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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.



Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and editor in chief. thebark.com
CommentsPost a Comment
Please note comments are moderated. After being approved your comment will appear below.
Submitted by Patty Aarons | November 16 2013 |

My Bernese Mountain Dog, Skye, and I are a registered, certified Therapy Dog Team and working toward her R.E.A.D (Reading Educational Assistance Dog) certification. She is NOT a Service Dog and I would not dream of passing her off as one. If she could accompany me on a plane, we would travel far and wide. She is not allowed so our adventures are by road and closer to home. I always have her verification papers with me. That is a small effort. I don't understand why owners would not be asked to show proper documentation when asking special entry for their pets into any place where pets are not normally welcomed. It is sad that many are taking advantage of people with REAL need of a Service Dog and possibly spoiling it for them to enjoy a more normal life. Shame on them!

Skye came home with me from NH as a puppy, under the seat, etc. We paid the extra and followed all the rules. The flight attendant was so incredibly rude to me, she was addressed by her "on board" superior. I have never flown with a pup since that time and will never do so again.

Dogs without SERVICE DOG registration should be turned away and added to a "Do Not Fly" list!! It's simply not fair to those people who truly need their dogs by their sides!

Submitted by Becky | September 23 2014 |

There is no required registry for service dogs. There are businesses that sell all sorts of items and also sell certification for service dogs, but they are simply taking advantage of people with services dogs AND making it much more difficult for those with service dogs that don't utilize those products. Read the law. It's not required, and plainly states so.

Submitted by Robin | November 16 2013 |

This reminds me of issues in the mental health/illness field over time. Discussions by some who had experience with those who had schizophrenia began to call it a "brain disease" and painted a picture of the pain and suffering one had with those being worse than those with things like anxiety or other problems.
Some people with anxiety can hide their symptoms well, and so they appear well-functioning...yet for some the support of a dog or other animal may be making all the difference in the world.
If people have issues due to allergies, whether peanut or pet, here's the reality: airplanes like buses are PUBLIC transportation. Your problem does not become the rest of the worlds, as insensitive as that may sound. So if you have an issue, you had better find a way to deal with that on a plane. I am very sensitive to perfumes and scents...but I don't expect the airline to sniff passengers and see if they have a scented product on and ban them from the plane.
I agree totally with the comments about the poor conditions in cargo for pets. But only in the most desperate of circumstances should someone consider sending a pet in the cargo hold. You may not like the risks, but if the airline can't do any better than it is YOUR problem for insisting on them travelling that way.
All of which leads to the pets on the plane issue. The people who have trained dogs from the appropriate organizations seem to think their dogs are more than pets, better trained, specially trained, essential to their well-being, safety and comfort. And they are...to an extent. But how can someone sit in judgment about the bond and the relationship? I think we are feeling (in a good way) the growing pains of our relationships evolving and even those animals deemed "pets" are family to us and matter increasingly more...which is a good thing. I for one don't appreciate those who have assistance animals putting down my relationship to my pup as inferior to their own, even if I am not dependent on my pup for guiding me. And on the flip side, though it would be very unpopular, I have spent time wondering about the training process and demands made of assistance animals.
In any case I think what it all points out is that among those of us loving our pets, we want some way for them to be able to travel with us safely in the cabin. Not stowed in cargo or under the seat. They are creating better harnesses for seats of cars for our pups, so the airline could have them as well. I bet there are many flight attendants who would rather serve a flight full of dogs than some of the rude and obnoxious passengers they must deal with! There ought to be a way to create an enclosure around a seat so that the dog or pet wouldn't bother others if that is a concern.

Submitted by Christy | January 2 2014 |

Had my dog been allowed on a plane other than in cargo, maybe the entire last decade of my life would have went smoother. Clearly us poor folk who did not have doctor note or wish to cause problems anyone couldn't pull this off. I had to buy several cars drive back and forth across the country and separate my dog and tortoise just because. Of these issues. Oh yeah Jack Hanna can board any airline but not us. Now I didn't have flying issues before 9/11 or working on the set of Lost but these things changed, so now my senior rescue dog with separation anxiety and I are thousands of miles away from my tortoise who I sadly can not properly provide for. So if ya have a home with your pets and you are safe I recommend to keep it that way. If you must fly to make it happen ,keep in mind other people exist, it is not pleasant for anyone anymore and go easy on the workers .

Submitted by B | May 27 2014 |

Honestly, no one person has the right to judge whether someone has emotional issues that garner them the right to have an emotional support animal. You have no idea what someone's story is to look at them. Someone can look absolutely normal, no visible conditions and be in extreme pain inside emotionally and even physically. Back off these people and use your time to find compassion instead of problems with something that is incredibly progressive. I am a disabled person. I have severe disabilities that are permanent. My issues are physical, mental and emotional. To see me, you would never know that. Reading this article makes me feel absolutely awful and quite scared about my un-visible disabilities and how incredibly judgmental people still are. It makes me sad. And just to note, I was on several medications before my dog - I was completely drugged by legal medications. I cannot leave my dog's side without the severe onset of panic. He saves my life every single day. Please, before you "look" at someone to say there's nothing wrong with them, consider maybe there's just something wrong with the way you're thinking.

Submitted by Susan | July 18 2014 |

I could not agree more. Unless I'm having a melt down or manic episodes, no one would know from my outward appearance I have bipolar 2 with anxiety. This is another example of being on the defensive when dealing with "Normals." Unless one has a mental illness (which I would not wish on anyone), they have no idea how difficult it is to cope every minute, every hour, every day. If having an emotional support animal gets me through the worst periods in my life -- and, as in my case, I have postponed traveling for years because of the trauma waiting at my destination -- I need my ESA with me. On the flight, at my destination, as I carry out my long-delayed responsibility. I'm glad the FAA accommodates ESAs and I hope they continue to do so. Passengers need to recognize the legitimacy of ESAs, not assume my dog is in the cabin on a whim and no, I'm not going to disclose my illness when faced by a disgruntled traveler.

Submitted by Jeanette | September 15 2014 |

I completely agree! I unknowingly used my dog as an ESA for anxiety before I knew what an ESA was. I am now working toward getting proper notes and training for her. ESA's should also have a resume packet, not just a doctor note from a skype call!

Submitted by Eric | July 1 2014 |

If we're going to allow pets in the cabin then why don't we just turn off the no smoking light while we're at it.

Someone wrote above that airplanes are public space and that if you have a specific accommodation that needs to be made then it's your problem. I couldn't agree more. It is YOUR pet, YOUR problem. Don't make it everyone else problem by adding dander to the recirculated air, smells, noise, stains and possible attacks.

I can't wait to see what happens, and it will if this continues, when someone accidentally steps on someone's "emotional support" dog and it bites them and lawsuits start to 'fly'.

Come on folks. Lets reel in the narcissistic thoughts of "my pet is special, my relationship with my pet is special" and exercise a little decorum.

Submitted by Sheila | July 5 2014 |

Thank you soooooo much for your comment! You nailed it. I have horrible allergies to animals and I need to travel for work every month. Fido gets to fly while I have to take a later flight. It took me 3 days to get home because "emotional support dogs" were on every flight. When my lungs shut down and I die on a flight maybe the airline will at least consider changing their policy.

Submitted by Leah Shepard | July 14 2014 |

I've had to stop flying because my allergies to dogs and cat are so severe. I get severely asthmaatic and am afraid of dying on a plane because of animals.

Submitted by Megan | July 23 2014 |

You are required to have paperwork from a certified psychologist in order to bring an ESA on American. Basically the letter must identify what you are under treatment for and the doctor's license number. It's important my dog be in my lap during flights, I feel safer having her there and she just sleeps the whole time not bothering a soul better than some infants who are brought on the plane.

Submitted by Nestor | August 19 2014 |

My heart goes out to those people that require the presence of an animal in order to secure their mental/emotional stability, or otherwise. with that said, I believe this is absolutely over prescribed. I know a couple of psychiatrists that will write a letter for anyone because they don't believe dogs should fly in the belly of the plane(not for the passenger). This will become an issue, like someone said, when a dog bites someone, or a passenger goes into a severe allergic reaction, or simply, when they quarantine an animal in a foreign country were our laws don't apply. I'm sure someone out there has a letter from a doctor to allow a 200 lb mastiff to fly with them. Or a pot bellied pig. Or a goat. This issue, IMHO is the Ritalin of air travel. Over prescribed.

Submitted by Martha Custer | September 12 2014 |

I have had horrendous experiences in the past 2 weeks with ESA dogs on Southwest flights. The first time, a very pregnant woman boarded the plane with an ESA dog and took the middle seat next to mine. Obviously there was not a lap for her dog so it sprawled across her with its head in my lap and its tail in the lap of the teenage boy next to the window. It was horrible but only got worse about half way into a 5 hour flight from Baltimore to Denver when the dog began to smell. Needless to say we were both covered by dog hair and disgusted by the odor. Just this past week I was on a Southwest flight from Detroit to Phoenix and the ESA dog with a woman became sick on the plane and vomited on the passenger next to her. Fortunately I was a row away or I would have become verbally combative with that rude obtrusive woman who feels she has more rights than others on the plane . People for 3 rows in both direction were gagging and becoming ill with the stench. I asked the woman what she thought she was doing and she said "what I can I do, my dog lives in Phoenix." Don't these selfish people realize that not only are they trying to skirt the system, they are abusing the rights of others and actually torturing these helpless dogs who can't endure 4 and 5 hour plane flights without toilet and exercise privileges. The dogs seemed nice, it was their nutty owners who caused the problem. The attendants are helpless to stop this abuse. I was told my only option was to rebook on a later flight. Something needs to be done about this horrible trend. If these folks are such an emotional wreck they can't travel without an ESA dog perhaps they should stay at home or get a stuffed animal-after all traveling is stressful.

Perhaps these dogs themselves should have to meet certain guidelines for "free travel" and be certified they can endure the travel. A refundable deposit could be put down to ensure the animal in question is appropriate for confined travel. Apparently getting a letter certifying the dog as ESA is ridiculously simple and costs less than buying a normal animal ticket. Allowing such as easy loophole for these cheapskates creates the problem.

Submitted by Jody | September 18 2014 |

I love dogs and am happier when I am around them, mine or someone else's, on a plane, train, or in a store or wherever. I have bi-polar and anxiety and would be glad to have my American Bulldog with me everywhere. HOWEVER my dog does not like being in the car and I would not subject her to a life where she is constantly on the move. I personally know three people who take their "service" dogs everywhere, and the DOGS are miserable! I do not think it is fair to the dogs to burden them with our emotional problems if it puts them in situations that cause anxiety. (and if you have an emotional problem, trust me, your dog is already stressing out about it just by living with you.) One example, a woman at my gym brings her chihuahua into the pool room and leaves her in a bag hanging from the towel hook. The dog shivers and seems so scared and could fall out and get severely injured. (I had to speak up about that - I thought of that poor dog for days.) I don't think you should be able to call just any dog a therapy dog just because you feel better having the dog with you. I think it should be limited to breeds with certain temperaments, size (NOT tiny dogs that get nervous easily) AND training. Not unlike requirements for seeing eye dogs. ps read this article because I am trying to talk my nephew out of shipping his dog cross-country in cargo. In general, I do not think you should stress your pets out by flying them at all! I am offering to drive his dog from Michigan to Seattle to save that poor dog the stress and potential for death or injury - yes, it happens all the time.

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