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Emotional support dogs may draw ridicule but they're catching on

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AT THE HIP :  Sachi Bobge, 21, takes her dog Koda everywhere for emotional support. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • AT THE HIP : Sachi Bobge, 21, takes her dog Koda everywhere for emotional support.

Koda’s drooping jowls flapped and sputtered when he sneezed, sending spittles of drool and snot into the air.

“Excuse you,” his owner Sachi Bobge said before wiping his snout with her sweater sleeve.

Bobge takes Koda everywhere, including classes at Cuesta College. The dog, a 2-year-old boxer, is more than a pet to Bobge, though his job is an unusual one. Some dogs help the blind. Some dogs help the deaf. Koda’s purpose is less obvious: He is an emotional support dog, which is exactly as it sounds.

So, what are the requirements of the job?

Basically, any animal can be emotionally supportive. Such unusual choices as lizards, monkeys, and hamsters are among a broad range of emotional support animals. One online forum even referred to a supportive miniature horse.

“I understand where people are coming [from],” Bobge said. “It does sound kind of silly.”

Koda’s job isn’t silly to Bobge, though. Koda is Bobge’s constant companion, like a seeing-eye dog. Unlike a seeing-eye dog, however, Koda is doing his job when he’s simply well-behaved in public and occasionally rests a sympathetic head in Bobge’s lap.

It’s a relatively new idea in the field of assistance animals. After the advent of seeing-eye dogs in the 1920s, animals were used to help people with such disabilities as paralysis and epilepsy. Dogs and other emotional support animals became somewhat common about 10 years ago, rising in popularity over the past five years.

By court definition, there’s a difference between support dogs and service dogs. A service animal “does work or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability.” An emotional support animal is “an animal the presence of which ameliorates the effects of a mental or emotional disability.” In other words, a service animal helps someone with a physical disability while a support animal caters to people with less tangible disabilities.

Bobge falls in the latter category. After suffering losses in her family, coupled with the usual gamut of teenage angst, Bobge started to slip. She had trouble graduating from high school and even disappeared, as she describes it, from home for about three months. She said it was Koda who pushed her to move back home. The dog placed his head in her lap and she realized she had to go back.

Having Koda around relaxes her, she said. His presence helps her remember daily routines she often forgets. Despite a learning disability her grades improved, she said, and she is more social.

“Once I got Koda, he helped me get through everything—all the hardships—and just power through it,” she said as Koda sat in his usual position, perched in her lap, as she sat in the grass.

Koda has gone through the early stages of service-dog training. He wears the same sort of red vest as do more traditional service dogs, and he is about to enter a more rigorous program.

But support dogs and other support animals do not have to be formally trained. Patrick Schwab is a Doctor of Education with the Cuesta College Disabled Students Programs & Services. He estimated there are about six people wandering the campus with emotional support dogs, in addition to those with other service dogs.

In fact, the rules for all assistance animals are decidedly nonrestrictive. Although Koda was introduced to Cuesta with a doctor’s note and county-issued license, those weren’t requirements.

“Kind of as it sits now with our regulations with ADA, we don’t have a way to say that’s a good [animal] and that’s an inappropriate one,” Schwab said.

The Americans with Disabilities Act essentially prevents anyone from questioning whether someone really needs an assistance animal, said Eric Anderson of SLO County Animal Services. Although his office uses some discretion before issuing a state-approved assistance tag, nearly anyone willing to sign an affidavit can be approved.

“There really is very little in the way of formal requirements on this,” Anderson said.

The system is undoubtedly susceptible to abuse. Bobge said there are even websites that supply the red assistance-dog vests.

But the rules could change. Recent chatter in Washington, D.C., has led some to believe the ADA standards may become more stringent. According to a disability-focused newsletter Schwab provided, there nearly was a change in the definition of assistance animals. That new language came from an early interpretation of the ADA Amendment Act of 2008, but has been delayed, and possibly derailed, under the Obama Administration.

For his part, Schwab said he believed the proposed rules would be overly restrictive. And Bobge worried they could make it harder for people without an easily identifiable condition to obtain a support animal. Currently a doctor’s note is helpful in getting county approval, but a note is not mandatory.

Support animals do help, according to Dr. Terri Quinn, a SLO-based private practice psychologist. Quinn said she has recommended support animals, usually dogs, to several of her patients. Generally, support animals are best suited for people with severe anxiety, depression, or agoraphobia, she said. Animals can simply help some people go outside, she said. “They wouldn’t function nearly as well without it.”

For people with support animals, the biggest challenge tends to be perceptions, Bobge said. It’s hard to look at Bobge and argue she needs Koda’s constant companionship. She seems well adjusted, but that’s the point, she said. “I’m not able to live a normal life unless I have my dog with me.”

Support Staff Writer Colin Rigley at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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