Tips for Flying in the U.S. with a Service Dog

Updated on May 13, 2016
Service dogs come in all sizes and serve many purposes.
Service dogs come in all sizes and serve many purposes. | Source

What is a service dog? The current Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as: dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA."

Remember, too, that airlines, hotels, car rental companies - all cannot charge extra for the service dog, including any deposits.

This article will help you be prepared so that your pre- and in-flight travel with your service dog will be as stress-free as possible.


When you make your initial reservation, if online or over the phone, call the reservation number and ask to speak to a supervisor about a service dog. If the supervisor knows her stuff, she will be very used to this procedure. She may offer to place you in bulkhead seating to give you a bit more leg room for the dog. She may ask what duties the service dog performs for you, which is normal, and fully within the airline's rights.

This is also the time to ask what documentation is required by the airline, if any, for the service dog. I usually check the website first, and say something like, "I see your website does not list any required pet documentation for domestic travel, is that true?" I've frequently been told that a form from the vet showing updated vaccinations and ability to fly would be good to have "just in case." But, the cat's pajamas would be to have a letter from your doctor noting your need for a service dog. I also like to print out (as an educational tool, if necessary) the very latest directives from the ADA as to service dogs and how their owners must be treated for the airline to avoid a $50,000 fine. I have never been asked for any of these documents, but it helps me rest assured to have them handy in my purse or carry-on.

The issue is, as I'm sure you're very well aware, not all personnel are trained thoroughly. That's reality, and it's best not to have the attitude that it's your job to train them. Besides keeping copies of documents in hand, I call the airline a few times before my departure to ensure that everyone's on the same page and that there will be, hopefully, no hiccups. It's helpful to note the date and time of the call and the names of supervisor you spoke with, the ones who confirm that you are meeting airline regulations, for that rare instance where one of the airline personnel asks you, "Who told you that?" You can jot this information down on the reverse side of your vet vaccination form, so it's handy.

Just remember, in our current travel climate, airports are no place to get irate, so be as prepared and calm as possible. Your pooch will follow your lead with mellow, non-disruptive behavior.

Changing to Bulkhead Seating

Depending on the size of your dog, you may want some extra legroom to accommodate her. After I have made my reservation online and chosen my seats, I then call the airline directly (even if the flight was booked through a broker, i.e. Travelocity). I ask to speak to a supervisor and explain that I will be bringing a service dog. In my experience (Delta is great at this), the airline supervisor changes my seats to bulkhead seating and e-mails a confirmation of the seat changes. I have only experienced very nice, well-trained supervisors.

Due to change of airplanes on one trip, I did end up in a non-bulkhead window seat. I tucked my service dog's collapsible bed on the floor in front of me and positioned my large purse with laptop to the right of her, making a comfy little cave for her. At the end of the flight, the person to my right was amazed that a dog was even there - she never knew. So, either way, bulkhead or not, if your service animal is smallish, she can be comfortable either way. If, however, your dog is larger, bulkhead seating is, no doubt, a better option.

I have at times, when my seatmate remarks about the dog, said something like, "You're not allergic to dogs, are you?" I've never had someone say yes, but this could ward off some issues, wherein before take-off, a flight-attendant could reseat the allergic passenger.

Service dogs require extensive training.
Service dogs require extensive training. | Source

The Day of the Flight

My basic carry-on items (in other words, all else can be replaced) are:

  • Prescriptions in their bottles
  • My identification
  • My money
  • My boarding pass (I check in the day before and print out the pass to avoid the ticket counter)
  • My vested pet on leash
  • My pet's documentation

Some may find this unacceptable, but I potty my dog before the flight, and don't feed or water her until we reach our destination. I believe that it won't hurt her to go up to 8 hours without food and water. In addition, this avoids the frantic search for outdoor access to let the dog potty and going back through Security with the same issues noted above, then running to your gate to catch the flight. This can stress out you and your dog. But, you know your dog best, so plan ahead when booking a flight to allow long stop-overs if need be.

I normally leave for the airport about 1/2 hour early just in case there are any time-consuming issues with my service dog. I'd rather be early and wait than be panicked and rushing.

When checking in, I tend to wait for airline personnel to ask questions, if needed, rather than bury them with information before they even ask for it. This can be a bit insulting. It could be that you're trying to ward off any misunderstandings, but give them credit for knowing their jobs, and with this attitude, I've had nothing but smooth sailing (or flying).

The ADA mandates that a service dog are allowed to go anywhere their owner goes.
The ADA mandates that a service dog are allowed to go anywhere their owner goes. | Source

Be Calm

I cannot stress this section enough.

If this is your first time travelling with a service dog, you are probably fearful of the unknown or the 'what ifs.' But, you don't want to attract undue attention by your body language, and you know how dogs clue into the owner's anxiety. Move slowly, even if there is a crush of people behind you, they can wait or change lanes. Keep the dog on a very short leash, be calm and open to service personnel who will most likely ask you to move out of line for a special check. At that point, knowing my purse and computer are going to proceed on the conveyor belt with no supervision, I ask if my belongings could be removed and brought to me so that I can keep an eye on them. I have not had a case where airport personnel are not accomidating - although I'm sure it's happened somewhere. Most likely, you will then be asked to remove the dogs collar and harness, step back, and walk through the metal detector with your dog in hand or under arm. Again, hopefully, you've thought ahead: avoid wearing metal on your body or on the dog - there's no need for undue stress.

Don't be belligerant with airport personnel as this is a red flag for them and will only cause more trouble. Unfortunately, not everyone made class the day when ADA rules were explained. Think of what you might do if personnel ask you a disallowed question or if they seem unfamiliar with service dogs. Just smile and calmly ask for a supervisor. No doubt the supervisor will have the proper training as the airline does not want to be liable for ADA penalties. But, do be prepared to answer questions about what services your dog performs. The ADA says that travel personnel are not allowed to ask directly your condition that requires the service dog, so if they do slip and ask that question, just answer, as you've prepared. For instance, if they ask what condition you have that you need the dog for, simply answer (as in the case of diabetes) "My dog has been trained to sense when my blood sugar is too high or too low. She assists me by alerting me to this situation so that I can treat it." You don't have to say you're diabetic. But, most of all, this is no place to cause a scene, so if they do ask at that point, "so are you a diabetic?", my opinion is that there is no harm in avoiding a stress-filled situation and just answering yes, maybe with a wink, and a quiet, but you're not allowed to ask me that. Smile. After all, you want to actually take the flight and avoid a travel nightmare.

Service Dog Apparel and Identification

Service dog apparel and identification are not currently required by the ADA, but I have found that lots of misunderstandings and explanations can be avoided by a simple, bright vest worn by your dog that says "Service Dog." This clues airline personnel for the issue at hand and also answers a lot of questions for other travelers who wonder why you get to travel with your dog when they had to check their dog into the luggage area of the plane.

The average traveler, unlike airline personnel, are not trained as to what questions they are allowed to ask and what questions they are not. So, just be prepared with an answer for adults and children, again focusing on what the dog can do, not what ailment you have.

A simple answer to a child could be, "My dog helps me if I get sick." Whereas, a slightly more extensive, yet upbeat, answer to an adult could include an explanation of what the dog is trained to do. Most people are impressed.

Most children ask their parents if they can pet the dog, and depending on your dog, it's up to you how to answer. The dog should be trained to focus on you and your needs, but an airport is a place full of distractions and seeming chaos to a pet. I normally, let a child pet my service dog briefly, but your dog may not be as tolerant of distractions; so be prepared with a polite answer.

To Sedate or Not to Sedate

This is a question I considered when first flying with my service dog. In speaking with my vet, he said that he would not prescribe sedation for pets flying in baggage, since the owner could not keep an eye on them to ensure they did not have any issues. However, since my dog would be in cabin with me, he prescribed Composure™ just in case. The package says take 1 per day, but he said she could take up to 3 if needed. I did end up giving her 3 over the space of the flight, but saw no difference in her behavior. She mostly stayed on the floor in the comfy bed I brought for her (although she didn't sleep), but wanted to get on my lap during take-offs and landings, which is understandable since the vibrations would be more intense on the floor - as is cold - something else to consider.

Happy Flying!

With the right attitude (which your dog picks up on), flying with a service dog can be easy and stress-free.

If you'd like to add any dog travel tips or experiences, I'd love to read them in the comment section below.


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    • ItsJustDru profile image

      Caoimhe 7 weeks ago from Washington

      Thank you for this.

      I'll be taking my PTSD service dog on her first flight over Christmas.

      I'm horrified about the 'what ifs'.

      My dog is 56lbs, so she will be on a short lead at my side, but a bunch of people moving about with luggage, kids probably running over to try and pet her, etc., worries me (she's fine with kids, but trained to avoid them).

      My boyfriend continues to tell me it will be fine, but...yeah...I'm still a nervous worry wart. Haha.

      I need to stay calm for her, but then again...she's trained for assisting when my PTSD is it won't bother her at all. It'll just be 'another day'.

    • profile image

      Brian 13 months ago

      As a business traveler that takes well over 100 flights a year I can tell you that the comfort dog thing has about run its course with the airlines and the frequent flyers that actually pay the bills. Tread lightly on this. If you're in need of a comfort dog in order to board an airplane then perhaps a car is the better route?

    • profile image

      Fan Collection 22 months ago

      Her article is very unique.. interesting , let alone be the object in it is so beautiful.. i like it

    • profile image

      holistatus 22 months ago

    • Sabry Kamal profile image

      sabry 2 years ago from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

      We are told that animals reflect the emotional state of their owners. If you need an excuse to be calm, a pet or service animal definitely gives you one.

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 2 years ago from Florida

      I read an interesting article recently about Emotional Support Animals" that are allowed to fly now. The article said it could be a cat (or even a pig!). I can see a lot of problems with the concept, but if it animal is well behaved, I see no problem with it flying along.

      Congrats on HOTD.

    • colorfulone profile image

      Susie Lehto 2 years ago from Minnesota

      This is very helpful for people who want to fly with their service dogs. I congratulate you on HotD, it is interesting and useful!

    • Faye Rock profile image

      faye 2 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      nice site.......interesting tips

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Good tips for those who need to have these awesome service companions with them when traveling. Voted up, useful and sharing on Twitter. Congrats on Hub of the Day!

    • poetryman6969 profile image

      poetryman6969 2 years ago

      We are told that animals reflect the emotional state of their owners. If you need an excuse to be calm, a pet or service animal definitely gives you one.

    • MHiggins profile image

      Michael Higgins 2 years ago from Michigan

      Very interesting read and congrats on HOTD! Voted up!

    • mySuccess8 profile image

      mySuccess8 2 years ago

      Traveling with a service dog requires some planning and preparations, whether it is by car, bus, train, airplane, or other modes of public transportation. You have provided really practical and useful tips for a smoother travel together with one’s service dog by airplane, while taking into consideration one’s seatmate in the same flight. Congrats on Hub of the Day!

    • CDMclean profile image

      CDMclean 4 years ago

      There is a really nice app called Where to Go and it lists all the service animal and canine relief areas in all the US airports. It is quite handy. Nice post!

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 5 years ago from Wales

      So very interesting and I vote up plus share.


    • LucyLiu12 profile image

      LucyLiu12 5 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      No dogs can take up a passenger seat and must be able to sit at your feet, thus the benefits of the bulkhead seating. The dog in the picture probably only got to sit in the seat because it was empty. But, check with your airline for their specific rules. I've been quoted $250 RT fee for non-service dogs - who must be small enough to be in a crate under the seat in front of you to ride in the cabin - otherwise, the dog has to be crated and goes down with the luggage. Also, I should point out that airlines normally have a limit of dogs allowed on the plane (I've heard 4), so it's good to notify the airline early to reserve your dog a spot.

    • Maria Cecilia profile image

      Maria Cecilia 5 years ago from Philippines

      I am glad to know about this when dogs won't be placed somewhere but beside its owner. but is this a special case like, only service dogs are allowed to have this privilege?

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 5 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Very interesting, and well detailed. I don't happen to own a dog of any type, so I was unaware of many of these points.

      I'm sure your article will be of great use to those who do need to travel with a service dog.

      Voted up, interesting and useful.

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