Torpy at Large: Flying with Fido for ‘emotional support’ 


The airlines are going to the dogs. I’m not talking about cramped seating or the never-ending list of add-on fees. No, I mean we are increasingly traveling with animals.

In recent years, passengers are increasingly flying with emotional support animals (usually dogs).

The humans holding the leash insist their furry friends are needed to ease anxiety or soothe stress. But a good proportion of those folks are simply scamming the system to get their pet to travel for free and not carry them in a container.

This month, a Delta passenger in Atlanta was attacked by a large and suddenly vicious dog (warning: graphic images on this link) that used his face as a chew toy. The episode left him with 28 stitches and probably his own anxiety issues. The dog, a lab mix, was an emotional support animal traveling with a man listed as a Marine and the animal apparently didn’t like something about the stranger in the window seat.

Encountering people flying with dogs is common. While flying recently, I saw three different pooches in the airport. And just last week, I visited Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport for an hour-plus and saw four — two or three of them were emotional support dogs and one was a service dog with a blind man.

There’s a difference between an emotional support animal and a service dog — a big difference, one I had not considered until doing some research.

Service dogs are highly trained to help people with disabilities. They are expensive.

Emotional support dogs are basically someone’s pet.

All one needs to carry Sparky aboard the cabin — and avoid paying Delta’s $125 one-way dog carry-on fee — is to have a note from a therapist saying you need an emotional support animal. And lots of “therapists” will do so for a nominal fee.

Just Google “emotional support animal” and you’ll find plenty of online sites ready to help. Generally, the charge is about what it costs to fly one-way with Fido. Such a deal for a little white lie!

If you have a therapist’s letter, there’s little an airline can do about it unless the animal seems aggressive or acts kind of nutty. A federal law allows this, although there is no state or federal licensing, or standards, or registration.

Little red dog vests saying “Emotional Support Animal” are available. They look official. They’re not.

Many people with emotional and psychiatric problems swear by their support dogs. And some studies bear them out. The problem is, many or even most of those studies aren’t scientifically sound.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website says: “Clinically, there is not enough research yet to know if dogs actually help treat PTSD and its symptoms.” The VA is still studying the issue.

I called Hal Herzog, a professor emeritus from Western Carolina University. He has spent decades studying the psychology of human interactions with animals, including the impact of pets on health.

“Most people like to think animals have natural curing powers,” he said. “But there’s virtually no science that says it works.”

Some studies, he said, show that animals can help kids with autism or some veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. But mostly, it’s still inconclusive.

People just want it to work. Or they believe it works.

“There’s some science, some pseudo science and some outright fakery,” he said.

Also, there’s something else afoot as to why dogs, cats and even pigs are flying these days. Animals have become our buddies. They have become furry variations of people.

“This is what is called the humanization of pets,” Herzog said. That’s the person who feels the need to bring his dog to the restaurant.

The fake support animals and the emerging, yet marginal, science has caused a flood of such animals on planes and is causing a backlash.

Phil Sheckler, a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD, uses a trained service dog and wrote Herzog last week about his pet peeve, saying: “The laws need to be changed to protect those of us who have legitimate service animals and enforce penalties for those who fake it. The ones who fake it also give those of us with legitimate service dogs a bad reputation. To me it is like using a wheelchair or parking in a handicapped parking space when you are not handicapped.”

Sheckler thinks most of the support dogs are scams and told me he doesn’t bring his 77-pound lab mix on planes. “It’s just too uncomfortable for him,” he said.

A longtime Delta flight attendant told me she sees lots of dogs boarding airplanes that look stressed, “eyes darting all over, heads up and down and all over the place,” maybe some barking.

“So many animals are so poorly trained, I don’t see how they can be calming for them,” the flight attendant told me.

The airlines, she said, try to accommodate other passengers who don’t want to sit next to a mutt, but that is often difficult on crowded flights.

She explains the thought process behind many of the dog people: “It’s working well for me, but the rest of you just have to deal with it.”

She said a 70-pound dog takes up the foot space of two passengers when stretched out. “The other person has to figure out what to do with their feet.”

Reaction to support dogs is mixed. Some passengers are happy to see the dogs and want to pet them. Others? “You see eye rolls,” the flight attendant said. “They’re fed up with it. They know people are abusing it.”

At the airport Friday, I talked with James and Wendy Morrison, flying back to New Mexico after attending a Rotarian convention here.

The couple have a neighbor who got a therapist letter so he can bring his dog to Honolulu and save a few bucks.

The Morrisons would have liked to bring their cockapoo, “but we’re not going to lie,” she said. “We’re coming for a Rotary convention. It would be bad to start out lying.”

While we talked, we heard a dog barking in the terminal. Soon, a young lady with two others hurried with her yappy lapdog.

I asked how much it cost to fly. “Nothing,” the lady responded, “she’s an emotional support dog.”

What about the barking? “That’s only when she sees another dog. But there’s no problem, she’s my baby.”



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