Caitlin Wren wouldn’t have been able to finish high school or leave her house regularly if it wasn’t for Jenny. Anxiety had taken over her life and no matter whom she was with, it became unbearable to be outside her home. But Jenny was different: Wren felt having Jenny there by her side almost immediately quelled her anxiety.
“I loved her instantly,” Wren said recalling the first day she met the yellow Labrador. “I wasn’t having the best quality of life, I had no independence and couldn’t leave the house, even with my mom.”
Three years ago, the second-year psychology student couldn’t fathom a future where she’d be living alone and taking classes at CSUB, her reality today.
“A lot of the time she’s at my feet, she’s like my heartbeat, we’re a package deal,” Wren said.
At first, Jenny helped Wren with her anxiety by alerting Wren when she sensed a panic attack coming on. Or she would lie on Wren’s lap, a technique known as deep pressure therapy.
“She’ll be dead asleep, snoring away and immediately stand up if I start to get dizzy or feel upset,” Wren said.
Wren now uses Jenny as a physical aide and less for anxiety, as she was diagnosed with three chronic illnesses last year.
“She can do things no human can do,” Wren said.
Jenny will put her paw up on Wren’s thigh, which to passersby might look like she’s begging, but Jenny is actually sensing that Wren might pass out due to increased heart rate or blood pressure that dogs can sense.
Jason Watkins, leader of student disabilities at CSUB, said there are three classifications of support animals: service, emotional or comfort, and therapy animals.
Yet there’s a fine line at college campuses like CSUB, Watkins said, where emotional support animals are still a relatively new concept and don’t have any policies.
Right now, they don’t need to wear a vest, aren’t allowed in classes, must be on a leash and potty trained. CSUB is expecting to unveil a policy on comfort or emotional support animals next semester.
The fact that Jenny isn’t required to wear a vest or anything signaling that she’s a service dog can lead to some confusion. Service dogs, according to Wren, are trained to do specific tasks that can offer medical aid, such as deep pressure therapy. Emotional support and therapy pets don’t require that training, but aren’t specifically registered either.
Sometimes Jenny can be a barrier, Wren said, and that many people see her as a service handler first and a person second. Wren said she’s been asked outlandish questions like “what’s wrong with you?” which she’s only required to answer what it is that Jenny does and if she’s a service dog.
“I wouldn’t recommend it to just anyone; it’s not easy,” Wren said. “It will change your life. You now have this other being to take care of.”
Emotional or comfort support animals aren’t necessarily rowdy pets, even though they don’t have as specialized training. Liz Kovar, the director of Marley’s Miracle Mutts, said the dogs take many tests spanning categories like temperament, obedience and sociability. “We’re trying to be a more inclusive campus,” Watkins said. “I’d like to make the emotional support animals more prevalent.”
Five-month-old golden Labrador Luca is a power source of empathy and support for Kovar herself – he’s an emotional support and therapy dog.
“Every time it seems like I’m going to sink all the way down, he’s here,” Kovar said of Luca, whose namesake means “light of life.”
Kovar initially got her first dog Fred, to help her through bouts of depression and anxiety, but also trained him to be a comfort dog for a child with autism. Fred then became an emotional support animal for herself and a therapy dog and when Fred passed, Kovar trained Luca to fill his paws.
“He doesn’t negate or replace the problem, he just brings me to the present moment,” Kovar said. “Dogs will take on all of our emotional responsibilities.”
As a therapy dog, Luca visits senior citizens for a program called Barks and Books and schools where he receives pets in exchange for destressing students.
It’s not just college campuses that have gray areas regarding comfort or emotional support animals. Places like airplanes and shops don’t have specific policies as well.
Kovar recognizes that therapy dogs and emotional support dogs shouldn’t be co-dependent with their human guardians.
“They’re not just for recreating and snuggling. While that is great, it’s better to see relationship between both develop,” Kovar said. “The perception is that it’s a guardianship, not an ownership. Pets aren’t objects.”
But the healing force that Jenny and Luca possess is unmistakable. Comfort, emotional support, therapy and service animals aren’t a catchall solution, but certainly are a special form of medicine.
“For students with debilitating anxiety, you can almost see the animals reduce that blood pressure and if they can do that, then why not?” Watkins said about having comfort and emotional support animals. ￼