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When pigs fly: emotional support animals, service dogs and the politics of legitimacy across species boundaries
  1. Justyna Wlodarczyk
  1. Faculty of Modern Languages, Institute of English Studies, University of Warsaw, Warsaw, Poland
  1. Correspondence to Dr Justyna Wlodarczyk, Institute of English Studies, University of Warsaw, Warsaw, Poland; j.wlodarczyk{at}


This paper probes the distinction between the so-called emotional support animals (ESAs), a term that is specific to the USA and that has recently been the subject of significant media attention, and service animals. The attention devoted to ESAs has largely taken on the form of jokes and critical comments related to the absurdity of the ‘political correctness’ that makes it possible for pigs to fly in the passenger cabin of airplanes and llamas to accompany their owners on trips to the supermarket. Much criticism is meted out, also from within the disability community, against animal guardians who try to ‘pass their animals off’ as service dogs and ESAs, with a call for the establishment of clear-cut criteria for the definition of ESAs and service animals. The paper’s methodology is an analysis of the media accounts of legitimate and illegitimate service animals; an analysis that reveals how the boundary between legitimate and illegitimate is constructed through the building blocks of these stories. ESAs are something of a limit case that points to the cultural paradoxes that govern Americans’ relationships with companion animals and with concepts of disability. The paper also argues that the insistence on establishing firm boundaries between ‘legitimate’ service animals and ESAs actually fosters a politics of suspicion, which can easily slip into suspicion directed at the human handlers of the animals.

  • cultural studies
  • journalism

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After the passing of former US president George H W Bush in December 2018, television screens and social media feeds were filled with touching images of Bush’s service dog Sully keeping vigil by the former president’s casket. The first image, originally tweeted by Bush’s spokesman Jim McGrath, was captioned ‘Mission Complete’. The photograph fits into a long tradition of visual and narrative depictions of dogs’ unwavering loyalty continuing even beyond the end of their master’s lives, with the composition of the photograph troping most obviously on famous Victorian paintings like Landseer’s The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner (1837).1 While there exist precedents of presidential pets attending their former guardian’s funerals, what makes Sully’s position even more outstanding in the public eye is that the Labrador retriever is not just a loyal dog; he is a service dog, trained by America’s Vet Dogs, a charity that helps war veterans.2Sully’s exceptional status—for example, the dog’s ability to accompany his handler in locations that normally do not admit dogs—is seen as recognition of the useful work a service dog carries out for a person with a disability. As representatives of Vet Dogs have informed the media, Sully can perform ‘a two-page long list of commands’.3When Sully accompanied the president’s casket on the flight from Texas to Washington and then back, his presence elicited an outpouring of support and tears of emotion that revealed the public’s acceptance for the exceptional role played by service animals: no one questioned Sully’s presence on Air Force One. Yet, this positive reaction is not extended to all animals flying in an airplane cabin.

The very idea of the service animal, in the term’s broadest understanding of a non-human being enabling or improving a human’s existence in an ableist environment, brings together the fields of disability studies and animal studies, opening up space for discussion of how non-human animals affect the lives of those who are seen as diverging from the biopolitical norm. If—as for example, Lennard Davis suggests in Enforcing Normalcy—we understand disability not as a static condition but as a social process in which certain bodies that differ from the norm become disabled because of the environmental conditions they have to function in, it becomes possible to see how service animals change the dynamics of that process by mitigating the disabling effects of the environment on the human subject.4This recognition, common not only among scholars but also among the general public, accounts for the positive emotions evoked by media narratives about service dogs whose abilities equal those of superheroes, yet who patiently engage in the never-ending tediousness of the day-to-day tasks of enabling their human partners to lead more independent lives. However, there exists a counterpoint to these feel-good stories. Headlines about ‘fake services animals’ have recently become all too common, as scores of articles and media stories question the validity of the enabling carried out by certain animals—especially those described as comfort animals or emotional support animals (ESAs) and those who are not canines5—while positing that a firm distinction between legitimate and illegitimate service animals is necessary to constrain the chaos of support pigs and comfort peacocks. The disability community, the service dog training industry and the media are speaking in unison about the need for stricter control of service animals’ credentials.6

I argue that the pressure to create and enforce clear-cut distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate service animals is a misdirected effort that unwittingly obliterates the complexity of the affective labour carried out within these companion species dyads, while additionally drawing members of the disabled community into a politics of suspicion that marks others around them as potential fakers. After all, both humans and non-humans can become objects of suspicion, and it is possible to suggest that these processes are not only analogous but actually intertwined. In the USA, the gradual adoption of a broader definition of disability, coupled with the extension of legal protection to all disabled persons through the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990)7has raised questions of legitimacy related to humans whose disability is not clearly visible.8The legitimacy of the service animal’s ‘user’ is thus often at stake at the same time when the legitimacy of the service animal is questioned. A similar argument has recently been sketched by Margaret Price who observes how ‘the discursive tactics used to maintain a boundary between “real” and “fake” service animals rely on a set of assumptions that perpetuate unequal relations of power’.9Historically, the forming and enforcing of binary oppositions—which are, after all, hierarchical in nature—has never served to empower those who find themselves on the wrong side of the opposition, and the disabled community knows all too well the stigma of deviating from the norm. Price argues that insisting on the biocertification of service animals, the ascertaining of their legitimacy through standardisation of their bodies, is in itself a form of ableism.

Writing from a slightly different perspective than Price, that is of someone whose preoccupation is primarily with the discourse of species difference, I complement this argument by showing how the frenzied attack against the so-called ESAs spearheaded by the popular media is a sign of broader social anxieties that find an outlet in this controversy. In Animal Rites, Cary Wolfe has suggested that the category of species is not only irrevocably tied to categories of race and gender but also that it can become a field for articulating fears that could not be articulated otherwise. Wolfe claims that is it the irreducibility of species discourse that makes it possible for species to serve as a site where other problems ‘may either be “solved” or reopened by being recoded as problems of species’.10In the argument I am trying to make, species serves as a site for playing out popular anxieties related to the (over)medicalisation of human life, especially to (perceived) overdiagnosis of mental illness and to the therapeutisation of daily activities and interactions, including interactions with animals. In other words, while it is inappropriate for mainstream media to question the status of persons diagnosed with depression or chronic fatigue syndrome as disabled—for example, to negatively comment on their right to use disabled parking spots, even if popular sentiment on this topic is divided—the politics of suspicion takes hold in the media once persons with invisible disabilities are accompanied by (certain) animals. Of course, the presence of a dog usually has a legitimising effect, but it is not the dogs that dominate the media accounts. Once we replace one variable—here the abjected pig substitutes for the almost humanised dog—the acceptable range of interpretations changes completely. And this brings me to the pig in the title of this article.

‘When Pigs Fly’ is the witty title of a segment aired in May 2015 on CBS This Morning. The material revealed the ‘abuse of rules to bring animals on planes’ by staging an elaborate hoax in which a journalist took a 4-month-old Vietnamese pot-bellied pig onboard a plane, after obtaining the necessary paperwork documenting the human’s mental health condition (anxiety) through an online consultation. The idea for the hoax was most likely sparked by a flurry of sensationalist stories related to pigs on planes. The first incident featuring a pig, recorded by the media, took place in October 2000, when a 300-pound pig was allowed to board a Delta airplane, travelling as an ESA.11The next widely reported ‘pig on plane’ incident happened almost 14 years later and consisted of another staged journalistic hoax, conducted by Patricia Marx of The New Yorker, who flew with a pig in order to test the limits of the ESA certificate she ordered online.12Shortly after the publication of Marx’s article ‘Pets Allowed: Why Are There So Many Animals in Places Where They Shouldn’t Be?’ in October 2014, a pig was actually ushered off a US Airways flight out of Hartford after ‘making a mess’, which suggests that The New Yorker Article could have encouraged pig owners to attempt to replicate Marx’s experiment. That incident sparked a flurry of media interest, largely because a picture of the pig was posted on social media and quickly reached viral status. The past several years have witnessed a veritable explosion of media interest in the topic of ESAs: that is, animals whose physician-ordained presence serves as a complementary form of therapy for different mental health conditions, most usually depression and anxiety. News outlets from The New Yorker to The Daily Mirror, and from Fox News to CNN, have been extensively covering—and, as it seems, also fueling—the controversy surrounding the presence of support animals in public spaces in the USAs, with a particular emphasis on barnyard animals in airplane cabins. In fact, the ‘pig on plane’ story has become something of an urban legend: the 2014 story, with the same picture and slightly differing details (sometimes the plane is a US Airways plane, sometimes it is an American Airlines plane) has been reposted as a new story in various online media at least ten times over a period of 3 years: The Sun, for example, posted the story only in November 2017. The grotesqueness of the image of a pig defecating in the passenger cabin of an airplane evokes rather unanimous and open contempt, thus becoming a vehicle for expressing criticism of the supposedly runaway political correctness in the USA. The knowing smirk is even more visible on the other side of the pond, where the stories, replayed by the various European media outlets, provide readers with the possibility of expressing contempt for ‘those crazy Americans’.

For this article, I have looked at over 200 news stories about ESAs and service animals, from both printed media and television news segments and have chosen a few of the most representative stories as primary materials for more in-depth analysis. The stories were published between 2000 and 2018, though the frequency with which the media carry stories about ESA most definitely increases as the 2000 progress. Thus, the majority of the texts under consideration are dated between 2015 and 2018, with media interest in ESAs clearly peaking in 2017 and 2018. The print sources I have examined are quite wide ranging in terms of their geographic reach, target audience and level of journalistic respectability; that is, they range from nationwide (and international) opinion-forming journals and magazines from all sides of the political spectrum (eg, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The New Republic, The New Yorker) to tabloids like The Daily Mirror and The National Enquirer. The strategies for creating narratives about ESAs and service dogs are (uncannily) similar across the range of the print sources. The topic of ESAs usually comes up on television on local news stations, although nationwide broadcasters like CNN, ABC and Fox have all featured stories or longer segments on ESAs and service dogs. Many of the late-night comedy shows have also spoken—as critically as Fox News—about ESAs.

While the methodology of this study is not geared towards answering the question of whether ESAs are actually effective as a form of therapy—though I am aware of the existing research on animal-assisted interventions (and of its inconclusiveness)—an analysis of these media accounts shows how the stories function as manuals of world making, to borrow a term from Kathleen Kete’s The Beast in the Boudoir (1994); they provide readers with guidelines for making sense of the world that surrounds them.13These stories could be interpreted from multiple perspectives; as helpful in understanding many of the myriad contentious issues in modern American society. These include questions of what counts as work and who can be described as working; questions about the moral legitimacy of the profit-oriented American medical system; questions about the presence of (different species of) animals in public space and the balancing of the rights to health of different patient groups. As previously stated, I have chosen to narrow down this list of issues and structure my analysis around questions that pertain to legitimacy: how the presence of different species of non-human animals aids or hinders the perception of the human’s disability as (il)legitimate. I remain aware that even more issues are truly at stake, and I am particularly interested in isolating the components that account for the public perception of the interspecies bond as therapeutic. I attempt to read these ‘pig on plane’ narratives in a way that fleshes out which human–animal relationships count as admirable and wholesome and which lend themselves to being read as outrageously self-indulgent. I am also interested in how adding the notion of species in general (and specific species, in particular) into the set of variables that govern ‘making sense of illness’ can radically change the playing field. It seems that while it has become unacceptable to publicly ridicule invisible disabilities, including mental illnesses, once an animal is added to the setup, the mode of storytelling easily turns to satire. Of course, the legitimacy of the owner’s illness needs to be undermined for this shift to take place, and I look at the ways this delegitimisation is carried out in the source texts. I argue that the long history of reading pet keeping as a sign of bourgeois affluence, decadence and a certain effeminacy aids in the transference of public anxiety with medical overdiagnosis—briefly, the public perception that everybody has some kind of a syndrome in today’s highly medicalised world—onto users of support animals.

After identifying the various variables that appear in these narratives, it became clear that there are a number of ways in which the building blocks of these stories can be arranged, but also that the presence of one building block of the story elicits the presence of others, thus predicating the mode of storytelling and, concurrently, shaping the narrative’s meaning. There is obvious inspiration with the tradition of formalist and structuralist literary and cultural criticism in this approach, but unlike the classic early 20th-century formalists—Propp, Shklovsky, Jakobson—and more like Roland Barthes in Mythologies,14I am of course highly interested in the social and historical context: it does matter that these stories emerge in 21st century US. In these reflections, I am also guided by Nicole Shukin’s observations on the perceived healing potential of various configurations of human-animal touch from ‘Transfections of Animal Touch: Techniques of Biosecurity’, where Shukin notes that within contemporary neoliberal economies of affect some forms of human–animal contact, and particular forms of touch, are invested with therapeutic, healing value, while others are stigmatised as a threat.15The slippage between the first and the second category can rest on minute details. Shukin shows that even though we tend to speak of the healing power of animals in general, petting a dog is invariably viewed as an act imbued with therapeutic potential, while being licked by a pig is one that generates immediate disgust. Similarly, the act of being accompanied by an animal, while flying on an airplane, can generate a range of opposing meanings. The production of these meanings depends on the reader/viewer’s familiarity with certain cultural scripts, which are explored in this article. The dominant types of narratives about animals on planes can be divided into general types that produce two different reactions: either outrage with and contempt for the animal owner’s egoism or empathy for a deserving subject who has been unjustly deprived of medical equipment and whose human rights have been violated. The ‘pig on plane’ narrative clearly belongs to the first category.

Self-indulgence scorned: ESAs

The narratives that evoke the reader’s outrage and contempt for the egoism and self-indulgence of ESA owners can be divided into two basic types: the ‘pig on plane’ story and the journalistic hoax story, in which reporters try to pass off strange species as ESAs to expose the flaws of the certification system. Recently, ESAs have also become a topic for editorials in esteemed opinion-forming newspapers and of sketches in late-night comedy shows. The written ‘pig on plane’ type stories are usually recounted using the third-person voice, interwoven with first-person eyewitness accounts, sometimes accompanied by a blurry photograph snapped by a passenger who personally experienced the company of the unusual support animal. The animal’s presence is deemed disruptive to human passengers, most often because of the noises and smells produced by the animal, and—in the most extreme version—because the animal is unable to control its bladder and bowels. In the 2014 ‘pig on plane’ story, which appeared in the Harford Courant, it was the account of an eyewitness, who was a university professor, which was recounted in the article: ‘I am burying my face in my sweater to hide from the stench… Now I, who dreads a dog coming too close, am contemplating an hour next to a big pig on the lap of my fellow (passenger)’.16The contrast between the articulate language of the intellectual and the physicality of his body’s response to the presence of the pig accounts for the strength of the emotional reaction evoked in the reader by the article. The pig here is truly a radical other, marked by a purely physical existence that is most definitely inappropriate in the airplane cabin. It is implied within the framework of this narrative that this radical otherness should be reflected through the organisation of space: it is not and therein lies the problem. Pigs, a species associated with rural life and agriculture, are definitely not animals that the college professor would normally come into contact with in any other circumstances. In the context of this narrative, the pig is matter out of place, to recall Mary Douglas’s classic definition of dirt.17

Switching back into third person, the article relates how the female owner of the pig began speaking to the animal ‘like it was a person’ asking the pig to calm down. The woman was eventually requested to disembark, which she did without making a fuss, the pig swung over her shoulder ‘like a big duffel bag’, as evidenced in a photo snapped by one of the other passengers. The owner’s voice, face and her account of the story are conspicuously absent from the narrative. It is implied that she wishes to hide her identity; feeling ashamed of herself. The suggestion that the woman does not really need the services of an ESA—which forms in the reader’s mind as soon as the species of the animal is mentioned—is further strengthened by the woman’s young age, her able-bodied appearance and her physical strength. The legitimacy of the animal’s therapeutic role is also put into question: for how can travel in the company of a pooping pig have a positive effect on one’s anxiety?

This basic scenario has been replayed with turkeys, ducks and a peacock playing the role of the rowdy animal. While the media accounts generate a vision of American planes as flying barns, a thorough analysis of the stories reveals that—excluding the journalistic hoaxes—all the stories I have looked at about ESAs, from the period 2000–2018 pertain to the same set of animals: two turkeys, one duck, two pigs, one parakeet, one hamster and one squirrel. The peacock, Dexter, was refused service and never flew in an airplane cabin.18 Already the headlines of these stories imply the outrageous character of these incidents, clearly picking up on the supposed proliferation of barnyard animals on planes and the disgust evoked by potential contamination of human-populated space with animal faeces and odours: ‘They’re S---ing All Over: Scenes from a World Taken Over by Fake Service Animals’,19 ‘Fowl Therapy’,20‘Fur and Fury in the Skies’,21‘What the Duck?’.22Interestingly, medium does matter here. The televisual versions of the story on flying barnyard animals present the case in a somewhat more sympathetic way, most likely because in order to obtain footage of the animals, journalists need to come into direct contact with their owners and with the animals themselves. Resultingly, Inside Edition’s video material for a story on Easter, an emotional support turkey, shows a calm and confident bird that trots through security and ‘does not make a sound throughout the 2-hour flight’, as the voiceover informs us. The title of the segment ‘Woman Takes Service Turkey on Flight to Scatter Husband’s Ashes’ suggests a legitimate reason for why the turkey’s owner might need emotional support.23The speaker in the story on Hamlet, the emotional support pig, comments that the pig ‘makes himself comfortable and does not budge’, suggesting that Hamlet behaves better than most kids.24

Still, the vast majority of the ‘pig on plane’ stories, and all of the ones that do not make the owner’s perspective visible, evoke scorn and laughter, not empathy for the owner. A recent Vox article comments that ‘stories about peacocks and ducks in booties on planes are increasingly leading ESAs (and their handlers) to be treated as a punchline’.25These are elaborate jokes that every reader is in on, recognising the satiric mode of storytelling as soon as the opening elements of the setting are presented. These are: airplane as location, questionably ill animal owner and strange species of animal as the hero’s sidekick. Journalistic hoax stories that involve staff members explicitly faking mental disability to obtain emotional support certification for various species of animals (which are not their own personal pets) obviously strengthen public perception of ESAs as illegitimate: if the journalists lied and got away with it, it is likely that many ESA owners are also faking their medical conditions. The most famous of these hoaxes was staged by New Yorker writer Patricia Marx who ‘went undercover’ to ‘explore the world of ESAs’. Her experience resulted in a 2014 piece in which Marx chronicled how she was able to fly with a pig and go shopping with a snake and an alpaca, all under the guise of needing emotional support. In these stories, the pig is something of a trickster figure, disrupting social order and uncovering that which we normally dare not question: a certain runaway political correctness, in which it becomes unacceptable to probe not only the therapeutic character of the human−animal bond but also the owner’s disability. In the hoax stories, both the bond and the disability are fake.

It has become de rigueur to express scorn for ESAs; the term is practically never used in a positive context; somewhat similarly to the way the term political correctness has been used since the 1980s. In fact, ‘ESA’ and ‘political correctness’ are two terms that often appear in close proximity within one article; for example, in a recent Forbes editorial, which decries ESAs as an example of political correctness run wild: ‘In this highly litigious and maddeningly PC era it seems to take courage to do the obvious right thing’, which, in this case, as the article implies, is banning animals on planes.26Major print media outlets have also devoted op-eds to the topic, all univocally critical. New York Times writer David Leonhardt has published a piece titled ‘It’s Time to End the Scam of Flying Pets’ in which he first diagnoses the problem as resulting from ‘a modern culture that too often fetishizes individual preference over communal well-being’.27The Chicago Tribune ran an op-ed titled ‘Pets on Planes and Our Indulgent Culture’, where—predictably—ESAs are described as ‘nothing more than an extension of our self-indulgent culture’. The author advocated ‘a culture shift (…) away from the presumption that pets are welcome guests at non-pet designated outlets’.28If there is political consensus about anything in the USA, it is about the ridiculousness of ESAs. What links The American Conservative and The National Review with The New Yorker and Slate is that they have all pieces devoted to—and explicitly critical of—ESAs.

Adopting the animalised language of these articles, at least two birds are being killed with one stone: the critique of two issues—a runaway attachment to pets and the rampant overmedicalisation of everyday life—is lumped in one storyline. The notion of a runaway love for pets—a love that is unnatural, unproductive and egotistical—is a powerful counterscript to the mainstream narrative of America’s love affair with pets. While this counternarrative is not unique to the 21st century—it can be sensed, for example, in the scorn for ladies’ lap dogs in the chapters of 19th-century manuals for the training of hunting dogs— it is clearly not losing legitimacy, as the ‘pig on plane’ narrative proves. I have elsewhere written of this narrative of ‘love misdirected’ as accountable for the immense popularity of figures such as ‘The Dog Whisperer’ (Cesar Millan) who argues for a return to training methods in which dogs are treated as dogs and not as ‘furry children’.29The owners of these pet animals are shown as so blinded by a love that is clearly unnatural that they cannot stand being separated from their pets for the duration of an airplane flight. There is, of course, a gendered dimension to this narrative. It is not coincidental that the majority of the heroes of these stories are women, as the unnaturalness of the bond is sometimes perceived as a transference of what could potentially be maternal love onto a clearly inappropriate love object.

It is also not coincidental that the majority of the human heroes of these stories are shown as suffering from depression and generalised anxiety: diseases that for many remain somewhat questionable as grounds for disability. Even Lennard Davis, one of the creators of disability studies within the American academia and author of Enforcing Normalcy, argues in his recent book End of Normal against defining depression as a disability.30While Davis’s goal is far from instigating a politics of suspicion among the disabled community, he does note that the recent spike in diagnoses of depression could be tied to a misdiagnosis of emotional reactions which could be explained otherwise, for example, grief after the passing of one’s significant other, as an illness that needs to be pharmacologically treated. Davis ties the understanding of depression as a deviation that needs to be pharmacologically corrected as implicated in the neoliberal imperative to pursue happiness.31

As a matter of fact, a significant narrative—consisting of both academic research and popular journalism—has recently emerged on the medicalisation of everyday life. One of the few texts, in addition to the previously mentioned article by Margaret Price, which examine the issue of ESAs from a cultural perspective is Andrea Laurent-Simpson’s ‘Considering the Emotional Support Animal: Pets and the Pharmaceuticalization of Everyday Life’ (2015).32Laurent-Simpson diagnoses the emergence of ESAs as tied to the increased pharmaceuticalisation of companion animals, which is inextricably tied to what Simpson—after Zola’s (1972) classic article on medicine as a form of social control—calls the medicalisation of everyday life.33 In Saving Normal, psychiatrist Allen Frances complains of ‘diagnostic overinflation’, as a strategy that is espoused by the physicians themselves ‘to help a patient gain access to something valuable’—like disability benefits or school services. If autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or paediatric bipolar disorder is a prerequisite to being admitted to a small class with lots of individual attention, equivocal cases get shoehorned into these categories, and soon an epidemic is born’.34 While the heated debate surrounding Frances’s book shows that it is highly controversial to openly suggest psychiatric overdiagnosis of illnesses such as Asperger’s or ADHD, such arguments as Davis’s and Frances’s make it easier to understand how the ‘pig on plane’ narratives offer an obvious safety valve to the tensions generated by the perception of medical overdiagnosis. The way these narratives are structured removes any lingering doubt about whether the diagnoses are legitimate or fake. They must be fake if they involve such outrageous forms of therapy as air travel with a pig.

Heroes disrespected: service dogs

There exists a counternarrative to the story of the undeserving and unruly ESA with his or her somewhat hysterical female owner: the story of the deserving and truly disabled person who has been refused access onto an airplane because the credentials of their equally deserving service dog were not recognised due to the proliferation of ESAs, also referred to as ‘fake service dogs’. The building blocks of this story seem to be similar: the setting is usually an airplane (though it can be a store or other indoor location that bars dogs); the hero is a person with a mental disability, and the hero’s sidekick is his or her faithful service animal. However, as this story unfolds, the reader’s sympathy definitely aligns with the mistreated hero and his dog—not with the passengers who might experience the animal’s presence as uncomfortable. This is achieved by ensuring that the hero’s illness and the hero’s sidekick create a strong impression of legitimacy in the viewer’s/reader’s mind. The one psychiatric illness that currently, in the second decade of the 21st century, evokes empathy and not suspicion is, without doubt, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), especially if it has been acquired in result of military combat. And the one animal that has the same legitimising effect is the dog: though not just any dog, preferably a German shepherd, Labrador or golden retriever (some deviations are acceptable, but size matters: dogs smaller than a border collie generally do not appear in these stories). The story also makes it clear that the dog has been highly trained to aid the individual with the disability, a goal that is often achieved through the inclusion of comments made by experts from organisations that train service animals, as was the case with the assertion that Sully, George H W Bush’s service dog, could perform ‘a two-page long list of commands’.

A perfect example of this type of narrative is a story broadcast on 22 September 2015, on ABC News about war veteran Captain Jason Haag whose service dog, a German shepherd by the name of Axel, was refused entry onto an American Airlines plane. Haag is described as suffering from PTSD, and his dog happened to have been awarded the ‘Hero Dog Award’, presented by the American Humane Association during the ill-fated trip to Los Angeles. The ABC news clip focuses on Captain Haag’s military service and the dog’s indisputable status as a service animal. In fact, a representative of the organisation that provided Haag with Axel, K9s for Warriors, speaks of PTSD service dogs as ‘medical equipment’, while Axel’s handler, describing the dog’s help during his flashback episodes, says that ‘all it takes is a little nudge from Axel to remind me that I am out of the combat zone’. Another representative of K9s for Warriors also criticises the airlines by saying: ‘It’s disgusting. He’s an American hero and he has the right to travel around the country like the rest of us. And he needs a dog to do it and he couldn’t do it yesterday’. This sentiment is reflected in the comments below the version of the story posted online on the ABC website.35All of them, without exception, express outrage with the way the airline treated Haag.

The use of the term ‘medical equipment’ to describe the dog is an element of the framework of legitimising the dog’s presence on the plane, as is the dog’s breed, size and general able-bodiedness. Nicole Shukin, writing about military K9s, notes that the dogs in media stories of canine bravery and loyalty are routinely referred to as ‘a weapon’ and that even the abbreviated homophone K9 (referring to dogs used by all the uniformed professions) places the animals ‘in technological series with other weaponry like the M-16 family of combat rifles or the UH-60 series of Black Hawk helicopters’.36Here, in the stories of service animals, the dog’s objectification serves a similar purpose: it legitimises the dogs by emphasising their standardisation and replicability, while downplaying the individual differences among them. The fact that these dogs are described as tools, as a cross between a wheelchair and a pill, inclines the viewer to acknowledge their indispensability. Margaret Price, who is herself a service dog user, but whose dog diverges from the standard of service dog ‘biocertification’,—that is, the dog is older, small and in fact, has medical issues herself—analyses how the proliferation of normative canine bodies in experts’ discussions of service animals suggests that ‘[t]here seems to be an alarmingly eugenic discourse at work, through which the hardworking, genetically optimal, perfectly behaved service animal is held up as a standard for all disabled people and their animal companions’.37

The human’s disability, meanwhile, is legitimised through the hero’s history of patriotic military service. Unlike the fakers in the pig on plane stories, these heroes have a culturally sanctioned reason for suffering from nightmares. In addition, referring to the dogs as K9s highlights the connection between the past military service of their disabled owners and their current need for a service dog. The more distinguished the hero’s military history, the more legitimacy it carries, and the more popular the story is likely to become. In 2012, a Facebook post by the wife of a former Marine corporal, recipient of the Purple Heart medal for bravery, became viral and spawned multiple news stories and mentions on television news programmes. In the post, the woman complained that her husband was charged a fee by American Airlines for flying with his service dog, a golden retriever named Duke, who helps him with PTSD. In a News9 story from 27 December 2017, the hero is a ‘disabled army veteran’ suffering because United Airlines did not allow his ‘recently adopted service dog Dyson’ to board the plane. The reason for the hero’s disability is presented as a mental issue, directly resulting from the man’s combat experience and one that the dog’s presence is helping in ameliorating.38 These stories are by no means exceptional: they are frequent fare, especially on local television news channels and, based on the comments underneath the stories, they generate overwhelmingly positive responses, with the majority of commenters taking the side of the scorned hero.

If we take a formalist critic’s view of these narratives, it becomes possible to isolate the building blocks in these stories about animals, people and airplanes. These could be called functions, after Russian formalist critic Vladimir Propp’s classic analysis of the folktale, in which Propp isolated a finite number of functions in a tale that, on the one hand, generated an infinite number of narratives, but also determined their order and, consequently, the narrative’s meaning. Propp’s reading of the folktale is much like a flowchart in which a series of yes or no questions can lead us to arriving at the resolution of the story. Here, the flowchart would begin with questions that relate to the main hero’s disability, the animal’s species and level of training to guide the reader towards a final panel that establishes whether the proper reaction is ridicule or empathy. This is where Propp would end his formalist analysis, but it is also the point where things get interesting for someone interested not only in how meaning is created, but also in the whys of meaning-making; in the social and cultural context of these narratives. For why is it that if the story opens with a dog and a war veteran, one can safely guess that it is going to be a story about evoking compassion for the poor former soldier, inevitably suffering from PTSD, whose faithful service dog was denied access to an airplane? If the story begins with ‘an eyewitness account’ of a civilian woman and her emotional support turkey, it is likely that the story is going to evoke the viewer’s outrage and ridicule. If one considers the general building blocks of the story in terms of location, hero and helper, as Propp would, then Propp’s concept of functions proves an insufficient interpretive tool. Location is the same in all these stories: the airport. The hero might seem the same: he necessarily has to be a person with a diagnosed mental disability; otherwise, he would not be accompanied by an ESA or a service dog, as both types of certification require a medical diagnosis. Again, in both cases, the hero’s helper is a non-human animal. Yet, the mode of emplotment—to borrow a term that Hayden White took over from Northrop Fry in Metahistory, White’s 1970s attempt to analyse the literary techniques of historiography39—depends on the details: the specific type of the hero’s non-physical disability; the species of the non-human animal and, finally, the non-human animal’s previous training that results in the animal’s status as either (illegitimate) ESA or (legitimate) service dog. Either the animal is trained and, as such, becomes indispensable ‘medial equipment’ or untrained, in which case it is likely to become a cause of embarrassment for the hero, rather than a source of help. However, the distinction between the untrained ESA (punchline of jokes) and the trained service dog (indispensable medical equipment) can easily be deconstructed.

Who is working and who is ‘just a pet’?

What is the difference, one may wonder, between a service dog and an ESA—other than the broader referent in the second category, which has made it possible to use the term to refer to pigs, turkeys and ducks. An ESA is defined as a form of therapy prescribed by a medical professional to someone with mental health problems. A psychiatric service dog, it would seem, serves the same purpose. Technically, the only difference is in the specialised training the animal has received to make it useful in ameliorating the effects of the handler’s impairment. As the wording of a 2004 California case concerning an ESA’s access to no-pet housing implied, the ESA’s therapeutic value is ‘innate’, while—it would seem—a service dog’s therapeutic power results from training, and thus it must be acquired.40 One of the patterns detectable in the ‘pig on plane’ narratives is the strange ESA’s unruly behaviour, which is tied to the animal’s lack of specialised training; perhaps even, to its complete untrainability, implicitly linked to its species (for how can a duck be trained?). Trainability is associated with dogs, potentially also horses, which are perceived as the only species capable of carrying out ‘work’ or ‘tasks’ for the benefit of their human handlers. Trainability has long been a contentious topic in humans’ relations with animals: some ethologists argue that it is a defining feature of dogs: that dogs are dogs because they are always potentially trainable,41 while a more behaviourist perspective sees any organism with a brain stem as capable of being trained (though behaviour shaping, not training, would be the preferred term of BF Skinner, founder of American behaviourism). I have elsewhere argued that while we tend to think of dog training as a practice associated with Foucauldian disciplinary power, because—in an anthropocentric perspective, of course—it is seen as increasing the body’s concurrent docility and utility through the application of techniques that influence the body directly, this is a view that does not take into account the recent changes in animal training methods and procedures; specifically the idea that companion dog training is an element of an affirmative biopolitics that aims to improve the quality of the pet dog’s life.42 Still, the idea that formal schooling has the almost metaphysical potential of civilising the dog—that it consists of ‘raising an undeveloped mind into a state of concord with other, cultivated members of the community’,43 to use a definition developed by Katherine Grier to describe the training of 19th-century American pets—strengthens the general perception of service dogs as more deserving because their bodies have been shaped by disciplinary techniques and institutions. It is commonly perceived that it is this complicated and professional training that guarantees their usefulness as service dogs, and the narratives discussed above strengthen that belief.

As an aside, the USA is one of the few Western countries that have neither a national-level service dog certification programme (no official test that a dog has to pass in order to obtain formal recognition as a service animal) nor a central and mandatory service dog registry. Service dog verification works through something of an honour system, which is clearly problematic, especially after the emergence of psychiatric service dogs, whose handlers do not necessarily suffer from a visible disability. Due to these factors, it is impossible to establish the number of either service dogs or ESAs in the USA.44 While many states have laws that treat misrepresenting one’s dog as a service animal as a misdemeanour, there are no criteria for recognising ‘real’ service dogs from ‘fake’ ones, other than the guidelines for interpreting the ADA, which state that a service dog is a dog that has been individually trained to assist an individual with a disability. In this framework, ‘individualised training’ is seen as possessing almost metaphysical powers of transforming an animal from being ‘just a pet’ into being ‘medical equipment’. In order for the dog to be considered trained, it must be trained to ‘do something’: to perform work tasks related to the handler’s disability. In the two types of narratives, training serves an important legitimising function: the untrained ESAs behave in scandalous ways, while the service dogs are emblems of decorous canine conduct.

Yet, as the notion of the service dog evolved from the guide dog for the blind, through hearing aid dogs and mobility support dogs, to psychiatric service dogs, it has become a challenge to quantify the services rendered by these dogs in terms of work tasks. While the various organisations that train psychiatric service dogs insist on labelling work tasks as ‘tactile stimulation’, ‘grounding’ or ‘pressure therapy’, it is clear that the reason why this experience of interspecies touch is described through the vocabulary of training tasks is because it is the training that defines the service dog. The belief in the transformative power of training clashes with the increasingly stronger belief in the therapeutic power of animal presence and animal touch: a paradox that can be grasped even in the wording of the stories of ‘heroes denied service’. While it is the dog’s specialised training that is called on to legitimate the animal’s purpose and presence in public space, the handlers themselves openly acknowledge that it is the animal’s low-key and constant physical presence, coupled with what is perceived as emotional support, that is, the most gratifying aspect of the dog–handler relationship. Axel ‘nudges’ Captain Haag to remind him that he is no longer in the combat zone. A recent study of psychiatric service dog usage by veterans suffering from PTSD published in Anthrozoos also points to the value of the unquantifiable experience of support—not the quantifiable work tasks—as the most beneficial. The authors summarise the veterans’ perception of their relationship with the dogs as:

[T]heir dog during daylight hours would ground them by providing the physical comfort of pressing their body against them, and/or pawing them. Then, at night time, when they were beset by flashbacks, their dog would sense the onset of their night terrors, and would relieve their painful memories by nudging them awake and staying with them until the memories receded. The calming effect that their dog’s day and night comforting actions had on them was so profound that veterans reported feeling able to open up to the dog as the dog provided a non-judgmental outlet for their pent-up emotions.45

It is interesting that the words ‘nudging’ and ‘pawing’, friendly forms of touch initiated by the dog, keep reappearing in the veteran’s own first-person accounts; to the extent that the authors find it appropriate to title the article ‘Nudging Them Back to Reality’, a phrase that constitutes a summary of their research findings. Touch, in general, is a technology strongly connected to emotions; in The Senses of Touch, Mark Peterson writes of it as the most metaphorical of the senses: touching easily slips into feeling, into ‘being affected emotionally, being “touched”’.46 Nicole Shukin writes of petting an animal as a technology of feeling: not only is petting perceived as therapeutic contact with nature but it is also a form of contact that is human initiated and human controlled.47 In the service dog stories, however, it is not petting but nudging and pawing that seem to be the most effective forms of touch; most likely because they are animal initiated. In fact, the common understanding of touch is such that it must be voluntary if it is to have the effect of slippage that Peterson writes about: it is not just touching but even more so being touched by someone that is affectively loaded. Being ‘nudged’ by the dog provides proof that the dog really does care in a way in which petting the dog never could.

The paradox that I have been trying to uncover has to do with the perception of service dog’s usefulness (and consequently, the dog’s legitimacy in the public sphere) as resulting from specialised training versus the belief in the power of dogs’ natural, innate affection: the dog’s willing physical presence alongside the human. Within the framework of the two types of stories I have been discussing, this dichotomy between trained/untrained constitutes the difference between legitimate and illegitimate non-human presence in public space. Yet, this is obviously a false opposition. Its existence points to the ambivalence we associate with emotional work, affective labour or carework. The ESAs are perceived as not doing anything because they have received no special training; they are not carrying out quantifiable tasks. Yet, it is specifically the non-quantifiable animal carework—Captain Haag says: ‘Axel always has my back’—that is valued the highest in the service dog−service dog handler relationship.


It begins to be possible to recognise how the confluence of several cultural and sociolegal changes has paved the way for emergence of the category of ESA and, consequently its critique through the ‘pig on plane’ narrative. These factors include: gradual changes in the definition of disability (from a strictly physical impairment to mental health problems); the steep increase in diagnoses of mental health issues in the 21st century; gradual changes in the definition of reasonable accommodation for a person with a disability related to the cultural changes in the status of companion animals, ambivalence about what counts as work and especially problems with defining animal labour and, finally, the public perception of human−animal interactions, and especially certain forms of animal touch, as therapeutic. The ‘pig on plane’ narratives satirise these changes, creating a story so outrageous that it is difficult not to join in the laughter. Yet, once the triggers of this reaction become accounted for, they reveal deep-seated anxieties in American society.

I have argued that it is the modifiers of the major building blocks, not the blocks themselves, that determine the meaning of these narratives. If the general buildings blocks are: airport, disabled hero, disabled hero’s animal helper, the true determinants are type of illness, species of animal and the work carried out by the animal (quantifiable only through the animal’s level of training). These determinants serve the function of legitimising the animal’s presence in the space of the airplane. It is enough to change one of these determinants to radically alter the meaning of a particular story. For example, in 2015 CBC broadcast a news segment, accompanied by an article on the network’s website, about a female veteran with PTSD travelling with her emotional support cat. Of course, a feline necessarily has to be registered as an ESA rather than a service dog. The article is structured as a ‘hero denied service’ story: accompanied by a photo of the veteran in full military gear and a story providing substantial reasons for her need for healing animal touch: ‘She calms me down…sometimes when I travel or even when I'm in crowds, I have severe anxiety, so having her with me comforts me’.48 Both the structure of the story and the narrative voice encourage an empathetic identification with the heroine’s plight, yet, the reactions underneath the story, unlike the comments in the other ‘hero scorned’ narratives, are definitely mixed and include a fair share of contempt for the woman who ‘just wants to take her pet along everywhere’. One of the commenters argues: ‘And let’s be serious here: Is there even such a thing as a trained cat?’ The story breaks just one of the requirements for the ‘hero denied service’ narrative, and it immediately begins generating ambivalence rather than empathy.

Revisiting the story that opened this paper, that of George H W Bush’s service Labrador, it should be possible to account for the elements that produced the public’s positive emotional reaction to the photograph of Sully: he is an able-bodied large dog trained by a legitimate organisation that prepares service dogs for disabled war veterans. Would public support for Sully’s presence alongside the president’ casket have been as unanimous if Sully had been— no, not a pig—but, for example, a miniature poodle? A smaller dog, of course, would never have been able to pull Bush’s wheelchair, but on the basis of media images it seems that Sully did not perform that duty anyway. He was gifted to Bush after the passing of the former president’s wife; implicitly, to ease the grief evoked by the death of a loved one, which is precisely the purpose served by an ESA. Was Bush’s Sully really that different from FDR’s Scottish terrier Fala, who was ‘just a pet’?

In most of the media stories I have been analysing, the belief in the healing potential of animal touch and an animal’s ability to carry out tasks for the human are always conditional and dependent on the animal’s species and the presence of other narrative elements in the story’s context. The most memorable and popular media accounts of fakers involve pigs, that is, animals whose status as ‘matter out of place’ on an airplane is glaringly obvious, though as I have argued the number of reported incidents with pigs is very low. It seems that most of the actual occurrences in which suspicions about an animal’s legitimacy are aroused do not pertain to pigs, but to dogs whose bodies deviate from the norm, or to cats. There exist numerous websites and social media groups devoted to ‘outing’ fake service animals. The overwhelming majority of the pictures sent in to these sites feature small canines carried in purses and bags. Altering the species of the animal in the media accounts of flying pigs is another strategy for artificially forming a firm boundary in a scenario that is very slippery. The articles bemoaning the evils of ESAs perform the kind of species slippage necessary to strengthen the effect of outrage, but sometimes some careless wording reveals the slippage for what it is; the deliberate use of the discourse of species as a site for, as Cary Wolfe put it, the recoding of certain problems as problems of species. The Slate article which speaks of American planes as ‘an airborne Noah’s ark’ also cries out against what is referred to as the new cultural assumption that ‘everyone must love dogs’.49 Pigs stand in for suspicious dogs, which stand in for suspiciously disabled people, while the attempt to erect boundaries that are supposed to definitively erase all speculation about what and who is legitimate end up hurting pigs, dogs and the human disabled population. The attempt to create clear-cut categories does not end the politics of suspicion but adds fuel to the fire. It does nothing to promote being well together.

Margaret Price concludes her analysis with a suggestion that perhaps American society could afford a less controlled proliferation of animals in public space.50 However, this does not seem to be the direction America is heading in right now. The outrage generated by the ‘pig on plane’ narrative has been so widespread that in 2018 some of the major American airlines have amended their regulations in a way that makes it easier to reject strange species of animals and to refuse service to passengers with animals that behave in a disruptive way, even if the animals have the required documentation as ESAs. Towards the end of 2018, the Department of Housing and Urban Development is expected to issue revised guidelines for ESAs. Even if some Americans feel these decisions resolve the problem of ‘Fur and Fury in the Skies’, they do nothing to address the major underlying issues. While I have discussed in detail how the ESA controversy offers an outlet to popular anxieties related to American’s ‘excessive’ love for their pets and channels the resentment against the overdiagnosis of mental illness, there exists other tensions which I have barely hinted at (or have only footnoted), but which also merit more comprehensive analyses.


1. Edwin Henry Landseer (1837), “The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner.

2. See Helena M Pycior (2010), “Public and Private Lives of ‘First Dogs’: Warren G. Harding’s Laddie Boy and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fala,“Beastly Natures: Animals, Humans, and the Study of History, edited by Dorothee Brantz (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010): 176–203. FDR’s dog, the Scottish terrier Fala, actually attended Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s funeral. Furthermore, FDR was disabled; a case could thus technically be made that Fala was a service dog by today’s standards. Yet, even though the organised training of service dogs (though restricted to guide dog for the blind) had already begun by the 1940s, Fala was referred to as a pet and his special status (including the ability to travel by plane) was explicitly tied to his owner’s high status, not to the dog’s acquired skills in mitigating the president’s disability.

3. Andrea Diaz (2018), “How America’s Vet Dogs Trains Service Dogs Like Sully to Perform Long Lists of Commands.”

4. Lennard Davis (1995), “Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness and the Body.”

5. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, service animals can only be dogs or miniature horses that have been individually trained for the purpose of assisting a person with a disability (including a non-physical impairment). Emotional Support Animals can be animals of any species who offer comfort to persons who have been diagnosed with a mental illness by a physician. They do not have to be ‘individually trained’ to assist with the illness: their mere presence is seen as therapeutic in itself.

6. Margaret Price (2017), “What is a Service Animal? A Careful Re-Thinking”, 4.

7. American with Disabilities Act. 1990 (as amended 2009),

8. Susan Wendell (1996), “The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability.”

9. Margaret Price (2017), “What is a Service Animal,” 1.

10. Cary Wolfe (2003) “Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species and Posthumanist Theory.”

11. New York Times (2000), “Pig Had Right to Fly First Class, F.A.A. Says.”

12. Patricia Marx (2014), “Pets Allowed: Why Are So Many Animals in Places Where They Shouldn’t Be?.”

13. Kathleen Kete (1994), “The Beast in the Boudoir: Petkeeping in Nineteenth-Century Paris”

14. Roland Barthes (1973), “Mythologies, Translated by Anette Lavers”; Vladimir Propp (1928), “Morphology of the Folktale, Translated by Laurence Scott”; Cary Wolfe (2003), “Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species and Posthumanist Theory.”

15. Nicole Shukin (2011), “Transfections of Animal Touch, Techniques of Biosecurity.”

16. David Owens (2014), “Pooping Pig and Its Owner Booted from Bradley Flight.”

17. Mary Douglas (1966), “Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo.” As a historical aside, the barring of animals from urban space has been analysed as an element of modernization and a stage in the development of the modern city through the incorporation of the notion of hygiene into urban order. This has been explored in, for example, Peter Atkins (2012). Speaking of 19th-century London, Atkins writes on p 28: ‘This excremental vision of the 1840s and 1850s encouraged a language where slum inhabitants could themselves be seen as animals, similar in the conditions of their own sanitation to that of the pigs that lived in their back yards; and it was said to be their self-willed degradation that brought them to such a state of gracelessness’. Within this framework, sharing living space with livestock functioned as an obvious class marker. The recent trend for the keeping of livestock animals (especially pigs but also chickens) as pets is thus, on the one hand, a reversal of the long association of the proximity between livestock and humans as a marker of social status. The owners of the pigs are most certainly not ‘slum inhabitants’. On the other hand, because of the long-standing association of livestock keeping with backwardness and poverty, the practice becomes an easy target for satire. This association has been capitalised on by many comedians. Trevor Noah, in an episode of The Daily Show that aired in October 2018 criticised the concept of bringing pet pigs and chickens on planes through a biographical reference. Noah said that in Africa he had travelled with chickens on a bus and he never wants to repeat that experience. Noah, thus, suggested that separation of animals and humans is a sign of civilisational progress and chastised the USA for its regression into a premodern state of development.

18. This is not to say that there have not been more unusual (non-canine) emotional support animals on planes in this period, but that the incidents reported by the media pertain to a rather small number of animals, while generating the impression of the proliferation of unusual species of animals on planes.

19. Tristin Hopper (2018), “They’re S---ing All Over: Scenes from a World Taken Over by Fake Service Animals.”

20. Tristin Hopper (2016), “Fowl Therapy: Airline Lets Passenger Bring Turkey as Emotional Support Animal.”

21. Karin Bruillard (2018), “Fur and Fury at 40 000 Feet as More People Bring Emotional Support Animals on Planes.”

22. Tripp Drew (2017), “What the Duck? Service Duck Catches a Flight at Charleston International Airport.”

23. Inside Edition (2016), “Woman Takes Service Turkey on Trip to Scatter Husband’s Ashes.”

24. Inside Edition (2016), “Woman Takes 70-Pound Pig on Plane.”

25. Brian Resnick (2018), “The Surprisingly Weak Scientific Case for Emotional Support Animals.”

26. Dan Reed (2018), “Delta Yanks Hard on Leashes of Those Who’ve Abused Service Animal Travel Policies.”

27. David Leonhardt (2018), “It’s Time to End the Scam of Flying Pets.”

28. Kristen McQuery (2018), “Pets on Planes and Our Indulgent Culture.”

29. Justyna Włodarczyk (2018), “Disciplining Affects: The Dog Whisperer.”

30. Lennard Davis (2013), “End of Normal: Identity in a Biocultural Era.”

31. Lennard Davis (2013), “End of Normal,” 46.

32. Andrea Laurent-Simpson (2015), “Considering the Emotional Support Animal: Pets and the Pharmaceuticalization of Everyday Life.”

33. I K Zola and Irving Kenneth Zola (1972), “Medicine as an Institution of Social Control.”

34. Allen Frances (2013),“Saving Normal: An Insider’s Revolt Against Out-of-Control Psychiatric Diagnosis, Big Pharma and the Medicalization of Everyday Life”, Chapter 3, Kindle.

35. Emily Shapiro (2015), “Veteran Accuses American Airlines of Stopping Him, Service Dog from Boarding Flight.”

36. Nicole Shukin (2013) “Security Bonds: On Feeling Power and the Fiction of an Animal Governmentality.”

37. Margaret Price (2017), “What is a Service Animal,” 11.

38. Amy Kauffman (2017).

39. Hayden White (1972), “Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe.”

40. Rebecca Huss (2005), “No Pets Allowed: Housing Issues and Companion Animals”.

41. See Raymond Coppinger and Coppinger Lorna (2001), “Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Behaviour, Origin and Evolution.”

42. Justyna Włodarczyk (2018), “Genealogy of Obedience: Reading North American Dog Training Literature, 1850s-2000s.”

43. Katherine Grier (2006), “Pets in America: A History”, 74.

44. There does exist a voluntary register in the state of California, which has been mined for information by scholars interested in the topic. The results of a study conducted by Mariko Yamamoto et al. (2015) reveal that, taking into account the general numbers for the period 1999–2012, guide dogs (for visually impaired persons) and hearing aid dogs are outnumbered by other service dogs over 20-fold (Mariko Yamamoto et al., 2015, 8). Second, at the beginning of the period taken into consideration, the dogs registered as service dogs were predominantly guide dogs, hearing aid and mobility aid dogs, while in 2012 these dogs constituted a small minority of the registered service dogs (9). Finally, the size of the registered service dogs also changed significantly, with the second-most popular service dog breed in 2012 being the chihuahua (8). In 2012, the most common work tasks listed for other service dogs (those not classified as guide dogs, hearing aid dogs, mobility aid dogs) were: calm/alleviate anxiety/depression (42.9%) and alert to panic attack/mood (31.6%), (10).

45. Myra F. Taylor et al. (2013), “Nudging Them Back to Reality: Toward a Growing Public Acceptance of the Role Dogs Fulfil in Ameliorating Contemporary Veterans’ PTSD Symptoms.”

46. Mark Peterson (2007), “The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies,” 7.

47. Nicole Shukin (2011), “Transfections of Animal Touch,” 493–494.

48. Rosa Marchitelli (2015), “Veteran Kate Skywalker’s Emotional Support Animal Rejected by Air Canada.”

49. Ruth Graham (2017), “Mark Halperin Was Right: Sitting Next to a Dog on a Plane is the Worst.”

50. Margaret Price (2017), “What is a Service Animal,” 13.



  • Contributors There is only one contributor and sole author - myself.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.