Why a Service Dog Giving Birth at Tampa Airport Wasn’t ‘Adorable’

Maybe you saw the photos recently of a service dog who “unexpectedly” gave birth to eight puppies at Tampa International Airport in Florida. And maybe, like me and unlike some news stories about it, you didn’t find it particularly “adorable.”

For one thing, why was the golden retriever, named Eleanor “Ellie” Rigby, about to go on a two-and-a-half-hour flight to Philadelphia when she was so close to her due date? And speaking of due date, if Ellie truly was a service dog, why hadn’t she been spayed?

“There’s no way a service dog could be pregnant,” Suzy Wilburn, director of admissions and alumni for the nonprofit Southeastern Guide Dogs, told the Tampa Bay Times. “You need your dog 365 days a year; that dog can’t take a vacation. You can’t give your dog maternity leave.”

Ellie was traveling with her owner, Diane Van Atter, and Golden Nugget, a service dog who’s the father of her puppies. “It’s also very rare that someone would have two service dogs,” Wilburn added.

A pregnant service dog traveling with her mated service dog “sounds like breeding stock to me,” wrote Peggy McClard in a comment on Tampa International Airport’s Facebook page. “Makes it harder for those of us who really need service dogs to get business owners to understand.”

Service animals must be spayed or neutered, according to standards set by the International Guide Dog Federation and Assistance Dogs International, the Tampa Bay Times reports.

So, are Ellie and Nugget really service dogs? Yes, says Van Atter. The dogs detect dangerous drops in her blood sugar or blood pressure level.

Some eyebrows were raised over the facts that she got Ellie and Nugget from a breeder rather than a specialized service dog breeding program, and they were trained by a private trainer rather than a service dog organization. But as a Care2 reader pointed out, this is not unusual – service dogs can come from breeders as well as shelters and rescue organizations, and working with a private trainer can make service dogs attainable for people who otherwise could not afford them. Service animals are not required to be trained by specific organizations or trainers.

Van Atter said her dogs aren’t spayed or neutered because she was concerned it could lead to cancer, which happened with a previous dog of hers. (Spaying dogs actually helps prevent them from getting mammary cancer.)

“There’s no reason a service dog can’t be pregnant. That’s absolutely wrong,” Van Atter told the Tampa Bay Times. As for why she would let Ellie fly when she was so close to giving birth, Van Atter said personal family issues prevented her from leaving Florida sooner.

The Trouble with Fake Service Dogs

In recent years, many airline passengers have been bringing (or trying to bring) their emotional support and service animals with them into the cabin. American Airlines, on which Ellie and Nugget would have flown, said the number of service animals on its flights increased 40 percent between 2016 and 2017.

Unfortunately, some people take advantage of airlines’ lax rules regarding these animals. They lie about their health and use fake documentation so their pets can travel for free inside the cabin.

Because of these people, many airlines, including American, have changed their policies. They now require all necessary documentation to be filed at least 48 hours before the flight. Previously, passengers could simply drop off the paperwork at the check-in desk before boarding the plane.

As for Ellie, some news reports say she may have gone into labor due to the “excitement” of being in the airport terminal. To add to her stress, a crowd watched and cheered as each puppy was born. Dogs “naturally seek privacy and solitude while giving birth,” Wilburn told the Tampa Bay Times. She said Ellie’s situation was “horrendous” and cruel.

And what if there had been complications? Fortunately for Ellie, Tampa Fire Rescue paramedics quickly showed up to help her.

“Puppies are cute. Who doesn’t like puppies?” Tampa International Airport spokeswoman Janet Scherberger told the Tampa Bay Times. “But a lot of our resources went into that. We had firefighters, we had police officers and a maintenance team that needed to clean up. … We’re definitely watching the issue.”

Van Atter ended up driving the dogs and their litter back to her home in Philadelphia. As for the puppies, one will be donated to a service dog organization, another will be given to a breeder, and Van Atter told the Tampa Bay Times she hasn’t yet decided what to do with the others.

You can bet that adoption offers are pouring in.

While it’s good to know that this incident had a happy ending, what doesn’t induce many warm fuzzies is that it raised questions about the legitimacy of some emotional support and service dogs.

There’s very little to feel good about, if this only contributes to making it increasingly difficult for people who truly need these animals to be able to bring them along when they travel.

Updated June 8: This post was edited to clarify that service dogs can come from breeders and be privately trained.

Photo credit: SofiLayla


Jennifer H
Jennifer H2 months ago

Too many lies from this "owner". I don't believe anything on her end. The dog should not have been forced to fly at all during a pregnancy. Flying with 2 "support" dogs - more than questionable. Anyone who cares at all about their dog that is expecting pups will know the due date and work their life around that - not the other way around; puppy birthing is stressful enough on the dog. This person should be guilty of cruelty not given credibility as a person who needed an emotional support dog(s). The male could have flown with her - she did not need both. She took advantage of the system and of the dogs.

Chrissie R
Chrissie R2 months ago

Thank you for posting.

michela c
michela c2 months ago

Poor Ellie, and poor puppies

Amanda M
Amanda McConnell2 months ago

Thanks for sharing

Amanda M
Amanda McConnell2 months ago

Thanks for sharing

Susan H
Susan H2 months ago

Noted, very sad :(

Janis K
Janis K2 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

Dot A
Dot A2 months ago

Absolutely no blame for the mom or her puppies, not even the father of the litter. This is all human error, and it seems to point toward selfish gain. As usual. Not cute. Puppies, always, extra cute!!!

Leo C
Leo Custer2 months ago

Thank you for sharing!

Clare O
Clare O'Beara2 months ago

poor dog