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Therapy Animals Are Not Only Ridiculous, They Probably Make Things Worse


I have my doubts if climate change cares whether I have children. However, one of the downsides of being the dad of intelligent kids is the amount of stupid research you have to do if you want to make sure they’re correctly formatted for submission to the Great Big World.

The other day, my 14-year-old daughter came upon a YouTuber (“mid-level” famous, I think) who has a “therapy animal.” It’s a small, yappy dog. Apparently, the YouTuber suffers from acute agoraphobia or social anxiety or something.

My daughter told me what it was called, but I forgot the exact name and refuse to Google it. I take this stand on the same moral ground as Sherlock Holmes in a “Study in Scarlet.” He refuses to commit to memory the fact that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Like Sherlock, I’m afraid of having so much useless clutter in my mental attic that I will be unable to solve crimes.

This mid-level celebrity YouTuber claims to suffer fainting spells brought on by anxiety. The dog senses an impending swoon and starts yapping like a maniac to jolt her out of it. Believe it or not, some establishments have asked the YouTuber not to bring this magnificent beast inside.

A taco joint flatly refused her and her dog entry. If there ever were an inalienable, self-evident right built into the human condition, taco access is it.

So there you are with your 14-year-old who is very faux-outraged at this gross miscarriage of something or other. And yet. You sense a trace of doubt, a sneaking suspicion that this maybe isn’t the biggest deal, or any kind of deal at all.

You think you might not be so hopeless at this father thing, after all. Then—of course—you put your foot in it.

“I’m not sure those therapy animals are real,” your mouth says. Horror on my daughter’s face. “But…but [the YouTuber] faints. She falls down! She could seriously hurt herself. Or die, even.”

The answer to that forms, and you try to choke it off, and by Jimmy Hoffa, you almost do. But it squeaks its way out of your traitorous mouth.

“I hate to tell you this, but the woman’s going to die anyway.”

It must be so disappointing to have a dad who is a Hater, who should by all rights go around with a big, red “H” sewed to his shirts, or maybe tattooed under his nose like a mustache. Yet, because at least my wife has raised her right, behind my daughter’s indignation maybe, just maybe—a trace of relief. (“Dad said it. I can just think it, and not have to say it.”)

Doubt sets in. I can see that on her face. Why does she feel this relief? Is she a hater, too?

Fourteen years ago, I should have known it would eventually come to this. That I’d have to take time away from solving crimes to explain to someone the reasons I don’t like the idea of therapy animals.

Yes, I Really Need My Snake on This Plane

Emotional support dogs. Companion animals. You’ve seen the yellow chest vests, the red, sans-serif lettering. I’m not kidding. I’ve seen it. I’ve also seen, not a flying squirrel, but a squirrel wearing a yellow notification on its carrying crate.

These doggie body-socks seem totally authorized, endorsed, official, like health-care scrubs and road workers’ utility vests. No. ‘Therapy animals’ are not real. Seeing Eye dogs are real. Seizure response dogs are real. Companion animals are just pets in vests.

The mid-level YouTuber really has dangerous fainting spells, my daughter tells me. The dog senses it and warns her. It saves her! Maybe it does, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the woman. In fact, having a little yappy dog feeding her anxiety is probably bad for her. It allows her to avoid the real problem. Yeah, I’m talking about the “We’re all gonna die” thing again.

We all die. That includes you. At one point or another, you’re going to feel very uncomfortable with this realization. You’re going to feel like you’ve checked out of your normal room and into a hotel room that looks exactly like it except the temperature is never right, the blanket is filled with allergens and carcinogens, and the pillows have the faint odor of someone else’s sweat.

This is usually when you become convinced you need a therapy dog. Or perhaps a companion pony.

After all, Title 28, Chapter I, Part 36, Subpart C, Section 36.302, Paragraph 9, Section I of the federal code implementing Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act states:

A public accommodation shall make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures to permit the use of a miniature horse by an individual with a disability if the miniature horse has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of the individual with a disability.

Seems fair, although difficult to picture. Why not a regular horse? The vagaries of federal law are staggering. Nevertheless, it’s a fact of law that emotional support animals, comfort animals, and therapy dogs are not service animals.

Feeling Sad Sometimes Isn’t a Disability

Do you have a limb missing? Do you have a gland in your body that squeezes out a hormone that shuts your nervous system down on occasion while you are driving? If yes, then definitely, you are disabled.

Addiction? Paranoia? That endemic disease of not being able to choose between breakfast cereals in grocery stores? You might be predisposed to such problems more than other folks are, but do you have a disability? No. You are not disabled.

As a science fiction writer and an editor at a science fiction publisher, I’ve attended a great many science fiction conventions. I run across a lot of people there who sport therapy animals. Look, I love SF people. A certain portion are brilliant iconoclasts—the world’s greatest people. Another portion have a tendency to be irredeemably pathetic, self-obsessed morons.

Therapy dogs come in all shapes and flavors. In my experience, the same cannot be said of their human companions. He or she is almost always very clearly acting out a sick fantasy, pretending to have a disability. The only thing wrong with him is that he doesn’t want to deal with the hubristic mess he creates wherever he goes as he seeks to avoid the choices demanded by his own mortality.

I don’t want to pet this guy’s dog. Okay, I might like that. But I do not want to ever hear about his special relationship with his dog. Ever, ever. I’m even a bit uncomfortable watching him finger the thing. It isn’t really petting. It’s more like Gollum stroking the Ring (I did say I was a science fiction writer).

Pets Can’t Provide What Sad People Really Need

At the end of the day, they’re just animals. They don’t reason. They can’t talk. Even if therapy dolphins existed—which may be a thing for all I know—they can’t talk, not really. It may be “tragic” and “unfair” that this should be true, but there you go.

Pets feel only truncated emotions. Fortunately for us humans, one of these basic emotions is love. Broadly speaking though, pets are useless by definition. We keep them to love us, not help us. Pets can’t even turn a doorknob. We help them. The reason you get a pet for your kid is to make sure the kid’s ready for the real challenge later.

Twenty-five years ago, I sat up night after night for several weeks talking my girlfriend out of committing suicide. She had some serious mental issues. Problems from her childhood. Problems from life in general. Yet never once did I believe she was disabled.

I’m happy to report she didn’t take her own life. She’s thankfully recovered. Later, we broke up for all sorts of other reasons. Now she lives out west as a painter who runs her own business.

Would she have benefited from a therapy dog? Absolutely not. She had something better at her disposal. She had a human companion who talked and didn’t wear a yellow vest. The only therapy animal that works is another human being.

Back to solving crime.