Last spring, Ashley Judd took heat in the blogosphere for coming out as having psychological-support dogs to help her cope with depression. After the actress posted on Twitter that it is illegal to “pester” someone about having service dogs, people around the country responded by calling her “crazy,” a “beyotch” and a “service-dog snob.” Some suggested that she was using the laws that allow service animals in public places as a way to be a diva.
Registered as official service animals, Judd’s four-legged friends go everywhere with her. Yet, legally, as psychiatric service dogs, they are considered neither her friends nor her pets. The law is quite clear that service animals are for use by people who suffer from physical or mental disabilities. Rather than companions or helpers, the law holds them to be the same as the inanimate equipment those with disabilities use to navigate the world.
According to the law, animals can enter our intimate family circles either as pets — which is to say, as property — or as a result of trauma, disease or disability. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been used to protect the rights of people dependent upon psychiatric-service and emotional-support animals as long as they are not pets but, rather, “assistive aids, such as wheelchairs.” According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), their calming or therapeutic effect is not enough; all service dogs (or other animals) must be specifically trained to perform tasks. They must pick up dropped keys, counterbalance dizziness, turn on lights or do something else to help with the requirements of daily life.
The DOJ draws a distinction between psychiatric-service dogs and emotional-support or therapy dogs. The former are legally recognized under the ADA, while the latter are not, despite the fact that they are included in current subcategories of service animals.
My sister, a liver-and-kidney transplant recipient, has three Dachshunds who go everywhere with her and help her cope with the post-traumatic stress of her medical ordeals. Her dogs are therapy animals prescribed by a doctor to provide emotional support. Having a prescription should allow patients to take their animals with them into public places where animals are usually banned, including buses and trains, buildings, and the workplace. However, unless the dogs are providing a material service, technically they are not legal service animals.
Doctors prescribe dogs instead of pills for everything from post-traumatic stress to depression. The military is using dogs in war zones not only as bomb-sniffers but also to comfort battle-weary soldiers, and veterans  returning home with post-traumatic stress disorder also have dogs prescribed to help them. (This is an about-face for the military, which, until 2000, had a policy of treating “war dogs” as equipment to be disposed of after they were no longer useful.)
In addition, comfort dogs are used in courtrooms  to provide emotional support for children called to testify in difficult cases, and Yale Law School has instituted a program whereby students can “check out” a dog from the library to help alleviate stress. Programs like these are popping up all over as evidence mounts that companion animals reduce both mental and physical stress as well as promote learning, coping and social adjustment for all ages.
It is ironic, then, that although our attitudes toward animals are changing, psychological and emotional dependence on them is still seen as a sign of childishness at best and craziness at worst. Our relationships with animals are being circumscribed by laws that relegate them to the role of tools or medication, and then pathologize the people who rely on them. These laws show that public policy does not take our love and dependence on animals seriously. Instead, it turns them into devices, machines performing tasks or medication prescribed by doctors. In order to have our dependency on animals sanctioned by law, we have to become patients and objectify our furry friends.
This cultural and legal attitude suggests that people who are dependent on their animals for anything other than amusement or entertainment are abnormal or unhealthy. People who love animals as friends and family, and more especially, who depend on them for comfort and emotional support, are seen as quirky at best, and at worst, mentally ill. Perhaps it is time that our culture accepts that we depend on animals in all aspects of our lives, including companionship and emotional support.
Photograph: Floyd Anderson