On a recent Hartford-bound flight from Florida, a couple boarded with two vest-clad rare-breed small dogs. As they settled in their seats, they took the dogsâ vests off, unleashed them, and over the duration of the flight, as the human passengers dozed off, the dogs wandered up and down the aisle, even after flight attendants warned the couple to hold on to their pet companions.
It isnât the first time Eliot D. Russman, a passenger on the flight and head of Bloomfield-based Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, has witnessed a spreading trend: dog owners taking their pets wherever they want, often under the ruse that the canines are emotional support animals, with online-purchased harnesses, vests and identification cards meant to prove it.
âThereâs a growing sense of entitlement that people want what they want and they donât care about anyone else,â says Russman, president and CEO of the nonprofit organization that breeds, trains and raises German Shepherds as guide dogs for the blind across North America. âItâs plain and simple selfishness.â
Service dogs have been assisting their owners for generations, not only guiding the blind, but also retrieving and helping stabilize their ownersâ gait.
Another category, therapy dogs, has long been used to calm patients in hospitals and nursing homes and to aid military veterans and civilians suffering from PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder. That includes trained dogs going into schools in the aftermath of a growing number of school shootings.
âDogs have always been incredible for calming people,â says Alice Quinn, a certified dog trainer for more than 30 years. She runs Faithful Friends Service Dog Foundation in Ellington. Her trained therapy dogs were used in Newtown after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, and after an 18-year-old star athlete from Ellington died in an ATV accident four years ago that stunned the close-knit eastern Connecticut community.
Dogs trained to perform specific tasks go through rigorous training. It takes two years before service dogs, like the German Shepherd guide dogs trained by Fidelco at its two centers â one in Bloomfield, the other in Wilton â are placed with clients. Thatâs 15,000 hours of training, âmore instruction than our kids get in kindergarten through college,â says Russman, and $45,000 in direct costs. Therapy dogs such as the ones Quinn trains go through 2,000 hours of task training in addition to obedience training.
One of them is Frankie, a four-year Golden Retriever trained as a diabetic alert dog. He goes everywhere with Lynn Martin, a 53-year-old Ellington woman with Type 1 diabetes.
Even though she checks her blood sugar regularly, her body wonât tell her when her blood sugar is too high or too low. Instead, she relies on Frankie whoâs been taught to sense the insulin spikes and drops in Martinâs bloodstream, putting his paw on her leg if sheâs sitting at her desk or on her shoulder if sheâs on the couch.
Yet despite the rigorous training standards for guide dogs and therapy dogs, a growing number of dog owners are taking advantage of online accouterments, including doctorsâ letters, giving their pets, called emotional support animals, the illusion of legitimacy, say those involved in training service and therapy dogs.
A major concern is that the pet dogs accompanying their owners could jeopardize the safety of those truly dependent on service dogs, not only at airports and on airliners, but also at restaurants, grocery stores and other establishments.
âThe single greatest problem is our guide dogs are harassed or attacked by dogs off leash,â says Fidelcoâs Russman. In one incident, both a guide dog and owner were hospitalized after an off-leash attack. In another case, a poodle at an airport bolted from her owner when she saw a guide dog and owner lining up before boarding.
âIt happens more frequently,â says Russman, who notes those attacks can put service dogs out of commission and undermine the thousands of hours of training and money invested in them, as well as the working partnership between owner and dog.
Didi Tullock, director of the only Connecticut chapter of Pets for Vets, in Ridgefield, says the growing problem could mean establishments ban all dogs â even legitimate ones covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA.
Some states have begun enacting legislation to address the problem, including California, Colorado and Florida, but Connecticut has yet to adopt laws to curb the issue.
Airlines too are recognizing the spreading issue, including Southwest Airlines, one of the busiest airlines at Bradley International Airport, but the policy still allows dogs and cats on flights as emotional support animals.
Russman says heâd like to see other public establishments crack down. He recognizes the anxiety that flying can trigger in many passengers. But, he says, âemotional support animals is kind of an odd phrase in a restaurant or a movie theater or a library or a museum.â