Airlines’ Proposed Emotional Support Animal Rules Divide Veteran Advocacy Groups

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Close-up on the vest of a service dog.
Close-up on the vest of a service dog. (Getty image/andresr)

Some veterans and disability advocates are divided over a rule proposed by the Department of Transportation (DoT) that would let airlines treat emotional support animals as pets.

Until April 6, the DoT is soliciting comments from the public on whether it should let airlines stop recognizing emotional support animals as service animals, and instead only accept trained psychiatric service dogs under that definition. The current policy has been heavily criticized by the public as too lax.

In recent years, passengers have brought miniature horses onboard, and one woman tried to bring a peacock onto a plane. College Humor latched onto the issue two years ago with an "emotional support pterodactyl."

"We're not far away from a legitimate service animal getting into a fight with an iguana, [while a plane is] up in the air," said K9s for Warriors CEO Rory Diamond. "Let people understand the distinction that there's service dogs and there's pets."

Diamond's organization trains shelter dogs to work as service animals for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and military sexual trauma. He sees the proposed change as an "all-around knock-out win," as does American Humane, which does similar work.

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"Everybody loves their dogs," Diamond said, "[But] there is a victim when you take that animal on that plane, and it is the service animal."

His concerns over safety were also raised by the DoT in its proposal, but groups such as the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) and Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) think DoT's current rules provide enough of a deterrent for abuse and worry the proposed changes would be too limiting.

"The proposed rule would mean big changes for all service animal users," Heather Ansley, PVA associate executive director of government relations, said in a statement when the proposal was announced in January. "If implemented, these measures would create a new burden for catastrophically disabled veterans who already have to deal with damaged wheelchairs, lack of accessible lavatories, and bodily harm caused from being transferred on and off the aircraft."

Ken Shiotani, NDRN senior staff attorney, said the proposed policy would create a paperwork burden, such as requiring someone who's blind to provide paperwork showing they need the service animal.

Shiotani said veterans might find it hard to accommodate the proposed size requirements for service animals, which call for them to fit in the passenger's foot space or be placed on the passenger's lap.

The DoT said this shouldn't be a problem as "these animals are often trained to fit into small spaces."

So far, at least 3,000 people have commented on the proposed policy change. Comments can continue to be made here until April 18.

-- Dorothy Mills-Gregg can be reached at dorothy.mills-gregg@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @DMillsGregg.

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