Robin has been a writer for over 10 years and travels extensively with her puggle, Lucy.
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.
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 do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.
Since the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) prohibits airlines from discriminating against passengers with disabilities, they must allow them to bring along their service animals.
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.
Contact the Airline Early
Be aware that every airline may have different requirements. Some require that you submit proof (for instance, a doctor's letter) that your's truly is a service dog, a minimum of 48 hours before your flight. This gives them time to verify its authenticity. Some require your dog be in a kennel - some don't. Some require a muzzle - others don't. And, I've read a variety of size restrictions. That's why I always find out, far in advance, this particular airline's unique restrictions.
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." In truth, it's always wise to travel with your dog's current vaccination record, as this is often one of the most contended points of pet travel. Still, the cat's pajamas would be to have a letter from your doctor noting your need for a service dog.
Day of Travel
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 couple of 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 that 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
Each airline has restrictions about the size of service dog that can fly in the cabin with you. For many airlines, unless a dog is proven in advance as an emotional support animal or is obviously a service dog for the blind or handicapped, the weight limit is 20 pounds. No service animals are allowed to block the aisle in any way.
If you do have an allowed service 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 (for example, Travelocity). I ask to speak to a supervisor and explain that I will be bringing a service dog. In my experience, 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.
The Day of the Flight
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 (8-hour or less flights, in our case). This helps avoid 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 earlier 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 could be seen as 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).
I cannot stress this section enough.
If this is your first time traveling 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, especially service dogs. 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 security 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.
What to Expect
I have not had a case where airport personnel are not accommodating - although I'm sure it's happened somewhere. Most likely, you will then be asked to remove the dog's collar and harness, step back, and walk through the metal detector with your small dog in hand or under arm. For larger dogs, I've observed the owner cuing the dog to sit, walking through the detector, turning to face the dog, then gesturing for their dog to walk through the detector. 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 belligerent with airport personnel as this is a red flag for them and will only cause more trouble. Unfortunately, not everyone made it to class the day when ADA and ACAA 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/ACAA penalties.
Be prepared for questions
Although personnel are not supposed to ask questions about your medical or psychological condition, be prepared to answer questions about what service your dog performs for you. If they do slip and 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." 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 visually clues airline personnel of 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. Service dogs need to be able to do their jobs and, when properly trained, are used to working in crowds. Many service dogs, however, have not been trained on actual planes in flight.
So, in speaking with my vet before my service dog's first flight, he said that he would not prescribe sedation for service pets or any pets flying in cargo, since the owner could not keep an eye on them to ensure they did not have any issues. However, since my 17-pound dog would be in the cabin with me, he prescribed Composure™ just in case.
What Is Composure?
Composure is not a sedative. VetriScience describes it this way: "The ingredients in Composure™ work synergistically to support relaxation without changing your dog’s personality or energy levels. The Colostrum Calming Complex™ BiopeptideBlend supports stress reduction and cognitive function; L-Theanine helps the body produce other amino acids to bring specific neurotransmitters back into balance; and B vitamins (thiamine) affect the central nervous system to help calm anxious animals."
This product can be given daily or on an as-needed basis. It is safe to double or triple the dose in times of increased stress. I did end up giving her 3 over the course of her first 8-hour flight, but I 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 are more intense on the floor - as is the cold - something else to consider.
But, please check with your own vet.
Update: I only gave Lucy the Composure on the first flight. Since I originally wrote this article, we've been on more flights. She has adapted very well to flying and seems happy when boarding planes.
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.
Questions & Answers
Question: My dog is a Wheaton terrier, and I'm flying with him on Southwest on a 4+ hour flight. Is there a collapsible dog bed for his size?
Answer: I found this one on Petco's site: https://www.petco.com/shop/en/petcostore/product/h...
This is the kind I used for my dog. She fits pretty tightly in it, but I think that makes her feel more secure. Then I just roll it up and stick it between the straps of my big carry-on bag.
Question: What kind of collapsable bed do you use?
Answer: I've updated the article with a link to the bed we use.
Question: My flight is 12 hours plus the loading and unloading time. How can I manage the potty needs of my service dog?
Answer: We haven't had such long flights, but if we do in the future, this is our plan: buy some puppy pee pads, take the dog to the plane's bathroom, lay down the pads (they are scented to encourage peeing), then throw them in the bin.
Question: Did you fly with your service dog only within the U.S. or also out of and back into the U.S.? There are probably more strict rules when it comes to flying into the U.S. with a European service dog?
Answer: Thanks for reading! As it happens, we are currently in the Dominican Republic and are leaving for Europe in two months. There is, of course, a lot of paperwork and several hoops to jump through (carefully timed, I might add) to travel internationally with any pet, service or not, to other countries. I suggest you contact a reputable vet to explain the process for the particular country you're visiting and the timing of each shot, exam, microchip insertion, and required documentation.
As for service dogs in particular, from what I've learned, each airline can have slightly different service dog restrictions, and they seem to be narrowing every day. For instance, some require a crate; some don't. We're flying on one airline that requires that service dogs be muzzled. Some have restrictions as far as the number of service animals allowed on each flight. Some only allow certain breeds.
What I've been doing is emailing the correct department at the airline, explaining that you'll be bringing your service dog, their breed, and size, and asking if, besides notifying them, I need to do anything else.
The benefit of this is that you'll have, in writing, confirmation that the airline approves of her flying with you.
Question: We are planning to travel from Australia to the U.S. with our service dog. I can not seem to research any quarantine requirements. Do you know of any?
Answer: From what I've read, the requirements for bringing animals into the US from any country are the same. You just have to carefully follow the rabies vaccination schedule. If you haven't or if your dog appears ill, it might be quarantined. You can start your research here: https://www.cdc.gov/importation/bringing-an-animal...
Question: What is the best and cheapest way to transport my service dog's dry kibble?
Answer: For meals during the flight, just stick some kibble in a Ziploc bag, and put it in your carry-on bag, then just pack the rest in your suitcase.
© 2012 Robin Young
Misty Rain on January 22, 2020:
I flew from HI to TX in April 2017 w/my ESA & I didn't have any problems. Now I have a 11lb. Chihuahua/miniature pinscher mix that's my SA & I haven't flown w/him yet but we have taken the Greyhound bus and the driver never gave me any problems because my SA is very quiet and gentle. Thank you for all your help and advice. I'll keep in mind when the time comes when I have to take a flight w/everything you've mentioned.
Andrea Harris on April 23, 2019:
Great work. I recently got my dog an esa letter from this website myesadoctor and have been planning to travel with him next month. I dont have a service dog but yes liked the work you have put in. Cudos to you for that.
addie and zuma on December 23, 2018:
i'm going to be taking my mini aussie named zuma on a southwest flight shes a SDIT for medical alert and im pretty nervous se helps with stress but right now i feel she is causing me stress
Liz on December 20, 2017:
Thank you for this. It'll be my first time traveling with my dog and I'm super nervous about it. I appreciate this article!
Caoimhe from Washington on October 28, 2017:
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 triggered...so...maybe it won't bother her at all. It'll just be 'another day'.
Brian on November 18, 2016:
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?
Fan Collection on February 18, 2016:
Her article is very unique.. interesting , let alone be the object in it is so beautiful.. i like it
sabry from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on April 06, 2015:
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.
Mary Hyatt from Florida on February 13, 2015:
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.
Susie Lehto from Minnesota on February 12, 2015:
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 from Detroit, Michigan on February 12, 2015:
nice site.......interesting tips
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on February 12, 2015:
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 on February 12, 2015:
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.
Michael Higgins from Michigan on February 12, 2015:
Very interesting read and congrats on HOTD! Voted up!
mySuccess8 on February 12, 2015:
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 on May 27, 2013:
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 from Wales on November 08, 2012:
So very interesting and I vote up plus share.
Robin Young (author) from Boise on November 08, 2012:
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 from Philippines on November 07, 2012:
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?
Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on November 07, 2012:
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.