Opinion: Emotional support dogs

POSTED: 11/6/12 12:02 PM

There are still ways for savvy air travelers to get a bigger bang for their buck, in spite of airline-strategies to charge passengers for anything and everything. Especially pet-owning travelers ought to pay attention. The story is not at all new, but we heard about it for the first time on Saturday. To make sure that we were not taken for a ride we checked out emotional support dogs – and bingo: it’s true. If your dog (or any other pet) is an emotional support animal it flies free on all American airlines – no questions asked.

We found a story in the New York Times dating back to May 2006 about restaurateurs in New York who noticed a surge in diners who brought along an emotional support dog. Some of them even carried a letter from a doctor in case restaurateurs would not let them in.

What have restaurants got to do with airlines? Well, actually emotional service dogs are allowed anywhere where normally a dog is not allowed: at the butcher, the supermarket, the library and, indeed, airlines and restaurants.

Health care professionals have recommended animals for psychological or emotional support for more than two decades, the New York Times wrote back in 2006. Their recommendations were based on research showing many benefits, including longer lives and less stress for pet owners.

It is all due to a 2003 ruling by the Department of transportation that acknowledged for the first time that animals used to help with emotional problems should be given the same access and privileges as animals helping people with physical disabilities.

With that ruling the cat was out of the bag and now an increasing number of pet owners have discovered what this ruling could mean to them. Instead of paying $100 to take a small dog aboard a plane, the emotional support dog flies for free.

The New York Times interviewed pet owners for its article and found no one ready to admit to taking advantage of the guidelines, for instance by declaring their spouses to be psychiatric patients who are unable to function without their support dog. There is evidence that it happens, the paper wrote six years ago, and we found evidence this weekend that this is indeed the case. At the same time, one has to admire the creativity of pet owners.

Tami McLallen, a spokeswoman for American Airlines, told the New York Times that although dogs are the most common service animals taken onto planes, the airline has had to accommodate monkeys, miniature horses, cats and even an emotional support duck. “Its owner dressed it up in clothes,” she recalled.

There have also been at least two instances (on American and Delta) in which airlines have been presented with emotional support goats. McLallen said the airline flies service animals every day; all owners need to do is show up with a letter from a mental health professional and the animal can fly free in the cabin.

There is no way to know how many of the pets now sitting in coach class or accompanying their owners to dinner at restaurants are trained in health-related tasks. But the fact that dog vests bearing the words “service animal” and wallet-size cards explaining the rights of a support-dog owner are available over the Internet, no questions asked, suggests there is wiggle room for those wishing to exploit it.

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