Tag Archives: emotional support animals

Roles of emotional support animals examined

Airlines are not the only organizations grappling with the complexities surrounding emotional support animals. Colleges and courts are also questioning the need for these animals and the effects they may have on students and juries, respectively, according to research presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association.

The recent, rapid rise of emotional support animals has left colleges and universities struggling to understand the laws and how they can be applied to best support their communities, said Phyllis Erdman, PhD, professor at Washington State University, who chaired a symposium on emotional support animals and service dogs.

Emotional support animal photo by esadoctors

Emotional support animal on campus (photo by esadoctors.com)

College and university counseling centers are seeing an uptick in the number of students seeking mental health services, as students report anxiety, depression and stress about relationships and academic performance, she said.

“It’s not surprising that many schools are confronted with the growing phenomenon of emotional support animals. For many, the topic is a contentious one centered on whether students are taking advantage of the laws,” said Erdman. “This is further compounded by the fact that laws pertaining to emotional support animals are different from those governing disability service animals and therefore schools may need to develop new policies.”

A service animal falls under the Americans with Disabilities Act and is usually a dog that is trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a physical, sensory, psychiatric or intellectual disability, Emotional support animals are not trained in specific tasks and are not recognized under the ADA. Although emotional support animals are allowed in campus housing, they may not necessarily be allowed in classrooms or elsewhere on campus, according to the study Erdman presented.

Erdman and her colleagues wanted to understand the state of emotional support animal requests on campuses and how colleges and universities are responding. They surveyed 248 university counseling centers about student requests for letters to allow them to have emotional support animals. The survey questions included how often the counseling centers received requests from students, how the schools handled those requests and how they handled requests to diagnose a disability in order to obtain an emotional support animal. It also asked counseling centers if they had emotional support animal policies in place.

Fifty-seven percent of the centers reported almost never receiving such requests. Thirty-one percent did several times a year and only 2 percent got requests more than once a week, according to the study.

Despite the lack of an overwhelming demand, a majority of university counseling centers reported concern about having policies in place to handle such requests, according to Erdman.

“Even a limited number of requests for emotional support animals can cause stress for student affairs offices, housing offices, counseling centers and disability offices,” she said. “Most schools wanted guidance and support for developing guidelines and navigating requests that come through.”

Erdman suggested that schools establish general definitions of the terms disability, service animal and emotional support animal when crafting a policy. The definition of a disability should adhere to ADA guidelines, she said. Any policy development must follow federal and state laws and should include the perspectives of various campus constituencies, including counseling centers, accessibility services, general counsel’s offices, campus safety departments and students themselves, according to Erdman.

“College students today are facing a great deal of stress and emotional support animals may help some students,” said Erdman. “We hope our study can serve as a guide for colleges and universities to develop policies that help students thrive.”

Uncertainty about emotional support animals is also occurring in courts, according to Dawn McQuiston, PhD, of Wofford College, who presented her research at the symposium. While objects such as dolls or teddy bears have been used for decades to calm vulnerable witnesses, courts began to include dogs in the mid-1990s to provide emotional support to alleged victims of child abuse. At least 144 courthouse facility dogs are now included in about three dozen states, she said. These dogs are provided by the court at the request of prosecutors to assist victims with the anxiety of testifying and reliving traumatic events.

Supporters say the dogs have made a huge difference in helping children and vulnerable adult witnesses open up on the stand, but some defense attorneys say having a friendly, sweet-looking canine in the witness box can prejudice a jury against a defendant by making the witness appear more believable and sympathetic, according to McQuiston.

“The concern is that the presence of a courthouse dog emphasizes that the witness is a victim, thereby playing to jurors’ sympathies. As a result, witnesses may be viewed as even more vulnerable or likeable, thus conflicting with a defendant’s right to a fair trial,” said McQuiston.

She cited two notable appeals cases involving courtroom dogs. In both cases, the victims had a support dog during testimony, the defendants were convicted and the convictions were subsequently appealed on the grounds that the presence of the dog led to undue sympathy for the victim and violated the defendant’s right to a fair trial. In both cases, the courts found no sign of prejudice due to the dogs’ presence.

McQuiston and her colleagues investigated whether courthouse dogs, compared to inanimate comfort items, resulted in more prejudice against defendants involved in two hypothetical crimes: A child sexual abuse case and a robbery of a child. They set up mock trials in which participants, in the role of jurors, read transcripts of the testimony and were shown several pictures depicting the child witness with a dog, with a teddy bear or with nothing.

They found that the presence of the dog had no significant effect on the juries’ outcomes, which McQuiston called surprising because the researchers had expected the dog to prejudice the jury against the defendant. Interestingly, their findings showed some biasing effects when the child clutched a teddy bear.

“Across two studies utilizing mock jury paradigms we found that, contrary to popular beliefs and our own predictions, courthouse dogs did not exert undue influence on juror decision-making regardless of the severity of the crimes tested, and did not differentially impact perceptions of child witnesses,” she said.

Source:  American Psychological Association

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Emotional support animals

10+ years ago when I was working as a science manager in a local council, I recall that a member of staff had been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant.  Her doctor suggested that she and her husband adopt a dog (which they did) because he felt that caring for the dog would help relieve the anxiety about not getting pregnant.

In effect, her doctor prescribed an emotional support animal.   This is an animal that, simply by virtue of its presence in the person’s life, provides companionship and support.

Such animals have been increasingly in the news for all the wrong reasons.  Untrained animals being brought onto US-based airlines and causing havoc including going to the toilet in the aisles and biting passengers.

Emotional support animals are not trained service dogs.   Whenever an incident occurs that makes the news, it makes life a little harder for people who truly need a service dog.

Denver International Airport

Photo courtesy of Denver International Airport

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a service animal must be trained to perform tasks for a person with a disability, be it physical or psychiatric. Disabilities include things like being blind or deaf, using a wheelchair, relying on a dog to remind you to take meds, or having a dog around in case of an anxiety attack.

Under federal law, only dogs and miniature horses weighing less than 100 pounds qualify for the “service animal” designation.

The major airlines are responding with tightened rules for traveling with emotional support animals and I think this is a good thing.

Here are the steps passengers have to take to bring an emotional support animal into the main cabin on one of the three major US airlines:

  • American – Passengers must submit a document signed by a licensed doctor or medical health professional which states that the passenger has a “mental health or emotional disability” and needs the animal “for emotional support or psychiatric service” on the flight or at the passenger’s destination. The document needs to have been signed within the past year and must be submitted at least 48 hours before the flight.
  • Delta – Starting March 1, passengers will have to submit three documents if they wish to travel with an emotional support animal. In addition to a signed statement from a medical professional, passengers will have to provide vaccination dates and the contact information of the animal’s veterinarian and sign a statement that claims the animal is properly trained “to behave in a public setting” and take the passenger’s “direction upon command.” The document needs to have been signed within the past year and must be submitted at least 48 hours before the flight.
  • United – Passengers must submit a document from a medical or mental health professional which states that the passenger has a “mental health-related disability” and that the emotional support animal “is necessary to the passenger’s mental health or treatment.” The document needs to have been signed within the past year and must be submitted at least 48 hours before the flight.

I’m not against the designation of emotional support animals, particularly if a health professional has prescribed one.

That said, let’s be honest that most of us don’t train our dogs to the standard of a service dog because we don’t have to.  Subjecting the traveling public to a dog that you love but isn’t properly trained is just wrong.

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand

Source:  Business Insider