A few days ago I was fooling around in Buzzfeed when something caught my eye. It was one of those silly ‘can you make it through this post without spending $50.00’ listicles that link to a bunch of pointless things that look cute on screen but only add to the clutter out in the real world. I usually don’t even bother with those, but this time around the picture was that of a dog wearing a service dog vest, and yes, among the items they were promoting was a fake ‘service dog’ vest. That gave rise to a rather lively comments section that was far more interesting than the so-called article, and that comments section in turn got me thinking, especially because when I came across that debate I was already looking into the impact of the changes in the role animals play in people’s lives over the past few decades.
So let me begin by saying that I agree that people trying to game the system, and pass their pets as service animals are a real problem that harms those who rely on highly trained dogs (plus the occasional monkey) for their well-being. Still, the area that seemed to prompt the strongest response was air travel, only to me that is the one place where the problem has more to do with an existing system that is outdated and excessively restrictive, than with the people who are accused of trying to game it. Why?
Well, because while for the most part I agree that the whole emotional support animal thing can get rather iffy, flying is stressful enough already –a situation that is not helped by the airlines’ determination to turn that stressful experience into an outright nightmare–and there is something about the whole ordeal that may well call for a greater flexibility than passengers are usually afforded.
Take for instance people who are somewhat prone to anxiety attacks, or those who are on the edge of the autism spectrum (and keep in mind that these are two instances in which the absence of a formal diagnosis is anything but uncommon). These are people who for the most part can and do function without too much trouble, but who may rely a dog or a cat to help them take the edge off at the end of the day, though they may not acknowledge these as service animals, or need to have them by their side 24/7. In other words, these animals do not qualify as service dogs –or cats, or ferrets, or whatever– by any stretch of the imagination, but a trip is a different beast because by its very nature it is something that may take them away from the animal in question for days or weeks at a time, and in those instances the separation can become an issue.
‘Well, the animal can always fly as cargo,’ I hear you say. And while you do have a point, that is true only up to a point because, as I mentioned above, airports and airplanes are stressful places to begin with. There are long lines, and short tempers, plus a lack of control and a disruption in the daily routine, and all of those may be triggering for someone who is on the autism spectrum, or who has a hard time coping with anxiety. Add to that the concern over the well-being of someone/something that is a lot more than a pet to the mix, and what you are doing is setting them up for failure.
Of course, while I am willing to acknowledge that there may well be a fundamental need in that regard that the current system fails to address, that does nothing to change the fact that it is not so simple. Yes, these dogs may play a key role in their humans’ live, but all too often these de facto support animals lack even the most basic training, not to mention that there are indeed people who are trying to game the system, and in that regard relaxing the rules would make it harder to weed out those bad seeds (as for the bladder control issue that a lot of people seemed to be obsessing about in that comments section, yes, that may be an issue in some cases, but at the same time I suspect that even the best trained dog would have trouble handling a fourteen hour, non-stop flight without having an accident, especially once you tack the mandatory three hours stuck at the airport to that figure. After all, there comes a point where the focus has to shift from training to basic biology).
So, there is a real problem, the next question is, is there a solution I would like to see implemented? And there the answer is yes, unfortunately it is not exactly realistic: I would like to see a designated space in the cabin that is specifically designed to accommodate a few kennels stacked securely on top of each other, where owners can check on their animals well-being without being able to take them out, but where in case of emergency the crew can make an exception and allow a passenger in distress to take a support animal back to their seat.
Let’s face it, the current system is basically all or nothing. If you are in the middle of a transatlantic flight, and an ’emotional support dog’ becomes disruptive, you can’t exactly stop by the side of the road to move it down to the cargo hold, but by the same token if you have someone in the midst of a severe panic attack because their dog is stuck in the cargo hold, and they are envisioning them dying all kinds of gruesome deaths, you can’t get the dog to the person’s side either (and keep in mind that this scenario is made more likely by the way in which airlines go out of their way to remind you that, once you confine them to the cargo hold, there are no guarantees that your cat/dog will survive the journey).
As for the financial aspect of things, when it comes to certified service dogs the current system where they are allowed to fly for free, and can stay by their human’s side at all times works well enough, but leveling the playing field by giving all others the option of paying double the fee they would be charged if their pets were to travel in the cargo hold the financial incentive to game the system would effectively be taken off the table (and while people seem to think that the financial aspect is the one driving people to try to game the system, I suspect this is one fee most pet owners would be more than willing to pay).
Of course, I do realize that there are other issues that may arise, starting with the fact that passengers with allergies would understandably be up in arms, but the truth is that as things currently stand the same air is circulated in the cabin and the cargo hold, so this wouldn’t make much of a difference. In fact a system where animals are confined to a designated area of the cabin would make it easier for them to minimize their discomfort by enabling them to select a seat on the opposite end of the plane.
That brings us to the noise aspect of things, and while that one would be trickier to deal with, by assigning the nearest seats to those passengers whose animals are traveling in that designated area they would automatically become a sort of buffer that would serve to minimize the discomfort for everyone else… now if only we could get airlines to herd those traveling with small children in a similar fashion, rather than having them strategically distributed throughout the plane (and, yes, that last bit is an example of a little something called sarcasm).