First there were highly trained guide dogs for the blind -- "seeing-eye dogs," as they are often called. Then the category broadened to loyal, smart "service dogs" that helped other physically disabled people negotiate streets, subway cars, and the like.
By federal law, "No Dogs Allowed" signs do not apply to these well-trained animals. Usually larger breeds like German shepherds and Labrador retrievers, these focused, faithful, and quiet dogs are even welcome in places where animals are usually banished to the curb.
Now, according to the New York Times there's a new kind of four-legged companion called an "emotional support animal." In 2003, the U.S. Transportation Department ruled that animals that help people with depression and other emotional difficulties must be given the same courtesies as any service dog. And this is provoking howls of outrage from the hospitality industry.
It seems that perfectly healthy pet-lovers are taking advantage of this regulation to march all sorts of creatures into cafés and hotels and farmers' markets. Even airplane flight attendants, according to the Times, must now deal with 90-kilo dogs, guide goats, miniature horses, cats, and even "an emotional-support duck" in the passenger compartment.
Yes, say those who are outraged by all this, animals can provide comfort and confidence to the emotionally fragile. But it insults those who really need a service animal's help to twist the rules just to get little Fifi into your favorite patisserie. And besides, just what specific services does an emotional-support duck provide, anyway?
This is one of VOA's Only in America radio essays on events and trends that are peculiarly American. To visit our Only in America home page click here