If you’ve read news accounts of emotional support animals and wondered if the world is literally going to the dogs (as well as peacocks, hamsters and even alligators), you’re not alone.
Tara Doherty, the communications manager for the Pacific Assistance Dog Society, is concerned the increasing movement to accept all manner of animals into public places on the premise that they provide emotional support to their owners is actually hurting the legitimate use of service dogs.
“It’s a real problem started down in the U.S. but we’re starting to see it up here. Someone will go online and for $25, buy a vest and maybe an ID of some kind and they think that they can now take little Fluffy into the grocery store, into their hotel room, or on an airplane,” said Doherty.
“Then one of our clients tries to go into the grocery and is asked to leave because the management is fed up with the foolishness.”
Doherty said true service dogs are covered under provincial legislation and require extensive, years-long training and certification.
“The dogs are issued with a vest and the owners carry a permit that looks very much like a B.C. driver’s license,” she said.
“We actually encourage business owners to ask for the ID because there has been so much abuse of the concept, and we’d like it to end.”
And while there’s no doubt that most pets can provide emotional support, it’s very different from a dog who has been trained to support someone suffering from a legitimate disability like PTSD.
“There are physical aspects to PTSD that the dogs are trained to recognize – disorientation or disassociation, for example.
“The dog senses what is going on and will guide his owner to a quiet place to sit down and stay with them to offer support,” said Doherty.
Stephane Marcotte, a 26-year veteran of the Armed Forces, can attest to the indispensable nature of his dog.
“I got Sarge 2½ years ago and he gave me my life back. He goes everywhere with me and it’s important that people realize the difference between what he does and whatever it is that an emotional support animal does,” said Marcotte.
“Sometimes I have really bad nightmares and Sarge is trained to wake me up. Or he will sense when I’m starting to zone out or have an episode and he’s there to help me through it.”
Marcotte added that he’s had some pushback from businesses like hotels who have started equating emotional support animals with service dogs.
“We need to educate people. Sure, maybe a bunny might comfort you, but so would a teddy bear. It’s not the same as a service dog,” he said.
Patty Whitehall, speaking on behalf of the Pacific Animal Therapy Society, tends to agree with the concern.
Her organization has provided dogs (and some other animals) to organizations including seniors’ homes, schools, universities, and hospitals for more than 30 years, but she agreed that the fad of labelling animals as “emotional supports” is counterproductive.
“We recognize the value of introducing animals into certain environments to make people feel better, but we realize that our animals are not specially trained and have no special right of access to other locations like grocery stores,” said Whitehall.
Regardless, PATS still insists that the animals they use in their program are certified by a vet as having an appropriate temperament.
“Animals can be wonderful companions and some can provide emotional support, but when people try to equate that with true service dogs, it does a disservice to people who actually need the animals to live their lives,” said Doherty.