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