When Gwyneth Watrous receives her Eckerd College diploma in May, her dog Brecken will be at her side.
And why not?
Brecken, an 8-year-old flat-coated retriever, has been with Watrous every step of her college career. They have shared runs across campus, late-night study sessions and trips to the mailbox, Brecken clutching the envelopes in her teeth.
"Having her here just makes it feel more like home," said Watrous, 21, a senior biochemistry major from Montgomery Township, N.J.
Unlike her college friends elsewhere, Watrous did not have to leave her dog at home when she headed off to campus. Eckerd is one of the few schools in the nation that allows students to bring their dogs and cats with them.
Eckerd's adoption of a pet-friendly policy more than 20 years ago -- school officials say it has been around as long as they can remember -- probably made the 1,652-student liberal arts college first in the nation to welcome pets.
Students pay a $65 annual registration fee that allows them twice-yearly veterinarian visits and a college ID card with their pet's photo.
The school designates four dormitories for students with dogs or cats. Fourteen cats and 13 dogs are registered. Students can live in single rooms or with a roommate.
Students are limited to one animal, which must be spayed or neutered, vaccinated, not less than 1 year old, and weigh less than 40 pounds.
That works for students such as Watrous, who was attracted to Eckerd because of its open-door pet policy. She never considered leaving Brecken, whom she got as a puppy.
"When I got her, my Dad said, 'What are you going to do when you go away to college?' " said Watrous, while Brecken, sprawled across the bed, tore at a chew toy. "I said, 'Dad, I'm going to bring her with me.' "
Colleges have long had a don't-ask-don't-tell policy when it comes to student pets. Eckerd's idea was to make the practice aboveboard so students can bring an important piece of home with them, easing their transition to college.
"We're seeking to create an environment for students that seems natural to them," said Rebecca Jacobson, assistant dean of students. "When you come back to the dorm after a stressful exam and your dog or cat is there, it's a comforting feeling."
Nichole Collins, 19, a sophomore biology major from Pinellas Park, Fla., brought her cat, Cheshire, with her to Eckerd. "It was easier to adjust, knowing you have someone depending on you," she said.
At least two other schools have followed Eckerd's lead. Stephens College, a 700-student women's college in Columbia, Mo., began offering a pet-friendly dormitory this year in response to student demand.
"We couldn't think of a good reason to say no," spokeswoman Amy Gipson said.
The State University of New York at Canton, which has 2,500 students, opened a dormitory to pets in 1998. "This semester, we have a cat and a duck sharing a room, and they're getting along famously," said Richard Fujita, the college's director of public relations.
Eckerd pet owners say their animals have made them more responsible. They cannot party till the wee hours and sack out till noon when the dog needs to be walked or the cat's litter needs changing.
"I'm spending more time studying, because I want to be in the room with her," Jessica O'Leary, 19, a sophomore business major from St. Louis County, Mo., said as she cuddles her Shih Tzu, Cocoa.
After more than 20 years of pets, Eckerd's dormitory rooms are no worse for wear, Jacobson said. "If a room can withstand two college students and their daily wear and tear, a dachshund is no problem."