Emotional Support Animals are Not Service Dogs: Why You Should Leave Your ESA At Home

There are currently four guide dog teams on my university’s campus.  Three black labradors and one yellow, all highly trained, well-socialized, well-behaved, and pretty darn good at their jobs.  All four of we handlers attended a 14 to 26 day intensive to train with, and learn how to care properly for these amazing animals.

And they are amazing.  Here are just a few examples of the tasks Oleta does every day to make my life a little easier.

  • Obstacle Avoidance

She is trained to walk in a straight line, but if there are obstacles in our path (trash cans, strollers, people) she can take us around them to continue on our line of travel.  I feel her movements through the harness and harness handle and am able to follow.

  • Object/Landmark Identification

She can locate stairs, curbs, doors, empty chairs, trash cans, pianos, and even one of my best friends by name if they are in the vicinity.

  • Intelligent Disobedience

This isn’t so much a task as it is a decision making process, or, an anti-task.  If I give Oleta a command that would be unsafe for her to perform, she will refuse.  For example, if there is a car coming that for some reason I do not hear, and I tell her to proceed forward into the street, she will refuse the command.

Other service dogs perform tasks like bracing for people with balance issues, alerting to various health related episodes, such as a drop in blood sugar or an oncoming seizure, object retrieval for people with limited mobility, as well as grounding, behavior interruption, reminders, guide work, etc for people (especially veterans) diagnosed with PTSD.

So, what do all these dogs have in common?

They are all trained to perform a task, or, as in most situations, a series of different tasks to aid their handicapped human handler.  Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, that is the definition of a service dog.

An emotional support animal DOES NOT fall under this category, and is not protected under the ADA to access all public areas.

Why is it, then, that I have met at least five animals on campus recently, inside of buildings, at least three of which I know are proclaimed “Emotional support animals”, and the other two I suspect may be the same.

One of these animals is an emotional support cat.  You should know that cats are not considered service animals in any context, and an emotional support cat is no more legally protected to enter most public accommodations than is an emotional support dog or turkey.

But the other four are dogs, and, if they are not service dogs trained to perform a task or tasks to mitigate their owners disability, they do not belong inside our campus buildings any more than the cat.

Why Do I Care?

  • Unruly behavior (especially gone unchecked) reflects badly on service dog teams.

If an emotional support animal behaves badly in public due to their lack of training and socialization, it casts a shadow upon highly trained service dogs, and may make it more difficult for service dog teams to access public areas in the future.

  • My dog may be distracted.

My dog is, to an extent, responsible for my safety.  I’m depending on her to find stairs, keep me away from the edge of platforms and stages, move me out of the way of obstacles, as well as oncoming people or doors that open into our path, not to mention finding doors or other landmarks that I may be looking for.  All of those things can be easily interrupted by the presence of another dog.  Of course, we have techniques for dealing with distractions, but   it only takes a second for my dog to lose focus at the wrong time, and for me to lose my balance on the edge of a stage or staircase.  Beyond that, I would just rather not deal with dog distractions at all if I do not have to, and an ESA that shouldn’t be there in the first place is one of those distractions that I (and other service dog users) could do without.

  • My dog may be in danger.

My dog has been specially bred and socialized all her life to be friendly with other dogs.  That may not be the case with an emotional support animal.  Even if your ESA is friendly with other dogs at dog parks or in your back yard, it does not follow that they will behave the same way in a stressful environment such as a crowded college coffee shop, hallway, or elevator.

  • ESA’s are not legally protected in most public areas.

It is simply disrespectful, both to service dog users and business owners, to take advantage of people’s ignorance of state and federal laws concerning service animals and ESAs… and if you think you can get around it by putting a service dog vest on your ESA, don’t.  There’s a little word for that… fraud—an act which in some states is considered a crime and punishable by law.

So what am I saying?

All that said, I am not writing this article to belittle those with emotional support animals or even the idea of having one.  I do wish to highlight some of the practical issues that arise when a person chooses to bring their emotional support animal into a public area where they are not generally permitted.  I have an incredible bond with my guide dog, and certainly understand the emotional benefits (and drawbacks) of having an animal, but for a service dog user, it’s about more than emotions.  Whether it be to alert us to a seizure, guide us to safety in the midst of a disorienting episode of PTSD, or keep us from walking off the edge of a stage, we are putting our very lives in our dogs paws.  Please don’t put us or our rights at stake merely because you want to bring your dog/ESA everywhere with you.

Thanks for reading, and a happy new year to all our two-footed and four-legged friends.

A Second Journey: Why I’m Missing my Little One with Wings, Part II

Totaled, it was a solid cumulative three hours on the phone over about six hours in all, and I was beyond frustrated by the end.  Wednesday morning, we had received a response from the Scottish department of agriculture, and we exchanged further emails over the next few hours.  Our correspondence soon revealed two things:

1. Guide dogs are allowed to fly into Glasgow through other airlines, only US Airways lacked some approval or did not themselves approve it.  I haven’t quite figured out what the issue specifically is with that. Either way, there is no Scottish or EU regulation saying guide dogs cannot travel through Glasgow airport, and he did say that one could fly through Edinburgh on US Air, so clearly most of the US Airways people I spoke to were wrong about that.

2. I sent him Oleta’s paperwork electronically to make sure that everything was in order for her to enter the country the next morning.  To my horror, he emailed back saying Oleta’s tape worm treatment was no longer valid, because of the visa delay, and getting a new treatment that day with a doctor’s note would not be sufficient.  Not only did the tape worm treatment have to be within 72 hours of arrival in the UK, it also could not be within 24 hours of it.  We would have to get another treatment, schedule an appointment with the vet to complete a fresh set of paperwork, drive 8 hours to Richmond and back to have it restamped by the department of agriculture, oh, and reschedule my flights… again.  That was impossible… all of it, for so many reasons, and I knew it.  As soon as my Dad read the email to me, I burst into tears and tried to keep myself together long enough to make some phone calls to my guide dog school.  I needed somewhere for Oleta to stay for 4 weeks, and I hated it, but it had to be done.  I wasn’t together at all.  I sobbed my way through the various necessary conversations, then majorly broke down on my floor for a while.  I basically didn’t stop crying until I fell asleep on the plane that night, alone, without Oleta by my feet for the first time in four years.  I have never had such a distressed slumber, and I haven’t slept well since.

So there you have it.  My best friend/soul mate/partner in completely legal activities has been forced from my side.  I want to continue with a discussion on the legalities and a better system of international travel for guide dog users, but after another hour of crying (the first since arrival surprisingly), I don’t have the energy.  Make your own judgements, and if it frustrates you as much as it does me, share this (and the previous) post.

Until then, I know that God is providing for us even now, with a loving family and a Guiding Eyes puppy raiser to care for my Little One with Wings in the best way possible while I’m away.  For me, He has provided purpose in our missions work here in Scotland, reunion with precious friends, and a team of some of the most compassionate and generous individuals there are.  Thank you Lord for your comfort in these difficult days.

A Second Journey: Why I’m Missing my Little One with Wings, Part I

If you thought Friday was a fiasco, it was nothing compared to Tuesday.  The day dawned with the thrilling hope that I would be leaving for Scotland the following day.  I spent the morning reading and starting to touch up my previous week’s packing job.  After a long conversation with my big sister in the afternoon, I got an email from US Airways saying there was a problem with my service dog traveling with me to Scotland.  The email didn’t shock me exactly; Oleta and I have experienced plenty situations in which there was misunderstanding or down right ignorance where our partnership is concerned, and certainly the legalities that surround guide and service animals.  If you are not aware, in the United States, guide dogs are legally protected to enter any public area with their handler, including restaurants, stores, schools, museums, hospitals, public transportation, etc etc.  Refusal to allow a guide dog team into any such area is considered a federal offense.  You can read more about that here.


Keep that in mind as we move forward.

I realized I had also missed a call from US Airways, and found a voice mail that said basically the same thing as the email.  Resigned, but only a tad worried, I called the US Airways number and talked to a customer service agent.  They clearly were not very educated on the topic, as they began spouting things about vaccines, blood tests, and quarantine.  I pointed out that I knew perfectly well what the regulations were regarding guide dogs entering the UK, that I had done this twice before, and that I had the necessary paperwork.  Was there some other problem?  I thought about hanging up right there, but I was afraid there was some legitimate issue that I would need to sort out before our departure tomorrow.  If I wrote them off now, it’s possible I’d arrive at the airport Wednesday evening and they would not allow us to travel.  As far as I remember, the customer service agent then proceeded to read something about how pets had to enter the UK through London Heathrow.  I made it clear that she is NOT a pet, and those regulations, if they are directed toward pets, should not apply to her.  They then claimed that the policy specifically says that service dogs also have to comply with this directive.

This was strange.  Everything I had read on the UK and Scottish government websites had seemed to say that guide dogs were exempt from traveling on prior approved routes.  What is more, I flew US Airways through Edinburgh last year without an issue.  This left several possibilities:

1. The customer service agent was woefully ignorant and this was a case of discrimination/misunderstanding.

2. The customer service agent was correct and this was a legitimate UK or EU law that we could do nothing about.

3. The customer service agent was correct and this was a discriminatory US Airways policy that probably should be illegal under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).

I was fairly sure that number two could not be true, considering three factors:

A. I traveled through Edinburgh May of 2014 with Oleta with no problem whatsoever.

B. I remembered reading headlines several years ago about the UK putting through legislation to allow guide dogs on all airlines and through all airports.  I wasn’t sure that legislation applied to international travel, but if it did, it seemed unlikely that they would have changed those laws so soon after.

C. All of the UK/Scottish websites that I had read seemed to indicate the opposite.

Number 1, on the other hand, seemed highly plausible, so I tackled that one first by asking to speak with a manager.

She was even more unhelpful, if that was possible.  She merely emphasized her underling’s claims, complete with the clear lack of understanding about the UK pet travel scheme and the specifics on legal guide dog protection.  In response to my inquiries about why I could travel through Edinburgh last year, she said that their policy changed in October of 2014.  When I asked whose policy, she claimed that it was a change initiated by the EU.  Back to square one.  If she was right, that meant number 2 could still be a thing.

She became irate when I told her I thought she was mistaken and asked to speak with another manager.

“This is not a matter of my competence in my job, Ma’am.” She insisted angrily, “This is a matter of you refusing to understand what I am telling you because you don’t want to hear it.  If you are not going to listen to what I am saying then we might as well end this call right now.”

Okay, I thought, so you’ve got an attitude.  That’s exactly why I need to speak to someone else.  Finally, she transferred my call and I was able to converse with a slightly more rational human being in Phoenix, AZ.

I didn’t get much further with him, except to discover that it was a US Airways policy, not an EU regulation.  Still, he said I would have to fly through London Heathrow and offered to change my flights.  I told him I would not pay for a flight change, as the information regarding my guide dog had been on my reservations since May 1st, and we had heard nothing of this until the day before my departure.  He said it wouldn’t be fair for me to have to pay “out of pocket”, which sounded unconvincing, so I said I’d call back after I sorted some things out.  A bit of online research on the legalities of all this, a few emails to the department of agriculture in Scotland and England, three or four more phone calls, a stern conversation with one of the customer service agents about the ADA and the possibility of a law suit, and a FREE flight change later, I hung up under the impression that I would be able to travel to Scotland (via London) with Oleta the next evening.  How wrong I was.