Mar 25, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Pandemic brings new clashes over emotional support dogs

Woman walking away from the camera with a dog on leash, towards an exit door.

In my "no dogs allowed" apartment building, emotional support animals are permitted for people with doctor-validated disabilities. They're supposed to use the service entrance, seen here. Photo: Jennifer A. Kingson/Axios

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.
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