The views expressed in this article are the views of the author.
Since the start of the fall semester, the friendly greetings of comfort dog Chip and her handler Sergeant Cheatem have become a welcome sight to students across campus. After completing a training course in upstate New York this summer, she now helps students cope with stress over grades, exams and other obstacles. But is her presence of any use if students can’t find her when they need her most?
Many students, including myself, are unable to seek Chip out when they are feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Chip and Sergeant Cheatem roam campus without a schedule, which, while seemingly allows a greater number of students to access to her at the same time, also means there is no way to know where she is. I, for one, have been searching for Chip since the school year started and have yet to catch a glimpse of her.
For students with depression or anxiety — or even those without it, who simply love animals and want to practice self-care by petting one — Chip is a welcome alternative to the exhausting and time-consuming process of applying for an Emotional Support Animal, which is a lengthy process that involves back and forth correspondence with Student Disability Services, speaking with the student’s doctor, documenting the support animal’s ability to help manage their disability and the student’s inability to use on-campus housing without the support animal’s help.
Many students feel that their mental health improves significantly after interactions with dogs, and Chip is a wonderful resource to have on campus. The excitement over her long-awaited arrival to UMBC was evident in the massive online poll to pick out her name, which was advertised by CBS, MSN and WBAL-TV, among others.
Yet many students remain unaware of where she is or even of her existence, due to the Counseling Services’ and the Police Department’s limited outreach regarding this new resource. Most of my friends were shocked to discover that UMBC has a full-time comfort dog dedicated to helping them.
Making Chip more easily accessible to students — whether that means giving her a welcoming home base where students can come to her when they need comfort, or giving her a set schedule so people are able to find her when in need — would encourage students to use her help, and likely encourage the use of other on-campus stress management services as well.
The resources put in place by Counseling Services and other on-campus organizations are doing a great deal to encourage healthy coping methods and destigmatize mental illness. However, unless those resources (including Chip) are fully available and accessible whenever and wherever they are needed, their usage will likely continue to be limited to those lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.