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Emotional support

Will emotional support dogs be more common in workplaces after COVID-19? During the pandemic many people have turned to the tried and tested emotional wisdom of dogs to see them through. As we return to the office both dog and owner will face the challenge of how they can be together during the day, or if not how they will face the anguish of being apart.

Where I work, there has been discussion of emotional support dogs before. While ‘emotional support animal’ is an official designation in the US, unofficial in the UK (as far as I know), it is also, arguably, tautological; on some level are not all animals there for emotional support? The question is not if they are supporting us (they are!) but how much we need them to do our work.

When this topic was raised at my work, all sorts of reasons were given for why emotional support dogs could not be allowed in the university. Tellingly, they were all related to the fact that dogs are dogs, such as ‘other staff members may have allergies’ and ‘dogs might affect the lab animals’ (which makes you very worried about the security of the cages). Statutorily it is not possible for the university to bar dogs since they must admit guide dogs. This reveals that (a) there are no people who use guide dogs at the university (because if there were then the weakness of the arguments would be obvious) and (b) that if those are the only arguments against then there is an inconsistency with the rights of people to bring guide dogs to work.

One might argue: guide dogs and emotional support dogs are not the same thing. Which of course they are not. They are different in a few key ways.

First, people who use guide dogs rely on them for mobility but not usually for doing their work itself. The reliance on the dog for mobility can be very high, although most people who use guide dogs can commute and move around the office without one, only there are significant costs in time, effort, safety, and reliance on other people. Emotional reliance on a dog can be more general and extend to doing work itself. Some people are unable to focus or remain calm enough to work without the support of their animal. However, there is a broader range of levels of reliance. Some people with emotional support animals can function relatively well without it. Compared to accessing a guide dog, access to a dog for emotional support is not determined by an expert organisation on the basis of objective functioning, such as eyesight. Perhaps the statutory right for a guide dog should extend to emotional support animals because the reliance is usually more general (and includes being able to work), although it might not when the level of reliance is much less.

Second, emotional support dogs come in all shapes and sizes. Guide dogs are usually selected from a small number of breeds (labradors, german shepherds). These are usually medium to large in size, motivated by food, energetic, and – although this is not an advantage for guiding – usually long haired. Emotional support dogs, in contrast, can be small, short haired breeds, and are not selected for their intelligence or energy. They could be more suited to an office environment than the typical guide dog breed.

However, the third major difference is that guide dogs are trained as guide dogs. They are obedient and well mannered. While there is nothing to stop an emotional support dog from being the same, there is no guarantee. This implies that while the designation ‘guide dogs’ externalises the problem of the animal’s behaviour to the trainers, any policy governing emotional support dogs would have to be specific about the behaviour of the dog. There would need to be an internal process for agreeing the conduct of acceptable dogs.

My sense is that the greater awareness of mental health issues, working partly from home, and dog ownership will raise the question of dogs in the office on the basis of their emotional support. People who live in larger houses, with families, or can afford care for their dogs might be able to cope with the short separation when they visit the office, but for others a blanket ban on bringing dogs to the office on the grounds of emotional need would prevent them from keeping a dog in their home at all. Someone in that situation would be deprived of living with a dog, which they may need, because of two or three days when they are expected in the office.

At the moment, my university has no policy on emotional support dogs and has shown no interest in changing that. I don’t believe that is tenable long term, but clearly there are issues to discuss. Not least the requirements in terms of the breed and behaviour of the dogs that can be brought to work. The university might also want verification that a person really needs the dog, a doctor’s note essentially, but since this will be self reported I can’t see how that would be either an assurance or a barrier to entry. It might also increase the stigma that is already associated with mental health issues. Given the university and UK government’s commitment to addressing mental health needs with the same voracity as physical health, it would be incongruous to discriminate against those who rely on an animal for their mental functioning.

Written on January 29, 2021