I have an emotional support animal. They’re a trend now – so trendy, in fact, that people are trying to certify miniature horses, pigs, and sloths as support animals so they can live with them in rentals and take them on airplanes. (I personally would not want a support horse, of any size, with me on a plane. I’ve seen and smelled horse flops before.)
These are not the tiny “purse dogs” that fashionable women used to carry a decade or more back. Those were merely accessories, and cost as much as such women pay for other accessories. Of course, they were adorbs, but like the obnoxiously rich women, they did no work. Even more obnoxious is the fact that one can buy on the internet animal-sized bright red vests that claim an animal to be a working dog, when in fact it has no training or official status.
Other dogs have real jobs. Seeing-eye dogs were probably the first working dogs most of us heard about or saw. They perform an important function and are not to be treated as pets if you encounter one. (It’s totally politically incorrect, but a friend of mine wrote a song, “My Seeing-Eye Dog and I Don’t See Eye-to-Eye.” It was funny, though. But I digress.)
Since that time, dogs – and particularly dogs’ noses – have been trained to detect any number of items. They detect drugs and bombs for the police and airlines. They find live people or dead bodies under rubble following an earthquake or building collapse.
Then there are animals that provide care and support of another kind: therapy animals, emotional support animals, and psychiatric service animals.
Therapy animals are most often used with geriatric patients and children in hospitals. In some nursing homes and convalescent centers, you find programs that bring small animals to interact with the residents. Even farm animals – chickens, lambs, piglets – may spark memories that had been hidden away for years.
Emotional Support Animals are dogs or cats (or, less commonly, other animals such as guinea pigs) that live with and provide comfort to a person with a psychiatric disorder. They should be registered as such, and there are places with laws that allow such animals to accompany their humans into public spaces.
Some folks confuse Emotional Support Animals with Psychiatric Service Animals. They think that “training” a dog to offer a kiss on command, or jump in their lap is a task making the animal an official service animal. Service animals, including psychiatric service animals, must receive special training that teaches them how to alleviate the symptoms of an ADA-defined disability.
Legitimate tasks for PSDs (psychiatric service dogs) include counterbalance/bracing for a handler dizzy from medication, waking the handler at the sound of an alarm when the handler is heavily medicated and sleeps through alarms, doing room searches or turning on lights for persons with PTSD, blocking persons in dissociative episodes from wandering into danger (i.e., traffic), leading a disoriented handler to a designated person or place, and so on.
(By the way, forget about cats as service animals. Just try training a cat to do anything it doesn’t want to do. If you are able to register your cat as an Emotional Support Animal or get a medical/psychiatric recommendation, you may be able to have your cat live with you in a pet-free community or have the fee for a pet waived. But that’s about it where cats are concerned.)
I, on the other hand, have an emotional support animal that requires no diagnosis or permit, though I guess you’d have to say that he does require special handling and a bit of training – my husband. In addition to the many other things he does for me, Dan is my emotional support for distressing situations, such as going to the dentist, of which I am terrified. He gets permission to enter the treatment room, sits on a stool that’s not in the doctors’ way, and touches or pats my foot (the only part of me that he can reach in that set-up).
This tiny touch grounds me and provides emotional comfort. And my husband doesn’t even have to wear a bright red vest.