The Problem With Philip: On Emotional Support Dogs

posted in: Philip Larkin 84
Oh, Philip! Is it you?? Image: Wikipedia.


It’s been awhile since I updated you on my future dog. If you don’t know about wee Philip Larkin (aka “Philip Barkin,” aka “Pipkin,” aka “Mary’s Heart’s Delight,” etc.), just click the category over there on the right-hand side of the blog that says “Philip Larkin” and you can see the posts about him.

The good news is that, thanks to all of your incredible internet sleuthing and helpful suggestions about where to get me a Philip, I believe I have found my source. Thank you, thank you to all for your input about breeders vs. shelters; your warnings about puppy mills; your care and concern for animals in this world and your care and concern for me. I am more convicted than ever: Once I am able to provide a stable home for my lil’ pup — after graduation, with a more routine travel schedule — I will put the wheels in motion.


Except that the bad news is something which has not changed since the last time we talked but is now weighing most heavily on my mind: I would have to petition my condo board and management to have Philip in my building. Because dogs are not allowed in this building … Unless.

Unless they are service animals.

Please, please read the rest of the post before commenting. Beware when/if emotions begin to take over, and use your brilliant mind to reason out your thoughts before typing anything. (I have come to expect the best from you.) And I need your help. This post is sort of like the nursing post: I’m really of two minds on all this as it applies to my own life and your input is valued. So bring your values as we look at this hot topic together. And sorry this post is so long, but splitting it into two would be chaos. I need to say the whole thing at once.

If you need filling in, the deal is this:

Service animals — often dogs, but not always — are animals trained to help their owner navigate the world due to that owner being disabled or differently-abled. Service animals can go pretty much anywhere with their owner — including places that usually don’t allow pets, like stores, airplanes, and condominiums — because their owner needs that animal to be in the world. For example, a person who is legally blind may use a seeing-eye dog; a person who needs help reaching things or retrieving things as a result of limited mobility may have a pet who can help with that. Everyone agrees these smart, loving service creatures are superheros.

Some service animals serve owners in a different, official-ish capacity as so-called “emotional support” animals. These service animals are understood to provide relief of the mental and emotional kind for those who care for them. Emotional support animals are needed less when crossing the street, more to quell anxiety attacks; less needed for alerting paramedics to an ostomy, more needed for the crushing depression and grinding loneliness that might come from a medical condition. For example.

And that’s not quack stuff or touchy-feely logic. Anyone who has a pet knows how much emotional support pets provide. And across the board, doctors, therapists, behavioral scientists, caretakers, casual observers, and certainly the owners of animals are all in agreement: Pets help people cope with hard stuff. Whether it’s cancer, HIV/AIDS, depression, PTSD, or the havoc of life, or the stubborn existential crisis, or any number of health disasters that can befall us at any time, having an animal around makes us feel better. A pet is a friend — and we all need a friend, especially when we’re facing hard stuff.

I live alone. I have friends, but I don’t have a partner. Most of the time I’m okay like that, but sometimes I am terribly lonesome. My forever GI situation and day-to-day management of my body is exhausting and if I think about it too long, I get sad, very sad, very sad. Until my insurance got canceled, I saw a therapist every 10 days because like millions of other Americans, I face depression. I can’t afford Dr. Herman right now, so I am not in therapy.

Every time I think even for a second about how happy my little Philip would make me, running toward me when I get home with his little tongue out, well, I just burst into tears. I’m literally crying right now, thinking of his funny face. It happens every time.

I could petition and do the “emotional support animal” thing and likely succeed. I write effective letters. But is it really fair to try and get special treatment to have my dog?

The reason there are no dogs allowed in my building is because dogs are hard on a building. I’m an owner in this condominium. I have agreed to the rules. I want others to play by those rules, too. What if everyone petitioned for a dog? I wouldn’t like that. I’d move, eventually, if the house was a big dog park. So, okay: Maybe if I want a dog so badly, should be the one who moves to a dog-friendly building, not be the person who inconveniences my neighbors — neighbors who moved into the building possibly because there was a no-dog policy.

A lot of the controversy surrounding emotional support animals centers on people taking their emotional support animals into airports, grocery store lines, Starbucks cafes, into bathrooms — into places that are not for dogs. If the dog is wild, if the dog misbehaves, if the dog acts like a dog at all and not like a stuffed animal, people get understandably upset. And they get way more upset if the person with the wild dog is like, “I need this animal for emotional support” when really, they just didn’t want to board their dog or they really just think they don’t need to obey the rules. There are absolutely those people out there. I read about one man taking a peacock on a plane because he needed it for “emotional support.” Dude, really?

However. We can’t tell who has a disability or not. The woman at the movie theater with her dog on her lap — her dog who is wearing a “I’m an Emotional Support Animal” jacket purchased online for a few dollars — might very well be gaming the system. And she makes it harder for others who really do need emotional support and can find that in a pet that they need close as much as possible. But she also might be dealing with crippling anxiety and agoraphobia and her pup is helping her be in the world. We don’t know who has mental illness most of the time. We don’t know each other’s lives until we do. And when we do, it’s harder to be judgemental.

Two last things:

  1. I’m afraid that if I would try for this special dispensation, I would be lumped in with the people who are gaming the system and that would be embarrassing and unfair. I’m afraid that I would be taking advantage of a system, that I don’t need Philip that badly, that if I got permission and it made people mad, it might make it harder for someone with terminal cancer to get a dog or cat that saves their life every day.
  2. When I told my family that I would have to make Philip a service animal to get permission to have him, I told them about those fears I just mentioned. Mom, Hannah, and Rebecca, almost on cue, looked at me and said, “Um … Mar, you definitely need emotional support. Get … Get the dog.”

But I don’t know. Talk to me.