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Service dogs improve quality of life for students

| Tuesday, March 19, 2019

As a junior in high school looking ahead towards college, senior Amy Mansfield said she was determined to move away from home and live a normal, independent life as a college student. She has been able to live out this goal with the help of her service dog, Juniper.

Mansfield has Type 1 Diabetes with hypoglycemia unawareness, meaning that often times she does not exhibit symptoms of low blood sugar. Improving her own safety and independence were key factors in Mansfield’s decision to get a service dog. 

“A dog offers things that a piece of technology can’t,” she said. 

The pair found each other with the help of an organization called Medical Mutts which primarily trains shelter dogs for service — a mission that was particularly appealing, Mansfield said.

“The idea that a shelter dog can become a service dog is really important for people to know,” she said. “Even if they have traumatic histories, they can be really great dogs.”

After signing a contract with the organization, Medical Mutts set out to find the perfect match for Mansfield and her needs as student. Eventually, Juniper became that match.

“When they first found her, she was super emaciated and had some cracked teeth … they think she might have tried to gnaw herself out of a poor situation,” Mansfield said.

After being rescued from her own life-threatening situation, Juniper has taken on a life-saving role herself. She is trained to pick up on fluctuations in Mansfield’s blood sugar levels and alerts her when those levels get dangerously low.

“It’s hard to say how many emergency situations she’s saved me from because she caught it before it got to that emergency situation,” Mansfield said. 

 Having Juniper by her side reduces stress in Manfield’s daily life, she said.

“[She makes] daily tasks a lot less anxiety inducing,” Mansfield said. “College especially being so busy, it can be hard to remember to sit down, breathe, take your blood sugar.”

While Juniper essentially could be considered “a piece of medical equipment,” the role Juniper plays in Mansfield’s life is much more complex, she said, acting as “an extension” of Mansfield herself.

Before she had Juniper, Mansfield found herself restricting her social life out of fear.

“I would limit myself and what I would allow myself to do for safety reasons, but I think Juniper has restored some of that freedom that has allowed me to live my life and study abroad and be an RA,” she said.

Juniper’s presence benefits more than just Mansfield, however. 

“I think she offers my mom a lot of peace of mind that she wouldn’t have if I were living alone,” Mansfield said. “That fear of something happening to me behind closed doors and nobody knowing about it for days is alleviated.” 

Though Juniper is a working dog, strangers often want to treat her like a pet, saying things like, “You have no idea how hard it is for me to not pet your dog,” Mansfield said. While she recognizes people’s positive intentions in saying such things, by the end of the day, getting so much attention can be exhausting.

“It is hard to give people universal advice about how to approach a service dog because every handler is going to be different, every dog is going to be different,” she said.

While no two experiences of having a service dog are exactly alike, senior Lauren Boutros also said her service dog Arlo is “like an extension” of herself.

After taking a semester off of school for health-related reasons, Boutros said she knew having a service dog would allow her to live a more independent life as a student and eventually graduate.

Arlo is new to the Notre Dame community, but loves everything about campus life — especially the snow and squirrels, Boutros said. The pair met for the first time in August of 2018 when Arlo was eight weeks old. He moved in officially a month later. Arlo is still in training — he and Boutros work with three different trainers on a weekly basis.

Boutros said she is an active participant in training her service dog. By doing this, she is developing valuable skills that will be helpful to her in the future, as she will likely live with a service dog for the rest of her life, she said.       

“If I didn’t have Arlo, my mother would have to be living here with me … I really would not be independent,” she said. “I don’t think that I could confidently graduate, I don’t think I could get a job. With Arlo, I have more confidence in doing those things.”

As a prospective service dog, Arlo helps Boutros with her daily routine. He wakes her up in the morning and reminds her when to take her medication. He is also training to perform deep pressure therapy — something his sheer size helps him do well. Training might sound like hard work for a puppy, but Boutros ensured that Arlo is living the normal dog life.

“Working is not work for him, it’s fun,” she said. “He lives such a happy life doing enriching things. He also gets to live out a life that is intellectual — he has to think about what he is doing and when to do it … there is a lot of opportunity for him to use his brain, which a lot of dogs do not get to do.”

Navigating campus with a service dog is not always easy — from people making kissing noises at Arlo to other’s misunderstandings of the laws associated with Americans with Disabilities Act, Boutros and Arlo’s time training together has had its ups and downs. Service dogs have access to public spaces that other animals do not. Seeing dogs in these spheres can be surprising and exciting for onlookers. Boutros said she is often asked by strangers if they can pet Arlo.

“I don’t blame anyone,” she said. “I mean it makes sense. Of course you want to pet him, he’s adorable …  It’s hard for me to say no.”

However hard it is to say no, Boutros explained there is an appropriate time for petting, but when the pair is out among strangers is not always that time.

“I’m training him to know when on is on and off is off,” she said. “Don’t let it ruin you day if we say, ‘No, please don’t take a picture.’ It’s okay, we don’t mean any harm … we just want some privacy. It’s hard to do this and not feel like you haven’t become a recognized figure on campus, and that can come with a lot of intrusiveness.”

While privacy is often sacrificed when walking around campus with a dog, Boutros said that she has not had to make any sacrifices unwillingly.

“I feel like I have gained a part of my identity, not in terms of being the girl with the dog on campus, but in terms of being Lauren who now has a service dog and lives a more full life,” she said.

An initial concern for Boutros before getting a service dog was how having such a responsibility would affect her social life, she said, but she soon learned that the effect would only be positive. 

“It’s never stopped me from doing something that I’ve wanted to do socially … having a service dog has only opened up my life to actually living an experience that is good here,” she said.

As students with service dogs on a college campus, both Mansfield and Boutros have received their fair share of stares, they said, in addition to support from peers. Seeing service dogs on South Quad or in Starbucks can be a source of joy for many students. To these two girls, however, their dogs mean much more.

“In the long run, it’s important to remember that there is still a human being attached to that dog,” Mansfield said. 

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