Photo by Willie Cole

What is a Service Dog?

As defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are trained individually to perform a specific task for disabled persons. These animals include dogs or miniature horses only; they guide the visually impaired, alert the hearing impaired, pull a wheelchair, alert and protect people with seizures, remind a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calm a person with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or perform other duties.

Tall order, but if they pass their graduation requirements, they can do it all. And even in today’s uncertain labor market, they find jobs aplenty. Remember when you encounter a service dog that he or she is a working animal, not a pet, and the service provided has to be directly related to the person’s disability. Service animals must be under control by being harnessed, leashed, or tethered unless any of this interferes with its function, but they should always be under voice control or some other effective control measures. A registered service animal is allowed to fly in the main cabin of a plane or other public transportation, and they’re allowed to go almost anywhere you can go—a restaurant, a bar, a park—regardless of pet policies. A landlord or a homeowner’s association must provide reasonable accommodation by waiving a no-pet rule or a pet deposit, and employers must allow service animals in the workplace.

It’s important to remember that according to the ADA, dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals. They are known as emotional support animals.

Photo by Yana 136

What Are Emotional Support Animals?

Emotional support animals (ESA) are actual pets who provide comfort for their owners. They are not working animals, are not necessarily trained, and are not limited to dogs or miniature horses. People may have conditions that make handling stress a special challenge and may benefit from having their pets with them. Federal law guarantees that your animal can live and fly with you if a licensed mental-health professional writes a letter stating an individual’s need for an ESA. Registering an ESA is easily done online, and doesn’t require any documentation. You receive lifetime ESA registration, access to a legal team, and a pet ID card and a certificate. ESA vests that clearly identify a pet as an emotional-support animal can also be purchased.

What do such certificates mean in the practicality of living and traveling in public spaces, especially in the confined (and potentially stressful) space of an airline cabin? The certificates and vests do not indicate that a pet has been trained or vaccinated, or is considered safe in public places. While many pets are well behaved in public, some can become as stressed as their owners, and this is where trouble begins. People who are in need of ESAs are usually very closely bonded with their pets, and this bond is what’s most important to the pet—not good behavior in public or obeying commands. This is where it gets sticky—there have been some tragic incidents involving members of the public being attacked by ESAs, not because they’re bad but because they’re responding to their owners’ stress.

For people and animals in stressful situations, having a solid plan for good behavior is essential. As the owner’s stress level increases, so does the ESA’s, and it’s expecting a lot of a pet to be able to make good choices. The animal is simply a devoted pet trying to protect the owner. A pet won’t understand that the person seated next to them in the airplane is no threat at all—the animal is simply reacting to his owner’s escalating stress.

So, how can someone with anxiety issues help prepare their ESA for good behavior in public?

Canine Good Citizen Certificate

The American Kennel Club established the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program in 1989 in order to promote responsible dog ownership and encourage well-mannered dogs. In order to qualify, a dog and owner are evaluated on ten objectives:

  • accepting a friendly stranger.
  • sitting politely for petting.
  • allowing basic grooming procedures.
  • walking on a loose lead.
  • walking through a crowd.
  • sitting and lying down on command and staying in place.
  • coming when called.
  • reacting appropriately to another dog.
  • reacting appropriately to distractions.
  • calmly enduring supervised separation from the owner.

If a dog fails the test, owners can continue their training and retake it in the future. Once a dog passes, he or she earns the Canine Good Citizen certificate, and the title CGC can be added to the dog’s name.

What’s the advantage of having a CGC certificate? The Canine Good Citizen test helps promote responsible behavior for dog owners as well as helping dogs to become well mannered and easygoing around people and other dogs. Owners agree to be responsible dog owners by always cleaning up after their dogs in public and promise to not let their dogs infringe on the rights of others. Some homeowner’s insurance policies offer discounts if your dog is a CGC, and increasingly more apartments and condos require a dog to be CGC certified. In recent tragic cases where an emotional-support dog caused injury to members of the public, would this have happened if they had been Canine Good Citizens?

In general, all that’s required for someone to bring their ESA with them on airplanes is a doctor’s letter stating that you have a mental or emotional disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, with these conditions: that you need the ESA as an accommodation for air travel or for an activity at your destination, that the individual providing the assessment is a licensed mental health professional or medical doctor, and that you are under his or her professional care. It is possible to get such a letter through a website by paying a fee and speaking to a medical professional over the phone in a one-time interview. Be aware, however, that this person has no experience with you or your pet, and in fact your family veterinarian probably has a better idea of how you and your pet interact in public and in stressful situations.

Anyone considering taking their ESA on an airplane and who goes to the effort of getting a CGC certificate shows initiative, commitment and good faith. ESAs have not necessarily gone through the rigorous training of service animals, so a CGC certificate could go a long way toward enhancing the reputation and acceptance of ESAs in public.