Emotional Support Animals Give Service Animals A Bad Reputation

On December 18, 2017, five-year-old Gabriella Gonzalez was at Portland International Airport when she was attacked by an emotional support animal (ESA) in the waiting area. Gonzalez’s mother filed a $1.1 million negligence lawsuit against the dog’s owner on February 25, 2019.

Many airlines have adopted stricter policies to prevent such incidents from occurring. Many of these new regulations extend beyond ESA to all service animals. Alaska Airlines now requires service  animals to be kept in a carrier or on a leash if they cannot fit into a crate; and most airlines require a note from a doctor stating that the animal is in fact used for medical support.

According to ServiceDogCertifications.org, a site that allows the public to legally register service animals and provides information on  rules and regulations, dogs used for emotional support do not require extensive specialized training, nor are they required to be registered. However,service dogs must go through an extensive training and registration process.

While most airlines require ESA to be registered or have a doctor’s recommendation, fake documents are widely accessible on many websites, such as waggy.pet and onlinedogtor.com. These sites sell recommendation letters and registrations with no documentation.

According to Jillian Marvel, a veterinary assistant, “People think getting an ESA is such a good thing because you can carry your dog with you everywhere and they can just buy a vest and bring their dog to Target, but in reality it really makes people have a bad reputation of service animals because your 'ESA' dog isn’t fully trained.”

Marvel confides that her office once had to muzzle a dog that was identified as an ESA because the dog tried to bite her and her coworkers. ESA are not, service animals are trained not to show aggression.

Santa Monica College (SMC) accommodates service animals and ESA on campus. According to the Disabled Student Programs and Services (DSPS), students with an ESA require documentation from a licensed doctor in addition to registering with the DSPS and meeting with a counselor. In addition to the initial meeting with a DSPS counselor, students have to be granted approval of their ESA on a semester-by-semester basis. Like service animals, ESA at SMC must be trained to not show aggression or be disruptive to the learning environment.

According to ServiceDogCertification.org, ESA are not allowed under the law to go into restaurants or any place where food is sold, but service animals have that right. People often guise their house pets or ESA as service animals to gain this privilege.

Aaron Adams, a barista at Peet's Coffee in Manhattan Beach, sees this happen on a daily basis. Trained to politely ask customers if their dog is a properly-trained service animal, he has found that most dogs that come through the store are not.

“To date there have been less than 10 ADA service animals that have come through my store that answered the questions correctly while almost every week people come in and violate the rule," Adams said. "Most people claim emotional support and then get up in arms.”

According to Adams, “Taking advantage of a system meant to assist those with disabilities just shows the privileged nature that some people believe they have when they treat their pets as members of the family. Not only that, but it is very rude towards those who do have a disability and require a service animal.”