Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Comfort Animals

Sometimes the universe speaks directly to you through music.

Vancouver’s weekly Showtune Sing-a-long Night is back, so last Wednesday after chorus rehearsal I was in my usual corner of the bar, sipping water. No alcohol – I was finishing a round of antibiotics to kill what currently looks like a mere bullet wound in my chest. 

Despite my recent plague of boils and other challenges, I’ve been in a shockingly good mood lately. My attitude seems even sunnier than would be justified by my improved mental health and my imagined career prospects. As I sat listening in the dark, I wondered what mysterious X-factor had been giving an extra lift to my spirits since the beginning of the year.

The piano player, Kerry O’Donovan, is a student of obscure musicals. Last Wednesday he introduced a song from an off-Broadway show I wasn't familiar with, Lucky Stiff. (Apparently it has a convoluted plot involving a contested will, Monte Carlo casinos, corpses with mistaken identities, and stolen diamonds.) Just as I was musing about what recent development might be boosting my cheer, Kerry began singing “Times Like This”:

Other people need
Romance, dancing, playing around
Other people need constant fun
Well I'm not one
I have my feet on the ground

Give me a quiet night
A stack of books
A tuna melt on rye
A simple walk together
Underneath the starry sky

And, suddenly, 
The night is something grand
And all because
There's someone special there
Who's gazing at the view
His head upon...your shoes

At times like this
I sure could use....
A dog

(Click here for a short version on YouTube sung by the lovely Katherine McPhee.)

Over the holidays I had to move out of my comfortable Bellingham rental house. Since then, my ex and I have been experimenting with letting the kids stay full time in one place. That means I’ve been spending alternate weeks in a ranch house with two charming Aussiedoodles. I’m loving it.
As I recently wrote in “Guncle Again,” my kids are pretty useless as pet-owners. But they provide enough help to keep the dogs from feeling like a burden. More importantly, my ex and his husband are down the hill at the apartment if any real problems arise. Alternate weeks I’m away in Vancouver, or at my parents’ animal-free house. The dogs are ecstatic when I return. I feel like a fabulous gay uncle again.

Even the most adorable pet is not the same thing as a comfort animal. Moreover, neither a pet nor a comfort animal qualifies as a service animal. Here's a free legal primer:

The narrow definition of “service animal” includes

any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disabilityOther species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual's disability…. The crime deterrent effects of an animal's presence and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks for the purposes of this definition.1

            1If you relish raw legalese, you can read the full federal regulation itself at 28 CFR § 35.136. Or, if you prefer, here’s a handy FAQ published by the US Department of Justice  back when it was into justice. 

Under both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Washington Law Against Discrimination, every government agency and every place of public accommodation must welcome service animals. If it isn't already obvious that the dog is a service animal, proprietors may ask only two specific questions:

(1) Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?  
(2) What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
Service dogs do not need to be specially registered or certified as trained. However, Washington now imposes a $500 fine for falsely identifying Fluffy as a service animal. 

As a separate matter, employers must consider any disabled employee’s request to bring a service animal to work under the same legal framework that requires a “reasonable accommodation” of the employee's disability, based on the circumstances of the particular employment situation. 

There’s exactly one exception to the rules limiting service animals to dogs:  miniature horses. Apparently they’re a thing.

The definition of a “comfort animal,” also known as an “emotional support animal” or “assistance animal,” covers much more than service dogs:
An assistance animal works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person's disability. For purposes of reasonable accommodation requests, federal law does not require an assistance animal to be individually trained or certified. While dogs are the most common type of assistance animal, other animals can also be assistance animals.
Recently we’ve seen an increasing variety of comfort animals in two contexts covered by different federal laws. The first is transportation. According to an article in Forbes, US airlines carried a million animals in their passenger cabins in 2017, mostly supposed comfort animals – representing species from peacocks, to monkeys, to snakes. The airlines and Congress have been pushing back at passenger abuses, and the Department of Transportation is working on new regulations that are likely to impose significant new restrictions.

The second area is housing, where comfort animals are here to stay. Landlords from college dormitories to public housing projects to fancy apartment complexes are busy developing policies that override anti-pet rules. They must accommodate a wide variety of comfort animals, while attempting to balance the rights of nondisabled residents.

Outside of the transportation and housing contexts, individual businesses are generally free to make their own decision whether to welcome comfort animals. Or plain old pets.

Although I’ve never been a pet person myself, I’ve observed how pets brighten many other people’s lives. Just like country music, and knitting.

However, I learned the power of comfort animals on the night I hosted the worst dinner party ever. I’ll save the details for some occasion when I’m in a sufficiently safe place – i.e., after I find a job, an apartment, and a boyfriend. As a preview, no host should have to explain to a guest’s date that just because you're from the South doesn't mean you're allowed to use the n-word in the hot tub. 

I suppose the fiasco was partly my fault. I’m a big believer in the Greek concept of “xenia” or gracious hospitality, so I try to accommodate everyone. Moreover, as a codependent person I acquired a stable of needy friends and acquaintances whose dysfunctions I (formerly) could not resist enabling. Nevertheless, even codependent hosts do not anticipate having two separate dinner guests bring small yappy dogs without prior notice or permission. 

For now, I'll limit myself to explaining how one of the dogs showed up on Whidbey Island. Let’s call the non-Southern dog-bringer “Hot Mess.” He’s a longtime Seattle friend who comes from a similar religious and mental health background as mine, but with bonus substance abuse issues. Still, he’s a nice guy, and in the past he’d enjoyed fun visits to the island. I’d told him he was welcome to come back for another weekend if he could make his way up to the Mukilteo ferry himself. However, as Hot Mess went through yet another difficult period, I was confident that he was incapable of the complex organizational tasks involved in coordinating various buses, boats, and trains.

I did not realize that Hot Mess had acquired a small comfort dog. Apparently it fits inside his leather jacket, and soothes him when he has an episode. After alarming numerous public servants and fellow travelers along the way, Hot Mess and his dog arrived on the island just in time for dinner and the ensuing chaos.

Recently I went over to the other house to help my daughter with homework, even though it was my week staying across town with my parents. Afterwards I took the dogs for a long walk through the arboretum. For a little pick-me-up.

So I should have been more prepared for my epiphany at Showtune Night, when Kerry sang about what a couple of Aussiedoodle comfort animals can do for your mental health:

My idea of company would be
A friendly face
The kind of face
That melts you with a grin
The kind of eyes that welcome you
The minute you walk in
A tender glance
You simply can't refuse

Times like this, a guy could use...another dog

He listens when you tell him things
There's nothing you can't say
And unlike certain people
You can teach him how to stay

And if the world
is giving you the blues
He cheers you up 
by chewing up the news

It's things like that
That make you choose...a dog


When I arrived home from Showtune Night in Canada, I discovered my favorite jammies were missing. It turns out worn flannel is just as irresistible to chewy dogs as bad news and holey underwear.

So I sighed, and temporarily banished Bear and Buster from my bedroom. Facing codependency is all about establishing healthy boundaries. With dogs, it’s good to be a Guncle.

More Showtune Night Stories:

"Missing Marie's Crisis" (5/6/17)

"Get Out and Stay Out" (10/18/17)

"Six Degrees of Kristin Chenoweth" (10/31/18)

"I am Third" (5/29/19)

"Spongeworthy" (6/13/19)

"Maybe I Love Showtunes Too Much"  (9/17/19)

"Artificial Emotional Intelligence" (2/25/20)

"Do Gay Androids Dream of Electric Brunch?" (2/26/20)

"A New Brain"  (5/5/20)

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