Choosing a Goat for Emotional Support Can Limit Options

Choices have consequences and let's listen when animals ask "But what about me?"

Posted Nov 21, 2018

Are emotional support animals asking something like, "But what about me?"

A recent highly informative and important essay by veterinarian Christine Calder titled "Pets Don’t Want to Be Emotional Support Animals" with the subtitle "Maybe the solution to this long-standing debate over animals on planes is found in focusing on what’s best for our pets" contains a lot of very useful information. Dr. Calder's piece is available for free online, so here I follow up on some of what she writes. I agree with her that the well-being of the nonhumans and humans must be given serious attention (See "Living With a Dog Is Good, If It's Good for You and the Dog.")

Dr. Calder also writes, "Emotional support animals differ from trained service animals, who have been trained to do work or perform a task for the benefit of a person with a disability. Most emotional support animals are not officially trained to offer support, but their owners consider them a comfort nonetheless." This is an important distinction. She also notes, "Some people who need trained service animals have grown weary of emotional support animals. Many resent their work animals being lumped in with emotional support animals, whom they consider poseurs. Many also claim that their service animals are being turned away from flights in the wake of tighter restrictions imposed by some airlines."

Here I focus mostly on dogs, but as I explain below, the choices people make about who they choose to be their support animal has consequences for them, their nonhuman friend, and other humans. I used "goat" in the title because of an instance when someone had chosen a goat for emotional support. (See "American Airlines Says Leave That Emotional Support Goat at Home.")

Are emotional support animals really worse off than other homed "captive" pets?

 “In modern society, there is no way for our dogs to keep themselves safe, and thus we are unable to afford them the freedom to meet their own needs. Instead, they must depend on our benevolence for survival.” (Jennifer Arnold, Love Is All You Need, Page 4)

While I agree that some individuals who are chosen to be emotional support animals would rather be doing something else and enjoy more freedom, so too would many other homed companion animals (pets). Focusing on emotional support animals deflects attention from the fact that so many other pets live highly compromised lives as they try to adapt to a human dominated world. In a real sense, they are captive animals for whom we decide just about everything that they do. And, they are not always our best friends. (See "Are Dogs Really Our Best Friends?") 

Dogs live in a human dominated world and they have done so for numerous generations. It’s an asymmetric, one-sided relationship, one that many of us would not tolerate with another human. It's rather common that they don't get what they really want and need. (See "Dogs Want and Need Much More Than They Usually Get From Us.") Whether an individual is homed, free-ranging, or feral they are greatly influenced to varying degrees by the very fact that humans exist. In many ways, homed dogs with whom most people are most familiar, are highly restrained captive animals. “It’s a dog’s life” is sometimes used to describe days filled with laziness and pleasure. All a dog must do, after all, is sleep, laze around, eat, and hang out with friends, and what could be easier, especially when someone reliably plops down a bowl of food for you at every meal?

However, the lives of homed dogs aren’t necessarily all fun and games, and living as the companions of humans comes with some important compromises on the part of dogs. We teach dogs that they can’t pee or poop wherever they want. To eliminate, they must get our attention and ask for permission to go outside the house. When we go outside, we often restrain dogs with a leash or fence them within yards or parks. We decide when they can play and with whom. Dogs eat what and when we feed them, and they are scolded if they eat what or when we say they shouldn’t. Dogs play with the toys we give them, and they get in trouble for turning our shoes and furniture into toys. Most of the time, our schedule and relationships determine who dogs play with and who will be their friends.

Also consider dogs who are dragged along on leashes or who are otherwise controlled by "helicopter humans" and are unable to exercise their noses, other senses, and their bodies (of course, the dog's walk must be for them), sprayed with fragrances humans like but which compromise their own odors and don't allow them to smell "doggy," taken to dog parks because their human likes them but they don't, crated for hours on end while their human companions are gone, perfumed and made pretty for dog shows, bred for different looks and breed standards and who suffer from anatomical deformities that compromise their well-being and longevity, or who are abused when they misbehave or because it's easy to do so and get away with it. Jennifer Arnold notes that we abuse our power over dogs when we impose our will on them without considering their thoughts and feelings. (See also Jessica Pierce's book Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets and her essay called "Scent Identity: The importance of letting dogs smell like dogs.") 

Thinking of dogs as captive beings isn’t a negative judgment because being “captive” doesn’t mean that a dog is necessarily ill treated or unhappy. Rather, it is the crucial starting point for understanding our relationships with, and responsibilities to, our furry friends, relationships that very often favor us. So, along these lines, it's essential to consider if emotional support animals, in this case, dogs, are really worse off than other homed individuals. It's not at all clear they are, and we need comparative studies before we draw any conclusions. 

In her essay, Dr. Calder also asks, "But do emotional support animals really help people more than traditional pets?" She answers, "According to a 2016 literature review by two psychologists and a psychology graduate student, the answer is no. There is little evidence to support that emotional support animals are more effective than traditional pets. In fact, there are no specific guidelines or standards for evaluating emotional support animals," which makes legal protection complicated when a problem arises.   

Choosing a large, loud, or smelly animal for emotional support, including a dog, limits options for where you and they can go

"Really any type of animal could potentially be seen as an emotional support animal...Support is just in the eyes of the beholder...Simply having the animal present can provide a benefit if someone thinks it does...it's also important to consider the well-being of the animal." (Marc Bekoff, in "Can Peacocks Be Emotional Support Animals? It’s Complicated.")

Who you choose as an emotional support animal limits your options about where they can go, especially in public places and including public transportation. Indeed, a lot of turmoil has resulted from people trying to take large emotional support animals on different airlines, a topic that is covered in detail by Dr. Calder. (Also see "What Do Emotional Support Animals Do, Exactly?") Focusing on air travel, Dr. Calder writes, "In recent years, the number of animals flying in the cabin on airplanes has increased exponentially, due to an increase of these emotional support animals. United Airlines reported a 77 percent rise in just one year of emotional support animals. These animals fly for free, and sometimes they and their human are upgraded to first class to avoid a kerfuffle in coach."

When choosing a companion animal, it's essential to consider the well-being of the animal. Smaller dogs, for example, are more likely to be comfortable on a crowded plane full of people than a larger dog or other large animal. One of my friend's emotional support mouse did just fine on many different trips using public transportation, and she could also take her easily into other public places. When someone laughed at her choice of a mouse as a support animal, I noted that support is in the eyes of the beholder, and having the animal present can provide a benefit if someone thinks it does and feels the animal's presence.

It's not surprising that some people try to abuse the system, sometimes by buying an emotional support animal vest for an individual who isn't really providing support that's essential for the human's well-being. Korin Miller notes, "...emotional support animals are also a 'touchy issue' and there are some psychologists that urge other psychologists not to recommend them for patients because it’s often exploited, licensed clinical psychologist Alicia H. Clark, Psy.D., tells SELF. While people can and do abuse the system simply to bring their pets with them to places they normally would not be allowed, Bekoff says that behavior is 'egregious' given that so many people actually benefit from having an emotional support animal."

The bottom line seems to me to be a very simple one, namely, if you choose a large, loud, or smelly animal for emotional support, or one with whom many people are unfamiliar, that's just fine. However, it's also important to recognize there are consequences depending on who you choose, and it's likely that certain animals will not be allowed to travel with you or accompany you in certain situations. (See, for example "Exotic Emotional Support Animals.") So, for example, it's essential that those who think it's okay to take a large, loud, or smelly animal onto certain types of public transportation or to some other public places not spoil it for all those people who also really need their emotional support animals with them and choose animals who are more acceptable. 

The relationship between an emotional support animal and their human has to work for everyone involved

Let me be clear that I'm all in favor of people using nonhuman animals of many different species for emotional support if it works for them and the animal. It's also essential to take into account the unique personality of the individual animal, because not all members of a given species are the same -- what works for one purebred dog or mutt or cat or mouse or bird, for example, might not work for another dog of the same breed or mix or for other cats, mice, or birds. 

I also know that having an emotional support animal doesn't always work, but in cases when it does it's a good thing as long as the nonhuman agrees and doesn't otherwise suffer. The people I know who need the support of an animal all have made choices that increase the likelihood that their canine or other companion can go just about any place they decide to go. One told me she knows that her dog is likely a "little big" for air travel or other public transport especially if it's crowded and she is extremely concerned with his well-being. So, she wisely takes this into account when she makes a decision to go somewhere with him and fully accepts that they won't be welcome in certain situations. 

Stay tuned for more discussion and details on the use of emotional support animals. Of course, there are other topics I didn't consider. As I wrote above, there's no evidence that emotional support animals are worse off than other homed companions animals, and I look forward to seeing the results of these much-needed comparative studies.

Clearly, the issues at hand concerning the use and well-being of emotional support animals trigger passionate responses because they are extremely important and deeply personal for many humans -- as they should be for the many nonhumans who are used for emotional support -- and it doesn't look like they're going away any time soon. 

References

Bekoff, Marc. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2018. 

Bekoff, Marc and Jessica Pierce. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. Novato, California, New World Library, 2019. 

"Everything You Need to Know About Emotional Support Animals"

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