Pandemic brings new clashes over emotional support dogs
With people adopting pandemic puppies in droves, "emotional support" dogs are suddenly everywhere they're not supposed to be — like restaurants, supermarkets and retail stores.
Why it matters: The rule-flouting is a strain on merchants, who fear lawsuits from certificate-waving dog owners, and on people with actual service dogs — which, unlike emotional support animals, are trained to perform vital tasks for their owners.
Where it stands: Although the Department of Transportation ruled in December that airlines no longer have to let emotional support animals (ESAs) on planes, HUD still considers them "assistance animals" — which means that landlords have to permit them in no-pets apartment buildings.
- But ESAs are not service animals — and aren't covered under the ADA.
- Nevertheless, lots of websites help pet lovers get doctors' notes that they can use to flout the rules.
- People are snapping up official-looking "service dog" vests on Amazon and using them to trot their puppies anywhere they like.
Driving the news: Landlords, desperate to fill apartments that have emptied during the pandemic, are being more lenient about allowing emotional support dogs — setting up clashes among residents.
- Readers have been writing to me about unfortunate encounters with ill-behaved ESAs and their indignant owners.
- Although ESAs aren't allowed in supermarkets or restaurants, shopkeepers are reluctant to kick out patrons' dogs for fear of making a scene or getting sued.
- "I really want to advocate for business owners — they feel trapped and like they’re unable to protect themselves," says Sarah Schaff of Can Do Canines of Minnesota, which trains service dogs for people with disabilities.
- There are two questions that merchants can ask to suss out legitimacy, Schaff tells Axios: "Is this a service dog?" and "What task is the dog trained to help you to do?"
How it works: The growing prevalence of ESAs is distracting for legitimate service dogs — and difficult for people who have allergies or dog phobias, or who come from cultures with aversions to dogs.
- "This really delegitimizes highly trained service animals and makes things difficult for the people who rely on them," says Cassandra L. Boness, a clinical psychology intern at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who published a paper saying tighter ESA rules are needed.
- "People see these dogs parading around in vests acting foolish or getting into trouble," Boness tells Axios. "It's a mess."
What's next: More college students are demanding to keep ESAs in their dorm rooms — and, as people return to their workplaces, some seek to bring their emotional support doggies with them.
My thought bubble: There were perhaps zero dogs in my no-pets apartment building in Manhattan until a year or so ago, when the floodgates opened.
- Some neighbors — including the owners of Oscar, the barky beagle mix downstairs — admit freely that, wink-wink, he's just a cherished family pet.