Emotional Support Animals: The importance of training

Please… ESAs are more than just a way to bring a pig on the plane

Here’s the scene: you board a packed flight in the middle of peak travel season. A couple sits down next to you along with their name-brand bags and indoor sunglasses, taking up your armrest and half your seat. The man reaches into a bag worth the price of your ticket and pulls out a tiny, terrified fluff ball from the bag. It’s shaking in a tiny little vest:

Service Animal.

Really?

Source: Scott Olsen, Getty Images

While engagement might lead to the infuriating discovery that the couple just doesn’t like putting Little Frufiekins in doggy camp so they got him a vest, the weird thing is that little puff of hair might actually be a service dog. He may be registered as an Emotional Support Animal (ESA).

ESAs can be any animal from a goldfish to an elephant, though many states only recognize dogs as automatically authorized, requiring no proof before letting the animal into the workplace. Even most airlines will allow nearly any animal to fly with verbal reassurance that it is necessary for the mental health of the passenger. You want some funny stories, do a Google search for things like pigs and miniature horses in plane cabins.

Has the policy gone too far? Coming from a Veteran perspective, yes. The abuse of service animal policies are bad for businesses and worse, bad for those who actually need an ESA or even a full PTSD service dog.

ESAs are supposed to be verified with a letter from a mental health professional stating the animal is needed for the emotional health of their patient. This letter can be submitted to a registry for approval, and you can get a vest and all the accouterments of having a service animal, but most national registries are not legitimate. Your city animal laws can tell you best.

But there’s no behavioral requirements (other than housebroken and no biting), no training requirements. Just a letter. One of those “service pigs” pooped in the aisle of a plane once and the pig (and owner) were removed from the flight. Imagine if that were Little Frufiekins next to you, so nervous he is hardly providing support to his humans. Instead, he is likely causing them more stress.

These animals — be they ESAs or fully trained service animals (PTSD, disability, seeing eye, etc…) — are supposed to calm the patient with their presence and help the patient function. If that is not occurring, chances are the certification is bogus. Enough people see enough bogus animals and we are all in trouble, especially those who have a legitimate need like a Veteran who has his or her trained ESA to cope with panic triggered by the bumps of turbulence or the sound of the engine speeding up. Too many Frufiekins on a plane, no one gets to have an animal out of a carrier on the aircraft. And that means some Veterans and their families cannot fly.

We met Blue as a family pet, a dog without much training. We saw him choosing to ignore when called, pulling on the leash, and causing a ruckus at home. More importantly, we saw the stress it was causing his family: a Veteran with PTSD and his girlfriend. That stress can be deadly to someone already struggling. Dogs 2 Dog Tags, a non-profit helping connect PTSD Veterans with trained support and service animals, also knows the danger of this stress and that’s why they agreed to help get Blue trained. Now if Blue’s family wants to take him on a plane or just to the park, he can wear his vest with pride as he provides his Veteran with calm instead of stress.

Trainer Bob Owens, Lone Duck Obedience Academy training Blue Dog. Photo Credit: Robert Kugler, USMC Veteran

An untrained ESA, registered or not, has no business being called a support animal. Let poor Frufiekins stay in his carrier and take a nap; his stress could be affecting the stress of the Veteran sitting next to you. An ESA is not just a way to avoid pet fees, it’s a legitimate source of relief for some.

If you have an animal you wish to have trained as an ESA, check out local trainers on Pathfinder (and if you don’t see one in your area, please add ones you find)! Have your animal trained, registered, and documented properly as a benefit to you, the animal, and all of us out there who enjoy the calm of an ESA. Also, contact your preferred airline and encourage verification, and your state board to require training for ESAs. The Veteran and mental health communities thank you for helping legitimize registrations.

And if you see Frufiekins, give him a pat on the head: he’s probably more scared than you.

Author’s Note: No, I don’t have an official ESA… I have two cats which if anything train me so I will not consider registration. They do provide endless support for PTSD and anxiety at home!

Second Note: If you don’t need a service animal, please consider supporting those who do. Donate to Dogs 2 Dog Tags and other service trainers!