Is That a Monkey on my Back? No, It By Susan Winston, LMFT on 5/23/19 - 12:51 PM

I used to work with a guy named Tom Sullivan. Tom was an accomplished author, singer and inspirational speaker. Tom was blind and traveled the country with his various service dogs. They were seeing-eye dogs specially trained for more than a year to assist Tom in tasks like crossing the street, standing in a line and getting him through airports. These dogs were truly amazing in their devotion and their ability to keep Tom safe, and enabled him to have as independent a life as everyone else. The dogs performed very specific services and allowed Tom to travel on his own. I have also been introduced to hearing-ear animals that can detect an oncoming heart murmur or epileptic attack. These pets are amazing and crucial and are also highly trained. It is easy to state why they are necessary companions.

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Sometimes it is too easy. At Register My Service Animal LLC, one need only confirm that the “dog or miniature horse,” or whatever, can perform a task for you. The pet does not have to be taken anywhere for a test but must be “stable, well-behaved, unobtrusive, and not pose a public hazard.” These are thin qualifications.

Now we come to the age of emotional support dogs. The airlines refer to these as comfort animals. As a psychotherapist, I believe that there are animals that bring a great sense of calm and comfort to their owners. They can quell anxiety or stress when it comes to flying. They can be the fur-ball antidote to depression. Severe extremes of these emotional issues are indeed disabilities, but let’s be real. How many of us in this profession are asked by our clients or friends to sign airline forms stating that one has a necessary service dog, when all they really want to do is get their dog across country either in the cabin avoiding the hull or just not pay the $75 or more extra to transport their pet?

Have I signed some of these forms? Yes, but only because I believed there was an honest need for that kind of assistance. Have I refused others? Yes, not because I felt they were scamming the airlines, but because there are many who just who just do not need their dogs, cats, monkeys, pigs, ducks—yes, all are permitted on the airlines—in order to get through a flight. Getting an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) letter is very easy. It states that there is a “special bond” between the owner and the snake or gerbil or whatever, and that the animal is very important in helping ease symptoms such as depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, PTSD, and more. If these animals can do all this, why do we need professional therapists or psychiatrists?

Psychiatrists can sign documents entitling one to a Psychiatric Service Dog (PSD). For some reason, no other animals are mentioned. The Americans with Disabilities Act distinguishes ESAs from PSDDs by the following: A PSD must not only respond to the owner’s request for needed for help but must be trained to recognize the need in the first place. An ESA need not be trained to perform a certain act—just have genuine therapeutic effect. A PSD is also allowed in public places most ESAs are not. Bring your PSD to a movie theater and that means there is no need to just desire popcorn. Your dog will have it ready for you as the movie begins. Clearly, I am exaggerating but there is a very thin line between emotional support and psychiatric support.

According the Department of Transportation (DOT), US passenger airlines transported an estimated 784,00 pets, 751,000 comfort animals and 281,000 service animals last year. American Airlines said it carried 48% more service/comfort animals this year from last. Has emotional need really risen that dramatically in one year?

Various “watch-dog” industries for the airlines have recommended that the DOT prohibit comfort animals and recognize only trained service dogs. The disabilities-rights groups put up a fight stating there is no distinguishing criteria. Is there really a difference between a hearing-ear cat that can alert their owner to someone trying to get their attention, and a comfort monkey who can wipe away tears of distress? I plead the 5th because the hate mail will surely come in.

What about the rights of other passengers? The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America stated that airlines need to start enforcing new regulations that also protect these people. (According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 25 million Americans have asthma and more than 20 Million have allergies).

And what about those who are just petrified of anything with four-feet? My mother was scheduled to fly with me across the country from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. Once boarding the plane, she took one look at a German Shepherd, the size of a horse, who apparently could fit under a seat and stated she just would not get on the plane. She wasn’t kidding. There is no airline in the US that currently bans in-cabin support or service animals.

Are service animals needed? Absolutely, unless the person in need is traveling with a companion. Are emotional support animals needed? Sometimes, if the psychological issues are extreme. Must these animals be on the plane all the time? Absolutely not.

So, I figure my Mom and I are about halfway through Kansas in our drive now, thanks to the emotional support German shepherd that scared the life out of her. So, therapists, social workers, MDs and more, before you sign those emotional support letters, please really think about what your responsibilities are not just to your clients and doing a nice thing for them, but to the rest of the travelers who deserve your remote care as well.

File under: Musings and Reflections