A few years ago, I hit rock bottom. I was pushed out of the business I'd spent seven years building by someone I once considered a friend. Making matters much worse, I badly injured myself in a motorcycle crash, and it took me three months of hard work to be able to walk again. The worst part, though, was that losing my business meant that I’d lost my health insurance.
On top of the never-ending pain, and watching my life’s work swirl into the toilet, I was dirt broke, and badly in debt with medical bills. Friends took it on themselves to pay my rent and feed me, which was incredibly generous of them, but man did that screw with my sense of self worth. All of this coming at once was too much—I couldn’t see a way out. But then I adopted a dog. Wiley saved my life.
Today we’re inseparable. I take him to the cafe with me when I go get my morning coffee. If I go out to dinner, I choose restaurants with dog friendly patios. Hell, I’ve created a new career that basically revolves around not having to do anything where I can’t take Wiley along. I’m petting him as I write this, and it’s making me feel better about sharing my vulnerability.
Why am I telling you all this? Because I want you to know that I understand how fundamentally important a dog can be to a person’s life, and wellbeing. But my story is not unique; nearly everyone who has a dog loves theirs just as much as I love Wiley, and derives just as much value from that relationship. All dogs are Emotional Support Animals.
Today, United is joining Delta in cracking down on people flying with them. I’ve written about the topic before, but one question that keeps coming up is simply: Why are ESAs a problem?
Why ESAs Are a Problem
“Feel better, sleep better, feel more confident, better overall well-being, feel more comfortable, increased self-esteem.” That’s a list of the benefits emotional support dogs can give their owners, according to TherapyPet, a website that sells ESA certifications online for $149.99.
Does that list sound familiar to you? It sure reads like a list of benefits my dogs give me.
According to them, buying the certification means you won’t have to pay “unfair” pet deposits when you rent an apartment, that you can avoid breed and size restrictions, and that there will be no more “unfair” airline fees.
That all sounds really appealing to this dog owner. For one small fee, I can take Wiley more places, with less hassle. More importantly, I can fly with him in the cabin, alongside me. Shipping a dog in the cargo hold is a notoriously risky endeavor, and is something I’d never do to my much-loved pet.
So, I just took their qualification test. A few questions about my mental state—why yes, I have been feeling a bit overwhelmed this week—and five minutes later, I’d been approved for an ESA certificate. With it, I can now now fly with my 85 pound mutts.
And you can too. Last year, Delta says it transported 250,000 service dogs and Emotional Support Animals in its cabins, a 150 percent increase since 2015. Delta doesn’t track different numbers for service and support dogs, but United does—it flew 76,000 ESAs last year.
That’s just two airlines, but those numbers are staggering. It’s estimated that there’s only 100,000 to 200,000 service dogs in the country; the number of ESAs must be much, much higher.
Which leads us to the problems they create. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that finally ended a slew of discriminatory practices. One of the ways it attempts to make employment, travel, and access to public places absolutely equal for people with disabilities is by removing any burdens of proof that could be levied on them. Can you imagine being a teenager who suffers from life threatening seizures? Imagine being asked to provide proof of that every time you wanted to enter a restaurant, board a flight, or do anything else. It’d make going out in public terrifying; the ADA outlaws that practice.
The service dog required by that kid suffering from seizures—or by someone who’s blind, or by a veteran with PTSD—is a necessity to their existence. So requiring proof that the dog who’s working for them is a legitimate service animal would constitute requiring proof of the person’s disability, and would unnecessarily burden that person, thus violating the ADA.
It’s understandable why the ADA bans that, but it’s also created the opportunity for people to abuse the system. Want to take your dog into a restaurant? Just claim it’s a service dog, and the staff likely won’t trouble you about it further. And, because there’s a lot of confusion about the overlapping nature of the ADA, the Fair Housing Act, and the Air Carrier Access Act (the latter two provide access for ESAs), a lot of people are using that $149.99 letter they bought online to bring their pets places they don’t belong.
While service dogs are specifically trained to perform work in aid of the disabled, ESAs are simply pets whose mere presence provides comfort to their owner. Service dogs are trained to only go to the bathroom on command, to utterly ignore other dogs, and to be both totally silent and reliably friendly. Pets are usually none of those things. And because there are now so many ESAs, with so many documented problems, their bad behavior is creating backlash that’s limiting access for people who need service dogs.
In an attempt to curtail the barnyard that’s taken over its flights, Delta and United now require anyone who wishes to fly with both service and support animals to upload documentation online 48 hours in advance of each flight. Disabled rights groups are threatening lawsuits, because that’s obviously a deliberate attempt to burden the owners enough that it will limit the number of people flying with dogs.
As I explored extensively in “Stop Faking Service Dogs,” the backlash against the booming number of ESAs means that people with service animals are now routinely suffering discrimination and judgment for bringing the animals they need to live into public.
The Social Contract Is Broken
When it was passed in 1990, the ADA essentially codified a compromise. With it, our society determined that the rights and well being of the disabled are so important that the rest of us would band together and help them out. We’d build ramps, so that people in wheelchairs could access public buildings too. Important instructions would be provided in braille, so that blind people could read them, too. That’s the kind of equality and opportunity our country stands for. The ADA represents America at its non-discriminatory best.
Probably the best summation of the ADA’s policy on service dogs I’ve seen comes from Assistance Dogs International: “No dog has access rights—only people have access rights.” People who need a dog in order to live can bring their dog with them.
In the real world, that compromise has real ramifications. A person who needs a service dog cannot be denied access because someone else suffers severe dog allergies; both parties must be accommodated. On an airplane, that may mean booking the allergy sufferer on a different flight, so the disabled person who needs a service dog may fly. If you had to change your flight, and lose a few hours in the process, so that a disabled person could travel, you’d likely feel OK about that. It’d be a worthwhile compromise. But, if you have to get off a plane because a person simply wants to fly with their pet, how pissed off would you be? That is happening. The social contract is broken.
Creating A Better World For Pets
It is not a mental illness to benefit from the presence of your pet. It is not a mental illness to want to travel with your pet, and to want to do so safely and affordably. Yet, in order to guarantee access for your pet in a rented home, or to fly with one—to get an ESA letter—you must present a certificate of mental illness. See the problem?
This is not an argument that mental illnesses aren’t real. And it’s not an argument that dogs aren’t a much healthier way to deal with them than pumping yourself full of drugs. In fact, service dogs can specifically be trained to work in aid of people with mental illnesses like dementia, Alzheimer’s, and even crippling depression. This is an argument that pets clearly need more access in our society, but also an argument that most people are going about seeking that in the wrong way.
It is incredibly easy and affordable for anyone to get a letter saying they need an Emotional Support Animal. But in so doing, those people are actually working against the rights of pet owners as a whole. By purchasing an ESA letter, you are attempting to gain special access for your dog, at the expense of all other dog owners. It’s just incredibly selfish. Your dog is as important to you as mine is, and vice versa.
We all benefit from our pet dogs. Rather than pretending each of us is unique, we should instead be working together as a community to lobby for more pet-friendly businesses, and safer, more affordable travel options for all of us. Sixty million households in this country own dogs. That’s an enormous market, and a lot of political power. If we work together, we can create a better system for pet owners. As is being demonstrated in air travel this week, if we continue to act selfishly, dog owners will suffer.