Emotional-support dog is young woman’s pal, and support

Support animals can live in student housing, under the right conditions

By Jenelle Dulack

Knightly News Reporter


Prior to living on campus, Sarah Whitmire was housed with a group of friends, many of whom were pet owners back home.

Surrounded by people who all received extra doses of love from their animal companions, she felt left out.

Eventually, she caved, and adopted Ruka, an Australian Shepherd-Dalmatian mix, from an animal shelter back home in Texas. That was about five years ago.

That was the first time Whitmire could say she chose a pet for herself; until then, her parents had always picked a pet for her. This time, Whitmire was able to experience the special bond and love-at-first-sight pet owners know very well.

Animals can help us stay grounded

When she adopted Ruka, Whitmire was experiencing some highs and lows, making her feel lonely and in need of a friend, but she was torn between adopting a cat and a dog. She decided on the latter, due to the immediate feedback she had received from Ruka while at the shelter.

“They have so much personality and light up when they see their owners. It’s a visual love,” Whitmire said.

You’d expect Ruka – an emotional-support animal – to be steadfast in protecting Whitmire and to be able to remain emotionally stable, too, but Whitmire chortled that “My friends and I often joke that my emotional-support animal needs an emotional-support human.”

 Ruka, while stubbornly attached to Whitmire’s hip, barks at unfamiliar people, but the moment the stranger takes a step forward, Ruka whines and wiggles her way to the ground, before succumbing to an onslaught of rump scratches and praise.

“She’d rather show a tough face than roll over and show her belly. … She will bark, and people will jump back, but she’s a very sweet dog,” Whitmire said.

A true bond

While some people might consider the lack of ferocity a defect in Ruka’s personality, Whitmire cherishes it. Because it takes a long time for Ruka to connect with people, Whitmire feels special that her dog has chosen her as a most-trusted human.

Sarah and Ruka. Photo by and courtesy of Sarah Whitmire

“It makes me feel needed and it’s what keeps me going every day,” she said. 

She also considers her and Ruka’s dispositions similar and complementary. Both are shy and sensitive, enjoy a quiet day inside and rely heavily on each other for support. On days when Whitmire has a full slate of activities, such as work, classes, attending club meetings or spending time with loved ones, it can be difficult to leave her emotional-support animal behind, but Ruka never seems to mind much. Longer naptime, maybe. (Emotional-support animals cannot leave a residence, and are not service animals. See editor’s note, at the end of this article.)  

Clearing the way

When Whitmire enrolled in Central Penn, she hadn’t considered Ruka being allowed to move in with her on campus.

After a conversation with the folks at Counseling Services, though, she realized it was entirely possible, especially considering Ruka was already an emotional-support animal, through the U.S. Animal Registry. These animals receive no special training – they are simply animal companions for people, Whitmire explained.

“(Getting Ruka approved) wasn’t as hard as I thought, but it also wasn’t a walk in the park,” Whitmire said.

After meetings with Dean of Equity and Multicultural Affairs Megan Peterson concerning the proper paperwork and going through the process of getting doctors’ letters from long-forgotten practitioners, Whitmire finally was able to enjoy the college experience as an on-campus student with her furry friend by her side

Ruka does the job of emotional-support animal well.

Whitmire, who struggles with her mental health, is uplifted by having another being around that requires attention.

Not only that, but Ruka can acknowledge when Whitmire is the one in need of attention.

“When I had … surgery, she knew I was hurt, and she was always by my side,” Whitmire said.

Editor’s note: To apply for approval of an emotional-support animal, go to the Student Resources tab on Blackboard, and click on the Disabilities Support Services tab for the application packet. Dean of Equity and Multicultural Affairs Megan Peterson explained that support animals must be approved and may not leave a residence. They are not pets (pets are not allowed on campus) and they are not service animals. Only dogs and miniature horses can be service animals.

Jenelle Dulack is president of The Knightly News.

Comment or story idea? Contact KnightlyEditors@CentralPenn.Edu.

Edited by media-club co-adviser and blog editor Professor Michael Lear-Olimpi.