Growing up, I hated dogs. Or at least, I was very scared of them; I’d run away or cross the street whenever I saw one. Over time, that fear lessened to skepticism. By the time I was in college, I used to snark, "If I wanted a dog, I’d just have a baby." I saw dogs as a nuisance and an obligation that reeked of dependence. At least babies grow up to feed themselves, I thought.
But my feelings about dogs changed overnight. After coming to terms with my anxiety disorder, I learned that ESAs can help mitigate the stress of having a disability, particularly a psychiatric one. I would spend hours looking at cute videos of puppies running and snuggling, and just that little bit of connection would bring me immense joy. I began wondering what it would be like to have an ESA of my own, so I took the leap and decided to find out.
Any domesticated animal (yes, including that duck wearing a diaper) can be an emotional support animal. This is the major difference between ESAs and other service animals; while a service dog for a person who is visually impaired must be able to assist them with very specific tasks, ESAs offer support simply by being there.
When I stopped watching puppies frolic on YouTube and starting doing concrete research, I settled on an adorable little dog I named Giant. Sometimes I get down on myself for being sick, and on these days, Giant is the only thing that seems certain in my life. He can sense when I’m having a hard day, and he'll curl his 5-pound body right beside mine to comfort me.
Before Giant came into my life, there were mornings I couldn’t get out of bed. I was overwhelmed by pain, illness, and resentment about that pain and illness. Once I started to get my health back on track, those sensations lessened, but I would still easily become sad and filled with self-pity. Now that I have Giant, that has changed drastically. I wake up to him patiently waiting for me to say, "Good morning, Giant!"—his signal to wake up and play.
My dog makes me feel more motivated to recover and safer on those days when recovery seems impossible.
Each day with Giant by my side makes me feel safer. I know I have an ally to give me love, kindness, and support whenever I need it. My dog makes me feel more motivated to recover and safer on those days when recovery seems impossible. No matter what, I know Giant will be jumping on his hind legs and smothering me with love the moment I walk through the door.
There's been an upsetting rumor lately that emotional support animals are frequently shams. Although I can understand how it may seem laughable that I take Giant on car rides with me or cry when I have to leave him, my relationship with him isn't a joke. Giant is my anchor, my constant reminder that everything will be okay and that I deserve health and happiness. When I see people being critical about the many Americans who benefit from emotional support animals, it's upsetting.
It's easy for people to acknowledge the validity of a service animal for someone with a physical disability like blindness. But for those of us who are functionally disabled in a way that’s less visibly apparent, the negative rhetoric around the rising number of emotional support animals reminds us that our culture refuses to treat neurological disorders the same as we do physical disorders like blindness or deafness. Mental illness is physical, and physical illnesses are not always visible. The conversation about emotional support animals and neurological disorders in general has to change.
I’m often scared when I travel or take Giant in public because I know what people are thinking: What is this able-bodied young woman doing pretending to have a disability? In fact, strangers have brought this up with me directly. Although I try to take it in stride, some days I can’t help but feel attacked. A quick glance in my handbag would show you the prescription medicines I need to take daily; I may look healthy, but that's because I work damn hard at it, and my disability is medically documented and federally protected.
This is not to say there aren’t a few bad apples who abuse the system; on the contrary, I fully acknowledge that happens. But arguing that emotional support animals need further regulations because some people abuse the system is like saying we shouldn’t have shopping malls because some people shoplift.
Other people have turned their nose up at the fact that Giant isn't a rescue. But an emotional support animal, like any other service animal, serves a purpose. I couldn't adopt a dog who may have behavioral issues or a traumatic history; that would effectively negate the point of having an ESA and potentially endanger civilians I encounter when traveling with Giant or when people visit my home. I chose my shorkie (that's a mix of shih tzu and Yorkshire terrier) for a number of reasons related to their temperaments but also because they are hypoallergenic, making them a safe breed to take around those with pet allergies.
Of course, everyone has their weaker points. My "designer dog" can’t handle being outside unless the weather is perfectly moderate, and he has the picky palate of a Michelin-starred chef. But his flaws are the perfect reminder why I have him in my life in the first place. We should not be defined by our faults but by the love we give the world. Giant has a heart so full of love—not just for me but for every person he encounters. Because of his endless love, I happily put up with his diva behavior when it comes to food or the weather. Giant not only eases the side effects of my illness, but he also inspires me to be as loving as he is.
Much as I've learned about how wonderful having a dog in your life can be, I hope critics of emotional support animals can understand that ESAs provide a very real service and assistance to people with invisible disabilities. I am lucky to have a wonderful support system full of family and friends, but an animal bond is different. Giant doesn't have other plans when I need company, and he never wants to rush my recovery or ask a million questions when all I want to do is curl up into a ball and cry. All he wants is to be by my side. There is not a single day I don’t acknowledge the beauty and magnitude of such a purehearted companion.
Alexis Dent is a writer and cupcake aficionado from Western New York. Follow her on Twitter @alexisdent.