The discomfort of emotional support animals

The discomfort of emotional support animals

The scene takes place at Montreal-Trudeau Airport just before the pandemic. A young woman walks up to her gate hugging a large dog, an “emotional support animal,” according to a sign attached to the dog’s neck. Suddenly, without the slightest warning sign, the dog passes a man in a wheelchair.

Published at 4:00 p.m.

Mary Dyson

Mary Dyson

Although service dogs, such as guide dogs, are professionally trained to perform specific tasks related to their owner’s disability, they are not emotional support animals. Several incidents and numerous excesses led American and Canadian authorities to question the presence of the latter on planes.

The decision came in the middle of the pandemic, when airports were still empty and planes were grounded: In Canada and the United States, airlines are no longer required to accept emotional support animals in the cabin, free of charge. However, they should continue to welcome expertly trained assistance dogs. Many carriers, including Air Canada, WestJet, Delta, American and United, quickly changed their policies. These companies can no longer board a plane with an emotional companion. It must travel on a leash like any other pet.

Other carriers, such as Air Transat and Porter, continue to accept emotional support animals in the cabin, but only if they are dogs and the passenger has been certified by a medical professional to have a mental disorder or is recognized as emotionally sensitive.

However, it is this type of activity that has led to excesses in the United States. Companies started fraudulently issuing such medical tickets to travelers who did not suffer from mental or emotional disorders but did not want to see their pets go in the baggage compartment.

There is a more serious problem. Because they are not professionally trained like service dogs, some emotional support animals may exhibit objectionable behaviors.

However, many people who rely on guide dogs have serious concerns about this.

Intense training

Carol Giguere, who lives with vision impairment and has long relied on guide dogs, explains that an improperly trained animal assistance dog can become deranged.

“When a guide dog is distracted, it can behave in ways that can put a blind person in an unsafe situation,” he says.

He recalled that guide dogs undergo intensive training at accredited schools.

“They’re not going to bite, they’re not going to jump on people. They were rated with a zero level of aggression. »

Mme Giguère of the Outauais Association of Visually Impaired Persons notes that recipients of a service dog must undergo three to four weeks of training.

“We teach how to interact effectively with our dogs and other dogs. The world of the blind is a small world: when we meet, there are often two, three, four dogs around us. We learn what behaviors to observe so as not to provoke the other dogs, not to disturb each other. We have to learn.”

Trained assistance dogs can help people who are blind, but can also help people who are deaf, have autism, or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to the carriers, the question is about security

The Canadian Transportation Agency held a consultation on emotional support animals in 2019 and early 2020 as part of the reform of accessible transportation for people with disabilities.

In its discussion paper, the agency stated that carriers are concerned about safety and health issues related to emotional support animals.

“They have described situations in which untrained animals have bitten and acted aggressively toward staff, passengers and trained service dogs,” the agency wrote. They also reported that untrained animals often relieve themselves inappropriately during movement. »

Carriers wondered how to reconcile the demands of an emotional support animal and passengers with severe allergies.

The US Department of Transportation decided in December 2020 to stop considering emotional support animals as service animals. The Canadian Transportation Agency followed suit a few months later.

This decision did not please everyone.

“It’s discrimination, pure and simple,” said Prairie Conlon, medical director of CertaPet, a US company that offers advice and medical certificates to travelers in need of an emotional support animal.

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