Opinion: Finally, signs of a crackdown on emotional support animals on planes
In 2017, Marlin Jackson embarked aboard a background flight. When he got to his row, another passenger was already sitting in the middle seat with an emotional support dog on 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 seat belt. The growls intensified and the dog rushed at Mr. Jackson’s face… who could not escape due to his position against the plane window. Facial wounds requiring 28 stitches resulted.
I understand. I am a visually impaired person and my fourth guide dog in a 20 year period. Over the past decade, I have increasingly needed to deal with distraught handlers allowing their pets to interfere with my dog’s work.
Like a ethics teacher, I teach students to consider the needs of the most vulnerable first. I wish I could teach the same lesson to those who risk public safety with their poorly trained dogs, most of them are emotional support animals, a category not recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Dogs, dogs, dogs
During the last decade, so-called emotional support animals have increasingly appeared in shops, restaurants and airports. While peacocks, pigs and kangaroos making headlines, almost all animals found in no-pet areas are dogs. Dog biting, barking, growling, urinating and defecating are the main complaints, with one airline reporting a 84% increase in dog-related incidents from 2016-2018.
The influx of inappropriate dogs has also generated unwarranted suspicion of approximately 10,000 Americans who, like me, team up with legitimate and trained guide dogs.
Public access of animals in the United States is currently governed by a patchwork system of inconsistent laws, creating confusion for people with disabilities, citizens and, in particular, caretakers – store managers, restaurant owners and building supervisors responsible for deciding which dogs should be allowed in their pet-free spaces.
Emotional support animals currently permitted in aircraft cabins are not legally permitted in airport shops and restaurants. Emotional support animals permitted to live in university dormitories cannot accompany their owners to class or to the cafeteria.
In other countries, ID documents are only issued to professionally trained assistance dogs that have demonstrated the ability to behave in public. In the United States, such validation does not exist. As a result, pet owners have become more and more cheeky by fraudulently claiming that their animals warrant legal public access.
Service dogs versus emotional support animals
The Department of Justice, which enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act, allows people with physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or mental disabilities to have public access with assistance dogs who have been individually trained to perform tasks that alleviate the handicaps of their owners.
the Department of Transportation and Department of Housing and Urban Development allow service dogs on public transport and in housing, respectively, but also grant access to people with mental and emotional disorders accompanied by emotional support animals – untrained animals that only need to contribute to the emotional well-being of their owners, just like any good pet would.
Technically, the person seeking access to an emotional support animal must have a certification of a mental or emotional disorder, which is a standard well below the DOJ disability requirement.
Some mental health professionals have agreed to attest to an individual’s “need” for an emotional support animal without having a professional relationship with them. And none guarantees the relevance of specific animals.
ADA assistance dogs can legally accompany their handlers almost anywhere. Emotional support animals cannot. For example, emotional support animals currently permitted in aircraft cabins are not legally permitted in airport stores and restaurants. Emotional support animals permitted to live in university dormitories cannot accompany their owners to class or to the cafeteria.
Online Suppliers of official-looking letters, vests and badges guaranteed to allow dogs access to pet-free areas take advantage of the confusion between service dogs and emotional support animals, generously mix rankings. They too Do not mention that the person seeking such accommodation must have proof of a mental disorder. This omission, in itself, is an ethical problem.
A difficult situation for the goalkeepers
Guardians must weigh the consequences of a confrontation with an individual accompanied by a dog. Denial of access to a disabled handler with a legitimate service dog may result in $ 10,000 fine by the DOJ. The fine for a handler who falsely portrays a pet as a service dog or emotional support animal ranges from $ 100 to $ 1,000 and is only imposed if the handler presents identification or waiting for the police.
It’s cheaper and easier for caretakers to hope that questionable dogs don’t put customers at risk. Flight attendants face an unenviable dilemma, as passengers cannot escape aggressive or stressed dogs in the tight space of an airplane.
Change on the horizon?
There are recent signs that the DOT and HUD are heading towards more stringent DOJ regulations. On February 5, 2020, DOT opened a 60-day public consultation period for a plan that would reclassify emotional support animals as pets and restrict free access to the aircraft cabin only to assistance dogs. HUD recently released new directives to help housing providers better determine animal access.
In my opinion, more federal intervention is needed. Disability medical documentation should be the entry point for service dog access, as well as for disabled parking permits. Providing nationally recognizable ID to owners of assistance dogs who voluntarily provide documents would eliminate some fraud.
Ideally, a dog’s ability to behave appropriately in public should be proven prior to access and confirmed annually by testers, who use a public access test to verify a dog’s manners and management. disability-specific tasks, such as those developed by International assistance dogs or those performed by all guide dog schools in the United States.
Some argue documentation and testing are binding or violate the civil rights of persons with disabilities. But doctors, who diagnose ADA-defined disabilities, already provide their patients with state and federal benefits verification. Behavior testing ensures that dog handlers can work in stressful situations. And ensuring public safety protects the civil rights of all.
Deni Elliott is the Eleanor Poynter Jamison Chair in Media Ethics and Press Policy and Co-Project Leader on the National Ethics Project at the University of South Florida. This was first published on The conversation – “Emotional support animals can put the public at risk and make life more difficult for people like me who depend on service dogs“