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Are Emotional Support Dogs on Planes Causing a Backlash?

There is a front page story today in the New York Times about emotional support dogs on planes, and how many people seem to be gaming the system. It is obviously a very touchy subject for dog lovers. But one that needs serious addressing. Should rules regarding emotional support dogs (different from assistance/service dogs for blind or physically disabled people) be re-examined? This article dealt specifically with plane travel, which allows emotional support animals to fly free. Those animals (not just dogs) are not restricted to a crate and are even allowed to sit on their guardian’s lap, unlike other animals who must fit under-the-seat in a carrier, and for which a fee is charged on most airlines.

Robert Farr of the Pacific A.D.A. Center explained that, “The Air Carrier Access Act allowed for emotional support animals to be taken on planes, broadening the American Disabilities Act, which recognized service animals in public places.” Little (or no) proof of their status is required. And as the article points out, there seem to be many who are flaunting the guidelines.

Is this a problem? According to Marcie Davis, founder of International Assistance Dog Week, it is becoming a big one.

“I’ve seen people bring on pets and try to pass them off as an emotional support or service dog. It’s not appropriate and it’s not safe.”

Ms. Davis, who uses a wheelchair, flies about once a month, along with a service dog, for her job as a health and human services consultant.

She goes on to note:

“Honestly, I understand that there’s some value that people need an emotional assistance dog. But I think a lot of this is that people love their dogs and think they feel like if you have your dog, why can’t I have mine?” Airline workers echo Ms. Davis’s view. “It’s out of control,” said an American Airlines flight attendant, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak publicly.

Not only are there psychotherapists who provide the necessary “prescriptive” paperwork, but online stores that sell service dog vests to anyone. Like one in Southern California who the Times spoke with who is willing to offer certification papers for a one-hour $99 phone/Skype call.

I know a few people without legitimate issues who do this as well, like a couple with two 70 lb. dogs who wear such vests. Their dogs are extremely well trained but, to me, that isn’t the issue. They simply prefer that their dogs fly in the cabin with them and not in the cargo, an understandable sentiment, but one that doesn’t give consideration to other passengers, including those with service animals or those with animal allergies.

The comments to this article are interesting, especially when addressing the needs of those with severe allergies. Unfortunately their rightful concerns could also impact other guide/service animals—with stale cabin air being recycled, it is hard not to take into consideration the pet dander allergy issue. One commenter suggested that those with severe allergies should also be accorded “ADA” status, warranting special consideration too.

But there is also the fact that airlines are charging more and more for things that use to be standard for the cost of a plane tickets, baggage, roomier seating, snacks etc., so it was suggested that if they started to charge for emotional support dogs (like they do with “carry-on” dogs), perhaps they would see a reversal in the popularity of misusing the system. Or as another commenter noted,

“When airlines are able to provide a more humane way for our pets to travel on an airplane, i.e. a secured heated in winter/air conditioned in summer section in the cargo area, where the crates are also secured and not dumped in with luggage, etc., when airlines stop asking vets to sign waivers that say if your pet comes out the other end of the flight like a frozen Popsicle or overheated Pizza Pocket and not breathing, when pets do not escape due to negligence on the part of the airline employees, who are not specifically trained to handle animals, are trained properly to do so and in fact have dedicated jobs for only this function, than I would love to be able to relinquish my beloved dog to the airline and get on the plane! with some level of peace of mind.”

Are there really that many people who are abusing the system who, in turn, are making it more difficult for others to bring their service dogs with them? Perhaps an example of how this might be affecting the attitude of crewmembers too comes from a story reported yesterday in the New York Post about a blind man, Albert Rizzi and his guide dog Doxy, who were booted off a US Airways plane by TSA guards.  As the story goes:

“The 9-year-old Lab was under his seat, Rizzi said, but the loving pooch got restless as the plane sat for 90 minutes on the runway before the scheduled hour-long flight at 8:30 p.m.

“My dog had been under the seat for an hour and a half, and he needed to be near me, touch me,” Rizzi told The Post. “This is the relationship between a guide dog and his handler.”

But there is great twist to this story when other passengers voiced their support to Rizzi.

 “After he [Rizzi] was removed, people on board began to voice their opinion,” said passenger Carl Beiner, a 43-year-old construction manager. “Everyone was saying, ‘You’re 100-percent wrong.’ There was not a single person backing the stewardess. Every single person on that flight was behind the blind guy.”

“When we, the passengers, realized what was going on, we were, like, ‘Why is this happening? He’s not a problem. What is going on?’ ” Passenger Frank Ohlhorst told Philadelphia TV stations. “The captain came out of the cockpit, and he basically asked us all to leave the aircraft.”

Obviously, one hopes that is an extreme example on how easy it is to fray nerves while sitting in a plane for hours on a runway, and one that the management of US Airways agrees was a severe overreaction by the crew.

As for the broader issue of support dogs being accorded the same status as guide dogs, and how this leads to misusing the system, is this perhaps an example of a good idea gone bad? Is it time to reexamine the certification process? Is more accountability in order? We would love to get your thoughts.

 

 

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Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and editor in chief. thebark.com

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