Puppy Bowl

At Volokh Conspiracy, David Post writes about the sudden appearance of dogs on planes.

I have taken a number of airplane trips over the past month or so, and I noticed, on each of the flights I took, that there were dogs on board — not in carriers, but sitting on the laps, or in the arms, of their owners. It struck me as odd, and now, thanks to an interesting and informative article by Karen Elliott and Rebecca Lightle in The Washington Post a few weeks ago, I have an idea about what’s going on.

How he was unaware until a few weeks ago, or later if he just read the old post, of the comfort critter phenomenon is a question that only he can answer. It’s not like it hasn’t been mentioned before. But the “sudden” pervasiveness of comfort animals on planes gives rise to an epiphany.

As Elliott and Lightle explain, the Americans With Disabilities Act requires places of public accommodation such as restaurants and transportation carriers to allow service animals — which can be dogs or, oddly enough, “miniature horses” — that assist people with disabilities.

That seems fair enough (though the “miniature horses” part seems a little peculiar). The problem, though, is in determining whether any particular animal qualifies as a service animal — and in doing so without running afoul of the ADA’s restrictions on the questions concerning disabilities that the ADA also imposes.

Does it “seem fair enough”? For many years, we accepted the idea of “seeing eye dogs” because it was scientifically valid and made complete sense. We could see (even though its user could not) how these dogs enabled the sight impaired to function in society. It was a wonderful thing. So like so many good ideas, we kept the rubric and forgot the rationale.

So how should a business assess whether a customer’s dog is a service animal? Federal regulations instruct that if it is readily apparent that a dog is aiding a person with a disability — for example, by leading a person who is blind — then staff members should simply allow the dog in as a service animal. But if the dog’s function is not apparent, then the ADA permits only two types of inquiries. First: “Is this dog required because of a disability?” And second: “What specific assistive task or tasks has the dog been trained to perform?”

The questions seem legit, but questions are only half the battle.

Unlike places of public accommodation governed solely by the ADA, commercial airlines must accept ID cards, other documentation, apparel or “credible verbal assurances” as evidence that a service animal is legitimate (although an airline may prohibit “unusual” service animals such as reptiles, rodents or spiders). Further, if a passenger with a disability produces appropriate documentation from a licensed mental health professional, the ACAA requires airlines to accommodate emotional-support animals that would not be protected by the ADA.

On the bright side, you might be safe from that comfort rat. On the dark side, a “credible verbal assurance” does the trick. Even more concrete is “appropriate documentation from a licenses mental health professional.” So if someone has a letter written in crayon by Suzy Shrink, Ph.D., what’s a stew to do? How would a flight attendant know that her doctorate was in the psychology of intersectional deviant sexual studies? Or worse yet, Suzy turns out to exist only in the fertile imagination of the doggy’s mommy.

David sees an issue.

Not surprisingly, many people are gaming the regulations, claiming “service animal” status for Fido just as a way of getting around restrictions on dogs in restaurants, apartment buildings, etc.

How cynical. What would make someone take the misanthrope path to believing that some fliers will use this to keep Fido with them when they want to, or beat the airlines out of their “pets cost extra” fee. And if you have the misfortune of sitting next to such a person, you can’t merely shout, “Out, damn Spot!”

Perhaps this isn’t just a backend problem of people gaming the system, but a system that rewards inane fragility, claims of need that society has somehow overcome up until the Age of Feelz took over, and which gives rise to untenable situations?  The integrity of the policy choice of allowing blind people to use seeing eye dogs was acceptable because the disability was objectively clear, and we trusted, without our trust being abused, the dogs to truly be service dogs.

You’re sad and need that comfort snake? Sorry if I can’t feel your pain. Much as I like puppies as well as any football fan, being a snowflake is not a disability.

34 comments on “Puppy Bowl

      1. Jim Tyre

        Just be thankful you didn’t find a service snake in your toilet. The penalties for harming intentionally a service animal can be severe.

        BTW, did I mention that when I come to visit next week and stay as your house guest I’ll have my service parakeet? He’s quite loud, but his sounds are necessary to my well being. Usually, it only takes others a few weeks to get used to it.

      1. Clonedaddy

        Good thing I have 5 clones of Bullet now. You can satisfy your hunger and I’ll still have plenty of copies.
        Sick bastard.
        There’s an emerging area of cloning law here somewhere. For example if one of the clones bites someone, would the plaintiff have to prove which clone was responsible to recover damages?

        Can I claim all five clones are the same Emotional Support Animal?

  1. LTMG

    My aunt was a nervous flyer, but she traveled many places to visit family or to vacation with friends. Her solution was to down two little bottles of vodka purchased from the flight attendant. Probably a less expensive and less troublesome solution than bringing her cat or dog.

  2. Patrick Maupin

    Allergies, as forseen over two years ago in your alpaca story and its comments, are increasingly problematic. A co-worker’s daughter has severe dog allergies, and tried in vain for about two weeks to board a plane with no dogs. On one promising looking flight, there were no dogs until five minutes before boarding. She gave up and drove from Austin to Nashville.

    Unfortunately, the DOJ’s view of people with allergies is akin to the DOE’s view of people with balls. “Allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals. ”

    This doesn’t mean that allergies aren’t a valid reason to have a service animal. A few years ago, a lady with a life-threatening paprika allergy got a dog that could alert on paprika, took it to work, and immediately triggered asthma in one of her co-workers. If I were the person with asthma, I might have gotten a service mountain lion.

    1. SHG Post author

      Just the trade off of rights I keep talking about. Create a new one, burn an old one, pick which team you love the best or is the newer shinier model.

  3. Brady Curry

    I don’t fly so maybe someone can inform me. Are these service critters screened in any way prior to boarding? I mean in the sense of making sure some nefarious individual doesn’t try to use one to transport drugs or sneak explosives onto the plane.

      1. Brady Curry

        Sorry that I strayed from the post point exalted one. Focus is not one of my strong points, if I have any at all. All your posts make me think. I just don’t think good.

        1. SHG Post author

          It wasn’t a bad question (though I assume the critters go through screening like anyone/anything else), but I just don’t want to go down that side path. Exalted one? Ouch. Maybe that will be my preferred pronoun for today.

  4. Agammamon

    This seems to be a problem of overbroad legislation forbidding animals in certain places that was then modified for special exemptions (due to the usual ‘unforeseen circumstances’) and then people gaming those exemptions (again ‘unforeseen’ – even though that’s what people *do*).

    Perhaps we should just get rid of the legislation forbidding animals in restaurants/planes/etc and allow each business to set its own policies and acceptance threshold? Modified by customer feedback?

    You know, ‘self-government’

    Nah, that would never work.

  5. Erik H.

    Yeah, us civil folks deal with this all the time, especially in housing. The first thing someone does when they have a dog and can’t rent is to go online and google “how can I make my landlord let me keep my dog?” at which point they’ll find out how to game the system.

    Total cost to lie is about $100. You will be wholly unsurprised that there are a lot of places where you can buy, sorry, “get diagnosed with” certificates of need, accompanied by official statements of depression or PTSD (the two most commonly used “qualifiers” for an ESA) signed by real degree-holding people.

    For example, the last asshole I had to deal with submitted a letter from a Texas chiropractor (we are in MA, by the way,) which read, in full, “Mr. Asshole benefits from his service animal due to chronic pain and PTSD.” (Note: it isn’t a service animal; it has no training.) But the anti-discrimination laws are incredibly one sides and carry severe penalties and attorneys fees, so unless you want to risk losing large sums the clients just have to suck it up and allow the dog in their previously pet-free zone.

    You can imagine that I would love to ask “PTSD from what?”; “what is the animal trained to do?” and last but not least “why are you submitting a letter from a Texas chiropractor when you are living in Mass.?” but in public accommodation setting, even those statements carry a degree of risk these days.


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