College student Sydney Sheets brings her dog Halo with her everywhere. He’s not just a pet to her. He’s like a walking medical device, helping her manage her diabetes.
“If I'm, like, too low where I start losing my eyesight, he starts pulling me somewhere safe, and if I can't get up from somewhere, he lays with me. He's trained to go get people if I need him to,” Sheets said.
He’s a service animal and fits right in with her college life.
Some at her school struggle with Halo attending classes, but she has the law on her side. Service animals are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. People have rights to having their emotional support animals in dorms and other housing, under the Federal Housing Act, but not in the classroom.
As schools around the country attempt to handle a rapid rise of animals on campus, knowing which is which is problem No. 1.
“Colleges and universities are lost at how to handle the situation,” Dr. Phyllis Erdman said.
She said they’ll need to revise previous no-pet policies to allow for dogs in dorms and animals in labs, and still face a balancing act between a growing number of students with medical or emotional needs and other students who may have dog phobias or animal allergy issues.
“We're going to need to have better training requirements for animals. We're going to have to have offices in place on universities that can identify the service animals, emotional support animals, clearly help them determine which is which,” she said.
They’ll also have to weed out the real requests from those from people who could be abusing the system.
The problem is evident.
Sheets' mom, Karin Sheets, said people with emotional support animals that don't have a mental health need, in the end hurt those who do need the support.
“I think that it does a disservice to people that really need them,” Karin Sheets said.
Erdman said schools must update policies and educate employees quickly.
That’s happened on Sheets' campus, where one run-in with a professor who didn’t know the law helped lead to changes already.
“They've done a lot of different measures to make it, make more awareness for service dogs and, kind of, etiquette for how to treat them when you see them on campus," Sheets said.
College campuses are not the only places the problem has started to pop up. Similar issues are happening in courtrooms now, too, where judges are also struggling with whether the animals present a bias that could impact a case.