If you’ve never flown with a service dog before, or it is your first time flying with one since the rules were changed in January of 2021, then you may be wondering what you need to do. Traveling with a service dog may feel a bit overwhelming at first, but the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) has set federal regulations that every airline flying to or from the USA must abide by.
Having a uniform set of regulations for all airlines makes traveling with a service dog just a little easier. We’ll also help you make the process as smooth as possible by providing you with all of the information you need to prepare for a flight with your service dog. So keep reading for up-to-date information on how to fly with a service dog (including those that are large breeds).
What Does the DOT Consider a Disability?
The Air Carrier Access Act is a law protecting disabled individuals from discrimination when traveling via air. The US Department of Transportation (DOT) works to regulate all types of travel, including air travel. As such, the DOT follows ACAA guidelines and rules in regard to disabilities.
Under these rules, only those with disabilities can fly with service dogs. “Disability” is defined as any physical or mental impairment that limits one or more major life activities. Major life activities include things like breathing, walking, hearing, seeing, working, sleeping, and other essential activities.
As you can see, the DOT recognizes both physical and mental disabilities. Physical disabilities include things like blindness, deafness, epilepsy, or even temporary disabilities such as a broken leg. Mental disabilities include (but are not limited to) PTSD, anxiety, autism, depression, and phobias.
What Is a Service Animal?
The ACAA also provides a specific definition of what a service animal is. First of all, service animals can only be dogs. Furthermore, they must be specifically trained to do work or perform tasks for someone with a disability.
The ACAA’s definition states very clearly that emotional support animals (ESAs) are not considered service animals. However, the ACAA does include mental health disorders or impairments under the umbrella of “disability.”
Therefore, those with mental disabilities are welcome to fly with service dogs. Because mental disabilities are recognized, psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) are also acknowledged as a type of service animal and are allowed to fly in airplane cabins with their users free of charge.
What Tasks Do Service Dogs Perform?
Dogs are so versatile that they can be trained to help with almost any disability. As such, there are many different types of service dogs and many different tasks that they can perform. Let’s take a quick look at some of the different kinds of service dogs and what they can do. Understand that this list is by no means exhaustive.
Guide dogs are one of the most well-known types of service dogs. They are used by those who are visually impaired and help them cross streets, avoid obstacles, and safely make it to their destinations. They quite literally act as their user’s eyes.
Medical Alert Dogs
Medical alert dogs are used by people with serious health conditions. They are able to alert their users to bodily changes that could become life-threatening if they are not addressed.
For example, a medical alert dog can be used by those with diabetes to alert them to a spike or drop in blood sugar. The user is then able to take the appropriate medication to prevent a medical emergency. Medical alert dogs are often used by people with epilepsy, diabetes, and cardiac or blood pressure issues.
Psychiatric Service Dogs
For those suffering from mental health disabilities, psychiatric service dogs can help provide comfort and a sense of normalcy. Psychiatric service dog tasks include things like grounding, deep pressure therapy, and disruption of repetitive or self-harming behaviors. People with PTSD, anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders often benefit from psychiatric service dog tasks.
Hearing Assistance Dogs
Hearing assistance dogs help those who are deaf or hearing impaired. They can notify their users of specific sounds, such as alarms going off or even the crying of a child. These dogs will usually notify and then lead their owners to the sounds.
Mobility Assistance Dogs
Mobility assistance dogs can do a lot for those who have trouble getting around on their own. They can pull wheelchairs, open doors, fetch objects, and use their bodies as a crutch to help their owners stand up or sit down.
Other Service Dog Tasks
Service dogs are typically trained to meet the needs of a specific individual, so they won’t all be able to do the same things. However, there are many other tasks service dogs can do that don’t always fit under a specific umbrella.
- Pressing buttons
- Carrying bags or other objects
- Body blocking
- Medication reminders
- Waking their users
- Opening and closing drawers or doors
- Retrieving items
Even if your dog is trained to do tasks and actively helps with your disability, one type of training is especially important—public access training. For your dog to be considered a service dog and be allowed in public areas, they must have undergone public access training to remain focused and well-behaved while in busy public settings.
Does My Service Dog Need To Be Professionally Trained?
Though airlines can require that your dog be trained to perform tasks to assist with your disability, they cannot require that your dog be professionally trained. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it is perfectly legal for people to train their own service dogs.
After all, charitable organizations often have long wait lists, and even with financial assistance, these dogs can be cost-prohibitive. With fully-trained service dogs costing upwards of $10,000, many people cannot afford to get a service dog from a professional trainer or organization.
The ACAA has respected the current laws in place allowing people with disabilities to train their own dogs. Therefore, your service dog does not have to be trained professionally to join you at the airport. As long as the dog is well-behaved in public and can perform tasks for you, that is all that matters.
How Do Airlines Identify Service Dogs?
Airline staff must rely on the honor system when verifying a service dog’s validity. However, there are some questions they can ask and observations they can make.
It’s good to know what these are so that you’ll know if any airline staff is overstepping their bounds or pressing you for information that you are not legally obligated to give. It’s also helpful to know how airline staff will identify service dogs as you can take measures to make their lives (and, in turn, your own) easier.
The DOT allows airlines to do the following to determine whether or not an animal is a service dog:
- Ask if the animal is required because of a disability.
- Ask what task or work the dog is trained to perform.
- Look for identification, such as labeled vests or harnesses.
- Look to see if the dog is harnessed, leashed, or otherwise tethered.
- Observe the dog’s behavior.
Note that airline staff members are not allowed to ask that you have your dog demonstrate tasks. Though they can ask if you have a disability, they cannot ask for details or specifics about your disability. You can, however, choose to provide information about your disability if it would help the airline accommodate you and your dog better.
For example, if you need a respirator hookup or need a wheelchair to be transported, then it is best to share this information ahead of time (give the airline 48 hours’ notice when possible). However, when it comes to asking about service dogs specifically, the nature of your disability is considered a private health matter.
Does My Service Dog Need to Wear Identification or Have an ID Card?
Some airlines will ask that your service dog wear a labeled vest or harness. However, the DOT does not list this as a requirement on any of its informative pages about service dogs.
Though you’re not legally required to have your dog labeled, it may be best to follow the airline’s policies if they ask that your service dog be wearing a service dog vest. Besides, this makes it easier for everyone to know that your dog is not a pet and should be left alone so that they can focus on working.
Airlines in the US cannot require you to have an ID card for your dog because the US does not have any official nationwide identification systems for service dogs. Airlines can, however, require that your service dog be leashed the entire time you are in the airport and on the plane, and they can also require you to fill out DOT forms prior to flying.
Forms Required for Flying With a Service Dog
Airlines do require you to fill out and submit up to two DOT forms prior to flying with a service dog. In general, you will have to submit these forms 48 hours before your flight. If you do not, or if you book a last-minute flight, the airline may struggle to accommodate your service dog.
If they are able to accommodate you with enough space for your dog on a last-minute booking, then you’ll need to submit the DOT forms while you are at the airport before you board your plane.
The DOT has provided two forms for airlines’ usage. The first is a form attesting to the dog’s health, behavior, and training. It asks you to confirm that your dog is up to date on rabies vaccinations, is well-trained and behaved, and will remain tethered for the duration of your time at the airport and on the plane.
The form also has you agree that your service dog can be removed or required to fly in a pet carrier if they are aggressive, unruly, or otherwise pose a danger to other passengers. In this scenario, you would also be charged a pet fee.
The other DOT form is a relief attestation form. This form is only for flights that are eight hours or longer. On this form, you acknowledge that your service dog will not relieve themself on the plane or will do so in a sanitary manner. You also have to explain how your dog is capable of doing either of those things.
While those two DOT forms are the only forms that are required by airlines while you are still in the US, you may need other documentation for your service dog if you are traveling to a foreign country. Be sure to do your research about what documents the country requires.
Don’t be afraid to call the airline you’re traveling with; they can often help you figure out exactly what you need. They’re also able to connect you with the appropriate travel offices in other nations so that you can speak to them directly about what is required for you to bring your service dog into their countries.
It’s always a good idea to bring vaccination records and health certificates with you, even if you’re not sure you need them. As the saying goes, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Flying With a Large Service Dog
The ACAA allows airlines to require that a service dog be able to fit in the space at your feet or sit on your lap without touching the seat space around you. If you have a large breed service dog, wondering if there will be enough space to accommodate them is a valid concern.
Though you are allowed to book a flight with a service dog online, if you have a large breed, it may be better to call and discuss the size of your dog. Many airlines will book you two seats for the price of one, thus increasing the amount of space your dog has on the floor.
If they don’t purposely leave an extra seat vacant for you, they may look for unbooked seats to place you next to. Unfortunately, some airlines are not as accommodating and will not offer a free extra seat. It may be worth paying for an extra seat so that your dog can fit comfortably at your feet.
Once again, make sure that you take care of this ahead of time. If you show up at the airport without addressing the potential issue of your dog’s size, you may find that your large service dog cannot safely fit in the space provided. If that happens, the airline may be unable to accommodate your service dog in the cabin. You’ll then be asked if you would like to send your dog to cargo or switch to a different flight.
How Many Service Dogs Can I Fly With?
Some people have more than one service dog, and the ACAA allows people to fly with two service dogs in the cabin of an airplane.
If you are flying with two service dogs, then you will have to fill out the required DOT form(s) for each dog. Though you should be able to notify the airline during your booking that you’ll be traveling with two service dogs, it is again worth your time to call them directly and make sure that there is enough space for both dogs to be accommodated.
If both of the dogs are large and thus cannot both fit in the space at your feet, you may have to purchase an extra seat. Some airlines will provide the extra space for free, especially if the flight has unbooked seats.
Again, it’s very important to call ahead of time. If one or both service dogs cannot be accommodated because the airline did not have enough notice, then they may have to fly as cargo. This will also be free of charge as they are service dogs, but it is obviously not preferable, especially if they perform life-saving tasks.
Rules for Service Dogs
To keep airports and airplanes safe for all passengers airlines are allowed to have some rules for service dogs. First of all, service dogs must be under your control the entire time you are at the airport or on the plane.
The airline means two things by this: your dog obeys you, and your dog is tethered or leashed at all times. Unfortunately, airlines can require you to keep your service dog leashed even if a leash inhibits the tasks the dog is trained to do.
Airlines also expect your service dog to be well-behaved. Your service dog should not jump at, lunge at, bark at, or be aggressive toward other passengers or airline staff. If your service dog behaves in a disruptive or unruly manner, the airline has the right to relegate them to pet status and apply the same rules to your service dog as are applied to other pets.
Finally, your service dog has to be able to hold their bladder and bowels for the duration of the flight. For long flights, they either have to hold it or be able to relieve themself in a sanitary manner. Failure to do so can be seen as posing a health threat and, again, may cause your service dog to lose the privilege of staying in the cabin with you.
Many airports have designated areas for service dogs to relieve themselves prior to boarding a flight—you can typically find out where these areas are located ahead of time on the websites of each airport.
When Can Airlines Deny Service Dogs?
There are a few situations in which airlines can prohibit your service dog from traveling with you in the airplane’s cabin.
- You did not contact the airline within 48 hours of your flight, and they are unable to make space for your dog, or you did not submit DOT forms within 48 hours of departure.
- Your dog shows aggression or other unruly behavior while in the airport or before the plane takes off.
- The dog exceeds what is considered a safe size and weight to be transported in the cabin.
- The dog violates health requirements and is prohibited from entering a country.
Airlines are NOT allowed to deny your service dog because of the dog’s breed. For example, even if the airline has banned pit bulls from their flights, this does not apply to your service dog, even if your service dog is a pit bull. This is because the ACAA recognizes that any breed can be a service dog and has prohibited airlines from discriminating against specific breeds of service dogs.
What to Bring to the Airport
If you’re traveling with your service dog, you know you’ll need your DOT form(s), leashes, and possibly some other paperwork if you’re traveling internationally. However, there are some other doggy-related items you’ll want to have on hand.
You can plan out your trip to the best of your ability, but you never know when you’ll experience a long layover. You may think one meal is going to be enough, but it’s best to pack a little extra, just in case.
Collapsible Water Bowl
You may not be allowed to bring liquids onto the plane, but once you’re there, flight attendants can bring water for both you and your service dog. Though many airports will have drinking fountains for dogs in their pet relief areas, collapsible water bowls don’t take up much space and are great to have in a pinch.
Again, many pet relief areas at airports will have poop bags available. However, there may be times when you prefer to take your dog outside of the airport to go potty. In this instance, you will need a poop bag.
Mat or Towel
Airplane floors are probably not very comfortable. You can bring a small bath mat or even a towel for your service dog to lay on. This can also be a great tool if your service dog has learned a “place” command in which they target and lay on an item you put on the floor.
Service dogs are some of the best-trained dogs in existence, but that doesn’t mean they’re never going to feel nervous or stressed. For example, some dogs may feel a little nervous when the plane takes off or lands. Chew toys (or dental chews) provide a safe outlet to relieve stressful emotions.
Though we’ve covered most everything you need to know about flying with your service dog, we still have some other tips that can help you prepare.
Check the Airline’s Policies
Whichever airline you plan to fly with, you should either call or check online for policies about service dogs. For example, WestJet requires service dogs to be labeled as such, either on a harness, vest, or pet carrier.
Though the ACAA does not require service dog owners to do such a thing, it is still listed in the airline’s service dog policies on its website. Knowing an airline’s policies will help you be more prepared and help your flight go more smoothly. If anything about an airline’s policies confuses you, don’t hesitate to call them directly.
Call or Visit Your Veterinarian
In the US, dogs are required to be up to date on their rabies vaccine before they are allowed on airplanes. However, if you’re traveling to another country, other vaccinations may be required.
Call your veterinarian to double-check which vaccines your dog has so you’ll know which are still needed. You may also need to get proof of vaccination or health certificates from your veterinarian to enter some foreign countries.
It’s not uncommon for dogs to get a little nauseous during a flight. Because of this, you should not feed your service dog right before boarding. Feed them no sooner than three hours before a flight to prevent accidents.
Though airports do have relief areas, you may want to try and get your dog to go potty before you leave for the airport. Take your dog for a walk around the neighborhood or let them run in your yard or a dog park.
Hopefully, they’ll empty their bowels. Once at the airport, you’ll obviously want to give your service dog several more chances to potty again before boarding the plane.
How to Fly With a Service Dog
Flying with your service dog doesn’t have to be a nightmare. Being prepared is the best way to prevent it from becoming one. Call your airline ahead of time to make sure there is enough space for your dog, especially if you have a large breed. Make sure to submit your DOT forms within 48 hours of your flight, and bring printed copies of them with you to the airport, just in case.
Make sure that your service dog is kept on a leash and has done their business before getting on the plane. Don’t feed them within three hours of the flight to prevent sickness while in the air. Make sure to bring extra food in case of a layover and a chew toy to help with the stress of turbulence.
If you’ve done your best to be prepared, but the airline still gives you trouble, know that it is within your right to submit a complaint to the DOT, especially if you believe you’ve been discriminated against because of your disability.