(PET) Who’s your dorm mate? For increasing numbers of college students, that can be a beloved dog, cat, or even, snake. But having Fido on campus isn’t always a walk in the dog park. — Global Animal
New York Times, Jacques Steinberg
COLUMBIA, MO — When Allison Frisch goes shopping this summer for furnishings to decorate her freshman dorm room at Stephens College, she will be looking for a comforter for herself — and a matching doggie bed for her roommate.
That is because Ms. Frisch will be sharing her room with Taffy, her 10-year-old Shetland sheepdog. And Stephens, a women’s college founded here in 1833, says it is glad to have them both.
Ms. Frisch is one of 30 incoming freshmen at Stephens who have asked to bring a family pet to campus when they arrive this fall. That represents an increase of 20 over last year’s freshman class — so many that the college is renovating a dormitory for the students and their companions, most of them dogs and cats. The dorm, dubbed Pet Central, will have a makeshift kennel on the first floor, staffed by work-study students who will offer temporary boarding and perhaps a bath.
With these efforts, Stephens is hoping to smooth the transition of some students who may be so anxious about leaving home or adjusting to college life that a stuffed animal will not be of sufficient comfort. They want the real thing.
Stephens joins a growing number of colleges putting out a welcome mat for pets. They include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the State University of New York at Canton, which allow cats in some dorm rooms; and Eckerd College in South Florida and Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, which set aside rooms for students with dogs or cats and others who love animals so much they just want to live near them.
“I recognize this as being a trend that is tied directly to the whole notion of helicopter parenting,” said Dianne Lynch, who became president of Stephens last year and who is herself the owner of two dogs and two cats. “It’s harder and harder for students to leave home. Bringing this particular piece of home with them may make that separation easier.”
While about a dozen colleges have explicit policies permitting pets of some kind — Eckerd even allows snakes, provided they are “less than six feet long and nonvenomous” — Ms. Lynch predicts that that figure will soon rise.
“Colleges will begin to recognize that this is important to students,” she said, adding that in an increasingly competitive recruiting market for top students, becoming known as pet-friendly is another way for a college to differentiate itself.
Stephens, which began allowing dogs and cats in designated dormitory wings in 2003, said their owners tended to be especially organized and responsible and do well academically.
While acknowledging that a pet can provide a teenager relief from stress, as well as unconditional love, Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, a psychiatrist specializing in children and adolescents, said he worried that taking a pet to college could slow the transition for some students.
“By having your pet there,” said Dr. Koplewicz, who is also president of the Child Mind Institute, “you could have an excuse not to go out and talk to people.”
Moreover, Dr. Koplewicz said he worried that allowing a student to have a pet might merely serve as a Band-Aid on what could be a more serious mental health problem, like depression. “You can understand that a college might make this accommodation,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily address the issue that these are risky years.”
But Elena Christian, a dance major who is entering her senior year, said that being able to raise her 18-month-old Chihuahua in her dorm room had only served to enhance her social and academic experience at Stephens.
“She really keeps me calm,” Ms. Christian, 20, said as the dog, Annabelle, who weighs less than seven pounds, tugged on a red leash on the grass outside her dorm on a recent morning. “Sometimes during finals week, I get stressed out. She always does something that makes me laugh.”
Ms. Christian said that not long after she got Annabelle from a breeder, the dog provided her with perhaps the best lesson she had learned in college: that being responsible for the well-being of another requires constant vigilance.
That hard lesson came after she inadvertently left Annabelle alone in a pen in her 13-foot-by-15-foot dorm room without ensuring that the gate to the pen was closed securely. While Ms. Christian was in class, the dog scampered out and gorged on a nearby stash of beef jerky and chocolate. Her owner skipped her next class to rush Annabelle to the veterinarian, who administered Ipecac.
“She was not happy,” Ms. Christian recalled.
But man’s (or student’s) best friend may not make the best dormmate. And so Stephens, following the lead of Eckerd and Washington & Jefferson, has established a Pet Council made up of students and faculty members that enforces a lengthy list of strict guidelines. (One example: a dog is never allowed to roam free in a dormitory room while its owner is in class.) A repeat violation by Ms. Christian could result in Annabelle being removed from her care; indeed, two students lost their dog privileges last year after the Pet Council ruled that they were not taking appropriate care.
The college also takes noise complaints seriously; after a three-week grace period at the beginning of a semester, a yappy or barking dog can also be barred. And to respect the wishes of students who may not be so pet-friendly — as well as those with allergies — dogs and cats are not welcome in classrooms or in common areas like lounges.
Though in years past Stephens has barred pets weighing more than 40 pounds, that rule is being relaxed, with the belief that some of the biggest dogs are often the most docile. Unlike their owners, dogs and cats are not subjected to preadmission interviews, but proof of vaccinations is required.
For Ms. Frisch, 18, who starts at Stephens in the fall, Taffy’s acceptance was almost as exciting as her own into the college’s theater program.
Indeed, Ms. Frisch enjoys being around her dog so much that when she was cast in a community production of “The Wizard of Oz” as the Wicked Witch, she arranged for Taffy to play the role of Toto. (She said her father never shared her passion for Taffy, relegating the pooch to the basement.)
While Ms. Frisch’s family lives just 15 minutes from the Stephens campus, she said that she expected some homesickness and that having Taffy with her would undoubtedly help.
“I took her for a walk on campus the other day,” she said. “I told her, ‘Yeah, Taffy, we’re going to be happy here.’ ”