Companion animals heal lives, hearts

Featured Image: Murphee, a service dog belonging to sophomore Baylee Brown, runs through the trails on campus without the red service dog vest he usually wears in public. Brown | Courtesy

From college students to retired veterans, the community shares the impact of emotional support animals and service animals on their lives. 

Students have noticed an uptick in ESAs and service animals on campus. These animals can be a great source of support, and with their increasing presence on campus, it is important to take a closer look at how exactly they are impacting the college community.

In the 2023-2024 VWU student handbook, an emotional support animal (ESA), or companion animal, is described as “a pet owned and used by that individual to manage a disability.” This management to assist a pet owner is commonly brought out through the animal’s calming presence, not necessarily the animal’s ability to perform specific tasks.

Companion animals assist individuals in their day-to-day tasks if they should find that they require that assistance. Having a companion animal on campus is an opportunity that the university itself supplies.

Nusbam Center Director Kelly Jackson enjoys interaction with a service dog at the “Mutts With A Mission” campus event. Kelly Jackson | Courtesy

As stated in the 2023-2024 student handbook, “Virginia Wesleyan recognizes that the assistance of service or companion animals may be necessary for some individuals to gain access to programs, services, and facilities or to better manage their particular disability.”

The process for acquiring a companion animal on campus is outlined in the student handbook, in the section titled “Students Seeking Accommodations.”

Senior Elias Kenworthy, who has a dog, Blue, on campus, shared his perspective on having an ESA. Kenworthy described acquiring an ESA on campus as a simple process. “It’s just a form or a note from your doctor/therapist that says why you need it,” Kenworthy said.

Blue prances around Honors Village at sunset. Elias Kenworthy | Courtesy


Blue helps Kenworthy in more ways than one.

“Bluey helps me begin the day,” Kenworthy said. “He makes me get out of bed to take him out, and then I am able to go to my morning classes that I usually couldn’t make myself get up for.”

Kenworthy expanded on the benefits of ESAs that extend beyond the owner. “ESAs are good for everyone in the community. People miss their pets and it’s so lovely to see everyone get excited about a dog,” Kenworthy said.

When it comes to ESAs, not all students who live on campus exclusively see the benefits. Senior Alyssa Lane conveyed her support for ESAs on campus, while also acknowledging areas of concern.“I believe emotional support animals provide an important and necessary service to students,” Lane said.

Lane expressed her issue not with the presence of ESAs on campus, but with problems that can arise due to more specific factors, such as inadequate training. “My problem is the number of minimally or completely untrained animals on campus,” Lane said. 

According to Lane, training is a necessity for safety. “Untrained animals, especially dogs, can be a hazard to other students, other animals and themselves, which ultimately defeats the purpose of an ESA,” Lane said. “It would be better for everyone, including the animals themselves, if the registration required some kind of basic training certificate or demonstration of basic commands/potty training.”

As stated by the 2023-2024 student handbook, “A service animal is an animal properly trained and documented to assist an individual with a disability.” Service animals are different from companion animals due to their documented ability to “assist” someone, which is considered a step further than managing a disability. 

These animals are capable of performing tasks their owners may not be able to do on their own, such as guiding the blind, alerting the deaf and even detecting medical emergencies. This assistance can be the difference between life and death for individuals with more severe disabilities.

Due to the much-needed aid service animals provide, along with their behavioral competence, they can be brought to any public location. 

Sophomore Baylee Brown has a service dog named Murphee. Brown described her experience of having a service dog on campus as being easy and unproblematic. “The school generally has been really, really wonderful,” Brown said. 

The university has made adjustments to accommodate the needs of her service dog. “We had my class removed just because it was way too hot in there and he started to overheat,” Brown said.

Brown shed light on how having a service animal enhances her life. “He keeps me sane pretty much,” she said. “I feel like he also keeps me responsible because if he isn’t properly taken care of, then he can’t properly take care of me.”

When it comes to learning more about service animals, Brown said, “If you have questions, come ask. It’s not rude. Just don’t pet.”

Bobby Klepper, a retired member of the Virginia State Police, Vietnam-era veteran and former Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician, came to campus to share the story of his connection with his service dog, Recon. This Nusbaum Center hosted this session on Thursday, Oct. 19.

Klepper described how his traumatic brain injury (TBI) disrupted his day-to-day life. “I started to withdraw. I wouldn’t go out with friends, we used to go out every Friday night and Saturday, all the neighborhood. We’d all get together and hit the bars. And I couldn’t do that,” Klepper said.

He shared how his injuries complicated what were once simple tasks. With Recon, Klepper expressed how he has regained a sense of independence. “Now, I’m not embarrassed to lean up against the wall to pick something up. He picks it up, he picks up his leash, he picks up his blanket. I don’t have to do these embarrassing things where I fall over,” Klepper said.

Klepper placed emphasis on the importance of service animals for everyone. He encouraged those who are interested to consider becoming a part of the dog training process. “If you want a check in the box of your life that you really helped somebody, you made a difference, then think about being a puppy raiser,” Klepper said.


By Isaac Fick