Do Dogs Have Legal Rights?

Golden retriever Cali with an empty food bowl
WHY is my bowl empty?

An article about dogs’ right to food caught my attention recently.

Dogs in the United States lack legal rights, although some (weak and ineffective) laws exist to criminalize some cruel treatment of dogs and other animals. It’s a question that comes up occasionally — in ownership disputes, custody cases, and sometimes in cruelty cases. But for the most part, dogs (and other nonhuman animals) are considered property, not beings with intrinsic value and rights. This question — and the many possible answers — is addressed in Citizen Canine, a book I enthusiastically recommend.

However, courts in other parts of the world are taking different approaches to legal questions concerning animal rights. The article linked above addresses a recent High Court decision in Delhi, India.

The decision concerns whether residents of a town or community have the right to feed and care for street or “community” dogs. India, like many countries, has an enormous stray dog population.

The court could have addressed only the rights and obligations of the humans in either side of the case: pro-feeding people who were opposed by people who believe the dogs are a health and safety threat.

While confirming the rights of the people to feed the dogs, the court went several steps farther: It also stipulated that the dogs have a right to food.

Significantly, the court spelled out that the dogs’ right to food and medical care stems from their existence as sentient beings with intrinsic worth. The decision even states that dogs have the right to engage in normal (for them) behavior!

In going beyond acknowledging that dogs need food and spelling out that humans have a moral obligation to care for — to protect and show compassion toward — all living creatures, the High Court went farther than U.S. courts have (yet) gone to establish something like legal rights for nonhuman animals.

Though there is also progress on the U.S. front, notably in a case involving Columbian hippos, dogs have a ways to go before U.S. law recognizes them as “persons” with intrinsic value and some of what we usually call “human” rights.

Cali says she’d be happy with a ruling that she has a right to (as much) food (as she wants) and that I have an obligation to provide her with food (on demand), just like those dogs in India got.

A Win for Service Dogs!

Koala, a black Lab, studies her iPad
Koala is booking her next flight

The Department of Transportation released its new rules regarding travel with service dogs. This long-awaited ruling amends the Air Carrier Access Act’s (ACAA) regulations on travel with service animals. The 122-page ruling is available on the DoT website. An FAQ is also available. More than two years(!) have passed since DoT first requested public comment.

The ruling is worthwhile reading. It describes several issues considered and summarizes the comments and arguments presented around each. I’ll summarize some of the key points here, and let you delve into the details on your own.

The new rules take will effect January 11, 2021, after publication in the Federal Register on December 10, 2020.

1. Alignment with ADA on definition of a service dog

The ACAA has adopted similar wording and a similar approach to the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) in defining a service animal as “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability.” More significantly for the traveling public, the ACAA is doing away with any requirement that airlines allow passengers to bring so-called Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) on board without paying a pet fee.

It also requires that airlines treat psychiatric service dogs the same way it treats other service dogs. Many airlines had treated these as ESAs and/or required additional documentation or other “hoops” for passengers traveling with psychiatric service dogs.

The amended ACAA excludes miniature horses from travel in the cabin of an airplane.

2. New paperwork requirements

The new ruling includes a paperwork requirement for all travelers with service dogs. Using the DoT official Air Transportation forms, each traveler who is accompanied by a service dog will be required to attest that the dog has been trained to assist with a disability, the dog behaves safely in public, and the dog is in good health and current on vaccines. If the traveler has any flight segments that are eight hours or longer, they must further attest that the dog “has the ability either not to relieve itself on a long flight or to relieve itself in a sanitary manner” (what counts as sanitary is unspecified).

Airlines can require that the traveler provide the forms up to 48 hours in advance of the flight if they’ve made their flight reservations by then. Airlines cannot, however, require that passengers traveling with service dogs check in earlier than other passengers or check in in-person. If a traveler’s reservation is made within 48 hours of departure, the airline can require the passenger to present the completed forms at the departure gate.

3. About the dog

Airlines may limit a passenger to two service dogs. Whether the passenger has one or two service dogs, though, dog(s) and human must all fit within the space of the handler’s seat and foot space on the aircraft. And they can require that the dog be “harnessed, leashed, or tethered” at all times in the airport and on the aircraft. This is a departure from the ADA, which makes allowance for unrestrained service dogs if that’s necessary for their work. The rationale given in the ruling references the unique environment of an aircraft and situation of being in close quarters, in a stressful environment, with no escape.

If a service animal is too large to fit in the passenger’s space, the airline must offer to move them to another seat with more space, if one is available in the same service class; move them to a different flight; or transport the dog in the cargo hold.

Airlines are not allowed to ban a service dog based on its breed (though some are still trying to do so). But any dog can be excluded from a flight if they exhibit aggressive or unsafe behavior.

A win for pets, too

These new rules aren’t perfect and won’t solve all the problems working dogs face when confronted by fake or poorly trained service animals, but removing ESAs from the picture will certainly reduce the frequency. The numbers are staggering — Airlines for America, an airline trade association Deni found recently while doing research, concluded that more than a million air travelers brought their ESAs aboard in 2018. The number of websites where pet owners could purchase “credentials” transforming their pets into ESAs, while also conveniently purchasing official-looking vests and tags, grew in a trajectory similar to the number of traveling ESAs, while the number of passengers paying pet fees plummeted.

Many of these pets, as I have written before, receive no training and are terrified when taken from their usual safe home life into the bustle of an airport, the stress, along with strange noises and smells, of an airplane, and then, too often, removed from their carriers to be clutched by their anxious owners who are somehow comforted by the presence of their traumatized pets. Not surprisingly, the number of complaints about scared animals doing what scared animals do had climbed as the number of ESAs skyrocketed. The DoT fielded 700 complaints in 2013 — and 3,000 in 2018, according to Deni’s research. These range from animals eliminating on planes to snapping, nipping, and serious bites.

Dogs trained by reputable trainers or guide- or service-dog training schools receive many hours of public-access training and pass rigorous evaluations. But not all service dogs are trained that way. And some dogs are fine in 99% of public settings but are terrified by air travel. So the new law is not a guarantee that the dog in the next seat will be as perfect as Lassie. But, while it doesn’t close every loophole or solve every problem, the new restrictions are likely to make working-while-traveling a lot safer for thousands of guide and service dogs — and their human partners.

Who Gets the Dog?

Dogs are family. That’s obvious to most people who share their lives with family. But under the law, pets are treated like property — no different from a table or a toaster. That causes a host of issues, one of which is, if the family splits up, who gets the dog?

According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, thirty-two states allow courts to protect pets under domestic violence protective orders. A law passed in 2006 requires that state and local disaster plans include provisions to evacuate and care for pets and service animals. So, slowly, some laws are acknowledging that dogs are not toasters. But, while some judges have been willing to consider pets in divorce court, there has been no legal prod for doing so.

Until now.

Alaska is the first state to require courts to consider the “well-being of the animal” in custody disputes. The law took effect January 17.

While pets are often major points of contention in divorce cases, no one has represented their interests. People fighting about property and messily ending a relationship might, it can be imagined, be concerned with their own feelings; they might also be driven by a desire to seek revenge, hurt the other party, or just to “win,” whatever that means. Their judgment as to what would be best for the beloved dog or cat might be clouded. Recognizing this and specifically directing the court to consider the pets’ interests is a huge step forward.

Kudos to the ALDF, which has long advocated for courts to take this step. And, let’s hope that Alaska starts a fifty-state trend!