Emotional Support Animals

July 1, 2020

In 2017, Marlin Jackson boarded a cross-country flight. When he got to his row, another passenger was already in the middle seat with an emotional support dog in his lap.

According to Mr. Jackson’s attorney, “The approximately 50-pound dog growled at Mr. Jackson soon after he took his seat…and continued as Mr. Jackson attempted to buckle his seatbelt. The growling increased and the dog lunged for Mr. Jackson’s face…who could not escape due to his position against the plane’s window.” Facial wounds requiring 28 stitches were the result.

Untrained emotional support dogs don’t just attack people. They attack highly trained service dogs, as well, sometimes ending their working lives.

I can relate. I am a visually impaired person partnering with my fourth guide dog over a 20-year period. In the past decade, I have increasingly needed to cope with clueless handlers allowing their pets to interfere with my dog’s work.

As a professor of ethics, I teach students to consider first the needs of the most vulnerable. I wish I could teach the same lesson to those who risk public safety with their ill-trained dogs, most of whom are emotional support animals, a category not recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Over the past decade, purported emotional support animals have increasingly appeared in stores, restaurants and airports. While peacocks, pigs and kangaroos make the headlines, almost all the animals found in no-pet zones are dogs. Dog biting, barking, growling, urinating and defecating are top complaints, with one airline reporting an 84% increase in dog-related incidents from 2016-2018.

The influx of inappropriate dogs has also generated unwarranted suspicion toward the approximately 10,000 Americans who, like me, partner with legitimate, trained guide dogs.

Animal public access in the U.S. is currently governed by a patchwork system of inconsistent laws, creating confusion for people with disabilities, citizens and, particularly, gatekeepers – the store managers, restaurant owners and building supervisors tasked with deciding which dogs should be allowed in their no-pet spaces. In other countries, IDs are issued only to professionally trained service dogs who have demonstrated the ability to behave in public. In the U.S., there is no such validation. As a result, pet owners have become increasing brazen in fraudulently claiming their animals warrant legal public access.

The Department of Justice, which enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act, allows people with physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or mental impairments to have public access with service dogs who have been individually trained to perform tasks that mitigate their owners’ disabilities.

The Department of Transportation and Department of Housing and Urban Development allow service dogs on public transportation and in housing, respectively, but also grant access to people with mental and emotional disorders accompanied by emotional support animals – untrained animals who need only to contribute to their owners’ emotional well being, as any good pet would.

Technically, the individual seeking access with an emotional support animal must have certification of a mental or emotional disorder, which is a much lower standard than the disability requirement of DOJ.

Some mental health professionals have been willing to attest to an individual’s “need” for an emotional support animal without having a professional relationship with them. And none vouches for the appropriateness of specific animals.

ADA service dogs may legally accompany their handlers almost anywhere. Emotional support animals may not. For example, emotional support animals currently allowed in aircraft cabins are not legally permitted in airport shops and restaurants. Emotional support animals allowed to live in college dorms may not go with their owners to class or the cafeteria.

Online purveyors of official-looking letters, vests and patches guaranteed to get dogs access in pet-free zones to take advantage of the confusion between service dogs and emotional support animals, liberally mixing the classifications. They also fail to mention that the individual seeking such accommodation must have proof of a mental disorder. This omission, itself, is an ethical problem. It is cheaper and easier for gatekeepers to just hope that questionable dogs don’t put patrons at risk. Airline attendants face an unenviable dilemma, as passengers cannot escape aggressive or stressed dogs in the tight confines of an airplane.

There are recent signs that DOT and HUD are moving toward DOJ’s more stringent regulations. On Feb. 5, 2020, DOT opened a 60 day public comment period for a plan that would reclassify emotional support animals as pets and restrict free aircraft cabin access only to service dogs. HUD recently posted new guidelines to help housing providers better determine animal access.

In my view, more federal intervention is needed. Medical documentation of disability should be the entry point for service dog access, just as it is for handicapped parking permits. Offering a nationally recognizable ID for service dog owners who voluntarily provide documentation would eliminate some fraud.

Ideally, a dog’s ability to behave appropriately in public should be proven prior to access and affirmed annually by testers, who use a public access test to verify a dog’s manners and handling of disability-specific tasks, such as that developed by Assistance Dogs International or those performed by all U.S. guide dog schools.

Some argue documentation and testing are burdensome or a violation of disabled people’s civil rights. But physicians, who diagnose ADA-defined disabilities, already provide their patients’ verification for state and federal benefits. Behavior tests assure handlers their dogs can work in stressful situations. And ensuring public safety protects the civil rights of all people.

  • Most Recent News

    Big Dogs Need Owners

    October 9, 2020

    When the shutdown orders took full effect, it became nearly impossible to find a small dog available for adoption as Southlanders sought furry companions. In many Southland shelters, only larger breeds remained available for adoption. Now Los Angeles Animal Service is touting the joys of big dogs while offering discounted adoption fees for larger breeds […]

    Read more

    Service Dog Walkathon

    October 9, 2020

    On Saturday, October 3, hundreds of walkers from across 15 states joined the path to bettering the world for children with autism and their families as part of BluePath Service Dogs’ fourth annual walkathon. The family-friendly fundraiser – this year held virtually – raised more than $120,000 to further BluePath’s mission of providing autism service […]

    Read more

    Service Dog In The Marching Band

    October 9, 2020

    In a year that is anything but normal, the Jones College Maroon Typhoon Marching Band has welcomed its first known service dog member this fall. Laurie, a 3-year-old golden retriever, is baritone saxophone player Sara-Beth McKellar’s service dog. The Vicksburg native was diagnosed with epilepsy as a sophomore in high school after her first seizure. […]

    Read more

    Church Blesses Animals

    October 9, 2020

    St. Mary’s Church of the Immaculate Conception in Port Jervis hosted a special outdoor service last Sunday afternoon to bless the community’s pets, animals and other living creatures. In keeping with current pandemic rules, pet owners wore masks, remained distant, and took part in praying for dogs, cats, turtles, and other pets and animals around […]

    Read more

    Police Welcomes New Canine

    October 9, 2020

    Young Kingston Police service dog Bask may look small, but his handler says his training and energy are proving that he’s up to fill the shoes of his predecessor. “I think he’s going to be a great little dog,” Const. Jeff Dickson said, looking down at his new partner. A partner that, wearing the right […]

    Read more

    Dog Park For Travelers

    October 9, 2020

    St. Petersburg is widely recognized as a dog-friendly city, and St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport is making sure its four-legged visitors and their humans feel welcome by rolling out the artificial turf carpet. With the completion of the airport’s parking and roadway project – part of a series of multi-million dollar improvements at the airport over the […]

    Read more

    Service Dog Helps Firefighters

    October 9, 2020

    Firefighters battling the Archie Creek and Thielsen fires have had some long, exhausting days. But for some, their troubles seemed to melt away once they got back to camp. Why? Meet Ralph Colombo. He hauls oversize loads. And joining Ralph is his service dog, Cowboy – the morale boosting, firefighting puppy. “He just keeps my […]

    Read more

    Pet Therapy Program

    October 9, 2020

    Saturday, October 10 is World Mental Health Day, which this year has a new sense of urgency for many. Covid-19 has taken a mental and emotional toll on healthcare workers across the U.S but there is a program boosting the spirits of doctors and nurses on the frontlines. At UC Irvine Medical Center in Southern […]

    Read more

    A Service Dogs Place

    October 9, 2020

    A new Pineville nonprofit that helps people with disabilities obtain service dogs has made its first match. The Saber Life Foundation was started in March by Danea Key and her husband Joel. They provide people with trained service dogs, paying 51 percent of the cost, with the client paying the other 49 percent. Service dogs […]

    Read more

    Dog Beating Cancer

    October 9, 2020

    A little over a year after a local dog was given only a few months to live after being diagnosed with bone cancer, she is still in remission and will be celebrated her twelfth birthday this month. Cocoa has been with her owner, Bucyrus resident Christie Auck, since she was nine-weeks-old. “On Aug. 18, 2019, […]

    Read more

    More Recent News