Recently some airlines have changed their paperwork procedure for emotional support animals. A little over a month ago another passenger was bitten by a dog scheduled to travel on a plane. This time the victim was a child. At least this time one of the journalists got it right and the dog was labeled as an emotional support animal, not as a service dog.
But are these changes going to be enough to keep the passengers and the animals safe when traveling? The changes include notifying the airlines 48 hours in advance that the emotional support animal will be on a flight and signing paperwork saying that the animal is not likely to bite anyone.
Oftentimes the mainstream media is confused about what the difference is between a service dog and an emotional support animal, and therefore confuses the general public even further. The difference is really pretty major in my eyes.
An emotional support animal does nothing other than provide comfort. They are there for one to give a hug or pet when needed. They may provide a hug, nudge, or a headbutt. They may lick back. They may make one feel better emotionally. But nothing they do actually requires any type of training, just love. I’m sorry to burst everyone’s bubble, but providing love is not a trained task.
A service animal is specifically trained to do one or more tasks that directly aids someone who has a disability. I see news stories all the time about something happening to someone’s “service animal.” A few weeks ago I shared a news story on my personal Facebook Page about a woman’s “service dog” getting it’s foot caught in an escalator at LAX airport. The video footage shows the dog facing the wrong way on the escalator and the handler not paying any attention to the dog.
I guess it could be a service dog—how is one supposed to know if it is actually trained to do a task to aid its handler or if the handler is even disabled? But in my observation, the behavior shown by the handler and the dog in the video was not that of a well-trained service dog team. A service dog should be completely aware of its surroundings, know how to handle it, and be focused on what their handler needs. A handler should be setting their dog up for success (especially if it is still learning) and be aware of what their dog is doing and keeping them safe to the best of their abilities. This team was not the best example of what a service dog team should look like.
The thing is that people and as well as the media often call a dog a service dog because it will get more coverage and notice than a normal pet would. If the news had the headline of “LAX officer saves pet dog caught in escalator” it isn’t as flashy as “LAX officer saves service dog caught in escalator.” Now I have no way of knowing if this dog was called a service dog by the owner or the news station, or both. But you have to admit sharing a story advertising that a service dog was “heroically saved” sounds much better than “poor dog gets sucked into an escalator because owner was negligent.” Or it really could be a poorly trained service dog team—yes, those do exist and that is a whole separate topic for another future blog.
Same thing goes for missing dog posters and news. If people say that their dog went missing it gets little notice. But if people say that their service dog is missing, they get way more notice and sympathy. “OMG! We have to find this person’s service dog, their life is dependent on it!” But this blog isn’t really about the misrepresentation of service dogs in the news. This too will have to be a whole different blog. It’s more about the issues of animals in the cabin on flights and how easy it is for some to get access and how difficult it is for others, like puppy raisers.
More and more people are traveling with emotional support animals, and not all are even dogs. People are trying to pass all kinds of animals off as emotional support animals. Just recently someone tried to board a United Airlines flight with an emotional support peacock. Seriously, how does a peacock provide comfort? In most of my encounters with peacocks, I have seen them act almost semi aggressive towards people— which is not exactly a great pick for someone who might be stressed and require something to snuggle with.
Some of the airlines are doing a better job of denying these animals, but some are not. There was a story recently about a girl trying to board a flight with her emotional support hamster and upon being denied, she flushed it down a toilet because she said that it is what the airline told her to do so she could get to her destination. I’m still very baffled by this one. If an animal means that much to you that you need it to be able to handle flying, why on earth would you flush it? Then there are stories of snakes and ducks, and all kinds of other animals being allowed to fly. But in this day and age you have to wonder what stories are actually true and which ones are not.
Despite the influx of animals at airports lately, the most common support animal are still dogs. Almost anyone can board a plane these days with their dog as long as they have a note from a mental health professional stating that it is necessary for that person to have that animal with them when they fly. It has gotten so bad that people can purchase this type of letter over the internet without actually being seen by said professional.
Don’t even get me started on the multiple fake service dog/ESA registry sites out there. On most of these sites you have a choice to register your dog as an ESA (emotional support animal) or a service dog for a “very reasonable” price. No proof is required that your dog is actually trained as a service dog or that you really do require an ESA. These sites are scams catering to people who want to abuse the system. These sites are one of the biggest problems with pets being faked as service dogs in public and causing harm for legitimate service dog teams. These companies don’t care and believe they are not morally responsible to take precautions about making sure the public is safe from dogs that could potentially by dangerous or not conditioned to handle the stress of working. Nor do they have tools or have any access to examine the mental health of the animal involved. These companies don’t know if the service dog in question is able to handle the stress of accompening their handler in stressful environments nor do they care to ask. They only care about making a dollar and in my opinion need to be shut down.
If that information doesn’t scare you enough, how about the fact that there is not a single requirement in place to show that any emotional support animal being allowed on planes is required to have had any type of temperament testing or training to show that they can handle the stress of airline travel. Sure some of the airlines have paperwork that an owner needs to sign saying that they don’t believe that their dog would bite someone. But how many pet owners are really able to read the body language of their animals correctly and know if they may not be comfortable with the situation that their owner puts them in.
Let’s face it, traveling is very stressful and I can see how having your furry or, in some cases, feathered best friend along for the trip can make a person feel better. But what about the animal? How do you think animals handle the stress of traveling, especially if they are not used to being in busy crowded airports that have scary thing like suitcases on wheels being dragged around, or fast moving golf carts whizzing around, voices over loudspeakers, kids crying, people darting through crowds to make their flight, or even going through security? Not to mention sitting in very tight quarters with strangers for a long period of time, with no option to leave the situation.
ESA dogs are not service dogs and don’t have the same legal public access. So many ESAs are not accustomed to this type of stressful environment. It is no wonder why we keep hearing news reports about incidents on planes involving dogs. People are putting dogs in situations that are way past the dog’s comfort zone in order to stay in their own comfort zone. That doesn’t seem right, does it? To stress out a dog to lower one’s own personal stress level. Now not every ESA animal gets stressed by air travel, some are really good at it. But there is no way to discourage those that can’t handle the stress.
Do I dare talk about the animal’s relieving needs? How do you train a bird not to potty while on a plane or in the airport? Most support animals travel at the feet of their owner or in their lap, since they are not always required to be in a carrier. How well does this really work for animals other than dogs? What if someone was traveling with a rabbit or potbellied pig as their ESA? Do you know how often a rabbit poops?! Yet these types of animals have been allowed on planes.
Now airline travel is not for every person or animal. It is no wonder that there are stories about animals misbehaving on planes or in the airport. It is stressful for them and they often don’t know how to cope. This is not the fault of the animal, but rather the person that puts them in the situation that caused them to be so uncomfortable that they didn’t know what else to do. As an owner of an animal it is my job to protect that animal from harm. Harm can be so many things, keeping them on a leash so they don’t run into the street and get hit by a car, safe from poisons, safe from eating or chewing on unsafe objects (dog proofing your house), keeping them away from aggressive dogs or abusive people. But most people are not aware that bringing a dog into a stressful environment that they don’t know how to handle is harmful to that dog and therefore don’t protect them. What happens to a dog that bites a person? They sometimes get put into quarantine, or are not allowed out into public (this includes parks, trails, or other dog friendly places), their lives are forever changed … more stress on the dog. But you still just need that little slip of paper and to make a few extra arrangements with the airline to get your “ESA” on the flight with you.
I have to say that as a puppy raiser, I find this very frustrating for many reasons. It’s upsetting to hear about incidents of animals being stressed out to the point of them biting someone. But another aspect is that the average person doesn’t necessarily understand the difference between an ESA and a service dog. They might think that this is typically behavior for a service dog and cause a bad perception of service dogs and less acceptance for them out in public. This makes it harder for service dog teams to be accepted and puppy raisers like me who are trying to raise and train a puppy out in public, a very necessary part of the process of creating a successful service dog.
According to their websites, some major airlines prohibit service dogs in training from flying in the cabin with their handler. Delta Airlines has on their website “In most circumstances, a service or support animal in training does not meet qualifications for a trained animal and can not ride in the cabin.” United Airlines has this statement: “United only recognizes service animals which have been trained and certified. Animal trainers are permitted to bring one service animal that is training to assist disabled passengers onboard free of charge.” But they also state that “trainers transporting service animals in the ordinary course of business or service animals who are not in training must check these animals.” Well, that is a very confusing statement. So dogs in training are not recognized by the airline as service animals, but a trainer is allowed to bring one on a flight? Many airlines say that they will allow service dogs in training in the cabin only if they are flying to their new home for final placement. It is very hard to get an accurate answer from the airlines on whether or not a service dog in training is allowed to fly in the cabin. The information on websites is either confusing or not there. If you call the airline directly the agents on the phone are often confused by the question and don’t know how to answer.
So if I have this correct… airlines are more likely to let a dog or other animals on their airplane that have no evidence of training or having the temperament to handle the stress of flying, than a puppy or dog that is specifically training to handle situations like airline travel and more! Does anyone else see a problem with this?
Yes, I have flown with a number of puppies without an issue, but I have also been turned down by many airlines when trying to inquire about traveling with a puppy. It is usually because the puppy isn’t trained to assist me personally. But each time I have flown I faced the chance of being turned away. The communication with the airline employees on the policy of service dogs in training is all over the place. You can get a very different answer to question depending on who you ask.
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