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Service animals treat invisible disabilities

Emotional Support Animals are prescribed by a mental health professional for a person who has a mental health diagnosis, according to the National Service Animal Registry. That animal’s presence helps to minimize the symptoms of a person’s diagnosis both at home and in public.

Registering a pet as an ESA is a simple process: the pet owner must have a mental health diagnosis, and the animal must be leash trained, follow simple commands and be non-aggressive toward people, according to If those qualifications are met, the licensure process can be completed online for about $65.

With that license, the ESA can go anywhere other service animals can — restaurants, pet-restricted apartments and even the classroom.

Justin Ryberg, who attended UNM from 2012 to 2015, owns an ESA named Athena, a basenji-chocolate lab mix, who has helped him manage stressors more easily.

“I was diagnosed with bipolar depression, and I was really struggling with it for a while,” Ryberg said. “When I went to talk to my therapist about (an ESA), she told me that I could easily register her as a therapy dog. It’s honestly been the best decision I’ve made with her.”

Joan Green, accessibility services director at UNM, said ESAs are service animals and are treated as such under the University’s policy. These animals are able to be emotionally available for individuals who have an invisible disability, she said.

“They may be doing something we would never notice,” Green said. “I like to think of them as signal animals.”

“The numbers have increased over the years,” she said. “There are a great deal of (service animal) organizations that have risen up.”

Agency-trained service animals can be expensive; however, dogs in training are allowed on campus. The National Service Animal Registry has registered more than 73,221 animals. The NSAR has trained and facilitated therapy dogs, ESAs, service dogs and drug detection animals since 1995.

Green said it is best to leave such dogs alone, since attention is confusing and stressful for the handler and the animal.

“Etiquette says that we should just ignore them, which is really hard if you are a dog lover,” she said.

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Damien Waden, an electrical engineering graduate student, is the owner of Belle, a 13-year-old cocker spaniel. Waden said that animals don’t usually say when they are hurting due to their unconditional love.

“She kind of knows. She can detect when something’s wrong with me emotionally,” Waden said. “When I’m really sad or down she’ll come up to me.”

Belle is not a registered ESA, and is not brought into the classroom. Waden said he understands the importance of having an animal during his experience with depression.

“The best we can do for our animals is bring meaning and value to their lives,” he said.

He said dogs have been significant members of his family since 1991, and that the dog should be a temporary release.

“I tend to think that pets help you cope with things, but they shouldn’t be your primary source. It’s when the person does the work and goes to counseling that they are able to heal,” he said.

Imani Lambert is a beat writer for the Daily Lobo and she can be contacted or on Twitter @DailyLobo.


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