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Fostering Good Habits in College
Colleges are welcoming second chance dogs.
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.

Duren, now vice president for student services and athletic director at the college, was no stranger to dogs, or to rescue work. In addition to being a volunteer herself, both of her daughters were involved in helping establish Second Chance, the rescue organization in Columbia through which the foster program is run. Both regularly brought foster animals home. Though her children are grown, Duren still has two rescues at home, a 14-year-old Chihuahua named Pixie, and a 12-year-old mutt named Hewy, after the Hewlett-Packard box he was found in.

Duren said that once the campus opened up to dogs, the foster program seemed a natural progression. “There were a lot of students who would have liked to have a pet but couldn’t bring one from home for lots of reasons,” she said. “They were willing to do foster work in the name of helping a new pet find a forever home, but also for the comfort and enjoyment of having a pet.”

With the school funding other forms of “community engagement” scholarships, adding the foster program wasn’t too big a hurdle.

Last school year, the foster program kicked off. The school set aside 10 double rooms in its dormitories for those taking part. Students in the program get a double room for the price of a single, and aren’t assigned roommates— at least, not human ones. They’re also spared the school’s pet deposit and have $3,000 lopped off their tuition.

In exchange, they agree to serve as foster parents for the full school year— to care for the pet, take it to adoption events and, once a dog or cat they’re caring for is adopted, to take in another one from Second Chance.

Second Chance, which has been rescuing dogs and cats for nearly three decades, gets about 70 percent of its animals from local “kill” shelters; about 30 percent come directly, as either strays or surrendered dogs. More than half have medical issues or traumatic pasts. Students in the program receive mandatory training on how to care for dogs, and Second Chance covers the costs of food, veterinary visits, collars, leashes, toys and medications.

“Students can devote the time,” said Valerie Chaffin, executive director of Columbia Second Chance. “They don’t have the pull on their time—the family or full-time job. Even a full-time college student is only in class a few hours a day. The animals [leave] them in great shape, and that’s kind of a plus for us.” In addition to the free dog day care center on campus, which is located in a dorm basement, students who are fostering pets can usually find someone to help out, often as easily as knocking on the next door.

Of the 10 students in the foster program last school year, only one pulled out, and that was because she left school. At the end of the last school year, nine students were on foster-pet scholarships, and five more Stephens students were serving as fosters without the scholarship program as an incentive. Between returning sophomores and new freshmen, college officials expect up to twice as many students will receive the scholarship in the coming school year.

The program was established primarily with freshmen in mind. Freshmen, according to Duren, tend to more smoothly make the transition to college, and do better academically, when they have a pet.

They also do better when they don’t have a job, and the scholarship helps some avoid that. With the school’s $25,000-plus tuition, the scholarship can help students who might be on the border financially. “It can make the difference between getting to come here and not getting to come here,” Duren said.

“The school really put its money where its mouth is,” said Second Chance director Chaffin. “They saw that the benefits of the program outweigh any other issues. They didn’t get bogged down like other universities with potential liability issues, whether [the dogs] will tear up furniture or pee on everything, and all those other things that are so small compared to the benefits that Stephens is obviously enjoying.”

You can take your cat to MIT. You can bring your snake to Eckerd College in South Florida, provided he’s less than six feet long and non-venomous. At Lees-McRae College in North Carolina, students can share their dorm rooms with fish, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, birds, ferrets, cats and dogs, or at least dogs under 40 pounds.

Academia—though it hasn’t totally gotten there yet—is moving towards dog-friendliness, and for mostly sound reasons: students with pets tend to be good students.

“We recognize that students who are pet owners are generally responsible and caring individuals,” Barry M. Buxton, president of Lees-McRae, a Presbyterian college in North Carolina, said two years ago when the university designated its first pet-friendly rooms in Bentley Hall. “We want to encourage pet adoption and awareness that all creatures are sacred.” On top of that, it’s an effective marketing and recruitment tool, allowing a school to distinguish itself from the pack and portray itself as warm and welcoming—homelike, even.

“It’s definitely one of the upsides of being here,” said Cheyenne Smith, who will be a sophomore at Stephens this year. She planned on bringing her cat with her from Arizona when she started school last year, but she and her family decided that Stella Luna was too old to go along, and needed to stay near her vet.

Instead, Smith had a stream of foster cats, one after another, last year. That tended to keep her somewhat anchored to her room. “When I get a new one, I don’t like to leave them alone for a long time,” she explained. As a result, she said, she probably spent more time studying.

The college’s dog-friendly reputation was also seen as a plus by Briannica Ponder, a freshman last year who planned to bring one of her family’s two Miniature Schnauzers to school with her. After signing up for the foster program during an orientation, she opted not to.

“My mom is pretty attached to them and I didn’t want to separate her from them. Once I knew I was going to be fostering, I wanted to be able to give all of my love and attention to one dog.”

She had four roommates last year, starting with Phantom, a standard Poodle who stationed himself in her bed and didn’t want to get out; she had to train him to walk on a leash. Then came Lucille, a Basset Hound–German Shepherd mix who found a forever home after Ponder took her to an adoption event at Petco. After that, she took in a Beagle mix named Droplet.

In the entire school year, she was dogless only one week, said Ponder, who had some experience in rescue work before college, volunteering with her mother in St. Louis at Angel Acres.

As the school year came to a close, Ponder, 18, was serving as caretaker for Happy, a Miniature Schnauzer, just like the ones she left at home.

“All we have to do is give them some love and help them get adopted,” said Ponder, a theater major.

On top of all else she gets out of it, she said, “It’s a really good stress reliever. It’s really nice to be able to come back to your dorm and know someone is waiting for you and is happy to see you. It’s kind of like having a piece of home.”

“It changes how you view things,” she added. “When we have cast dinners, I may go for an hour, but I don’t stay that long. I want to see my dog more than I want to be out partying and stuff.”

She doesn’t see the additional responsibility as putting a crimp on her social life. To the contrary, she probably meets even more people because of the dogs. On campus, in addition to all the dog walkers, it’s not unusual to see cats being walked on leashes. There’s even a student who walks her miniature pig.

“With such a large number of pets here, it’s also a gateway to make friends,” Ponder said. “I don’t understand why more colleges don’t do it.”

Turning dog friendly may be more achievable at a small school, and operating and subsidizing a foster program may not be something every college wants to tackle, but at Stephens, where Duren has worked since 1984, the benefits have been huge, and the problems mostly minuscule.

“For us, it’s just a good fit in a lot of ways,” she said. “But it takes an administrative team that understands how animals can create a sense of community and is willing to take risks.”

Large universities are more like ocean liners; they can’t always react on the spur of the moment, or easily change course. “We’re a kayak,” she said, “so we can move more quickly and there’s not as much red tape to cut through.”

It also takes rules—there’s a whole book of them—and students who break them can receive demerits, for anything from unattended barking dogs to poop not picked up. A few times, when there have been violations of the latter, the administration called impromptu poop parties in which all students pitch in to clean up.

There are breed restrictions at Stephens. Students aren’t allowed to keep Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Chows or Akitas, or any mixes thereof. On the plus side, the school has done away with its size restriction, which only allowed dogs under 40 pounds. When left alone in a dorm room, dogs are required to be in crates or pens. Students also have the option of dropping off their dogs at the free dog day care facility.

Cognizant that not every student (or faculty member) is going to be a dog lover, the school also has pet-free dorms, and it doesn’t allow dogs and cats in classrooms or common areas, like lounges.

“There are people with allergies and students and faculty who aren’t that excited about pets,” Duren said. “We’ve all learned to coexist and be tolerant of others’ needs.”

Two dormitories have been designated as pet friendly: Searcy Hall, which is also known as Pet Central, and Prunty Hall, which houses the dog day care center. Of the school’s incoming students, about one of every four indicate they want to be in a pet-friendly residence hall.

The Second Chance dogs being fostered at Stephens visit other campuses, too, including nearby University of Missouri, one of an increasing number of schools across the country that are inviting pets on campus at final exam time to provide students with some stress relief. Students spend a few minutes petting and playing with dogs to ease tension, and the dogs gain from the encounters as well, getting some socialization, and sometimes getting adopted.

The Stephens foster dogs are sometimes involved in extracurricular activities as well. At least, that was the case with two near-feral Chihuahuas rescued by Second Chance. They both ended up being fostered by a student in the theater program.

When the school’s production of the play Legally Blonde opened near the end of last school year, one of the Chihuahuas played the role of Bruiser and the second served as understudy. Before each show, the audience was told that both dogs, and many others, were available for adoption.

“They did really well,” said Ponder, who was assigned to make sure the dogs didn’t run offstage. Once the play completed its run, the two Chihuahuas—star and understudy —were adopted.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 75: Fall 2013

John Woestendiek is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, editor of the website Ohmidog! and author of Dog, Inc.: How a Collection of Visionaries, Rebels, Eccentrics and Their Pets Launched the Commercial Dog Cloning Industry.

ohmidog.com

Photography courtesy of Stephens College

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