A girl and her emotional support dog finally together again at college


Samm Thomas and her emotional support animal, Penny.

Ashley Ziomek, Reporter

She was sitting alone by the window in a bustling, new-age coffee shop on Elmwood. Her eyes were constantly scanning the room, while she sat playing with her hands and adjusting the position of her feet. Just by looking at this girl, it was clear she was waiting for someone she had never met, and the unease of the situation was evident in her movements.

Her name is Samm Thomas, and it is an oddity to see her out and about without her Emotional Support Animal (ESA), Penny.

Penny is her five-year-old border collie-German shepherd mix, that she found only weeks-old, abandoned in a ditch in West Virginia.

According to her older sister, Martika Thomas, Thomas and her father had found Penny close to death while out driving, and her sister’s pleas are what brought the dog back home with them.

“There really is no Samm without Penny,” she said. “When they found her she was covered in maggots and fleas, and Samm brought her back to life.”

Fast forward two years, and it was time for Samm Thomas to attend college. She chose to venture out of her small town in West Virginia, and attend Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. The thought of leaving Penny though, “was never even an option,” according to Thomas.

Thomas knew she needed her friend with her, especially when turning such a chapter in life and moving far away from home to do so. She was aware of the significance Penny had on her life, and that feeling was mutual.

Thomas explained that before Penny, she went through bouts with depression, anger, alcohol, and drugs. Having Penny was her reason to get up in the morning and the only one who could chase away the feeling of anxiety.

However, her new school required she live on campus for her first two years, where pets are not allowed.Thomas got in touch with a few people and began asking questions, and found out how to qualify Penny as an ESA.

After doctor’s visits, check ups, and licensing documents were completed, Thomas was able to take Penny with her to school.

“Now she’ll jump up in my lap when I do homework and be like, ‘nope, it’s time to pay attention to me now’,” she said.

Thomas’s biggest concern now is for ‘the system’. There is a lot of debate about how easily people can declare their animal an ESA, which over time will corrupt the point of having this assistance for those in need.

“If I’m not comfortable somewhere, then I won’t put myself in that situation. I don’t do things just to take her with me, but occasionally she is the one who can get me out of my comfort zone,” she said.

Another issue mentioned was the distinction, or lack of, between service animals and ESA’s. Thomas said the best way to explain it is “service animals are always working,” whereas “ESAs are there for the person.”

For example, a service animal may be tasked with helping a blind person. This animal would have been given to the person, typically from an organization, where they have been previously trained to handle things such as crossing the street or helping guide someone through a store.

An ESA is an animal that is already part of the family, one that has a special connection to a member that they would feel it necessary to keep the animal nearby at all times. Although an ESA may not be guiding a person across the street, they can help people who may be triggered by PTSD, or help calm someone with severe anxiety.

“People think we need an animal to get through the day, and that’s not it at all,” said Thomas, explaining that the nature of the relationship is so important because of the companionship provided.

Thomas compares her relationship with Penny to any close friendship. They feed off each other’s energy, compassion, and love for each other. Having an ESA gives a person the feeling of security. An animal will not judge you based off your prior endeavors, they simply love, care, and want the same in return.

Penny needs Samm just the same as Samm needs Penny.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said “service dog” in the headline. Penny is an emotional support animal, not a service dog.