There are many complexities surrounding the use and prominence of emotional support dogs. Airlines, for example, are probably the most obvious institution which is required to give special allowances and treatments to emotional support dogs and the people traveling with them. But colleges and courts are also grappling with how they can best serve people with emotional support dogs and they’re doing so by researching the tangible effects of those animals as well as questioning if they’re even needed so often, according to research presented at a convention of the American Psychological Association.
The drastic rise of emotional support animals has created a noticeable trend around many college campuses, with more and more students seeking mental health services in school.
"It's not surprising that many schools are confronted with the growing phenomenon of emotional support animals. For many, the topic is a contentious one centered on whether students are taking advantage of the laws," said Phyllis Erdman, Ph.D., professor at Washington State University. "This is further compounded by the fact that laws pertaining to emotional support animals are different from those governing disability service animals and therefore schools may need to develop new policies."
Erdman headed a study of 248 university counseling centers, reviewing the request letters from students asking their universities to allow them to have or keep an emotional support animal. The group’s survey examined how the schools handled those requests and how the diagnosis of a disability that would require an emotional support animal was executed. As it turns out, 57 percent of those universities reported rarely even receiving those requests from students. Meanwhile, 31 percent reported getting several requests a year and just two percent of the surveyed campuses got requests more than once a week.
"Even a limited number of requests for emotional support animals can cause stress for student affairs offices, housing offices, counseling centers, and disability offices," Erdman said. "Most schools wanted guidance and support for developing guidelines and navigating requests that come through.”
In U.S. courts, meanwhile, at least 144 courthouse facility dogs are provided as emotional support dogs to alleged victims of child abuse, typically requested by prosecutors to assist victims with the anxiety of testifying. Defense attorneys don’t love that current system, arguing that having a friendly canine in the witness box creates a prejudice against their clients, with witnesses appearing more sympathetic to juries.
"The concern is that the presence of a courthouse dog emphasizes that the witness is a victim, thereby playing to jurors' sympathies. As a result, witnesses may be viewed as even more vulnerable or likable, thus conflicting with a defendant's right to a fair trial,” says Dawn McQuiston, Ph.D., of Wofford College.
However, research presented by McQuiston actually found that there’s no such effect on juries.
"Across two studies utilizing mock jury paradigms, we found that, contrary to popular beliefs and our own predictions, courthouse dogs did not exert undue influence on juror decision-making regardless of the severity of the crimes tested, and did not differentially impact perceptions of child witnesses," she said.