Service animals or just companions?
Every so often, it comes up as a contentious and emotion-laden topic: owners who falsely claim “service dog” status to get privileges, usually in the form of access to places from which their pets otherwise would be banned, such as stores, libraries, restaurants, museums and public transportation.
Confusion abounds, even regarding definitions. Yet few issues evoke greater animus from the general public and ordinary pet owners than this form of cheating.
The Americans with Disabilities Act officially recognizes “service animals” and confers many benefits under the law. They can accompany their humans virtually anywhere, must be allowed in housing where otherwise excluded, and can even be claimed as a tax-deductible medical expense. Service animals must have special training to provide specific kinds of assistance to people with disabilities, and be certified by an accredited agency.
In addition, “emotional support animals” have special rights under various legal auspices. Under the Fair Housing Act, they may live in housing that excludes pets, and the Air Carrier Access Act permits them to fly with their humans at no extra cost. These animals are not required to possess special training or skills; rather, it is the human who must obtain a letter from a health professional explaining that the emotional support animal is part of his treatment.
Seldom does anyone cry “unfair” about a seeing-eye dog seated by his blind person in a restaurant. Is this because the blind person’s disability is both apparent and untainted by moral stigma (unlike mental or emotional illness)? Or because the dog is, if not actively guiding, then behaving like a “device” rather than a dog, inertly awaiting the next command? An emotional support animal, merely by being identified as such, invokes a skepticism about the claim that includes inchoate judgments about the legitimacy of mental and emotional illness. Is it simply a claim of convenience, an excuse to cheat other pet owners when traveling or renting an apartment? Everyone who loves a dog or cat readily admits that their emotional support can sometimes be life-saving. If you don’t medicalize your depression by going to a doctor for a prescription for animal companionship, shouldn’t you still be able to take your pet with you when her presence would be a solace and comfort?
To pet owners who have not gotten their animals certified as “emotional supports,” it looks like cheating when another pet, with no special training, can ride on the bus or go into a restaurant just because his owner bought a little green vest online. To yet others, the offense is that when “illegitimate” support animals misbehave, they put the tolerance given to “real” support animals at risk of revocation.
Today, there is clear consensus that pets provide indisputable health (and mental health) benefits. No one denies that dogs and other animals can be trained to assist people with all kinds of disabilities; yet most of the firsthand reports about the value of their physical services emphasize that their emotional support is even more important. I venture to guess that most of us would acknowledge that the comforting presence of a beloved pet has been crucial to getting us through some hard times in our lives. Yet, in spite of all this common knowledge, we exclude dogs and other animals from virtually all public venues and activities. Tolerance is the best we now offer in the narrow cases where the need, or the performed service, can be objectively identified and defended.
I loved the world of James Herriot, the early 20th century Yorkshire vet, in which animals were everywhere, accepted as fellow beings and given scope for both their individual and their species’ traits. While there’s no going back, I do see a few hopeful signs that we may yet work through our current incoherent and schizophrenic attitudes to better integrated ones, at least toward the animals that most intimately share our lives. The University of Denver, for example, offers degrees through its Institute for Human-Animal Connection. Maybe a serious academic study will help us educate ourselves and our animal companions for a world in which our relationships will be neither strictly utilitarian nor merely indulgent, but will embody a new kind of solidarity. We need it.
Laurie Raymond owns High Tails Dog & Cat Outfitters in Glenwood Springs. Sextiped Valley appears on the third Saturday of the month.
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