Emotional Support Dogs
Some restaurants are letting people bring in their pets as “emotional support animals” under guidelines which previously allowed only trained service animals for the blind.
Health care professionals have recommended animals for psychological or emotional support for more than two decades, based on research showing many benefits, including longer lives and less stress for pet owners. But recently a number of New York restaurateurs have noticed a surge in the number of diners seeking to bring dogs inside for emotional support, where previously restaurants had accommodated only dogs for the blind. “I had never heard of emotional support animals before,” said Steve Hanson, an owner of 12 restaurants including Blue Fin and Blue Water Grill in Manhattan. “And now all of a sudden in the last several months, we’re hearing this.”
The increasing appearance of pets whose owners say they are needed for emotional support in restaurants — as well as on airplanes, in offices and even in health spas — goes back, according to those who train such animals, to a 2003 ruling by the Department of Transportation. It clarified policies regarding disabled passengers on airplanes, stating for the first time that animals used to aid people with emotional ailments like depression or anxiety should be given the same access and privileges as animals helping people with physical disabilities like blindness or deafness.
“The D.O.T. guidance document was an outrageous decision,” said Joan Froling, chairwoman of the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, a nonprofit organization representing people who depend on service dogs. “Instead of clarifying the difference between emotional support animals who provide comfort by their mere presence and animals trained to perform specific services for the disabled, they decided that support animals were service animals.”
The 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act states that anyone depending on an animal to function should be allowed full access to all private businesses that serve the public, like restaurants, stores and theaters. The law specifies that such animals must be trained specifically to assist their owner. True service animals are trained in tasks like finding a spouse when a person is in distress, or preventing people from rolling onto their stomachs during seizures. But now, because the 2003 Department of Transportation document does not include language about training, pet owners can claim that even untrained puppies are “service animals,” Ms. Froling said. “People think, ‘If the D.O.T. says I can take my animal on a plane, I can take it anywhere,’ ” she said.
One reason it is difficult to sort out the varying levels of dependency people have on their animals is that it is a violation of the disabilities act to inquire about someone’s disability, and although service animals are supposed to be trained, there is no definitive list of skills such animals must have. “The A.D.A. started with the idea of the honor system,” Ms. Froling said. “The goal was to make sure that people with disabilities were not hassled. They didn’t list the services an animal should perform because they didn’t want to limit creativity, and they didn’t want to specify dogs because monkeys were being trained in helpful tasks.”
This is a hilarious if unsurprising result of the ADA and resultant bureaucratic rulings. Indeed, the mandating of a ridiculous number of handicapped parking spots at all venues has led to handicapped parking privileges evolving from something reserve for those who needed more space to accommodate wheelchair ramps to an unquestioned right of those with even relatively minor infirmities. It is hardly shocking that people are abusing the right to bring in companion animals.
Frankly, to the extent that it’s unhealthy to bring dogs into a restaurant, it’s unclear to me why we should accommodate seeing eye dogs and other service animals. Being blind or depressed does not confer the right to make others ill. If, in fact, bringing animals into restaurants brings no additional risk, the distinction between “service” animals and any other well behaved pet is meaningless. Indeed, it is common in most of the world for people to bring dogs into restaurants and most of us eat in the same room with pets on a regular basis.