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Flying With a Service Dog – The Ultimate Guide

Large Service Dog on Airplane

Updated to Include the DOT’s Latest 2022 Rules for Air Travel

In this post, we will provide a comprehensive guide of everything you need to know to travel with your service dog or psychiatric service dog (PSD)

Recently, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) completely overhauled their rules for assistance animals on planes. Due to the DOT’s latest rules, U.S. airlines no longer allow emotional support animals on planes. 

The good news for service dog and PSD owners is that their canine companions remain protected. Service dogs are still allowed to accompany their handlers in the airplane cabin free of charge. The DOT, however, has radically changed the process of how airlines accept service dogs.

Even if you’re an experienced service dog owner who has flown for years with your dog, you’ll want to read this guide. This guide is also perfect for those new to flying with a service dog who need to know all the relevant information. 

We’ll answer common questions like who is eligible to fly with a service dog, what the new paperwork requirements are, and where to order a certification, license, or ID. We’ll also share some pro tips for dealing with flights and airports from experienced service dog owners. 

Table of Contents:

  1. What is a Service Animal?
  2. What is a “Disability”?
  3. Service Dog Tasks
  4. Training and Certifying a Service Dog
  5. Service Dog Verification by Airline
  6. Airline Forms
  7. What to Expect at the Airport
  8. Harnesses, Vests and ID Cards
  9. Larger Service Dogs
  10. Breed Restrictions
  11. Multiple Service Dogs 
  12. In-Flight Rules
  13. Reasons Airlines can Ban a Service Dog
  14. Practical Tips

1. What does the DOT consider to be a service animal?

First, let’s cover the basics. What does the DOT consider a service animal eligible for special treatment on flights? 

The DOT has essentially revised their definition of service animals to match the definition under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

A service animal for purposes of air travel is a dog, regardless of what breed it is, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for someone with a disability, including psychiatric and mental disabilities. 

“Service animal” does not cover emotional support animals or animals other than dogs. That is unfortunate news for owners of service animals like capuchin monkeys or miniature horses, but the DOT felt that dogs were the most appropriate service animals for the interior of an airplane cabin. 

The critical difference between a service dog and a regular pet or an ESA is that a service dog must be trained to perform tasks related to the handler’s disability. That means even a service dog in training is not considered a full-fledged service dog until it has completed its training.

If you are looking to register your service animal and are ready to order an identification card for your Service Dog, click the button below.

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2. What does it mean to have a “disability”?

A service dog brought on board a plane must be trained to assist with a disability. The term “disability” has a specific legal meaning under the DOT’s rules and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). 

A disability means a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. “Major life activities” include working, sleeping, learning, and other essential life activities. 

The definition of disability covers physical impairments (for example, someone with limited mobility or sight impairment) and mental impairments. “Mental impairments” include emotional or mental illnesses and specific learning disabilities. 

The DOT’s new rules also specifically mention “psychiatric, intellectual or other mental” disabilities. Psychiatric service dogs are commonly used by people with conditions like severe depression, anxiety, PTSD, phobias, and autism. 

A licensed mental health professional can help assess whether you have a psychiatric disability. Many PSD owners obtain PSD letters from therapists and doctors who have assessed their mental health. It’s important to note that even though emotional support animals are no longer recognized as assistance animals for flights, PSD owners are still protected. 

Remember, however, that there is a crucial distinction between ESAs and PSDs: a psychiatric service dog must be trained to perform tasks. ESAs, on the other hand, provide support just through their presence.

Wonder if your emotional disorder qualifies for a psychiatric service dog?
Get an assessment by a licensed health professional.

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3. What kinds of tasks do service dogs and psychiatric service dogs perform? 

Service dogs perform a wide variety of tasks, and it would be impossible to present an exhaustive list here. There is no official list of eligible tasks. The key criteria are that the service dog must be specifically trained to perform the task to assist the owner with their disability. 

For individuals with physical disabilities, service dogs perform tasks such as:

  • Pulling a wheelchair. 
  • Guiding the visually impaired. 
  • Guiding the hearing impaired. 
  • Alerting the owner of an oncoming seizure. 
  • Alerting the owner of a rise or drop in blood sugar levels. 
  • Providing stability while going up and down stairs or other hazardous areas. 
  • Retrieving items. 
  • Opening and closing doors and drawers. 
  • Pressing buttons (such as in an elevator). 
  • Carrying bags and other objects

For individuals with psychiatric disabilities, psychiatric service dogs are known to perform tasks such as:

  • Interrupting panic/anxiety attacks. 
  • Using pressure and tactile stimulation to calm the handler. 
  • Reminding the owner to take their medication. 
  • Preventing behaviors like scratching. 
  • Grounding and reorienting the handler during a panic or anxiety attack.
  • Acting as a physical buffer in crowded areas. 
  • Waking up the handler to prevent oversleeping. 
  • Interrupting repetitive behaviors. 

A dog does not qualify as a service animal until it has fully completed its training. In addition, keep in mind that a proper service animal should be under your control at all times and has passed a public access test to be comfortable in all public settings. 

Airplanes and airports are crowded, hectic areas with many potential distractions. A service dog should be able to focus on the handler and their duties even in potentially stressful environments. 

As we’ll discuss in detail later, an airline can reject a service dog if it misbehaves or engages in disruptive actions. 

4. Does a service dog or PSD need to be professionally trained or certified by an organization?

service dog does not need to be trained by a third-party trainer, school, or organization. These services may be helpful, especially for novice dog owners, but the DOT notes that “service animal users are free to train their own dogs to perform a task or function for them.” 

That is good news for people who have the ability to train their service dogs but not the financial means to afford a professional trainer or help from an organization. 

In addition, a service dog does not need to be certified by an organization that it has completed its training. Registrations and certifications for service dogs are always optional and are not mandatory.

5. How can an airline verify that I have a service animal?

The DOT gives airlines three methods to determine whether someone is traveling with a genuine service animal. In addition, as we’ll discuss in the next section, airlines will require that service dog owners submit a new form created by the DOT prior to boarding. 

In addition to the DOT Form, there are three ways the airline’s staff can verify your canine companion is a service dog:

  1. Asking whether the animal is required to accompany the passenger because of a disability and what work or task the animal has been trained to perform.
    It’s important to note that service dog owners have a right to a certain degree of privacy. Airline staff can never make specific inquiries about your disability or ask that you have your service dog demonstrate the task it has been trained for.
  2. Observing the behavior of the animal. 
    Airline staff can observe the general behavior of the service dog to see whether it remains under the control of its handler. A service dog can be barred from a flight if it is out of control, barking or growling repeatedly at other passengers or animals, biting, jumping on, or causing injury to others, or urinating or defecating in the cabin or gate area. 
    According to the DOT, a dog that engages in these types of disruptive actions demonstrates that it has not been successfully trained to behave in public settings. In such cases, the airline can deny boarding.
  3. Looking at physical indicators such as harnesses and vests.
    Lastly, an airline can look at physical indicators such as harnesses, vests, ID cards, and tags to weigh whether the dog is a service dog. Paraphernalia such as tags, vests, ID cards, certificates, and harnesses are frequently used by service dog owners to signal to members of the public that their service dog is on duty.
    These accessories are especially helpful for psychiatric service dog owners because their disabilities are invisible and not readily apparent. Having these accessories helps protect service dog owners from intrusive inquiries and unwanted interactions. 
    However, it’s important to note that service animal paraphernalia is not, by itself, enough to qualify a dog as a service dog. It’s just one factor the DOT says airlines can use to help determine whether they are dealing with an authentic service dog or not.

If you are looking to register your Service Dog so that you have a Service Dog ID card for your personal convenience at the airport, you may order one below.

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6. What forms do I have to submit to fly with my service dog?

Perhaps the biggest change in how service dogs are accepted on flights is the newly created DOT forms. 

U.S. airlines require that all service dog owners complete and submit the DOT’s “Service Animal Transportation Form” (the “Transport Form”). This form must be submitted at least 48 hours before departure. If the reservation is made within 48 hours of the flight, the form can be submitted before the flight or at the gate). 

For a complete guide to completing the DOT Transportation Form, click on this link

In the DOT Form, the service dog or psychiatric service dog handler has to make the following certifications: 

  1. The service dog or PSD has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of the passenger with a disability;
  2. The service dog has been trained to behave properly in public; 
  3. The handler is aware that the service dog must be under their control at all times;
  4. The handler is aware that if their service dog misbehaves in a way that indicates it has not been properly trained, then the airline can treat the service dog like a normal pet; and 
  5. The handler is aware that they may be liable for damage caused by their service dog’s actions.

The handler must also certify that their service dog has been vaccinated. The form asks for a veterinarian’s name and contact but does not require the vet’s signature. 

The DOT Transportation Form also asks for the name of the dog’s trainer, which can just be the owner or handler if the dog was trained without the help of another person. 

The form is self-certifying, meaning that the handler is personally responsible for making all of the attestations and signing the form. 

The DOT’s form will be used for all airlines, eliminating the confusion that occurred in the past when each airline used their own special form. For your reference, a copy of the DOT Transport Form can be found below.

DOT Form - Service Animal Health Behavior Training Form - DownloadDownload the DOT Form – Service Animal Air Transportation Form (pdf) here.

In addition to the Transport Form, the DOT also requires a separate form for flights longer than 8 hours called the “Service Animal Relief Attestation Form” (“Relief Form”).

In the Relief Form, the handler must certify that their service dog will either (i) not need to relieve itself while on the flight, (ii) can relieve itself during the flight without creating a health or sanitation issue, or (iii) refrain from relieving itself, or relieve itself without posing a health or sanitation issue (for example, through the use of a dog diaper). 

Like the Transport Form, this form is self-certifying but only required for flights longer than 8 hours. A copy of the Relief Form for reference can be found below.

DOT Form - Service Animal Relief Form - DownloadDownload the DOT Form – Service Animal Relief Attestation Form (pdf) here.

7. What to Expect at the Airport

Before arriving at the airport, make sure you have submitted the DOT Transportation Form to your airline.

Some airlines have a link on their website to submit the form, while others accept them by email. If you booked a flight within 48 hours of departure, you can bring the form with you and submit it to an airline agent at the airport. 

It’s a good idea to arrive earlier than usual if you travel with a service dog. You will need to check in with the airline counter to confirm they have your DOT Transportation Form. Airline staff may also inspect your service dog to ensure it is clean, well-behaved, and under your control. 

While at the airport, it’s a good idea to have a paper or digital copy of your DOT Transportation Form in case anyone asks for it. Keep in mind that airport workers and airline staff can also verify you have a service dog by asking two questions: 

1. Is the service dog required because of a disability?
2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

Airline and airport staff are not allowed to ask any other questions, ask for details about your condition, or demand that your dog perform its task. You have a right to privacy and dignity as a service dog owner. 

While at the airport and during your flight, your service dog should be harnessed or tethered at all times. Service dogs that are not fully under their handler’s control can be removed from the airport or plane. 

As we’ll discuss in the next section, it can also be very helpful to have service dog accessories while at the airport. 

8. Does my service dog need to have a harness, vest, or ID card?

The DOT allows airline staff to consider items such as harnesses, vests, and tags to determine whether an animal is a service dog. These items are popular with service dog owners because they distinguish their working animals from normal pets.

They may help manage uncomfortable interactions with the public and staff members and prevent intrusive inquiries about why the dog is present. These accessories can be especially helpful for psychiatric service dog owners whose disabilities are unseen. 

As a reminder, however, these items alone cannot qualify a service dog and are only for fully-trained service dogs. Airlines can weigh the presence of service dog paraphernalia along with other factors to determine whether a dog is indeed a service dog. 

As a practical matter, service dog owners find these accessories especially helpful in crowded areas with unfamiliar people, such as airports and plane cabins. They provide an easy way for airport and airline staff and other passengers to recognize that you are boarding with a service dog.

9. How big can my service dog be to fly with me?

Many service dogs are larger breeds such as Golden Retrievers or German Shepherds. There is no absolute weight limit for service dogs, but airlines can require that a service animal fit within the handler’s foot space or on the passenger’s lap.

The DOT’s new rules require airlines to accommodate larger animals by moving them to another seat location within the same service class where the animal can be accommodated, if possible (such as if there is a seat next to an empty seat). 

If there is nowhere to place a larger service dog comfortably, the airline is required to offer the handler the opportunity to transport the service dog in the cargo hold free of charge or travel on a later flight if there is space available in the cabin for that flight. 

Most service dog owners would be vehemently opposed to letting their dogs fly in cargo. Fortunately, many larger service dogs can still be trained to fit into the passenger’s foot space on an airplane.

10. Can an airline deny my service dog because it is a certain breed?

Under the DOT’s new rules, an airline cannot prohibit a service dog solely because it is a certain breed. The DOT recognizes that all types of dogs can serve as effective service dogs and disallows airlines from stereotyping certain breeds.

As we’ll discuss in a later section, the airline can still prohibit boarding if the service dog is acting aggressively or disruptive.

11. Can I bring more than one service dog aboard?

Some handlers have multiple service dogs, each fulfilling a different but important job relating to their disability. Under the DOT’s new guidelines, airlines can limit the number of service dogs a handler can bring onboard to two. 

The handler will also need to be able to comfortably accommodate both of the service dogs in their foot space or lap. For handlers with two large service dogs, they may want to consider taking additional steps to ensure their service dogs can be accommodated. 

For example, on a flight likely to be full without an empty seat, the handler may want to consider purchasing an additional seat or taking a less popular flight. Otherwise, they risk the chance they may have to relegate their service dog to cargo which is a non-starter for many service dog owners.

12. What rules apply to my service dog during the flight?

During the flight, the airline can require the service dog to be harnessed, leashed, or tethered at all times, even if such items would interfere with the service animal’s work or the passenger’s disability prevents the use of these items. This is a more stringent approach than the ADA, allowing a disabled person to use voice commands or other signals where appropriate. 

Service dog owners should come prepared for flights with a harness, leash, or tether and anticipate that their service dog will have to be restrained during the flight and at the airport gate. 

In addition, as previously noted, all service dogs must be well-behaved during the flight and not create any significant disruptions. That means no barking, jumping on others, acting aggressively, or defecating/urinating in the open. 

If the service dog causes any damage to the airplane cabin, the owner is responsible for the damages. 

13. When is an airline allowed to deny boarding to a service animal?

There are four primary situations where an airline can deny boarding for a service animal:

  1. The service animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others. 
    Airlines must make an “individualized assessment” of the service dog in question. They can’t rely, for example, on stereotypes regarding a service dog’s breed. 
    The airline also has to consider whether any mitigating measures can be taken – for example, using a muzzle to silence a barking service dog. 
  2. The service dog causes significant disruption, or its actions indicate it hasn’t been trained properly to be in public. 
    An airline can view a service dog as not having been properly trained if the service dog is running freely, barking or repeatedly growling at others, biting or jumping on people, or urinating or defecating in the open. 
  3. The transportation of the service dog would violate safety or health requirements of a foreign government. 
    For international flights, it’s important to make sure you understand what the foreign country’s rules are for the arrival of service dogs. For example, some countries may require information regarding the service dog’s health and vaccination status. 
  4. The passenger has not completed the DOT’s Transport Form or Relief Form. 
    As previously discussed, service dog owners will need to submit the DOT’s Transport Form and the Relief Form for longer flights before boarding the flight. 

If an airline refuses to accommodate your service dog for any reason, they must provide a written statement to you describing those reasons within 10 days. 

14. What are some other practical tips for flying with a service dog?

The first time flying with your service dog or PSD can be a nerve-wracking and intimidating experience. But fear not, thousands of service dog owners travel every day without incident, and federal rules protect your rights.

These are some practical tips and precautions to keep in mind to help ensure you have a smooth trip:

  • Tip #1: 
    If necessary, visit your vet before your travel date to ensure your dog is healthy and up-to-date on vaccinations. The DOT’s Transport Form will require you to certify your service dog is vaccinated and will also ask for your vet’s contact information.  
  • Tip #2: 
    Vests, tags, ID cards, harnesses, and other accessories can help you navigate a busy airport and crowded airplane cabin. 
  • Tip #3: 
    Try to avoid overfeeding your service dog before a flight as they could suffer from air sickness, leading to an unpleasant accident during the flight. 
  • Tip #4: 
    Let your airline know about your service dog and submit the DOT’s Transport Form as soon as possible. 
  • Tip #5: 
    For first-timers, arriving at the airport a few hours early can ease some of the anxiety, especially if there are unexpected obstacles like a long security line or changed gates. Many airports also have stations where your service dog can have an opportunity to relieve itself one last time before boarding. 
  • Tip #6: 
    Remember to bring a harness, leash, or tether – the airline can insist that your service dog is properly restrained and under your control at all times. 
  • Tip #7: 
    Remember to pack all your pet’s grooming products, necessary medication, food, treats, water, and food dishes in suitably accessible compartments. 

Is there anything else I should keep in mind?

The DOT’s new rules went into effect on January 11th, 2021. It’s important to know the rules we have discussed in this guide, but you should also contact the airline you’re flying with to ensure you’re clear on their policies and have submitted your paperwork to their satisfaction. 

Remember, to successfully fly with a service dog or PSD, preparedness is the key!

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36 comments

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