The Davidsonian

Rui Rui Bleifuss stands on brick walkway with her service dog, Yeti

Introducing Two Wildcats And Their Service Dogs

Claire Haile ’25 (She/Her), Staff Writer

 Walking around Davidson’s campus, it’s common to see dogs, whether they belong to professors, students, or residents of the town. But Ava Smith ‘26 and Rui Rui Bleifuss ‘26 are the first students to use service animals on campus in recent history. 

Service dogs play an important role for many people with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service animal as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” 

Smith’s dog, Daphne, and Bleifuss’ dog, Yeti, work as mobility assistance dogs. “Daphne is able to pick things up that I’ve dropped. She’s able to offer assistance, like getting up from the floor, getting up from a chair, and walking up stairs. She basically just helps me get around safely,” explained Smith. “When it comes to medical alert, she monitors muscle spasms, pain flares, and performs what’s called deep pressure therapy on me, which mitigates the symptoms of really painful muscle spasms.” 

Yeti is also able to perform many tasks for Bleifuss. “I have really bad balance. So I get support from his harness walking around campus or in the classrooms. And if I drop something like keys or my CatCard, he’ll pick them up for me. In the dorm room, he’s there to help pull open things. So we have tags on dresser drawers and cabinets that he can open,” she explained. 

Ava Smith poses with her service dog, Daphne at her high school graduation. Both Ava and Daphne wear caps in the photo.
Ava Smith ‘26 at her high school graduation with Daphne

These are just a few of the many jobs service dogs can perform. Other jobs include support for people with PTSD, support for people with autism, epilepsy alert, and diabetic alert. “Basically, if you can think of it, they can do it,” said Smith.

Right now, there are also 16 students with emotional support animals, which play a very different role. “Emotional support animals can be all kinds of species,” explained Beth Bleil, Director of Academic Access and Disability. “They also are not trained. Generally, just by nature of them being a pet or companion, they’re providing emotional support.” Service dogs, on the other hand, are highly trained from a young age. “An ESA is permitted to be with a student in their residence hall, but they’re really not meant to be in other places on campus other than where animals are allowed,” added Bleil. Due to their protected legal status, service dogs can be anywhere in the general public.

Despite all the support they have provided for Smith and Bleifuss, being a student with a service dog comes with challenges, especially in a new environment like college. “There has been kind of a culture shock,” said Bleifuss, “there are a lot of things people don’t know. It’s important not to engage with our dogs in any capacity.” Even making eye contact with service dogs or using a playful voice can be confusing and stressful for the animal, which creates a difficult situation for their handler. 

Smith and Bleifuss explained the fundamentals of service dog etiquette at an EDU event through the Davidson Disability Alliance. “They’re highly trained, but they are still dogs,” said Smith, “so giving them the respect to allow them to do their job safely and without distraction is key to their smooth implementation into our lives and your lives. Because there are consequences when you distract the dogs.” Both Smith and Bleifuss emphasize that their dogs are on campus as a tool to support them, not as entertainment for other students. “It should not feel like we’re a walking spectacle,” said Smith.

As new Davidson community members, Smith and Bleifuss have encountered unique challenges socially. “We had a really negative experience over orientation,” said Smith. Both women have experienced students asking their dog’s name, or saying hi to their dog, without asking their name or even acknowledging them. “It kind of makes you feel like you’re not a person,” said Smith, “We are full members of this community. Even if I don’t have full ability in my body, I do have the ability to speak with you and be your friend.” “It’s been a lot of seeing me more as my dog than as a person,” added Bleifuss. 

Both encourage their peers to ask questions about their dogs. “I really like when people ask questions about service dogs because I think that shows a level of wanting to learn and show growth,” said Bleifuss. They hope engaging in these conversations will educate the student body and help them be better allies to the disabled community. “If you were to see someone engaging in behavior that’s not super respectful around service dogs, you can step up,” said Bleifuss. “It’s really helpful to have that backup,” added Smith. 

However, they feel discouraged when other students take no interest in getting to know them beyond their dogs. “Advocacy has been a large part of my life. I’ve been given a great opportunity to have an independent life with Daphne, and I want to be able to communicate that gift to other people in my life. So it’s really exciting and engaging to be able to have those conversations. It’s just disheartening to never have any other conversation,” explained Smith.

It has been enormously helpful for Smith and Bleifuss to be at Davidson at the same time and to navigate being the first students with service dogs together. “Going through high school I was always the only person with a service dog. To be able to go so far from home but then have someone who can relate to having a service dog on campus has been great,” explained Bleifuss. 

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