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Proposed airline ban could keep emotional support animals grounded

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BIRMINGHAM, A.L. (WIAT) — A ‘ruff’ policy proposed by the U.S. Department of Transportation Wednesday would limit animals on planes to trained service dogs, a change some think may be a good thing for both passengers and their pets.

The department has asked for public input on changes they are considering to their airline policies, one being to no longer include emotional support animals in the service animal category. Both are currently allowed to fly with passengers in the cabin. Another proposed rule would be to define a service animal as a dog trained to do work to “perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability,” whereas an emotional support animal is one that does not require training.

“The Department recognizes the integral role that service animals play in the lives of many individuals with disabilities and wants to ensure that individuals with disabilities can continue using their service animals while also reducing the likelihood that passengers wishing to travel with their pets on aircraft will be able to falsely claim their pets are service animals,” a release from the department stated.

For Frances McGowin, executive director of Service Dogs Alabama, a rule to limit animals on planes to trained service dogs is a step toward better airline safety.

“This law is the first step toward some kind of regulatory program, so we can define better what is a trained service animal,” McGowin said.

The rule proposals come amidst a public debate on the definition of a service animal. Because there are no federal guidelines on service animal classification or credentialing requirements, there has been what McGowin has called an abuse of the system. Because of it, everything from untrained dogs, cats, pigs, and even miniatures horses, have been allowed on planes.

According to statistics from the Associated Press, Southwest Airlines handles over 190,000 emotional support animals per year. In addition, they reported in 2017 American Airlines carried 155,790 emotional support animals and United Airlines carried 76,000.

Part of the proposed change would be to require those with disabilities fill out paperwork ensuring their service animals are well-trained and healthy. McGowin said when it comes to service animals, those criteria are not always guaranteed.

“We get complaints about people bringing animals that have fleas or sores,” she said.

McGowin said that until a governing body is created that can legitimize standards for training and verifying service animals, establishing that emotional support animals are not the same as service animals is a step in the right direction.

“We are completely for this as a way to keep everyone safe,” McGowin said.

Last year, a law was put in place in Alabama that penalizes people who pass their dogs off as service animals, making it a Class C misdemeanor to do so, resulting in a $100 fine and 100 hours of community service.

“The problem is people don’t know what a service animal is. They think a service dog is just one that makes you feel better,” McGowin said. “They don’t know the protocol.”

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