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'Emotional Support Animals' Stink Up Service Dog Reputation | By: Other

'Emotional Support Animals' Stink Up Service Dog Reputation

Legitimate service dogs provide vital services to people with disabilities. “Emotional support animals” perhaps do the same in some cases, but the designation is ripe for abuse.

True service dogs' reputations sullied by 'emotional support animals' Jonathan Skolnik was savoring the prospect of having an empty seat next to him on a flight the day before Thanksgiving.

Then he saw a woman trundling down the aisle, carrying what looked like a duffel bag.

"It wasn't a duffel bag," Skolnik said. "It was a pig."

A US Airways spokeswoman later told the Hartford Courant that the woman was able to bring the 70 pounds of stinking swine into the cabin among the bipeds because it was her emotional support animal.

Skolnik said the pig failed to provide emotional support when it promptly defecated in the aisle.

The woman and her pig were soon kicked off the flight.

Pooping Pig And Its Owner Booted From Bradley Flight

"Maybe she needed to fly with the pig, but most other people needed to fly without the pig," Skolnik said. "My friend wondered if he could get an emotional support hawk. Where does it stop?"

Good question.

This porcine example is no doubt extreme. But increasingly, those either too emotionally frail to fly without their pet, too unwilling to pay an airline's pet fee or too self-centered to care about those around them are exploiting laws designed to help the truly disabled so that they can bring their pets onto planes as "emotional support animals."

Twitter and news accounts regularly depict emotional support pets relieving themselves midair and forcing emergency landings, sitting in people seats, taking in-cabin walks, spreading their dander and causing other inconveniences for those considerate enough to leave their yapping Pomeranian at home where it belongs.

Trainers of real service dogs point out that those highly trained pooches will sit quietly at their charge's feet during flights and not create such disturbances.

A cottage industry has sprung up to serve these emotional support animal enthusiasts, selling service dog pet tags and harnesses to give untrained animals that official veneer long reserved for real service dogs.

If this somehow appeals to you, you still can't just show up at O'Hare with Mittens the emotional support ferret. Airlines generally require a medical letter as proof that your emotional support animal serves your mental disorder.

But if you don't have a doctor to vouch for your mental issues, such letters can be bought online.

Emotional Support Animal Registration of America requires filling out some documents and a bit of phone time with a licensed mental health professional, as well as $140, to score a letter that will let your emotional support animal travel like people, live in housing where they usually aren't allowed and access restaurants as well.

The only qualification required for the letter is that a person have "an emotional/mental need to have that animal be with you at home or when traveling to provide 'emotional support,'" the website states.

"We have joined forces with a mental health professional who is an expert in the ESA field and is currently offering all of our clients at ESAR a nearly 70% discount on the ESA Evaluation/Prescription letter!" the website also exclaims.

While some people do have a legitimate mental need for such an animal, those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and the like, it's a safe bet their doctor would draft them up the required proof.

Harold Herzog, a Western Carolina University professor who studies the relationship between animals and people and has written about emotional support animals, said he is wary of such services.

"Given the way they are pushing their services on the Web as the path (to emotional support animal) certification, I have some personal doubts about the veracity of the process," he said.

But JJ Resnick, the founder of Emotional Support Animal Registration of America, said the letters are intended for those who need an emotional support animal but don't have access to a mental health professional. Anyone seeking to get such a letter goes through a "rigorous process," he said, and his company turns down multiple dubious applicants each day.

Most of the folks who inquire about emotional support animals are legit, he said.

"Are there going to be people who take advantage of that system? Of course," Resnick said. "It's the same thing as alcohol. There's going to be people who don't drink responsibly."

Comedian and podcasting pioneer Adam Carolla ranted against the glut of emotional support animals on planes after noticing them about five years ago. A woman next to him in first class had an emotional support dog, he recalled in an interview. It promptly started fighting with the emotional support dog of a woman passing by on her way to coach.

"The two dogs start scrapping at my shins. I'm sitting in first class watching a dogfight," he said. "Who am I, Mike Vick?"

Carolla blames this trend on a melange of self-entitlement, narcissism and an over-regulated society in which people look to skirt around any rule they can.

"We've created a society, at least in California, where it's illegal to smoke on the ... beach, but you can bring your dog on an airplane," he said. "That's insane."

Carolla thinks public shaming will help. Or, he suggests, maybe those who need their pet at their side all day, every day, just shouldn't fly.

This self-indulgent trend is making things harder for the trained service dogs that help the truly disabled, according to Paul Mundell of Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit that trains service dogs for years before bequeathing them to those who really need them.

Any pet bedecked in a service vest as they use a restaurant floor as a bathroom, howl in a coach cabin or nip at passers-by give a bad name to the legitimate, well-behaved, vest-wearing dogs with important jobs to do, Mundell said.

The CCI started an online petition to stop service dog fraud. Go sign it.

"Through public education and maybe a certain element of public shaming," Mundell said, "we can reduce the incidents of these bogus dogs."

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