Living with a service dog at Queen's

Students tell The Journal about their experiences with service animals on campus

Students who spoke with The Journal about their service animals describe common misconceptions on campus and beyond.
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“Well, what’s your problem?”

Phoenix Wilkie Yu (Sci ’21), a third-year student who lives with a service dog, was asked the question on a crowded city bus. Her service dog, Onyx, had just been kicked by a young child. When Yu asked the child’s mother to stop her daughter from doing it again, she was met with anger, rather than compassion.

“That was one of the worst moments,” Yu said in an interview with The Journal. “I realiz[ed] that wow, people don’t have respect for service dogs.”

According to Yu the treatment of individuals with service animals remains a conversation in need of addressing, especially on post-secondary campuses. Yu said people need to understand working service dogs aren’t pets ready to be touched or approached in passing, but are instead essential supports for those who need them.

There is also a significant difference between service animals and emotional support animals, a distinction Yu says people often overlook. 

Queen’s residence policy states service animals are permitted to assist students with physical, mental and sensory disabilities. Generally, animals can also walk in and out of campus buildings easily. However, according to Yu, there continues to be a public misconception on the functionality of service animals on campus, and in the broader Kingston community.

Born with an autoimmune disorder, Yu is forced to make compromises regarding her living situation and her diet. She explained her condition gets worse as she ages, whether by environmental factors or stress.

“About four years ago, I was in a big accident on an airplane,” she said, “after that, my physical health took a bad turn for the worse.”

After talking to her family doctor, Yu said she was eligible to get a service dog to help navigate through her day-to-day life.

According to Yu, Onyx, a two-year old black Schnauzer, is trained to sense seizures, low blood sugar, allergies, and other medical needs.

“She’s trained so that if anything was to happen, she has to go find the nearest person and bring them to me, and hopefully convey that I need an ambulance,” Yu said.

Yu said she wouldn’t be able to function normally without the support provided by her service animal. With Onyx, she is more confident in tackling her health issues.

While professors and staff on campus are supportive, Yu said it can get difficult with students, particularly students who don’t know what a service dog is.

Life or death”

Service dogs are trained from a young age to be a medical aid, she said. While they have their off-duty moments to relax, they’re essentially constantly on duty.

Yu recounted times when she had been walking on campus, and experienced people leaning down to pet her dog—even when the words “do not pet” are printed clearly across her dog’s vest. 

She explained whenever somebody pets an on-duty service dog, they put the handler’s life at risk. “It could be a means of life or death for the person,” Yu said.

 “You’re introducing foreign scents which are very distracting,” she said. “Dogs, in general, love affection and attention, and petting them while they're on duty often distract them [by] differentiating between work and play.”

 While service dogs are trained to be tolerant of common distractions, including unwanted petting, they’re still not perfect, she said. And when a service dog is distracted, they are not able to readily detect when their handler is in danger.

Another challenge service animal handlers face are the public’s misconceptions, and the attitudes that can accompany those misconceptions.  

Yu recalled receiving “nasty” comments about having a smaller breed of service dog, unlike the more common breeds trained for the role, like Labradors and retrievers. Larger breeds of dogs don’t necessarily work for everyone, she explained, “in my case, I’m allergic to them.”

Labradors and retrievers are often used as guide dogs because of their discipline, Yu explained. But hunting dogs like terriers or German Shepherds have stronger scent receptors, which can function as a more acute indicator of allergic reactions and seizures.

“My service dog is an atypical breed, being a Boston Terrier [and] French Bulldog mix,” Mikayla Quast (ArtSci ’21) told The Journal in an email.

Quast said the public often assumes service dogs are only used for people with impaired vision. After being diagnosed with PTSD three years ago, Quast said her mental health worsened when she came to university.

“Going into second year, I knew some sort of emotional assistance would greatly help me,” she said. After researching for both emotional support animals and service animals, she found in order to get a service dog in Kingston, it would take up a 5-year waiting time, so instead, she ended up getting a puppy and enrolling her into an eight-week private training session.

While emotional support dogs don’t require training, they’re still performing an important task for their handler, Yu said.

“At the end of the day, they have certain tasks that they have to accomplish, be it grounding someone if they have PTSD or grounding someone in a panic attack,” she said. “Some are trained to bring a brush to their owner so that the owner could brush them.”

However, as registration for emotional support animals has become easier to obtain, Quast said some barriers have risen. In fact, according to the National Service Animal Registry, 2,400 service and emotional support animals were registered in 2011. The number is nearing 200,000 registered today.

“While working on campus, I encountered a fake service dog,” she said. When she asked for the student’s paperwork before granting the student entry to her workplace, Quast said the student claimed it was “illegal to ask for paperwork.”

According to Quast, service dogs aren’t required to wear any sort of identifying garment by law. Vests are most commonly used as an indicator for the public, but paperwork must be carried at all times, she said.

Quast told The Journal her encounter was upsetting because it can lead to larger safety issues.

“When contacting Accessibility Services, however, they did not listen to these concerns and there has been no resolution which causes a lot of stress on campus,” Quast said.

Both Quast and Yu hope that by increasing awareness of service dog on campus, people will understand their purpose and the importance of respecting their space.

“I think it would be extremely helpful for the University to educate staff and students better on the types of service animals and how to interact with them,” Quast said.

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