Child Bit on Southwest Airlines Flight by Emotional Support Dog


Animals are amazing and impact our lives in a wide variety of ways. Stories abound of how animals have helped humans in need, rescuing them or attacking animals or other humans who were doing them harm.

Service animals are another incredible example of how animals change human lives. Undergoing intense training, these animals, usually dogs, learn how to help people who have various challenges including blindness and epilepsy.

Another category of helper is that of emotional support animal (ESA). These differ from service animals and are made up of a wide range of critters.

The law is very insistent that service animals be allowed in places where animals normally would not be, such as in restaurants where food handling takes place.

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Things get a little more hazy when it comes to emotional support animals, which do not usually undergo training the way service animals do.

According to IBTimes, a man named Todd Rice sent out a tweet, now deleted, that claimed an emotional support dog bit a girl, “Southwest flight 1904 allows a support dog on the plane, bites kid, paramedics now on plane. Why are dogs on the plane?! Never again will I fly SWA.”

Initially there seemed to be some media confusion, with at least one headline about the story calling the dog a service animal, which is a completely different thing. That media outlet later corrected their erroneous headline.

However, the entire thing drew the attention of black Labrador rescue trainer, Jan Merton, who took to Facebook to alert the public to a few key issues. Among them were the differences between service animals and emotional support animals.

Her fear was that there would be a backlash against service animals, which according to Merton, “rarely bite” because of their intense training, rather than honest scrutiny being given to emotional support animals (ESA). She also noted that the blame for an emotional support animal that bites should rest on the trainer/handler.

She added that the parents of the child held some blame for not teaching the girl to never approach a strange animal or pet an animal without asking first.

The public is routinely prohibited from petting service animals because they are “on duty” and should not be “distracted” but focused on their task. Some handlers will allow it but permission should always be sought first.

Merton also defended the use of emotional support animals by veterans. She wrote that in these cases, the animals, much like traditional service animals, undergo special training.

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The Chicago Tribune reported that the child was okay, with Southwest Airlines spokeswoman Melissa Ford clarifying that after the handler asked the child to stay back, and the girl approached anyway, the dog’s “teeth ‘scraped’ the girl’s forehead as it turned away, breaking the skin and causing a minor injury.”

The dog and handler remained behind in Phoenix while the girl and her family traveled on with the rest of the flight to Portland.

Ford stated that as a result of the incident with the child, Southwest Airlines is reviewing but “won’t ‘immediately’ be changing its animal policies ‘because we want to do it right’ after reviewing the issue.”

The Chicago Tribune noted that due to “a surge in incidents involving” emotional support and service animals, Delta and United have said that as of 2018 they would be “requiring more documentation” on such animals boarding their flights.

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