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.

Celebrating Five Years

With the cool evening air wafting in through the screen door, along with golden birdsong and the smoke of summer fires, I am swept into years past, happy childhood years, filled with summer evenings of s’mores and sparklers. Today has been a day of reflecting on memories. That’s because today marks 15 states, 4 countries, 5 languages, five years, and countless memories since Oleta, my beautiful guide dog, and I became a team.
Contrary to many people’s assumptions, I don’t NEED a guide dog to travel independently. I can (and do upon occasion) use a white cane to travel just as effectively. I don’t NEED a guide dog to pursue my professional goals. I know lots of blind professionals who are strictly white cane users. I chose to work with a guide dog because I loved dogs, I imagined working a guide dog to be infinitely more pleasurable than using a cane, and it was, after all, my dream to have a guide dog from the age of eight.
Those reasons still stand. Working a guide dog is, in my opinion, infinitely more pleasurable than using a cane. A guide dog allows one to walk much more fluidly and quickly without having to stop every 20 feet to unstick one’s stubborn cane from the side walk, or the grass, or some unidentifiable metal thing in the middle of the path, or, heaven forbid, someone’s legs, or to recover from getting one’s cane stuck in one of these various and sundry obstacles, not stopping fast enough, and promptly being rewarded with a sharp jab to the stomach. Yep, don’t miss those days. Having a guide dog also means that I didn’t get hit by that one insane bus driver who suddenly decided to drive on the side walk right where I was standing, it’s a heck of a lot easier to find doors, stairs, curbs, escalators (Oleta LOVES escalators), benches, etc, and sometimes even one of my best friends. Yes, these, among others, are all awesome benefits of having a guide dog, but now a days, the reason I work a guide dog is because of Oleta.
Oleta, who loves unconditionally as easily as she licks, who takes work breaks to wriggle on her back in the grass and the snow and the sand just for the pure joy of it, who actually whines when she sees children on playgrounds because she wants to play with them, who lives out the meaning of her name “Little one with wings” every time we find ourselves flying alone along some sidewalk or other.
Dear Oleta, I love how you love life, and I love living life with you. Happy five years of memories made! I look forward to many more together.

6 Ways PETA Got It Wrong About Guide Dogs

The following is an actual quote from PETA’s one-time VP from an article in LA Unleashed…

“There will never be a perfect world, but in the world we’re in now, we support some working dog situations and decry others.  Hearing dog programs that pull dogs from animal shelters and ensure that they are in safe and loving homes have our stamp of approval; they live with the family for their entire life, they learn interesting things, enjoy life, and love helping.  On the other hand, we oppose most seeing-eye-dog programs because the dogs are bred as if there are no equally intelligent dogs literally dying for homes in shelters, they are kept in harnesses almost 24/7, people are prohibited from petting or playing with them and they cannot romp and run and interact with other dogs; and their lives are repeatedly disrupted (they are trained for months in one home and bond, then sent to a second, and after years of bonding with the person they have “served,” they are whisked away again because they are old and no longer “useful”). We have a member who is blind who actually moved states to avoid “returning” her beloved dog. We feel that the human community should do more to support blind people, and give dogs a break.  A deaf person can see if a dog has a medical issue such as blood in her urine, a blind person living alone cannot, and so on.”

As a real live, everyday guide dog user, I can testify that:

  • 1. Hearing dog work is VERY, VERY different from guide work. In general, it is a much less stressful job to do. Guide dog work requires a confident, sound dog that can work through any number of unpredictable and potentially dangerous situations in any number of environments. From working through large crowds in stores or train platforms, to intelligent disobedience (refusing to obey a command when it might put the team in danger, AKA, blind person tells dog to go forward when there is a car coming), to riding cars, buses, trains, and planes without incident, to staying cool in emergency situations (AKA fire alarms, hurricanes, tornadoes, I mention those three because Oleta and I have experienced all three together), to resisting the temptation to chase squirrels, pigeons, or food while in harness, not any dog can deal with that sort of stress, and no one wants to force a dog who is easily frightened and unhappy in a position that he does not want to be in, especially when that places the life of the blind person he is paired to in danger as well. Guide dog puppies are bred specifically for this work, spend their entire puppyhood preparing for it through socialization and positive experiences, and those who pass the test and are partnered as guides are in the absolute happiest place they could be. As much as all of us would like to be adopting dogs out of shelters to use as guides, most shelter dogs are not bred or conditioned to handle such high demands of their energy, intelligence, resilience, and skill, and would not be happy or successful in harness.
  • 2. Guide dogs are NOT in harness 24 hours a day!!! Aleta is in harness when we are on route, but she is off harness full time while at home, and many times I remove her harness in class, studying at the library, practicing in the practice rooms, etc. While in harness, she is not allowed to associate with other people or dogs, but she is absolutely allowed to associate with me, and I give her plenty of love and interaction. When off harness, Oleta gets tons of attention from me, my roommate, my family, friends, and classmates… many say they couldn’t imagine a more well-loved dog.
  • 3. When off harness, Oleta gets tuns of time to run and play by herself, with humans, and when we can arrange it, with other dogs too. She loves to play with another guide dog on campus, and they get along great. She has all sorts of toys, but her favorite thing to do is sprint laps in our dorm hallway. I bet most pet dogs don’t get as much room to run in the house as she does in our dorm.
  • 4. When Oleta makes the decision to retire (and it is the dog’s decision), she will not be “whisked away because she is too old and no longer useful”. The dog will let you know when they need to retire, through any number of factors, and when that day comes, the handler has the choice to keep the dog as a pet, give them to a trusted family member or friend to be cared for in their retirement, return them to their puppy raiser, or get help from the agency to adopt them out to a loving home. My first choice would absolutely be to keep Oleta forever, but it might not be possible or in her best interest to do so based on my living situation and schedule. After a guide dog retires, they are no longer considered service animals, and public entities are no longer required to accommodate them. If I were living in a dorm or an apartment building that did not allow pets, Oleta could not stay with me in her retirement. It breaks my heart to think about, but in that case Oleta will spend her days of retirement with my family, whom she is familiar with and would be comfortable living with. My third choice would be her puppy raiser, whom she would also remember. Whatever happens, Guiding Eyes will support me in whatever decision I make. It would take serious accusations of abuse or breach of contract for Guiding Eyes to take Oleta from me, especially since the client can sign for ownership of the dog after a number of months of ownership. Guide dog schools do not take dogs away from clients willy nilly without their permission.
  • 5. Humans cannot replace the work that guide dogs do every day. The entire point of a guide dog is to provide greater independence to we blindies without human assistance, because no, I do not want to be led around by some human guide. It would be demeaning and far beyond inconvenient, not to mention unnecessary. I can get around perfectly fine without either human or dog using my cane. I would much prefer a cane to a human guide, but I would much prefer a dog to a cane.
  • 6. Blind people are extremely in tune with their guide’s bodies and can detect a health issue just as easily, sometimes more accurately, as a sighted person. It is possible that we may miss some visual symptoms, which is why we take preemptive measures to keep our guides healthy through good nutrition, exercise, teeth brushing, ear cleaning, preemptive medications/vaccines, etc, and by making regular visits to our vet. Oleta has had one serious health issue in the nearly five years we have been together, and I recognized it before my sighted roommate. Sure, I can’t see, but I know my dog, and I know when she’s sick.
  • Even more than that, my relationship with Oleta is one that goes far beyond that of person and pet. We have weathered storms and traffic stops and sophomore slump together, attended thousands of lessons and lectures, traveled nationally and internationally, gone to disney World and Busch Gardens and Hershey Park, participated in two graduations, spent nearly every day and night of these last four and a half years watching and wishing and wandering together. When Oleta isn’t at my side, I feel two dimensional, like part of me is missing, and it’s true, because Oleta is part of me.
    I think PETA’s arguments here PETAred (hahaha, get it?) out a long time ago, but I thought we might as well tackle the issue, just in case. Consider yourself educated.

    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.

    http://nagdu.org/laws/usa/usa.html

    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.