When your emotional support pit bull bites
“They want to kill ‘Cozy,’ our office emotional support dog!” were the first words spoken by “Chris,” who sounded just seconds away from crying. “Can you stop them? You’ve got to help me stop them,” he kept repeating.
He found my column online, gambled that I would listen and help prevent his local Animal Control Department from destroying the Pit Bull-Labrador mixed breed which he and Linda, his fiancee, adopted from a rescue as a pet three years ago and, “which provides comfort to us and our 6 optician-employees, most of whom suffer from anxiety,” he explained.
He was right about one thing; I would listen to his story which went deep into issues that he had given virtually no thought to.
Support vs. service dog
In the past several years there has been a growing awareness of the tremendous benefit to our lives brought by service animals, defined by the U.S. Department of Justice since March 15, 2011 as: “Dogs — including psychiatric service dogs — that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” They have considerable protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, emotional support animals do not.
Service dogs and emotional support animals aren’t the same thing. In the US, owners of an emotional support animal must have an emotional or mental disability that is certified by a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other licensed mental health care provider.
While state laws differ somewhat, in general;
• An owner’s mental health impairment must be substantial enough to produce disability, rather than discomfort or a desire to have a pet, and;
• The emotional support animal’s presence must provide a significant benefit that makes the difference between the person functioning adequately or not.
Neither Chris nor his fiancee obtained documentary proof from a mental health professional that the dog was in fact needed by anyone in their office for emotional support.
Despite the fact that Cozy wears “a vest that states ‘Emotional Support Dog’ ” (purchased from Amazon), Animal Control officers weren’t impressed when a 911 call alerted them to what happened one afternoon.
We argued, Cozy bit me
“Linda is bipolar and recently she has refused to take her meds. One day at the office, with her behavior getting out of hand, I lost my temper and yelled at her. That was when Cozy bit me, I was taken by ambulance to the hospital and wound up with several stitches.
“Then, a few days later, completely unprovoked, Cozy bit Linda on the arm and she will need plastic surgery. Animal Control removed the dog and a hearing is scheduled to determine if it will be put down. Linda is crying all the time, not wanting to lose the dog. My 9-year-old daughter loves Cozy and is also in tears! Can you help us?” for an instant I froze.
“Wait a minute, you have a 9-year-old daughter, and Cozy lives at home with you and Linda? What planet do you live on, Chris? You own what almost all states would define as a dangerous or vicious dog. That’s why you are now facing a hearing which will determine the animal’s future, and it doesn’t sound rosy to me.”
“So, on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being Superman and one Superwimp, when it comes to dealing with Linda, where are you?”
“I am a minus 50, weak, just so afraid to set her off, Mr. Beaver,” he replied, the sound of a man about to cry becoming more and more obvious.
“Chris, do you know what would happen if Cozy were allowed to return to your home and bit your daughter? Have you given any thought to that?”
He had not, and didn’t have a clue.
In all jurisdictions, allowing a dangerous dog to be around children could easily become the basis for Child Protective Services to remove the kids from the home and put them into foster care.
Additionally, it would not take much imagination to see Chris being escorted out of his house in handcuffs if Cozy bit his daughter. The situation he described — a mentally ill fiancee refusing to take her meds and pressuring him to keep the dog — had every reason to end badly.
“Listen to me, Chris. I love dogs, but this isn’t about Cozy. It is about your daughter’s well-being. No, I am not going to help prevent Cozy from being put down. If you want a pet, get a French poodle.”
“I’ll get a cat,” he replied, promising to keep me informed of the outcome.