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A better policy for support animals in student accommodation

This blog is a summary of a presentation on support animals within student accommodation, given on 15th July 2021 at the AMOSSHE (Association of Managers of Student Services in Higher Education) National Conference by Kerry Watson and Will Scott, who are student services and welfare managers at Unite Students for Scotland and the north west respectively.

More than ever before, animals and pets have brought comfort, joy and a welcome distraction during the pandemic. For some students, animals have played an essential role in enabling them to experience student life and live independently – having been shown to improve mental health.

Whilst the benefits of support animals are clear, managing requests to accommodate support animals can be a complex matter in student accommodation. At Unite Students we are committed to positive change, ensuring our accommodation is accessible and inclusive to all – but to make support animals a successful initiative, there must also be clear and consistent processes to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all students, team members and, of course, the animals themselves. So, we decided to review our existing assistance animals policy, where we identified key areas which were used to inform the creation of an exciting new, more defined policy.

There has been a notable increase in the quantity of requests for animals to move in with students, from students directly and university partners too. Coupled with the complexity of needs associated with the requests, this led us to evaluate our policy. We recognise the need to expand the parameters of approving requests, beyond registered guide dogs, in line with an increase in requests to accommodate emotional or psychological-support animals.

The review phase also highlighted that there was a need for more reliable and consistent processes, which would not only assist our teams in the assessment process, but it would also ensure that students and university partners were aware and actively involved throughout the process.

Introducing our new support animals policy

Our newly launched support animals policy sets out a broader, but more defined and assessable criteria for the accommodation of animals in our properties. The policy also provides clear guidance on the evidence required by clinical professionals to ensure a standardised method of assessment and approval for the accommodation of support animals.

We define and categorise support animals in the following ways in our policy:

  • Accredited Assistance Dogs: Working dogs that have been trained by accredited member organisations of Assistance Dogs International (ADI) and the International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF).
  • Psychiatric or medical service animals: Working animals (normally dogs) that are trained specifically to support a disabled person with specific symptoms relating to a long-term diagnosed mental health or physical disability.
  • Emotional support animals: Pets determined to be necessary for individuals’ mental health. For an animal to be designated as an emotional support animal, clinical evidence is required from a licensed mental health professional.

Alongside increasing the scope of our capacity to approve support animals, and better describe the supporting evidence required, the policy also embeds the need for clear communication with flatmates, other residents and universities, whilst also seeking to give our teams guidance on how to manage instances where our policy is breached.

Providing a Home for Success to 74,000 students means there are many different priorities and needs to take into account, and striking a balance that satisfies everyone isn’t always easy. So we’re proud to lead the sector with our improved policy in this area, which helps students who need support animals to flourish at university but that also recognises the importance of keeping other students, our teams, and our university partners informed and involved in the process. You might even say it’s a ‘paw’sitive change.

Learn more about support animals in our interview with Student Support Manager, Jenny Dalzell.