“You never know what sort of situation someone is in,” said Laura Carroll, a survivor of sexual assault. “You have to be aware that there is no way to look disabled.”
Carroll, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression after she was sexually assaulted at UNC, took time off from school to seek treatment. She returned to UNC this semester with the help of her five-month-old service dog, Jayden.
During her time off, Carroll’s parents helped her manage her symptoms, and she worked with a therapist to become more independent. As she prepared to return to school, she worried about being on her own. Her therapist prescribed a psychiatric service dog.
Carroll said service dogs can provide many support options if trained properly. For those suffering from panic attacks, service dogs can sit on their owner’s chest to calm their breathing. The dog can detect a panic attack before a seizure occurs. The dogs can also be trained to fetch medication or call for help on special phones if their owner is unable to.
“With my depression, it can be hard to regulate my sleep cycle,” Carroll said. “I can ignore alarms, but it’s a bit harder to ignore a dog licking your face. You can’t really hit the snooze button on a dog.”
Carroll’s PTSD causes her to become anxious around crowds. She has trained Jayden to stand behind her to guard her personal space and nudge her if someone comes too close.
Andrea Pino, who graduated from UNC in May, adopted a white German Shepherd puppy named Korra to help her cope with the effects of her sexual assault.
Pino said Korra was supposed to motivate her to leave the house, but rude comments from people made her wonder if it’s worth the trouble.
“I was in a parking lot, and someone kept honking at me, which is really triggering and just kind of scary, and he yelled at me to get the dog out of there,” she said. “Once I got into the building some strange man grabbed my dog to ask me if it was a real service dog.”
Though many states, including North Carolina, have laws requiring public spaces to make accommodations for service animals, Pino said many people are not aware of this.
The Americans With Disabilities Act says service dogs must be allowed in places where the public is generally allowed to go.
“I can file a complaint or I can get over it because I’d be filing complaints nonstop,” Pino said. “I don’t know if folks will ever understand why people have service animals, but I think as an owner you get better at dealing with it.”
Annie Clark, Pino’s friend, said she’s seen improvements in Pino since she adopted Korra, but people sometimes treat her friend differently.
“It’s a lot harder than people realize to put a vest on your dog every day and call it a service dog because it invites questions,” Clark said. “Those questions may not be out of malice, they may be out of curiosity, but it call still be hurtful.”
Pino and Carroll chose to adopt dogs from a shelter and train them rather than adopt a dog trained by an agency.
They said there are only a few service dog agencies that work specifically with sexual assault survivors, and those agencies had long waitlists with fees of up to $40,000. With an agency, it typically takes a minimum of 200 hours of training before a service dog is ready for its owner.
Pino volunteered at a German Shepherd rescue, waiting for the right dog.
“I got an alert for a beautiful white German Shepherd two hours away on the list for a kill shelter,” Pino said. “I was determined to rescue this dog. On the way back, I was having a panic attack in the car, and she instinctively jumped on my lap to calm me down.”
A service dog is a dog that completes tasks that mitigate the disabilities of their owner, but there is no certification process beyond that. Pino said the dogs can’t react to other animals and must stay calm under stress.
“An anxious dog will be anxious if their owner is anxious, which isn’t exactly convenient when someone with an anxiety disorder is trying to train their service dog to ignore their anxiety,” Pino said.
Carroll estimates it will cost $3,600 for training sessions, on top of adoption fees and veterinarian bills. So far she has raised over $4,500.
Service dogs are allowed in all buildings on campus. Comfort animals, which provide emotional support but are not necessarily trained as service animals, are sometimes allowed in dorms.
“People need to be educated that psychiatric disabilities are real disabilities,” Pino said. “And schools are required to provide accommodations.”