A colleague sent me a meme like the one here after a conversation we had about the requests we get from people to turn their dogs into “Emotional Support Dogs”. I realise that this is a sensitive subject, but it is something that is getting out of hand and needs to be addressed.
Most people don’t actually seem to have any idea what they really mean by an emotional support dog. There often just seems to be a vague idea that if the dog is “registered”, he/she will be able to go everywhere with them or will somehow be able to absorb their anxiety or stress and make them feel better. And then of course, there are those people who deliberately try to acquire this status for their dogs under false pretenses, in order to get the dog allowed on public transport or in public places or simply because it seems to be the new fashion to be able to say “this is my emotional support dog”. (As an aside – it is worth noting that there is no such registry in South Africa and any trainer who claims to be able to train and register your dog as an emotional support dog is making fraudulent claims.)
I am not trying to be insensitive to people who are looking for help with genuine emotional struggles. I am rather trying to be sensitive to the needs of dogs and to the people who have highly trained and specially selected dogs for legitimate reasons. People who have valid reasons for needing to take their dogs everywhere with them, but who end up being disadvantaged by the large number of downright fraudulent or frivolous claims made about dogs being “emotional support dogs”. So, let’s have a quick look at the genuine cases:
1. There are assistance dogs for people with various disabilities i.e. guide dogs for the blind, hearing dogs for the deaf and dogs that assist people in wheelchairs with everyday tasks.
2. There are medical detection dogs i.e. dogs that are trained to detect changes in blood sugar or epileptic fits etc.
3. There are emotional support dogs for people who suffer from panic attacks – dogs that have been trained to detect changes in breathing and calm the person to prevent hyperventilation.
All these dogs are specially selected for these tasks. They require solid temperaments and must be incredibly well-socialised in order to be comfortable in a variety of situations and public spaces. Most of these dogs undergo extensive training by experts in the field for anything up to 2 years. Many of these dogs are bred, selected, trained and socialised for this one specific purpose from day one. They do not have ordinary lives and they need to be extraordinary dogs (some do not even make the grade at the end of the day, despite everything that is put into them).
Most people who ask us to train their dogs to be emotional support dogs fall into two categories:
1. They are fabricating a need for this to get permission to take the dog places dogs aren't usually allowed.
2. They have genuine emotional problems and have been told that a dog will help to alleviate their anxiety, stress or depression.
What we need to start thinking about is the impact that relying on a dog to emotionally support us has on the dog. Dogs are sensitive to our feelings and moods. We know that very well (and studies have proved it), which is why we believe they can help us. But think about how your dog responds when you are anxious or emotional – I know that mine will show very clear signs of anxiety themselves. If I am upset, Rosie will come over and lick me insistently – she is clearly concerned. I have a friend and colleague who deliberately will go away from her dogs if she is feeling emotional, because it is so upsetting for her dogs to see her cry. Is it fair or realistic to expect our dogs to absorb our emotions like a sponge and then magically transmit beams of love and light back to us?
Of course, our dogs are a comfort to us and of course all dogs living with human beings will be exposed to our emotions (and no one is happy all the time), but is it right to acquire a dog purely as some form of therapy, Valium or Prozac? Dogs have needs of their own and we need to be in a position to fulfil these needs. Some dogs also have their own emotional baggage - this is often especially true of rescued dogs, yet it is often rescued dogs that people are acquiring with the intent to turn them into emotional support dogs. It is simply unrealistic and unfair to place the burden of resolving our emotional problems on a dog that most likely will need help to overcome his or her own emotional issues (it is unfair to place this burden on any dog). Furthermore, taking on a dog that has its own struggles is emotionally taxing for anyone and is likely to exacerbate a person's anxiety, depression or stress. Coping with and addressing fear and reactivity in dogs requires emotional resources that someone who is struggling with their own mental health simply may not have.
We also need to consider that as much as we might want our dogs to accompany us everywhere, it may not be in the dog’s best interest to do so. Many dogs find public places stressful – crowds, strangers, traffic, going into strange buildings etc. may all cause anxiety. Many dogs would be far more comfortable sleeping at home than being dragged around all over the place and inspected by everyone we encounter. We have to start thinking beyond our own needs and consider our dogs’ needs as well. The instances of “emotional support dogs” biting members of the public (just do a google search and see the results), show very clearly that many dogs are being put in situations that are completely inappropriate, because of the selfishness of their owners.
As human beings we are all on a spectrum when it comes to emotional and mental health. We all have good days and bad days. We all go through times of stress, sadness and anxiety. I am not saying that if a person struggles more with emotional health than someone else, that they should not have dog – what I am saying, is that acquiring a dog with the expectation that they will resolve our emotional difficulties is setting both dogs and humans up for failure. Our first consideration when getting a dog should be what we can do for them (can we give them a lifestyle that will fulfill their needs) and not just what they can do for us.
Side Note: Apparently in the US dogs trained to interrupt panic attacks are called "Psychiatric Support/Service Dogs" and would fall under service dogs as opposed to Emotional Support Dogs. However, in many other countries this term is not used. I think I have made it quite clear that I would not be referring to legitimate psychiatric support dogs in this post.