YORK, Pa. — A typical day for York College senior Blair Hagelgans looks like that of most college students. She sits through classes, meets up with friends for lunch and has meetings around campus for various organizations she’s a part of. Except, Hagelgans has a furry friend with her wherever she goes.
Hagelgans’ service dog Creed is not alone. He’s one of six service dogs at York College, and he fits into a growing national number of undergraduate students reporting a disability. As more students with disabilities pursue additional education, dogs are often coming with them.
“I think the use of animals in general is becoming more recognized as a viable way to help mitigate symptoms,” Linda Miller, director of Student Accessibility Services at York College says.
Hagelgans has Chiari malformation, a birth defect, and syringomyelia, a fluid-filled cyst in her spinal cord, among other conditions. She has problems with balance and coordination, and she’s had 17 brain and spine surgeries.
Creed was originally trained as a seizure alert dog when Hagelgans was having seizures as a result of an epilepsy diagnosis. She’s now seizure-free, but Creed still helps with certain mobility tasks such as turning on and off lights, opening and closing doors and retrieving things.
“It’s a whole new territory when you constantly have your medical equipment that’s a living creature with you,” she says.
It’s medical equipment that needs to be walked, fed and bathed at regular times. Service dogs also receive specialized training that their owners must keep up with. Hagelgans said it’s like having to take care of a 4-year-old while continuing her education.
“Having a dog just as a pet is hard,” she explains. “You have to take them out, you have to feed them, you have to groom them, you have to take them to get baths. Trying to do all of that plus doing excessive training, plus going to class and doing your homework and your exams. it’s a lot for one person to handle.”
At Dickinson College, training service dogs is not just a task for one person. The school has a Special Interest House called the Dickinson Dog House. It’s a program run through Susquehanna Service Dogs where students in the club raise and train service dogs.
The students typically get an 8-week-old puppy and train the dog until it’s about 18 months old. They work on basic skills — sit, stand, down, stay — and pass the dogs on to SSD’s advanced training where they learn specific tasks based on whom the dogs will be paired with.
Five students live in the house during any given year. However, the club has about 40-50 active members who have shifts training the dogs, hugging the puppies and just helping with daily tasks.
“Because it is such a big club and we have so many volunteers helping us out, it makes it a lot more manageable – especially for the people living in the house,” Dickinson Dog House Director Grace Crossland says.
Although there are difficulties with having service dogs on college campuses, advocates say the benefits outweigh the costs.
Warren Anderson, chief inclusion and diversity officer at HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, says service dogs help with daily school tasks such as carrying books, guiding students to class and turning on classroom lights.
“Service animals really do provide a tremendous service and resource for the institution,” he says.
Hagelgans’ conditions are mostly invisible. She had an instance her freshman year in which another student bullied her on Yik Yak, an anonymous social media app, for having Creed when she didn’t look “sick.”
Still, she says she’s had plenty of students and professors helping her along the way. She’s made it her mission to educate more people about the role of service dogs, specifically for people who may not look like they need them. She’s even working with Miller on a service dog awareness project on York College’s campus.
“He’s not just a medical aid for me. He’s my pet. He’s my friend. He’s my best companion,” she says.
At Dickinson, Crossland says she’d like to see Dickinson Dog House do more educational events in the future. She’s seen firsthand what the dogs she’s trained have been able to do for people who need them, and she wants to share that with the community.
“It makes it easier knowing that they’re going off to do something really good for someone else and that you’ve been able to be a part of that process is a really amazing feeling.”
Information from: York Daily Record, http://www.ydr.com