Emotional support with Ollie, the therapy dog

Emotional support with Ollie, the therapy dog

A look into the role of emotional support animals in modern mental health.
Published: December 3, 2018
SU student Sanobar Chagani's therapy dog, Ollie

On a chilly fall afternoon in Syracuse, NY, Sanobar Chagani, 22, sits quietly on the couch in her University Avenue apartment. All of a sudden, with nothing but a soft jingle as warning, a small white dog zips onto the couch and licks her face.

A mixture of Maltese and Yorkshire terrier, Chagani’s dog, Ollie, is an extremely energetic pup. Chagani’s laugh echoes through the small apartment as the puppy continues to lick her. She recalls that when she needed a medical leave of absence from school, she went on puppyfinder.com and found a breeder selling puppies near her home. She says she chose Ollie from his litter because he was the smallest and most calm.

Ollie is a registered emotional support dog and has helped Chagani with her mental health by constantly comforting her when she’s anxious or depressed.

Mental health is a major concern in college towns worldwide. While colleges across the country have reported large increases in enrollment, college counseling centers have observed an increase in the prevalence and severity of mental health issues experienced by students. One in four young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 have a diagnosable mental illness, and more than 25 percent of college students have been diagnosed or treated by a professional for a mental health condition within the past year, according to statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

While the traditional methods of therapists and prescribed medication may work well for some students dealing with mental health issues, many others do not receive the help they need from these approaches. Animals provide an alternative form of therapy for these students.

In a study published by the American Psychiatric Association, doctors Sandra Barker and Kathryn Dawson tested the effects of animal-assisted therapy on the anxiety ratings of hospitalized psychiatric patients. Their results showed statistically significant reductions in anxiety scores after animal-assisted therapy sessions for patients with psychotic, mood and other disorders.

“Even before I got him I knew I wanted to train Ollie to become a therapy dog,” Chagani says. “I want to be able to take him to hospitals and nursing homes and bring smiles to peoples’ faces.” In order for Chagani to have Ollie live in her apartment as an emotional support animal, she had to register him online, file paperwork with her building and have a signed note from her doctor stating the need for her to have him. As of November 18, 2018, the number of registered service and emotional support animals was 190,187, according to the National Service Animal Registry.

As student at Syracuse University studying both communication and rhetorical studies with a pre-law concentration, Chagani says she’s no stranger to stress and anxiety. Born in Dallas and raised in Carrollton, TX, she says she misses her family, but it’s bearable with Ollie around: “He’s still young and not fully trained, so sometimes he causes as much anxiety as he helps, but he’s a good boy.”  

Chagani’s boyfriend, Nate Wilkins, says it was clear when he met Chagani that she was not someone who slacked off and that she took her school work very seriously. “I’m so excited to experience all that life has to offer with her- and of course, Ollie,” he said.

With Wilkins in New York City and Chagani either at school in Syracuse or home in Texas, the two often struggle to see each other. They do their best, but not only is it hard to find time to communicate and visit each other, Chagani also can’t travel by bus because Ollie isn’t allowed on them. Trains and planes are much more expensive, so they’re usually not an option for her.  

Though she says it’s tough being at SU at times, Chagani says she’s glad she came and is grateful for the opportunities she’s had, like being the treasurer of Phi Alpha Delta, the pre-law fraternity on campus. With many responsibilities on top of a busy class schedule, stress is a constant companion.

Ambar, Chagani’s twin, is proud that her sister will be graduating on time with a high GPA despite mental health challenges. She says that sometimes her sister’s anxiety fuels her to work even harder. “Ollie might be the best thing to come into her life,” she says, “It’s amazing how real dog therapy is.” She says she thinks that having Ollie has given her sister more responsibility and has allowed her to prioritize what’s important in her life. “Whenever people cry, he wants to lick their tears, because he can sense when people are sad,” she says. “With Sanobar, he can sense her anxiety, so he’s very protective of her.”

From their small apartment on University Avenue, Chagani is confident that she and Ollie will continue to support and care for one another. The former sits on the floor while the latter runs laps around her. The love she has for the dog that has helped her so much is nearly tangible.

“I really don’t know where I would be without [Ollie],” Chagani says. He stops for a minute to lick her hand, almost as if he understands what she just said, before continuing to run back and forth.

Avatar for Rachel Burt

is a contributor to The NewsHouse.