Sonny big white dog face
Photograph ©2006 by B. Cohen.

Can an Emotional Support Animal Be Used as a Threat?

This is not about legitimate Service Animals, it is about the ‘emotional support’ animal fad. I have noticed these animals, mainly pets, on at least 1/3 of my flights. As last week’s Delta incident shows, they are a disaster waiting to happen. I mean, I can’t carry a screwdriver on a flight, but a passenger can carry an attack dog.”

Does FlyerTalk member MitchR have a point about this comment he posted earlier today?

Can an Emotional Support Animal Be Used as a Threat?

That comment had me thinking — and yes, that can be dangerous — about the potential danger which emotional support animals could bring to travelers. What if that precious animal has been trained to attack on command, for example?

That possibility may not be so preposterous: although legitimate reasons exist for them, emotional support animals are not subject to the same training requirements as service animals; nor are they required to be caged — meaning that the policies and requirements for the designation of emotional support animals are more lax than those for service animals. There have been reports of passengers who have not been officially diagnosed with a disability and have allegedly attempted to bring their animals aboard an airplane — falsely passing them off as emotional support animals…

Passenger Attacked by Emotional Support Animal

…but in light of the recent news of an emotional support dog biting a fellow passenger aboard an airplane operated by Delta Air Lines and causing serious injury — there is no report that the animal had been provoked — what is to stop someone from passing off a trained attack dog as an “emotional support animal” and bringing it aboard an airplane? What about several passengers — each with a dog passed off as an emotional support animal — working together as a team in a coordinated effort?

The passenger who was bitten by the animal — which was described as “possibly a lab mix weighing about 50 pounds” — was so seriously injured that he had to leave the airplane to receive medical attention, according to this article written by Nathalie Pozo of WAGA-TV Fox 5 News in Atlanta. “The gentleman’s face was completely bloody, blood in his eyes, cheeks, nose, his mouth, his shirt was covered in blood,” according to an eyewitness to the incident.

Witnesses reported seeing the dog — who was sitting on the lap of Ronald Kevin Mundy, Jr. in the middle seat — growl at the male passenger not long after taking his seat by the window. The dog continued to act strangely as the growling increased prior to lunging at the face of Marlin Jackson — who is from Alabama and was traveling from Atlanta to San Diego — and biting him.

Jackson will likely suffer permanent scarring and has retained legal counsel. “Mundy pulled the dog off Jackson, but the dog broke free from his owner and attacked Jackson again,” according to this article which is also from WAGA-TV Fox 5 News. “The attacks reportedly lasted 30 seconds and resulted in profuse bleeding from severe lacerations to Mr. Jackson’s face, including a puncture through the lip and gum,” resulting in Jackson receiving 28 stitches.

Mundy is reportedly a veteran of combat and was “cradling the dog in his arms in the gate area and that the crew saw him weeping, repeatedly saying, ‘I know they’re going to put him down’.”

Was the Airline At Fault?

The following statement was issued from Delta Air Lines to WAGA-TV Fox 5 News:

“Prior to pushback of flight 1430, ATL-SAN, a passenger sustained a bite from another passenger’s emotional support dog. The customer who was bitten was removed from the flight to receive medical attention. Local law enforcement cleared the dog, and the dog and its owner were re-accommodated on a later flight; the dog will fly in a kennel.”

An emotional support animal is a companion animal which provides therapeutic benefit to an individual designated with a disability — such as depression, bipolar disorder, panic attacks or anxiety as only a few of many examples. While only dogs — and, in a separate provision which need not be discussed here, miniature horses — can be officially designated as service animals, emotional support animals can also be cats and other animals as prescribed by a physician or other medical professional if the owner of the animal has a verifiable disability in accordance with federal law of the United States.

In order to prevent discrimination by commercial airlines — based both within and outside of the United States — against passengers on the basis of physical or mental disability, the Air Carrier Access Act was passed by the Congress of the United States in 1986; and here are where complaints may be registered against an airline via the official Internet web site of the Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement division of the Department of Transportation of the United States.

Employees of airlines are limited by law to the questions they are permitted to ask owners of animals brought aboard airplanes. Only two questions may be asked by employees of an airline — or of any other company, for that matter pertaining to service animals…

  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

…and when the service an animal provides is not obvious, an employee of an airline or other company cannot do the following actions without violating federal law:

  • Ask about the nature of the disability of the person
  • Require medical documentation
  • Require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog; or
  • Ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task

Official Policies of Airlines in the United States

A commercial airline is permitted to require a passenger traveling with an emotional support animal provide written documentation that the animal is an emotional support animal — unlike for a service animal. A fee does not apply to service animals of passengers with disabilities — not even on airlines such as Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air, which are known for their proliferation of ancillary fees.

Here is a list of airlines with links to their official policies pertaining to animals:


The expansion of the ban on electronics larger than a mobile telephone in the passenger cabin to 71 unspecified additional airports around the world is currently being considered for the safety of airline passengers — as has been the implementation of the limitation of liquids and the removal of shoes at security checkpoints at airports…

…but even though the use of emotional support animals as threats is possible but not probable — as an explosive is certainly more capable of causing significantly more destruction and instilling more fear in people than an emotional support animal — there are fewer rules and restrictions pertaining to emotional support animals.

Could that potentially be a glaring hole in the security of commercial aviation?

Photograph ©2006 by B. Cohen.

  1. No way. Terrorist won’t carry dog with them. Dog is ‘haram’ in their perspective.

    Then again, we always said, “its impposible!” before something big happened, right?

  2. I have 2 Emotional support animals and even though it is easy to get that note, there are qualifications to them, and yes even some classes. You must show proof other than that letter for a “TRUE” ESA to be treated as such. Most places I have found do not obey the qualifying rules/laws. Plus people need to realize, even though they are ESA’s and are working all the time, they are pets and can sense things we cannot, they also don’t like to be teased or have their owner threatened, teased, harassed, etc. If possible the best thing in that situation was to let that one passenger sit with nobody on each side. But I know that cannot always happen. But the airlines need to enforce the strict rules/laws no matter how small or silly they find them for not only the other passengers and staff, but the ESA and their owner as well. This way everyone is happy, staff, passengers, ESA and their owner ☺.

  3. A service dog does not require specific training to be an actual service animal, so this article is wrong. ESA actually require documentation where Service Animals do not. Don’t punish the whole because of the few.

    1. This article is correct service animals do infact require specific training to mitigate the handlers disability. Also known ask task work and public access training.

  4. Allowing esa dogs on a plane is no more of a security risk than allowing people. Attack dogs could disguise as ESA dogs. Individuals that are very skilled at hand to hand combat could disguise as regular people. Five attack dogs board a plane and are set loose. Five professional MMA fighters board a plane and are set loose. Those fighters could kill a regular person with just a few strikes. Trained attack german shepherd gets you in a corner and starts biting you, or Dan Henderson has you in a corner, takes you down and ground and pounds you until your brain never works the same again. Pick your poison.

    Beyond all that, everytime a person is let on a plane, there is a non zero possibility that they got through security with a dangerous weapon. Just as we search people for weapons to try to avoid that situation, we check that dogs are valid esa dogs to avoid the attack dog situation.

    Just as that dog in the next seat could turn and start biting you, that person in the next seat can turn and start punching and choking you. The dog might be small, might be big. The punch might just be annoying, the punch might knock you out cold, defenseless.

    I have to say, i did find your argument very interesting, but then this counter example dawned on me.

  5. @cj: unfortunately, the plane cabin was made for people (human being), not animal. That’s why we see seats instead of cages.

    Common people may attack. Can also be countered by another common people. 5 trained people planning to attack, its intelligence job to detect. 5 trained animal disguised as esa, who would’ve known?

    Supposedly I ran a charity of providing 5 dogs to whiny people, give them some gift of travelling with their new esa dogs. I secretly also board the aircraft, with a dog whistle I can order those esas to attack.

  6. I have an emotional support animal a cocked spaniel I do not fly with her as I have panic and anxiety attacks she does react to my feelings but she sees people around me as the problem so she is always on guard if we are in a strange environment any animal on a plane should be wearing a basket muzzle

    1. Excellent solution … yes, if the owner cannot guarantee he/she can keep the animal under his/her control at all times, the ESA should wear a muzzle or some type of mouth restraints for the safety of everyone!

  7. Most people use dog as ESA. What if my ESA is a king cobra? Or a sidewinder (the snake not the missile)?

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