Man Bites Dog

We need to get emotional support dogs out of the airplane cabin. Recent incidents of biting, here and here, are evidence that the dogs need our protection, not the other way around. Those bites only happened after the dogs had been pushed beyond their endurance. The New York Times Op-Ed page rails against the scam. A Yale researcher has pointed out evidence that reliance on pets for emotional support may be harmful. I speak for the dogs.

Until recently, I was reluctant to speak up because I did not want to hurt the emotionally fragile people who strenuously argue their need to have pets with them. I was cautiously willing to trust the owners to use good judgment and compassion before deciding to fly with their best friends. I was wrong. It’s clear that they are forcing their terrified dogs into a something less than a torture chamber, but right up there with the way we feel before the dentist starts drilling. How selfish must a person be to do this to a dog?

The public discussion focuses on the people involved. Are pet owners scamming? Do animals provide a therapeutic benefit? What about the rights of allergic or phobic passengers? We should be talking about the fact that air travel involves conditions well understood to send an unprepared dog over the edge. His emotional meltdown is apparent to everyone but the owner: tucked tail, panting, drooling, shivering, vocalizing, housebreaking accidents. Once on the plane, the dog is crammed in a small space, with no possibility of escape, forced into close proximity with strangers. When the dog reaches his limit and bites, it should surprise no one. It may be his first bite, but that’s not relevant– the owner never put him through this horror show before.

I know what it means to fly with a dog, and I don’t do it unless there’s a business reason. Service dogs are bred and trained to ensure their fitness for airplane duty, but even so, careful preparations must be made. The dog skips breakfast and has no water within 4 hours of his last opportunity to pee. He is thoroughly exercised before the flight and given ice cubes and a small snack once in the air. He has been trained to ignore people in his space and to curl himself small for long periods of time. He’s not scared of the sights and sounds; he’s been socialized to them since he was weaned. And when flight delays occur, his needs come before mine, even if it means flying the next day.

If you know someone who flies with an emotional support dog, please encourage them to think about the dog’s emotional needs. If you care more about your comfort than his misery, then god help you.

Author: Lowry Heussler

Lowry Heussler is a lawyer from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Having participated in the RBC as a guest-blogger, she made it official in 2012. Her most important contribution to the field of public policy to date was her 1994 instruction to Mark Kleiman, "Read Ann Landers every day. You need to learn about real people." Her essay on the 2009 arrest of Henry Louis Gates went viral and brought about one of her proudest moments, being described as "just another twit along the lines of Sharpton, Jackson, Gates, etc." (Small Dead Animals Blog). Currently serving as General Counsel to BOTEC Analysis Corp., she has been a public housing lawyer, a prosecutor for the Board of Registration in Medicine, a large-firm associate and a small-firm partner. She serves as a board member for NEADS, Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans, a charity that trains service dogs to increase independence for people with disabilities.

7 thoughts on “Man Bites Dog”

  1. So, even if emotional support animals do make it easier for (some unknown percentage) of users to fly, that would not necessarily mean that we should continue to allow them on planes. As you point out, the value of emotional support animals is not proven, and the downsides are many. In addition, there are other ways to decrease stress on airplanes, ways that are not as disruptive. Starting with that old stand-by, alcohol, we can progress to Benadryl, yoga breathing, crossword puzzles, listening to music, and nonstop eating. As a tall person with claustrophobia, I can attest that all of these work.

    1. And of course, there are alternatives to flying if fear of same is the reason for the emotional support animal's presence. Amtrak, Greyhound, driving. On any long Amtrak trip there is someone (maybe several) who can't fly because of fear.

  2. And cats. I have seen whole sections of a plane go nearly into anaphylactic shock…sneezing, wheezing, runny eyes and noses, puffy cheeks, because some Muffy is nervous about flying and needs Mister Mittens along. I call bullshit. Until a very few years ago, all the nervous Muffies survived, and put their pets in cargo or gave a neighbor the keys to their place.

    And here's the thing. I've done international public policy work and been a professional travel writer for years, been to 85 countries, plus for five years or so had all of our companies west coast clients, so I've probably been on 1500 flights, and I am still nervous as Hell whenever there's a flutter or a shudder or a funny noise. Flying is nerve-wracking. Add to that the post-9/11 security nightmare, the airlines turning economy class into cattle cars, your knees hard against the seat in front of you, your seat that either has no recline button or reclines a half inch, no snacks, no food, no cocktails — flying really sucks now. So it's insufferable that people can come in with a doctor's note saying that flying makes them nervous and they need to bring Mister Mittens aboard. Again, I call bullshit. Everybody's nervous — why does your nervousness trump our right to not be sneezing and wheezing and blowing our noses and feeling even MORE miserable for the next three hours, you selfish solipsistic douchenozzle???

    1. Anyone who cares about the animal would be made *more* anxious by having Mr. Mittens along. His terror is obvious. I am calm about flying, but trying to care for my dog, who works his heart out for me 7 days a week, 16 hours a day, causes me intense worry.

  3. It seems to me that Emotional Support Animals (perhaps that phrase should be in quotes) turned into a major fad, or at least got a big boost, from Carrie Fisher's French bulldog, Gary, which she apparently took everywhere with her. I never heard, however, that she ever commented on the level of training the dog had or gave any indication that Gary's status required anything in terms of training, health checks, etc., other than her psychiatrist's assertion that she needed the dog with her.

    A second contributing factor, I think, is a general lack of appreciation of expertise and training, coupled with optimism that things will turn out just fine. (I don't exempt myself from an accusation of inappropriate optimism, although not on this particular subject.) This assumption that no expertise is required also shows up in the belief that handing weapons to school teachers will solve school shootings.

    I've been doing therapy dog work for over 20 years as a volunteer (visiting schools, camps, nursing homes and libraries), and, even though both the dogs and I have to go through continual checks and training, there are still situations that arise in what are apparently the calmest of environments in which one has to be ready to remove the dog.

    1. The ACAA states that emotional support dogs like Gary must be trained to behave properly in airports and on planes, but there is no way for the owner to know how Gary will behave, and no way for the airline to verify it.

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