Slapping a Vest on Your Dog…or Crocodile…Does Not Make It a Service Animal

Today we are going to approach an issue that makes folks a bit squirrelly, but it’s about time we get dogged about this increasingly frustrating aviation issue. We’ve been doing the same old political pussyfooting around the point for ages now, but it’s time to stop horsing around about the safety of the crew and passengers. Fake service animals on planes…well, bite. Pun totally intended.

Let’s get something straight; slapping a pretty red vest emblazoned with the letters E.S.A. on your beloved pet rattlesnake, hamster, peacock, turkey, etc., etc., etc., etc., up to and including your pet dog…


And guess what else? Convincing your dermatologist or gynecologist (who happens to be your neighbor…or best bud) to issue you a piece of paper stating that you desperately need a sugar glider in your carryon pouch to survive an airplane ride emotionally intact, doesn’t render it’s service animal status any more viable. But in my not-so-humble opinion, it should absolutely make both them and you financially liable. If an animal that you have declared as an E.S.A. inflicts harm upon another person, I wholeheartedly believe you should have to shovel out some serious emotional support cash. Big time. Piles and piles of it. And that issuing physician? He or she should be promptly slapped with some hefty fines and maybe even some malpractice suits to boot. And since we are talking about air travel in particular here, you should also be permanently banned from stepping foot on another plane for the rest of your life.

Maybe then some of this ludicrous nonsense would finally come to a screeching halt. You know, it’s a little thing I like to call ‘personal responsibility’. There’s not nearly enough of it in our world anymore. Case in point…

Let me tell you a quick story. I was at the supermarket the other day eagerly ogling some nice, juicy, emotional support cows (i.e. steaks) when a young couple casually meandered up next to me. They were probably in their early to mid 20’s or so. Nestled protectively in the woman’s arms, swaddled in the folds of a plush pink baby blanket was the tiniest, shiveringist, cutest, waif of a dog I have ever seen in my entire life. It was a Chihuahua puppy, and it couldn’t have been more than 12 weeks old at the very most. It was, without a doubt, absolutely adorable. And also absolutely against the store’s rules.

This is a pet, not a service dog.

A manager rightfully approached the couple and informed them (quite nicely in my opinion) that animals were not allowed in the grocery store and they would have to remove the puppy from the building. The young woman glared right into the managers eyes and audaciously exclaimed, “It’s not JUST an animal, lady. It’s my service dog.’

Grrrrrr to the freaking grrrrrrrrrrrr.

Yeah, no. That little, tiny, terrified, shivering morsel of a dog was NOT a service anything. Obviously. It was barely a puppy, and a very scared one at that. The manager responded, “That is not a service animal. That is a pet. You need to remove it from the store immediately, please.” That’s when the boyfriend pipes in (because the entire situation wasn’t preposterous enough), “Oh, yeah? Well we’ll just go buy her a service dog collar on Amazon and then you can’t stop us from bringing her in whenever we want.” Uh…yes…they can.

Oh, good freaking grief! Entitled much?

Man, I wanted to gut punch the pair of them. Twice. Or feed them to Fluffy, my emotional support saltwater crocodile. Because – what a bunch of ignorant, narcissistic, egomaniacal, hogwash…or dogwash, as it may be. These two people are exactly everything gone wrong with the whole ’emotional support animal’ situation…and maybe even the world as a whole. And it’s making me a whole lot of crazy. I don’t think I’m the only one.

So let me repeat myself in case anyone missed it: Slapping a pretty red vest emblazoned with the letters E.S.A. on your beloved pet cat, hamster, peacock, turkey, etc., etc., etc., etc., up to and including your pet dog…


It actually doesn’t even make it an emotional support animal. It makes it nothing more and nothing less than a pet in a vest with a self-absorbed owner.

Slapping a pretty red vest emblazoned with the letters 'ESA' does not make it a service animal. It makes it a pet in a vest. Click To Tweet

Now before you get your hackles up, I love animals. Love, love, love them with a capital ‘L’. All of them. I even respect animals most people have absolutely no use for (like snakes, lizards, spiders). In fact, I’d choose to spend time with almost any animal over almost any human 101.9% of the time. I have an entire homestead full of the most amazing creatures on the entire planet…both domestic and wild, and we all live together in peaceful harmony. It is, bar none, the happiest place I can imagine. Because…animals! There is nothing that makes me feel more inwardly peaceful and emotionally secure than watching my chickens and ducks scratch and peck around the farm in the waning evening light while our beautiful Barred Owls perch in the red oak hooting merrily, announcing the approaching dusk. So I guess you could call them all my emotional support animals.

But I don’t take them on an aircraft. Because, well, that would be stupid. With a capital ‘S’.

And selfish.

And irresponsible.

And just ‘plane’ asinine.

I also adore and 100% support the ownership, use of, and travel with trained, ADA certified service animals. But let us correctly define what a service animal is. As quoted by the US Service Dog Registry, a service animal is one that ‘helps with performing a function for a person that is limited by a disability’ including ‘mobility issues, visual impairment (blindness), hearing impairment (deafness), seizures, diabetes, PTSD, autism, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis (MS), and other physical/mental disabilities.’

We (as in my family) work closely with lots of special needs families and have seen firsthand the unquestionable importance of these incredible animals in improving the day-to-day functionality of men, women, and children with disabilities. They are amazing animals protected by the ADA who exponentially enhance quality of life and allow those with disabilities to live fully and independently. They are also highly trained animals that pose little to no danger to the general public.

Service dogs are amazing and highly trained animals that allow those with disabilities to live independent lives.

I guarantee little girls at the airport do not get their faces torn off by service dogs…no, it’s fake, untrained, untested ’emotional support’ animals that create that sort of repugnant havoc. No…let me rephrase that correctly. It’s the owners of fake untrained, untested, ’emotional support’ animals that create that sort of repugnant havoc. The animals are actually the other victims of the idiocy.

Service dogs endure extensive testing by trained professionals and must meet very strict personality/aggression guidelines as well as be acclimated to the [terrifying] environmental stresses of innumerable situations in order to earn their vest. There’s a very good reason for that. For instance:

Recently, a flight attendant for Envoy Airlines (an American Airlines subsidiary) was bitten on the hand while assisting a passenger and required five stitches because an ’emotional support dog’ felt ‘threatened’ by him. Real service dogs don’t bite. Real service dogs aren’t threatened by a human hand. Real service dogs have been exposed and conditioned to the stressors of public interactions.

Of course, I guess there’s always the very real chance the pooch just didn’t appreciate the snack selections and took matters into his own paws…or teeth, as it may be. That I at least understand. ‘Give me a stroopwaffel or I will tear your hand off!’ Makes perfect sense to me. I may have even growled those very words myself once or twice! (Just kidding. Mostly.)

In February of 2018, an emotional support dog bit a child in the forehead during an SWA flight. And there was the lab-mix  ESA two years ago who left a man with severe facial injuries on a Delta flight. Of course we all remember the emotional support pit bull that mauled a five-year old girl at the airport in 2017. And on and on and on and on we go; where it stops nobody knows.

Don’t even get me started on the endless and utterly ridiculous list of avian, reptilian, rodent, amphibious, and exotic creatures that people have tried to pass off as emotional support. Look, I’m sorry, but if you need to fly with a turkey in order to keep from having a psychological meltdown, emotional support is the least of your issues.

By the way, public service announcement: Not wanting to pay the extra mullah for a ticket for your pet does not constitute an emotional support situation. Unless of course ‘cheap’ and ‘selfish’ happen to be psychologically recognized diagnoses? Pay the money; keep them in their carriers. Where. They. Belong.

Not wanting to pay the extra mullah for a ticket for your pet does not constitute an emotional support situation. Click To Tweet

Here’s why it all really makes me beyond livid and why it needs to stop…like yesterday:

  1. You are ruining it for those people who actually need service animals to survive. That makes you a bonafide jerk. My dear friend has a deadly peanut allergy. If she so much as gets a whiff of peanut dust, she’s on the floor struggling to breathe and being unceremoniously stabbed with an Epi. Fun stuff. She has a cool peanut sniffing dog. Quite incredible, actually! This animal is the only reason she can safely step outside her home. Without that highly trained service dog by her side, she is in constant danger of anaphylaxis, hospitalization, and even death. I know a child with epilepsy who’s dog alerts his family to an upcoming seizure episode, a blind man who can live a fully independent life because of his dog’s specialized skills and training, a paraplegic whose dog is crucial for daily tasks. My aunt and uncle train service dogs for veterans who are completely debilitated by PTSD without their dogs. These are service dogs. Trained animals necessary for the livelihood of an individual. These people need these amazing animals to live their lives. And yet, every day they find it more and more difficult to take their dogs anywhere because everyone is starting to question the validity of every service animal they encounter. They demand to see ‘the paperwork’. They give them a hard time. They doubt them. They harass them. All because some small segment of selfish fools want to take their pet Rottweiler for a free plane ride (as a side note, I have had TWO Rotties and adore them) to Rochester or their Peacock to Paris.
  2. You are putting humans in harms way. Long ago in the before time, I used to work as a veterinary assistant. It never failed that someone would bring in a pretty, fluffy cat or primped little Yorkie with painted nails and pink ribbons tied in it’s fur and tell me what an angel their baby was. And I’m sure they were. At home. But as soon as you take Snowball out of his normal, comfortable, acclimated environment with his daily rhythms and well-recognized people and toss him/her into a completely unfamiliar situation with tons of strangers, reaching hands (hands are seriously terrifying), sudden, loud noises, scary sights, unfamiliar smells… Well, needless to say it was always the ‘angels’ I had to watch out for. The moment that sweet little puss’ owner walked out that door, it was like someone threw Gizmo in the pool and it morphed into Spike (kuddos to you that get the Gremlins reference). All bets were off; Angel instantly transformed into Mini-Satan, and I still have the scars to prove it. I have been bitten by more of ‘momma’s sweetest little kitties and puppies’ than I care to reiterate. To this day I have an understandable and well-founded fear of Chihuahuas! Here’s my long-winded point – when you slap a vest a dog (or any animal) who has had zero behavioral training, zero acclimation to vast arrays of circumstances, and zero personality/aggression testing and take into highly stressful, unfamiliar situations, you are legitimately asking for someone’s face to get ripped off. Animals understandably and naturally react to things that cause them anxiety and fear. It’s not their fault; it’s yours. Because they are not trained service animals; they are unprepared pets that have no business being disguised as service animals just so you can save a buck. That’s how people get hurt. Badly.
  3. You are putting your beloved pet in danger. Let’s expound on number two above. Not only is your untrained/untested animal a danger to others when it is suddenly dragged into an unfamiliar and scary environment – like the airport. It is also a danger to itself. That place freaks me out! Just think of how all that chaos must seem to a little critter! You are likely causing great anxiety, stress, and fear in an animal that you claim to adore. There’s a good chance your EMA is going to need an EMA when you are done! That’s not any more fair to your pet than it is to your fellow travelers. There’s also the danger of an excited or scared animal escaping and getting injured. And let’s face it, if your dog bites someone, there’s a good chance that there is going to be a hefty price for the animal to pay – whether that price is quarantine, caging, muzzling, rehoming, or euthanasia. Oh, by the way, flushing your ‘beloved’ emotional support hamster down the airport toilet or shoving your ‘adored’ fur baby in an un-ventilated overhead bin with heavy, shifting baggage…probably doesn’t make him feel very emotionally supported or loved either. It does speak volumes about the kind of (disgusting) human you are though. Just saying. Bottom line. Don’t assume that just because FiFi is the sweetest little angel at home that she’s going to be just as laidback when surrounded by the overwhelming scents, sounds, and sights of an airport. There’s a reason why service animals go through extensive situational training and acclimation. Don’t put your beloved pet in a situation that is terrifying and dangerous to her. Keep her safely in a carrier where she belongs.
  4. Health hazards. Animals are animals, and even well-tended, properly raised, fully vaccinated animals carry bacteria, parasites, and diseases that can affect humans and/or other animals. For instance, poultry regularly shed Salmonella bacteria. They can also be carriers of avian flu and Marek’s which is highly contagious and deadly to other exposed poultry. Rodents (including that sweet hamster) can and do carry hantavirus, leptospirosis, lymphocytic choriomeningitis (LCMV), Tularemia and Salmonella. Reptiles? Salmonella, botulism, Campylobacteriosis, leptospirosis, No bites necessary for exposure. Cats carry both Pasteurella multocida and Capnocytophaga, naturally occurring bacteria in their saliva. They can be severe to deadly when transferred to humans via bite. Even dogs can carry all sorts of nasty bacteria in their saliva and on their skin (if you only saw what my my Lab eats and rolls in!). Not to mention fleas, ticks, lice, and other transferrable parasites. Yep, even treated dogs can pick them up and bring them aboard the plane. Then there’s the fact that many, many people have severe allergies to dog and cat dander. In fact, cats are ranked as one of the most common allergies. Your emotional support kitty could very wall cause rashes, respiratory problems, and even anaphylaxis for a fellow (or future) passenger. And squirrels? Don’t even get me started on the pet tree rats.

Look, I’m not even against E.S.A.s as a whole. I believe in some instances (such as children with severe autism) they can be very beneficial and certainly more economical than a full-blown service dog which can cost thousands of dollars and take years to train. I get that. What I am saying is that this entire thing is waaaaaaay out of control. We live in a society that has come to a teetering precipice where the only well-being anyone cares about is their own, and everyone thinks they have the ‘right’ to do whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want, everyone else be damned! No, no, no, no, no.

I absolutely believe that new federal guidelines should be adopted for emotional support animals. An E.S.A. should undergo something similar to that of therapy dogs. At the very least, they should have personality, aggression, and situational/environmental testing by professionals, meet strict species and breed guidelines, have completed a required list of vaccinations, and be certified via a qualified trainer that they are not a danger to other humans or animals. This certification paperwork should then be filed upon purchase your tickets. No papers, no ESA. Period.

The airlines also need to adopt stricter rules and penalties regarding unconfined animal passengers. Like yesterday. Perhaps the easiest solution is to simply ban emotional support animals altogether (not ADA protected service animals, mind you) or demand that dogs be muzzled and smaller animals crated at all times while on airport property as well as in the plane. There is a part of me that really hates that a few selfish, self-indulgent schmucks are completely ruining it for the people who really benefit from these animals, but there’s a much larger part of me that is completely fed up with the nonsense.

This I know; at no time, in no way is a crew member or a fellow passenger being bitten by an E.S.A. ever acceptable. Period. It’s intolerable.

At no time, in no way is a crew member or a fellow passenger being bitten by an E.S.A. ever acceptable. Period. It's intolerable. Click To Tweet

They need to instate harsh and immediate penalties for anyone whose E.S.A. injures another human or animal, including removal of that animal from your care (because, frankly, you suck as an owner anyway), a large sum of emotional support cash to the person(s) to whom your ignorance caused harm, a severe fine from the airlines for the financial losses your inevitable delay caused, and placement on a permanent no-fly list. Because at no time does one’s own selfish desires supersede the comfort and safety of the crew and other passengers. Like grandma used to say, the world does not revolve around you.

If you don’t like it, sorry, not sorry.

Flight is a privilege. Let me repeat that. Flight. Is. A. Privilege. It seems like we have forgotten that little fact somewhere along the path to entitlement. There are rules and regulations, most of which are written in someone’s blood. You don’t get to make up your own. You don’t get to decide which ones you don’t feel like following today. You don’t get to slap a vest on Fluffy, your emotional support saltwater crocodile and take him aboard. (Only I get to do that!). Did I mention…no, no, no, no, no!

Fluffy models his new ESA vest. It was a Prime Day special!

If flying is scary for you (and I absolutely know and understand it is for many and am completely sympathetic to that), take a sedative before flight, have A glass of wine (not ten – don’t even get me started on drunks on planes), listen to soothing music, bring a stress relieving ball, carry a stuffed dog to stroke and hug during takeoff and landing, hold your neighbor’s hand…but leave your friggin’ turkeys, hamsters, and untrained dogs at home. Safe. Where they belong.

If you truly have a severe psychosis that requires you to travel with a peacock or squirrel…okay, I get that too (I guess). Okay, I don’t. Not even a little bit. But I really, really do feel for you. I’m sure that mega sucks. But if this is the case, if you cannot be separated from your python without having an emotional implosion, you are honestly not stable enough to be 30,000 feet in the air surrounded by strangers in a claustrophobic sardine can that you cannot get out of for upteen hours…where you might very well have a psychotic episode and put yourself and others in grave danger. You are a risk to my husband, my friends, my family, and every passenger on the plane..and yourself. That’s not okay with me. Do yourself and everyone else a favor, don’t fly. Rent a car. Then if it makes you feel better, Tiny the Tiger can go with you to the moon and back for all I care.

But good luck renting that hotel room.

Look, it’s time we stopped ducking this issue. The safety of the multitudes should not be compromised or sacrificed for the appeasement of the one. How many stitches must be placed? How many children disfigured? How many crew and passengers bitten? We must demand the immediate adaptation of the regulations and penalties regarding the allowance of emotional support animals on airplanes before something else terrible happens. And that’s no bull.

Blue Skies and Smooth Horizons,

Angelia and Fluffy (a fellow Pilot Wife and her emotional support saltwater crocodile)

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1 thought on “Slapping a Vest on Your Dog…or Crocodile…Does Not Make It a Service Animal”

  1. I wholeheartedly agree!! As the mother of a young adult with multiple disabilities that would qualify her for a service animal, this sort of thing infuriates me. I see it a lot at my local Walmart and once at the medical facility I’d just left. Its people like this that ruin it for the people who really need it.

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