Four paws, a fluffy tail and a wet nose are all part of what make dogs so endearing, but some furry companions at the University of Oregon offer much more than their unfathomable cuteness.
For some, having a service or therapy dog is a matter of life or death.
UO senior Lea Lawrence is the owner of Cooper, a seizure-alert Golden Retriever who accompanies her to campus nearly every day. While he is extremely sociable and is often off-leash, Cooper’s first priority is always to make sure Lawrence is safe.
“Cooper is my companion for everything that I do,” said Lawrence. “But basically, Cooper is trained to be with me so that I don’t die.”
After transferring to UO at the beginning of her sophomore year, Lawrence experienced a traumatic sexual assault during her second term in Eugene.
“It changed me; I was not in the same place that I was when I came here,” Lawrence said. “I decided the one thing that would make me happy and bring me back to where I was — or even stronger than I was — would be Cooper.”
After the assault, Lawrence began to experience psychogenic non-epileptic seizures, consisting of stress-induced absence and grand mal seizures (loss of consciousness and violent muscle contractions). As a service dog, Cooper is trained specifically for these incidents. He has learned to pin Lawrence’s shoulders against a chair so that she sits upright; if she is on the floor, he knows to wedge his shoulder under her neck and use his body as a pillow for her head.
In the case of an absence seizure, Lawrence can temporarily black out, losing her ability to consciously walk herself to where she needs to go. Because of this, Cooper is trained to look both ways before crossing the street; he also knows the route to and from campus.
“It looks like he’s the one walking me, but in reality he’s doing his job,” Lawrence said. “He’s taking me to the place that I’m supposed to go.”
Potential service dogs’ obedience training is ongoing, but once they acquire the basic set of skills, they are ready to participate in specialized workshops. The training period varies from dog to dog, but Lawrence says it can be beneficial to begin training when they are young — Cooper was introduced to training when he was just 6 months old.
Now, Cooper is able to sense Lawrence’s emotions. In the case of an impending anxiety attack, he knows to comfort her or approach the nearest person for help.
In 2014, a study published in the journal Current Biology revealed that dogs are familiar with human vocalizations, and are therefore able to identify and differentiate human emotions.
“Dogs are really able to attach themselves to what you and I are feeling,” Lawrence said. “They have that emotional attachment that science can’t give you; they can sense things that even humans can’t sense.”
Service dogs often provide assistance to people who don’t have a recognizable disability. While Lawrence’s condition warrants the direct aid of a service dog, other people falsely claim that their pet is a service animal.
“I think that sometimes people abuse the system by saying that their pet is a service dog because they want to take their pet everywhere with them, and that’s not OK,” Lawrence said. “It’s a slap in the face to real, legitimate service dogs like Cooper.”
According to Jeff Larson, the assistant director of UO’s Accessible Education Center, students who have non-apparent disabilities are more likely to have the legitimacy of their service animal questioned.
“Many students want to register with our office just so we’re aware of other accommodation needs,” Larson said.
Some people say their pet is a service animal even when it is not, Larson said, so the permit process can help “legitimize a student having a service animal.”
UO senior Sonali Sampat is one of those students who registered her service dog with the AEC due to disabilities that aren’t immediately apparent.
“It’s frustrating to explain it to people because they look at me and they’re like, ‘You don’t look like you have a disability,’” Sampat said, “And then I have to give them the spiel.”
When Sampat began to experience anxiety and PTSD after a sexual assault in her past, she decided to get Pongo Bear (Pongo for short), her Havanese psychiatric service dog.
Pongo is now 3 years old, but he began training when he was just 5 months. He is trained to sense when Sampat is about to have an anxiety attack; he warns her before it happens and he is able to retrieve her medication if she is unable.
“If I leave the room, he follows me; if I’m in the bathroom, he’s sitting at the door,” Sampat said. “He’s pretty well trained now, so I can trust that he’s not going to screw around while he’s working.”
A service dog is always on duty, but they know to be on their best behavior when they wear an official service vest. According to Sampat, when Pongo wears his official service vest, he feels secure, which is integral to the human’s security.
While it can be difficult to tell when a service dog is needed by its owner — or to know if it’s a service dog at all — it is always important to ask the owner if you can pet their dog. Because service animals are trained to recognize cues that indicate a medical emergency, distracting a dog can have serious consequences for the owner.
“People don’t realize it’s a problem — that’s just the nature of dog people,” Sampat said. “Before you interact with the dog, make sure you interact with the owner first.”
While some people have their service dog with them everywhere they go, Sampat only brings Pongo with her to campus on days when she needs some extra support from her furry friend. But even when Pongo isn’t with her, Sampat knows that he is at home, which is comfort enough.
“The bond is unbreakable,” Sampat said. “You don’t have that with your medication … there are a million and one reasons why medication just doesn’t do the trick sometimes. At this point, I can’t really imagine a time when I didn’t have [Pongo].”
According to Science Magazine, the bond that humans feel when looking into each other’s eyes triggers a chemical release of oxytocin — eye contact between humans and dogs has the same effect.
Oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the cuddle chemical or the love hormone, strengthens emotional and social connection between humans and dogs. According to LiveScience.com, the chemical is also proven to ease stress.
Eugene-based organization People and Animals Who Serve sees the benefit in this human-animal interaction and works with the UO Wellness Center to bring therapy dogs to campus.
“What we do is pretty informal; we call it therapy, but it’s not therapy in the medical sense,” said Barbara Berkley, member on the PAAWS board of directors. “The dogs just have this affection with no strings attached.”
PAAWS is comprised of about 30 active teams, each consisting of a certified therapy dog and trained handler. Every other Saturday at 11 a.m., three to four teams visit the Duck Nest — the UO Wellness Center in the EMU — where students are welcome to meet and interact with the dogs, learn about pet therapy and let go of any stress.
According to Berkley, a pet with potential to be a therapy animal is sociable and has outstanding obedience skills. Dogs can gain certification as young as 1 year old after going through training.
“It’s been amazing to me how much our campus program has taken off and how much the students enjoy it,” Berkley said. “You can just see them relaxing. It’s a break; it’s stress relief. There’s just something about that human-animal bond.”
The relationship between dog and human is timeless, but the benefits of such a bond transcend a mere friendship — in the case of Lea Lawrence, Cooper is a life saver.
“My life kind of revolves around [Cooper],” Lawrence said. “He’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me, and I want to give him what he’s given me.”