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

Robin has been a writer for over 10 years and travels extensively with her puggle, Lucy.

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

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

Tips for Taking a Service Dog on the Plane

Unfortunately, rules for traveling with service dogs are becoming much more restrictive. Airlines worldwide are instigating policies that make traveling with service dogs tricky, and each airline has its own policies. For instance, you can no longer purchase your support animal's paperwork and vest online. Some airlines are requiring documentation from a limited list of accredited training agencies only.

Other new restrictions from some airlines include, for example, not allowing emotional support animals (ESA) in cabin and severely limiting the definition of service animals (in some cases, the pet can only be a seeing-eye dog). Many airlines are no longer allowing any pets in cabin, plus there are restrictions on the total number of pets allowed on the plane—service animals or otherwise.

Get Detailed Requirements in Writing

What I've learned is that each airline has final authority. So contact each airline's pet department well in advance and get detailed requirements in writing. They'll ask for the weight and breed of your pet, and sometimes, advanced copies of your service dog's official documentation.

Exchange emails until you have assurances that your particular dog will be accepted on your particular flight(s), and bring the printout and all required pet documentation (if traveling overseas, that will include health and vaccination certificates) as defined by the airline(s), to check-in.

Anyway, I hope this helps you avoid any last-minute surprises. Preparation is key. Happy traveling!


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 to be in a kennel, some don't. Some require a muzzle, others don't. I've also seen a variety of size restrictions. That's why I always find out, far in advance, this particular airline's unique restrictions.


Get Proper Documentation

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 legroom 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 the 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.

Talk With Personnel Again on the 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 the supervisors 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.

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Changing to Bulkhead Seating

Each airline has restrictions about the size of the 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 a 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 (eight-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 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. I usually arrive three hours early for international flights.

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).


Be Calm and Patient

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 through 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, and 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 your arm. For larger dogs, I've observed the owner cueing 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, is 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.


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.

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.

Questions & Answers

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.

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: 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:

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: 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:

© 2012 Robin Young

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