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The Challenges of Bringing Service Dogs into the Lab

Joey Ramp went back to college to study post-traumatic stress disorder. But the dogs that help her manage her own PTSD complicate her research career.

Sep 18, 2018
Jef Akst

ABOVE: Joey Ramp and her first service dog Theo in an organic chemistry lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. COURTESY OF JOEY RAMP

In 2006, Joey Ramp suffered 23 broken bones, an injury to her prefrontal cortex, and permanent nerve damage to the left side of her body after she and her horse took a fall. Ramp recalls falling head first, and then the horse, which she had been training to play polo, rolling on top of her. She fractured her eye socket, cheekbone, and two vertebrae, and broke her jaw and collar bone.

Two years and multiple surgeries later, Ramp’s body was restored to the extent that modern medicine would allow, but injuries meant she could no longer continue her career as a horse trainer. She also faced a bigger problem: severe and lasting damage to her mental health.

In combination with a history of childhood sexual abuse, the accident caused Ramp to develop symptoms that led to a diagnosis of a complex form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Shortly after the accident, she began losing periods of time, with no memory of what happened. She would dissociate from her environment, sometimes rendered unable to communicate, and at times completely losing touch with reality. Ramp, then a single mom in her 40s, became homebound, she says. And with no way to understand what was happening in her brain, she fell into a dark depression that almost ended tragically.

I was within minutes away of taking my own life, and I made the decision to instead try to rebuild one.

—Joey Ramp, University of Illinois

“The day I was going to commit suicide I sat down with my [life] insurance policy in my lap and a gun in my lap,” she tells The Scientist. But a nearby book with a golden retriever on the cover caught her attention. “I picked it up that day and started reading this book on the floor of my office with a gun on my lap.”

It was the story of a service dog that had helped a military veteran recover from severe symptoms of PTSD, and it gave her hope. She decided she would look into getting a service dog to help her reintegrate into society, and ultimately launch a research career studying PTSD.

“I was like, maybe I can understand,” says Ramp. “I was within minutes away of taking my own life, and I made the decision to instead try to rebuild one.”

Now with her own golden retriever service dog Sampson by her side, the 54-year-old is earning her second bachelor’s degree while working in the neuroscience lab of Justin Rhodes at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. With skills in brain sectioning, immunoassays, and genotyping under her belt, rave reviews from faculty, and an undergraduate thesis in the works, Ramp next wants to earn a PhD.

But her research career faces a major hurdle: at the University of Illinois, Sampson is not permitted into laboratories that study live mammals.

Ramp and her current service dog Sampson in Justin Rhodes’s lab at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
THOMPSON MCCLELLAN PHOTOGRAPHY

So far, the institution has prevented Ramp from taking a psychology laboratory course involving rat experiments and kept her out of the Rhodes lab’s mouse facilities. “The next hurdle comes with my graduate work,” she says. “I [could] be up against the same resistance, and maybe won’t be able to follow the graduate direction that I had intended.”

Ramp’s situation raises a difficult question: When should service animals be permitted—or not permitted—in scientific laboratories? As is the case with most difficult questions, the answer is: it depends. Institutions must consider the rights of people with service animals, but also the safety of everyone involved, the integrity of the experiments, and the federal regulations for animal care and use.

“It’s a very delicate balance,” says Patricia Redden, a professor of chemistry at Saint Peter’s University who raises service dogs and has served on American Chemical Society committees developing guidance on the admission of service dogs to chemistry labs. “You can’t really come out and say, ‘No, we absolutely categorically will not allow them.’ But on the other hand, you don’t want to come out and say, ‘Absolutely, you can bring your service dog in.’”

No dogs allowed 

Wherever Ramp goes, Sampson goes too. In addition to the physical support he provides—helping her up stairs and picking up items off the floor, to name but two—Sampson is trained to alert Ramp to signs that she is becoming overwhelmed. If she starts rubbing her hands together or tapping her finger, Sampson will get her attention by nudging her leg or hands, and Ramp can assess the situation—and remove herself from it, if necessary.

“He keeps me aware,” says Ramp. “If I don’t have him, and he doesn’t alert to those types of things, I will continue to let those symptoms get worse.” In extreme cases, she continues, “I can completely dissociate to a point of not even being aware of my surroundings. And I will continue to function, drive, act, and do everything in a complete state of psychological fugue.”

For these reasons, Ramp says, she can’t be without Sampson. She first realized that this arrangement would present some challenges in her quest to become a neuroscientist when she started at Parkland College, a two-year community college in Champaign, Illinois, in the fall of 2012. The faculty and administrators had no experience with service animals in the laboratory. After several discussions, they arranged for Ramp and her service dog, then a Labrador retriever named Theo, to attend general chemistry lab courses. Some equipment was moved to ensure that Ramp wouldn’t be traversing the lab, and Theo had to wear goggles and shoes like the other students. “Everyone involved wanted to see if we could make it work,” says Parkland chemistry professor Andrew Holm.

When she started at the University of Illinois (U of I) in 2015, Ramp expected things to be easier. With the institution’s 70-year history of disability services, “I didn’t foresee a problem,” she says. But like the employees at Parkland, the U of I faculty and staff had never faced such a request, and the university didn’t have clear guidelines on admitting service dogs into laboratories.

U of I is not unique in this respect. Universities typically don’t have rules regarding service dogs. And policies that do mention service animals generally do not detail procedures for their admission into teaching or research labs, says Jan Novakofski, associate vice chancellor for research compliance at U of I. Schools that mention the prohibition of service animals from the laboratory, such as Boston University and Brown University, are vague or allow for exceptions. “There’s no clear guidance on how to identify a service dog, more fundamentally, no less where can you take it,” says Redden. “It seems to be pretty much a school-by-school decision.”

In early 2016, after a year of discussions, Ramp’s dog Theo became the first service dog ever permitted in a chemistry lab at U of I. The following semester, Sampson accompanied Ramp for a molecular biology techniques course. But a psychology lab she wanted to take involved experiments with live rodents, and Janice Juraska, faculty supervisor for the course, was concerned that the rats would react to Sampson as if he were a predator.

“Wolves, and by extension dogs, are known predators, and there is research that their presence can cause anxiety and aggression in a prey species,” Juraska tells The Scientist in a written statement. As a result, allowing Sampson into the laboratory space with live rodents would violate federal laws protecting research animals, says Robin Kaler, associate chancellor for public affairs at the university. 

For lab exercises involving the rats, Juraska and her colleagues said Sampson could stay in a nearby storage room while Ramp attended the session. But if Sampson wasn’t going into the lab, Ramp wasn’t going in either.

Sampson alerts Ramp to her building anxiety at a ceremony for a Fred S. Bailey scholarship she was awarded.
COURTESY OF JOEY RAMP

Vague legislation

The US Department of Agriculture’s Animal Welfare Act and Animal Welfare Regulations states that separation by species may be necessary for the humane handling, care, and treatment of animals, while the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, put out by the National Research Council, recommends the separation of species “to prevent interspecies disease transmission and to eliminate the potential for anxiety and physiologic and behavioral changes due to interspecies conflict.” 

These laws don’t address the presence of service animals in the laboratory specifically, and the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Extramural Research notes that there are many possible exceptions to the recommendation that different species be housed separately. But when it comes to service dogs, “generally they should not be brought into an animal facility or laboratory to ensure biosecurity,” according to a statement from the office emailed to The Scientist.

Kaler says the university’s hands are tied by the federal regulations. And while each request is evaluated individually, and thus there is not a university-wide ban per se, Kaler says, “we would not allow service animals in labs with live mammals.”

In addition to animal welfare regulations, a university must also take into consideration the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Both laws protect the right of people with service animals to enter areas that are open to the public. Yet neither the Animal Welfare Act nor the Guide provides rules regarding the admission of service animals to teaching and research labs. “That’s where it’s become so gray,” says Redden. “The law is not totally clear on it.”

See “Ready, Willing, Able

When enforcing these federal regulations on campus, there are two relevant exceptions to the laws’ protection, says L. Scott Lissner, the ADA and 504 compliance officer at Ohio State University. The first is if there is a direct threat to the health and safety of others. “The very common sense rule of thumb . . . is if people have to suit up to go into the lab, then usually the dog can’t go in.” For some labs, such as those associated with chemistry and biology courses, protective gear for the dog may suffice. Labs that maintain sterile facilities or contain hazardous pathogens, on the other hand, are typically off limits.

The second exception is if there is evidence that the animal’s presence would “fundamentally alter the nature of the work in the lab that was being done,” Lissner continues. “If we couldn’t properly do the experiment, then we couldn’t teach the class, or we couldn’t do the research.”

Juraska says she was concerned on both counts. She thought that Sampson risked exchanging pathogens with the rats, but more worrisome, his presence might alter the rats’ behavior. Becoming anxious or fearful, the rats might get aggressive and bite a student, she says. Even a less extreme reaction could disrupt the experiments the students were running, and the rats could suffer in a way that went against animal welfare guidelines.

There’s no clear guidance on how to identify a service dog, more fundamentally, no less where can you take it.

—Patricia Redden, Saint Peter’s University

Ramp isn’t satisfied with the university’s justification. She’s been told by veterinarians that the risk of pathogen transmission between service animals and lab animals is very low, and she’s skeptical that Sampson, who has been specifically trained for the lab environment, will stress the rodents any more than a classroom full of students. But she has not been able to convince U of I. “It really became lots of resistance and no problem solving,” she says. “And I’ve been fighting that issue for the last year and half now.”

Accusations of discrimination

There is some evidence that wild rats respond to dogs as predators, but Ramp could not find compelling research on the effect of dogs on lab rats. “These are not wild rodents,” Rhodes says. “They’re domesticated and have no experience with dogs.”

Fiona Harrison, a rodent behavior expert and the scientific director of the Neurobehavioral Core facility at the Vanderbilt Brain Institute, suspects that the rats may well experience anxiety if a service dog were in the room. But she also is not aware of any literature on the issue. “We can’t know how that would impact animals,” she says.

Recognizing this problem, Ramp applied for and received a $50,000 grant from an independent donor through the university’s Disability Resources & Educational Services (DRES) for a two-year study to explore this question. She joined Rhodes’s lab and enlisted his help in writing a protocol for the study to submit to the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC).

The researchers proposed an experiment in which Ramp and Sampson would enter a room housing mice, and Sampson would lie on a mat. Ramp would record for ultrasonic vocalizations and run the animals through anxiety and learning and memory tests. The results—along with levels of blood corticosterone—would be compared with the outcomes of the same experiments conducted by Ramp without Sampson present. (Ramp says she worked to ensure that the environment would be free of possible triggers and that she’d have help from Sampson immediately if she started to have symptoms. “The experiments would take place in short 10-15 minute increments so that I would only be separated from him for a short period,” Ramp explains.)

The Office of Civil Rights has initiated an investigation into the IACUC’s rejection of Ramp and her advisor’s proposal.

The study could guide appropriate policies regarding service animals in labs with live animals, Ramps says, and either give her confidence to pursue research that involves rodents or push her in a different direction. But to her and Rhodes’s surprise, the IACUC rejected the protocol—twice.

The first rejection, from last December, simply cites “insufficient justification for the use of live vertebrate animals (mice).” Assuming the committee had misunderstood their proposal, Ramp and Rhodes had multiple meetings with Pat Malik, the director of DRES, and also spoke with IACUC head Josh Gulley. Rhodes then went before the entire committee to explain the scientific rationale and assure them that the experiment would be “pretty much innocuous” for the mice involved—IACUC’s main concern being for the welfare of the animals and the scientific justification for any harm they may endure. But again in March, the committee denied the request.

“I didn’t understand why,” Rhodes says. “I’m still surprised.”

The second rejection letter listed four main objections, including concerns related to the study’s purpose, the lack of a hypothesis, and the possible biosecurity risk. But none of the arguments “held any water,” Rhodes insists. “It’s the kind of experience where you think you’re going crazy. . . . There doesn’t seem to be any legitimate reason why they would block us.”

Rhodes has never had another protocol rejected by the IACUC at U of I—and he’s written around a dozen or more—nor does he know anyone who has had a protocol rejected. Indeed, B. Taylor Bennett, senior scientific advisor at the National Association for Biomedical Research, says that IACUCs “rarely reject a protocol outright unless it involves projects that they are not equipped to support, or where the biosecurity of the animals would be an issue.” Gulley says he is not able to comment on specific IACUC research protocol applications.

Ramp says she suspects that Sampson’s ban from the psych lab and the IACUC’s rejection of their proposal are related, and stem from prejudice against people with service dogs. In May, she filed a complaint with the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) alleging discrimination by the university, the IACUC committee, and Juraska.

“We think that the entire response of the university reflects discrimination and in some respects may reflect retaliation for her efforts . . . to bring her dog in [to the lab],” says Ramp’s lawyer Matt Cohen, who specializes in disability rights.

The university declined to participate in mediation, Cohen says, and the OCR has initiated an investigation on the IACUC’s rejection. (The agency is not investigating Sampson’s ban from the psychology lab course because the complaint was filed more than 180 days after the incident.) The university would not confirm or deny the complaint or investigation.

Theo (left) and Sampson dressed for lab class. Theo was the first service dog allowed in chemistry teaching labs at the University of Illinois and Parkland College. Sampson was the first service dog to enter a University of Illinois biology teaching lab, a molecular and physiology research lab, and a behavioral genetics and neuroscience research lab. 
COURTESY OF JOEY RAMP

Ramp paves the way

Regardless of the outcome of her legal case, Ramp is hoping that her story will motivate the development of better guidelines for making accommodations for people with service dogs in the sciences, whether in laboratory classes or research facilities with animals.

Service animals are becoming more common—the number of active guide, hearing, and service dogs in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Asia nearly doubled between 2009 and 2017, from 10,769 to 19,144, says Chris Diefenthaler, operations administrator at Assistance Dogs International. Thus, this is an issue that universities are likely to face more frequently.

According to Kaler, U of I is already developing an update to its policy on animals on campus. Administrators have been working for a year on a version that will specifically mention labs. The new policy has been reviewed by the university’s legal team and has begun the process of review by the university. Students, faculty, and other staff will have the opportunity to comment before it is added to the Campus Administrative Manual, she says.

Several institutions have already published new policies on having animals on campus in the last several years, and many more are on the way, says Novakofski. “Many campuses have policies that did not address service animals under the Fair Housing Act. People recognize we need to fix them . . . to reflect the current ADA and the Fair Housing Act.”

At Parkland College, Ramp’s efforts to improve access for service animals on university campuses are already making a difference, says Holm. The campus has since made accommodations for service animals to accompany their handlers to the gym and to a cadaver lab, and there is currently a student with a service dog taking the same intro chemistry lab that Ramp took with Theo. “Her pioneering—it’s paying off,” Holm says.

Meanwhile, Ramp pursues the mission she set out on eight years ago, as she sat on her office floor with a loaded gun in her lap. She’s planning to partner with an incoming student in the Rhodes lab on a PTSD project that doesn’t involve mouse work, and is on track to graduate next spring. She’s still hoping to study rodents in grad school—to understand how traumatic brain injury interacts with PTSD and test stem-cell therapies to treat the animals’ symptoms—but that project is very much up in the air.

“She doesn’t need to do rodent research to follow her passion, which is to study PTSD; there’s other ways to make an impact in that besides actually handling the animals,” says Rhodes. “But then she would be giving up her dream.”

Editor’s note: An expanded version of this article will appear in the November 2018 print issue of The Scientist.

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