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Fostering Good Habits in College
Colleges are welcoming second chance dogs.
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New residents explore Stephens College
New residents explore Stephens College

From a dog’s point of view, there may be no better place to spend some time than a college campus. Think about it: the grassy expanses, the flying Frisbees, the attentive humans and all the other opportunities that dogs, like students, have to bond, grow, absorb knowledge, find their passion or just lie in the shade.

It can just as easily be argued that there’s nothing better for college campuses, and more fitting with their mission, than dogs. Dogs can pave the way to healthy social connections. They can help calm frazzled nerves during final exams. They can serve as friends during bouts of homesickness. They tend to make an institutional setting a warmer, friendlier, more family-like place. And on top of all that, there are the volumes they can teach.

They require no salary. They don’t insist on tenure. Yet, without a degree, or even a pedigree, they can help us learn—maybe not computer science 101, but some fairly important things, like compassion and responsibility.

Why then—given the benefi ts to all involved—haven’t more doors opened to dogs at America’s universities? Blame the usual suspects: allergies, barking, poop, fear of lawsuits, fear in general and that rigid, play-it-safe thinking for which bureaucracies are famous.

Despite all the “Top 10 Pet-Friendly Campuses” lists you can find online— some of which include schools that permit little more than fish tanks in the dorm room—it appears that many institutes of higher learning still have a lot to learn when it comes to dogs.

The handful of schools that do let dogs live with students in dormitories commonly impose weight limits (something even the meanest of sororities have moved beyond), failing to realize that size in dogs, like size in people, has no bearing on either aggression or destructive tendencies. Most have breed restrictions, which are based not on academic research, but on insurance company guidelines. And for every school that does, conditionally, permit dogs in dormitories, you can find 100 more that don’t, though some are more intent on enforcing it than others.

In truth, the doors haven’t opened that widely for canines in college, despite dogs being exemplars of that most important attribute of all when it comes to learning: curiosity. Of those schools that are catching on to the magic of dogs, one—sorry, no Top 10 list here —leads the way, a private college in Missouri that not only permits students to have canine roommates (be they Chihuahuas or Great Danes), but pays them to do so.

Stephens College, in Columbia, Mo., provides $3,000 scholarships to students who agree to foster rescued dogs and cats. Between that program, the school’s 175 designated pet-friendly dorm rooms and free on-campus doggie day care, the small liberal arts school could easily make a case for being the nation’s dog-friendliest.

But that’s not the point. The point is that the influx of dogs, especially those for whom students are providing foster care in dormitories—assisting a canine’s transition to a new life while undergoing one of their own—has served not to just make the dogs better dogs and the students better humans, but the school, it could be argued, a better place. And therein may lie—or is it lay?— a lesson.

In the mid-1990s, a staff member at Stephens College suggested to the school president that students be allowed to bring their dogs with them when they came to school. The response, as she recalls, was, “Absolutely not! What are you thinking?”

A few years later, a new college president arrived on campus. Her name was Wendy Libby and, because the house she’d bought wasn’t ready, she lived that first summer in a school dormitory with her black Lab, Abby.

“Abby started the whole ball rolling,” said Deb Duren, who, sensing a change in the climate, made her suggestion again. This time it met with approval, and, in 2003, seven students brought pets on campus. Today, about two of every 10 students at the women’s college lives with a pet.

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