One of my colleagues at University of Northern Iowa is sight impaired. A hard-working, pretty smart guy, he does his job extremely well, aided in great part by a guide dog or what is sometimes called a seeing-eye dog. The dog knows what is required and remarkably well-behaved. Most of the time I was not even aware of his presence. I don’t know of anyone who ever objected to this dog. The formal, legal definition of these dogs is service animal, and they certainly provide a necessary and valuable service.

Service dogs receive a great deal of training and have special certification. The five most common uses of service dogs are for those with visual impairments, PTSD sufferers, hearing impairments, hypoglycemia/depression and depression. I think it’s great dogs can help anyone who has to deal with these issues, and like most people I fully support their use.

Yet another classification of support dogs is emotional support animal. An ESA provides emotional and therapeutic benefit to those suffering with emotional issues, anxiety or psychiatric problems. However, the training for ESAs can be minimal or nonexistent. A certification is easy to obtain online. One website claims: “At USA Service Dog Registration we provide full registration of your ESA. The registration is completely free and we can arrange a licensed mental health counselor to provide an emotional support animal letter.”

Turns out this mental health counselor has a brief email conversation with the animal’s owner and then issues the appropriate letter that can be required by landlords, retailers and airlines. Doesn’t sound like the same type of exams my counselor acquaintances have been giving for years to the truly troubled in need of mental health treatment. Frankly, it sounds bogus.

Let me be clear. I can understand the value of ESAs to those who really need this kind of support. The unconditional love a dog can give can be invaluable to a troubled person. Dogs are nonjudgmental and forgiving. They can provide enormous comfort to those in need.

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But, I see people who are using this classification of ESA as a way to take their household pets everywhere with them. We are seeing dogs in grocery stores, restaurants, classrooms and airplanes, to name just a few spots. I am a strong supporter of service animals and I understand the use of ESAs, but when people abuse the ESA classification to have their pets accompany them for what I fear are less-than-legitimate reasons, I’m troubled. I have a good friend who is extremely allergic to dogs and now fears flying because of the possibility of being near a dog on a crowded


I have seen so-called ESA dogs fighting in restaurants and threatening students. To me this is over the line.

It’s time to more carefully define and regulate the ESA classification to prevent abuse. The current practice trivializes and demeans those who truly need this help and that is unacceptable.

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Fred Abraham is professor emeritus and former head of the economics department at the University of Northern Iowa. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not reflect those of the university.


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