really don’t realize it until you get sick — without your health, you don’t have anything,” Ellis said. “[Moon Pie] makes me feel like I could have a normal life.”
As Ellis spoke, Moon Pie laid down in the grass a couple feet away and rolled around — once, twice. Ellis laughed.
“Moon Pie!” she called.
He picked himself up from the grass and returned to her feet, looking up at Ellis attentively. “He loves to roll in the grass, it’s his favorite thing,” she said. “He’s such a good boy.”
Contact Adesuwa Agbonile at adesuwaa ‘at’ stanford.edu.