Photo courtesy of  Flickr

Photo courtesy of Flickr

By Mila Sanchez

Animals are so great. The emotional connection that we make with the animals in our lives is unique and irreplaceable. Our furry companions make us feel better — and that’s science. In fact, in recent years, the use of animals in several types of therapy has been rising, as well as the increasing acceptance of and protections for emotional support animals (ESA) for people who suffer with mental illness.

ESAs have been seeing some stigmatization as more people abuse the protections they recieve. You hear of people going to their doctor just to get a note certifying their pet as an ESA so they can avoid a pet deposit at their rental, as well as people bringing their animals into businesses and onto airplanes.

I have an ESA that helps me cope with my pretty intense anxiety and depression. He’s a 2-year-old German Shepherd and the light of my life. He has helped me through some pretty rough patches of depression, and he is naturally good at helping me when I’m having a panic attack. I can’t imagine getting through life without him.

But he doesn’t belong on planes or in businesses, and neither does yours.

ESAs are very different than service dogs. Service dogs are highly trained to perform specific tasks for their handlers, such as guiding those with visual impairment, assisting with physical tasks for those with mobility issues, or performing medical alert tasks like low blood sugar for severe diabetics and oncoming seizures for people with epilepsy, among countless other services. There are even service dogs trained to assist veterans with severe PTSD. Of course, these dogs are trained to not only perform these tasks but also how to work and exist in public places; they are always right next to their handler, are highly socialized at a young age as to not be caught off guard by new things, and are taught to ignore their surroundings and focus only on their work.

ESAs, on the other hand, require no formal training. While they are more than just a pet, as they are there to support the needs of their owners who struggle with emotional issues and certain mental illnesses, they are not trained service dogs. Since they don’t require formal and extensive training, they have the unpredictability of any normal pet and animal.

So, while there are allowances for ESA on airplanes, there really shouldn’t be as having an animal with no training or experience being on an airplane is dangerous to everyone in the cabin (imagining my ESA dog on a plane is enough to induce a panic attack right now).

People elevating their ESAs, and even their pets, to service dog status has been extremely harmful to those in the disabled community who rely on their service dogs for everyday life. There are countless stories about ESAs and fake service dogs causing problems for people with legitimate service dogs, including distracting their working dog, being questioned about legitimacy, and getting refused from establishments because of experiences with fake service dogs.

If you suffer from anxiety or other mental illness so severe that you need to have an animal there to support you at all times, you need seek a real, professionally trained service dog, or alternative means of management. By taking matters into your own hands and bringing your ESA with you, you are doing a disservice and actual harm to those who rely on trained service dogs to get through their daily lives.

It doesn’t matter if your dog or animal is “pretty well trained” with basic obedience commands or has a pretty calm demeanor. Obedience training and service dog training are very different things. Average obedience classes that someone would put their pet through run about 6 to 9 weeks. Real service dogs can take up to 2 years to train, and even when trained by some of the best and most reputable service dog organizations, some dogs don’t end up meeting standards (they go through a career change or become home pets).

If we want to be true allies and advocates for people with varying abilities, we need to make sure we are not causing harm with our actions. Sure, we would all love to have our pets and ESAs with us at all times, but doing so causes real problems for others.


Mila Sanchez is a writer and recent college graduate with a BA in Linguistics. Her ambitions in life include traveling the world, studying languages, and taking pictures of and cuddling with her ESA dog, Baymax.