50 Pounds Of Growling, Biting “Emotional Support”

Some stories sound like nightmares come to life.  Marlin Jackson’s experience in boarding a Delta flight from Atlanta to San Diego falls, horribly, into that category.

Jackson had a window seat on the flight.  According to his attorneys, as Jackson boarded the plane and moved up the aisle, he saw that the middle seat in his row was already occupied — by a man with a 50-pound dog, a lab-pointer mix, on his lap.  The dog’s owner had brought the dog aboard as an “emotional support” animal.

angry-dogAfter Jackson took his seat and began to put on his seat belt, the dog started growling at him.  The growling increased, and then the dog lunged at Jackson and began biting him in the face.  Jackson couldn’t escape because of his position, pinned in the window seat.  The dog was initially pulled away but broke loose and attacked Jackson a second time before he was finally restrained.  By then, Jackson had suffered severe facial lacerations and had to be taken by ambulance to the emergency room, where his injuries required 28 stitches.

Why in the world would a 50-pound dog be seated on the lap of its owner in the middle seat on a transcontinental flight?  According to the article linked above, the federal Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to accommodate service or emotional support animals, within certain guidelines, and the Department of Transportation says that airlines cannot require that service and support animals be carried in a kennel unless there is “a safety-related reason to do so.”  The article also reports that Delta’s website states that “[a] kennel is not required for emotional support animals if they are fully trained and meet the same requirements as a service animal.”  Of course, how in the world are an airline and a federal agency supposed to know whether a particular dog, or other animal, meets those requirements when it appears at the airport with its owner and they seek to board a flight?

Anyone who travels much has noticed that dogs in airports are increasingly common.  I’ve been seated next to a passenger traveling with a dog — but the dog was kept in a kennel under the seat in front of her.  It’s one thing to be seated elbow to elbow next to an unknown person on a flight, but it’s quite another to be seated inches away from a strange 50-pound dog sitting loose on its owner’s lap.  Would you get that close to a strange dog under any other circumstances?  If I were Jackson, I’m not sure that I would have taken my seat.  Is it really fair to ask a passenger to accept that kind of risk?

I like dogs, and I have no problem with trained service dogs in public places.  I also can understand how dogs can provide important emotional support to people — but I think we’ve gone too far when we are letting “emotional support” dogs travel unrestrained in the passenger cabin on planes.