On Emotional Support Animals & My Interview With the New York Times

by gigigriffis

This weekend, Luna and I were featured in a New York Times article about flying with Emotional Support Animals. And I must confess that I was really nervous for the article to come out.

Why? Because ESAs in flight are a pretty controversial topic and I knew that there was a possibility that I’d draw some negative attention my way.

(And I did. Which reminds me, if you sent one of those delightful anonymous emails to let me know that I’m a twat, here’s a love song for you.)

In other words, I knew people might lash out at me. But I gave the interview anyway. Because I think it’s really important for a few people to stand up and be vulnerable. To try and create understanding and compassion. And to let others know that if they’re struggling, they aren’t alone.

This is why I talk so openly about having a therapist.

It’s why I share my deeply personal struggles and triumphs.

And it’s why I’ve started talking about Luna’s status as an ESA.

I didn’t do the interview to try and convince the skeptics that they should give up their crusade against dogs on planes (because trying to change the minds of skeptics about anything sounds less than fun).

I did it for the people who needed to hear someone say “Hey, I have and need an Emotional Support Animal. And it’s okay. Need help? You aren’t alone. You are valuable and worthwhile and you’re going to be okay. And whatever you need in order to be okay, be it medication, an empathic therapist, or a snuggly puppy, that’s okay too.”

Despite the controversy around the topic and despite the comment section (which you should just skip altogether), I hope that’s what you got out of my few lines in the story.

It’s okay not to be okay.

It’s okay to need help – in the form of a therapist, a dog, medication, whatever.

Have struggles? You can still have an amazing life.

And if someone is scoffing at you, belittling you, or brushing you off because you struggle with PTSD, depression, anxiety, etc., don’t forget: it’s not about you. It’s about them.

After all, empathy is tough for people.

In fact, I think it’s one of the difficult things about life…understanding that the experience is different for different people. Some of us struggle with depression; some don’t. Sometimes life is beautiful. Sometimes it is tragic. And if you’ve never had something happen to you, it’s really hard to imagine it.

And, yet, empathy is also incredibly important. Not only does it create connection between people, but it also increases our creativity, encourages curiosity, and, frankly, makes us more even-keel.

So, if that person isn’t empathizing with you? They’re actually missing out. On a lot.

Which is why, however hard it may be, try to remember that that negativity isn’t about you, to have a little empathy for the person who is taking their frustrations out on you, and to simply let it go.

Because admitting that you need help is strong. And so is extending grace to your enemies.

Finally, a couple clarifications from the article:
1) The ESA letter must state that you are under the care of the mental health professional who is issuing the letter. “Under the care of” implies that you have an ongoing relationship with said mental health professional and the airlines may choose to contact this person to confirm the validity of your letter. It is my understanding (and, granted, this is only based on personal experience and research) that the one-hour therapy session that results in a letter (which was mentioned in the article) wouldn’t fall within this rule.

2) ESAs are not, at this time, allowed in restaurants, grocery stores, etc. in the states. The only two special concessions made for them are for flights and housing. You can find more info here.

3) I also did the interview to let those who don’t need an ESA know that we aren’t all trying to scam you. We’re real people with real needs. And we care about your comfort too. Have an allergy, a fear of dogs, or some other concern? Ask politely and I bet the person would be happy to switch to another seat.

Gigi and Luna in Paris

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33 comments

Melissa November 18, 2013 - 2:02 am

As someone who has struggled with depression, I completely agree, drugs – Doctor-puppy! whatever it takes

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gigigriffis November 18, 2013 - 3:11 am

Absolutely.

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Anjani November 18, 2013 - 3:30 am

Great article, Gigi, and I love your courage to be honest and soft and open about all of this. And I’m sorry there were jerky things thrown your way, that’s just cause to go have some excellent chocolate, in my view. :-) Thanks as always! -Anjani

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gigigriffis November 18, 2013 - 4:40 am

Thanks, lady. Chocolate is an excellent idea. The crepes here are badass; I think I may treat myself.

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Montecristo Travels (Sonja) November 18, 2013 - 6:54 am

Beautiful article Gigi. As a person with severe anxiety issues that have led to attacks and even once a seizure – my ESA – Montecristo – has given me back the joys of travel and being off medication. A priceless gift of life.

Haters will hate. And as easy as it is for dogs, compassion is more difficult for humans. Sadly.

Your clarifications are also true. You do have to be under ongoing care of a therapist. Twice now the airline – and once the ferry company in Athens, Greece – called to confirm.

Thanks for being brave and giving ESA’s and their handlers a voice.

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gigigriffis November 18, 2013 - 6:58 am

Thanks for sharing a piece of your story here too. And thank you for always being an inspiration to me.

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Janet November 18, 2013 - 10:18 am

Thank you for having the strength to reach out and give people hope. Too many suffer needlessly. Having struggled with depression, I know that the hardest thing to do is ask for help. When you are depressed, you don’t believe you can ever feel better.

I had never heard of ESA’s before, but it is a brilliant idea. Everyone has to search for the therapy that is right for them. It’s wonderful that you are making people aware of this.

I have learned through my experience that happiness doesn’t just happen. I have to be proactive in avoiding negative thoughts and seeking out positive messages. This is why I love your blog. It is very inspirational and uplifting. Thank you!

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gigigriffis November 18, 2013 - 1:23 pm

Exceptionally well said. And thank you.

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Kathryn November 18, 2013 - 1:53 pm

Listening and empathy. We rarely do it enough, regardless of who we are.

You do both. And you teach. This is a flippin’ awesome combination, and it makes you rarer still!

Keep going. You are making a difference.

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gigigriffis November 19, 2013 - 3:08 am

Thanks!

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Carrisa November 18, 2013 - 1:57 pm

I just discovered your blog from this exact article. I’m someone who has traveled with an ESA for the last 4 years (before the issue of “faking” ESA’s) due to anxiety issue. Mine is a cat named Dorrie.

A lot of people don’t understand and laugh when I say she’s traveling with me, but I’ve never been shy to talk about my anxiety or traveling with an ESA. Therapy is one of those misconstrued topics. It’s come a long way, but it’s still viewed as one of those taboo topics and to some, that people who use it are crazy. Which is absolutely not the case, but these pre-conceived notions still exist sadly.

Thank you for putting into words so bravely what I’m sure many of us in therapy would like to say. Everyone deals with things differently and there is no shame in asking for help. And there’s definitely no shame in traveling with our furry companions :)

– Carrisa

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gigigriffis November 19, 2013 - 3:10 am

I totally agree. It’s so important to de-mystify therapy. So glad to hear you’re out talking about it openly too. I think the more we do that, the more we can make real change in cultural mindsets.

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Fur hits the fan with emotional support animals on planes - The Jet Set Pets November 18, 2013 - 3:14 pm

[…] her blog today, Gigi […]

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Annie November 18, 2013 - 8:59 pm

Hi Gigi, I alike another commenter also found your blog through the NY Times article. I applaud what you are doing. I would also be interested to know what training you did with Luna, as you mention she is “therapy trained”. I also travel full time with my little dog Rocky and have been wanting to research therapy training for him (although I suspect it will be a logistics nightmare give our travel schedule.)

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gigigriffis November 19, 2013 - 3:20 am

Hi Annie! I think you could train your dog for therapy work while traveling. I trained Luna myself (after reading everything I could about therapy programs and speaking extensively with one particular program about what the requirements were), and it wasn’t as tough as I anticipated. I did have the number of a great trainer just in case I ran into trouble, but I honestly never needed to use it.

The key with therapy training is to get your dog used to and comfortable with as many circumstances as possible and to train the dog in a high level of obedience.

For the program I researched and based my training on, the test requirements were things like:

– the dog had to allow someone else to hold it’s leash while you walked out of the room. The dog could try to follow at first, but it couldn’t panic, bark, etc.

– the dog had to walk beside you (heel) despite distractions (such as other dogs, people, etc.)

– they would make a loud noise (to simulate a hospital tray falling, as this was a hospital program) and the dog couldn’t panic. (It was allowed to be startled, but not to run away, pee, bark, etc.

– a vet would make the dog a little uncomfortable (without hurting the dog – things like turning her over, pulling at her ears a little – the kind of thing a small child might do) and the dog could not bite (it’s okay if the dog tries to move away).

There were other things, but you get the gist. Basically the dog has to be confident, calm, friendly, and well controlled. It has to be able to interact with people, including children, and other animals without aggression. Etc. And the biggest thing I learned from our training is that it’s just as important for me to be vigilant and aware. I learned a lot during the process myself.

For Luna, I also threw in a few more challenging training exercises that I picked up from reading about Service Dog training, such as relieving herself on command and not eating food that’s left on the floor.

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brahm (alfred lives here) November 19, 2013 - 6:26 am

Love that I found you, and this blog and that article… yep am Knew here, and totally agree — while not medically prescribed at the time, I went through very difficult times, as we all do, and having my dog with me truly I believed saved my life. It is a big cold scary world sometimes, and knowing Alfie loved me changed everything. Well done! I look forward to reading more.

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gigigriffis November 19, 2013 - 8:49 am

Thank you! And welcome. :)

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stacy November 20, 2013 - 12:52 pm

There was a situation where I live recently where a little girl was cut up into pieces and no one knew who did it and it was a bad time for everyone. The only time I didn’t feel anxiety was when my hand was buried in the fur of my cat. So I get that.

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gigigriffis November 20, 2013 - 2:45 pm

Oh, goodness. So sorry to hear about that.

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Furf November 20, 2013 - 8:09 pm

I too got to your blog from your NYT article. I didn’t realize there was such a huge backlash against people traveling on a plane with an Emotional Support Animal. How brave of you to speak out about it. I’m also thoroughly enjoying the rest of your blog :)

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gigigriffis November 21, 2013 - 3:51 am

Thanks!

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Suzanne Fluhr (Boomeresque) November 21, 2013 - 9:49 pm

The times I have been on a plane with an ESA dog, I didn’t even realize the dog was there until we were deplaning. If only all the other passengers could be as well behaved as ESAs are.

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gigigriffis November 22, 2013 - 3:04 am

Definitely! I was once on a plane with a kid who thought spitting on the people near him was okay. Totally wish I’d been next to a dog instead. :)

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Daisy's Mommy November 22, 2013 - 2:29 am

Hi Gigi, I’m so sorry to hear that you received such backlash from the article, though I’m sad to admit that I’m not too surprised. In researching different travel opportunities for me and my own little ESA over the past few years, I’ve come across some really terrible comments, similar to those on the NYT article, I’m sure. It’s truly upsetting to hear people say things like maybe you just shouldn’t be traveling or flying on a plane if you’re so depressed, etc.–such horrible things! You’re absolutely right about people not understanding who haven’t been through it. My tiny pup has done so much more for me than any medicine ever has, and it’s so frustrating that people don’t care to even try to understand before disregarding or making hurtful accusations. Anyway, I do appreciate your bravery in doing the interview and hope that it’s been facilitating some necessary and productive conversation. You are such an inspiration, and your strength and ability to extend grace and compassion to all the haters is truly admirable. Much love to you and Luna :)

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gigigriffis November 22, 2013 - 3:06 am

Thank you!

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Caron November 22, 2013 - 11:44 am

Hi Gigi,
The calm and companionship that comes from having a pet with you at all times is better than any increase in meds. That was my choice. Up the meds or having LouLou around at all times when I traveled for work.
I’m appalled by the perception of mental health in this country. Americans think because they can’t see someone’s disability, it isn’t real. Not all disabilities require wheel chairs or tapping sticks or leg braces. If an animal can keep you in a state of calm and ease with less or no medications, I say “animals for all!”.

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gigigriffis November 22, 2013 - 12:07 pm

Agreed! Meds certainly have their place, but if you can treat symptoms without meds, that’s so valuable.

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gigigriffis January 25, 2014 - 6:48 am

Hi Commenters!

Please feel free to leave a dissenting comment on this post. HOWEVER, understand that I’m not publishing anything with name-calling or hate speech. Be respectful and you’re welcome to join the conversation. If you are disrespectful, your comment will live in the trash bin.

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2013: Sexiness, Success, & Self-Love | The Ramble February 9, 2014 - 10:04 am

[…] So, I told the hard, beautiful, important stories. I talked about my depression and anxiety. I told my story even when I knew it would gain me a few haters. […]

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Sara April 4, 2014 - 2:47 am

I am curious as to why ESAs are not allowed to be with you 24/7? I have chronic pain due to a degenerative disk disease and the pain meds cause a menagerie of symptoms including depression, anxiety, and antisocial behavior. I need my ESA all of the time for the emotional comfort and I am much more at ease in social interactions with her there. However, I don’t need her to be trained as a therapy or service dog. She knows the basics and is extremely well behaved. I was really just curious about what I could do to keep her with me everywhere I go?

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gigigriffis April 4, 2014 - 2:56 am

Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to get an ESA into restaurants, bars, grocery stores, etc. in the states (in Europe, restaurants and bars are often pet-friendly, but the states is behind on that one). The only dogs allowed in those places are service animals. That said, I often find that other kinds of places (classrooms, conferences, etc.) may make exceptions if you ask ahead of time (I’ve taken Luna to one conference and a special business class I took). My policy is always, always ask. I find that people are very often helpful.

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Debbie April 10, 2014 - 3:22 pm

I for one think ESA’s are about as important as any Service Dog and wish there was something we (most of us on here suffer from anxiety, depression, etc) and do need and do much better with our pets with us. Why should it be so hard to get an ESA dog qualified like a Service Dog? I realize that if they make it too easy, everyone would suddenly ‘need’ an ESA, but still, I have problems going into public places unless my dog is with me. When she’s with me, people focus (99% positively) on her and not on me…….which is something I need in order to go places. Is there something we can do??

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gigigriffis April 11, 2014 - 4:01 am

I find that very often people will make exceptions for a well-behaved ESA, so even if she isn’t technically allowed in a place, you can always ask politely and explain your situation. I never expect people to bend the rules for Luna and I, but I often ask – and it often results in success.

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