International Association of
Assistance Dog Partners

The Real Scoop!

by Professor Dakota

For those of you about to embark on air travel with an assistance dog for the first time and those of you who are unfamiliar with recent changes by government agencies which affect the rights of airlines and passengers, fasten your seat belt. As a veteran service dog who has logged many thousands of miles of flight time during his career, I've been asked to prepare you for this adventure. Most of my jokes will probably be edited out by my partner, who doesn't seem to fully appreciate my Samoyed sense of humor. Therefore some of these sections may sound awfully technical. I have to tell you about some important rights and policies that all assistance dog partners should know about. But after that, I can delve into the "doggy stuff" which is also pretty important, at least from this end of the leash! My goal is to take the "fear of the unknown" out of flying with an assistance dog and get you off to a tail wagging good start.

Exercising Your Right to Priority Seating

The Department of Transportation regulations which implement the Air Carriers Access Act [CFR 382] have established that disabled persons with a service animal are among a small class of disabled passengers whose seating choice must be given priority over the seating choices of other passengers. To exercise this right, my partner must notify the airlines at least 24 hours in advance that she will be traveling with a service animal and exactly which seat she prefers. However, if some other disabled person has already chosen that seat, in advance, it cannot be given to her without the consent of the disabled person who contacted the airlines first. This is why putting in your reservation as soon as possible would be highly advisable.

Most assistance dog partners traveling in coach class will want to reserve a bulkhead seat as it generally offers some extra leg room. However, bulkhead seating is not a requirement. Some may wish to exercise their prerogative to choose a different seat in whatever class of seating they have paid for. My guide dog friends Echo and Escort tell me their partners prefer sitting in non-bulkhead seats. The two Goldens go under the seats in front where carry on luggage is usually placed. They say it's like being kenneled!

In the case of an airline that does not assign seats in advance, my partner has the right to request pre boarding privileges to chose the seat she prefers as long as she shows up a minimum of an hour before take off to discuss this with the gate agent.

On occasion, the aircraft may be switched at the last minute and our reserved bulkhead seat can turn out to be in an emergency evacuation row. As a service animal is not allowed to obstruct an exit row or aisle, the FAA requires the airline to relocate the assistance dog team to another seat. The gate agent will allow my partner to bump a non disabled passenger from a bulkhead seat on the other side of the aisle or in some other preferred location, but only if she makes the airline aware of her priority seating need a minimum of an hour in advance of departure. We've learned it pays to leave early for the airport in case we run into this unanticipated snag.

Another reason for promptness is that gate agents are allowed to reassign seats to other people whenever a passenger with a reserved seat fails to check in at least 30 minutes before takeoff. An airline may still try to accommodate a disabled person who arrives very late, but only to the best of its ability. It is not required to move other passengers out of their assigned seats. If the service animal cannot be accommodated in the seats that are still left open, the passenger will be faced with taking a later flight or shipping the service animal as cargo.

Where Does an Assistance Dog "sit"?

Guide, hearing and service dogs are expected to lie obediently at the passenger's feet. Climbing up to sit in or stand on the passenger seat next to my human partner is a big "no no."

Often the gate agent is nice enough to arrange for my partner to have the bulkhead seating on one side of the aisle to herself, so I can have plenty of room on the floor for relaxing. Sometimes the gate agent apologetically tells her the flight is fully booked. At such times, I'm expected to occupy only the space directly in front of her seat.

What happens if you have a service dog who can't fit into that limited amount of space? I've met a few service dogs from 100 lbs. on up to the size of a Newfoundland.

The Department of Transportation does not compel the airline to provide the additional space free of charge. An airline cannot force another passenger seated next to a disabled person to yield their floor space to make things more comfortable for the assistance dog. If the dog is simply too big to fit in the allotted space for a single passenger, the gate agent does have the option of selling the disabled person an extra ticket for the seat next to her own as an "accommodation," and may move any passenger who already had that seat reserved to a new location, unless the flight is full. An airline is not required to deny air travel to another passenger so as to accommodate an oversize service animal. It could offer the disabled passenger the option of shipping the oversize service animal in the cargo hold at the airline's expense. Alternatively, the disabled passenger may be offered the option of taking a later, less crowded flight. The airline is under no obligation to upgrade any passenger with an oversize service animal to first class seats, so expecting this as a reasonable accommodation is not a realistic solution to the dilemma.

In a rare case, someone may travel with two assistance dogs. The airline will make an effort to accommodate the two service animals. If the flight is full, however, the situation will be the same as that of someone with an oversize service animal, insofar as the options the airlines have for accommodating the passenger. The bottom line is that the airlines do not have to accommodate any service animal in the plane cabin if they do not have sufficient room to do so in the class of seating for which you've paid.

It has been my experience that the gate agents and flight attendants are for the most part, genuinely interested in making a passenger with a disability accompanied by an assistance dog as comfortable as possible. But they cannot do anything if a flight is sold out. So if you are in the unusual position of having a giant breed or two assistance dogs, it might be wise to consider taking a flight that is likely to be less crowded due to the time of its departure or arrival.

Advance Preparations for the Trip

My partner's veterinarian suggested she refrain from feeding me the night before a long flight and make up for it the next evening. By taking me outdoors to visit the proverbial bush, at least twice in the last few hours prior to departure, it goes a long way to ensure I do not have an "accident" during our travels even if I become stressed. After the first of those two outings, she limits my water intake. A few laps to quench my thirst is one thing, but she doesn't want me to "tank up" like a camel right before a flight. She later doles out some ice cubes so I won't get thirsty. She obtains them when the cabin attendant with the drink cart asks her if she wants a beverage. I love ice cubes. A cup of water may be requested for a dog who is not fond of ice cubes. Naturally you may wish to check with your own veterinarian to see if his advice for your particular circumstances might be different.

Intestinal upsets due to a change in water or the stress of a trip are not uncommon. Dogs going from well water to city water or visa versa are especially susceptible to gastrointestinal distress. Now that I'm accustomed to city water I do fine, but in my younger days, this was sometimes an issue. My partner still carries 10 sheets of paper towels in a large plastic Glad bag in my backpack for mop up, as a precaution whenever we travel.

She also packs plenty of pick up bags for upcoming excursions to a park or the lawn in front of the hotel or to the airport relief area, if that amenity is available between flights to a passenger with an assistance dog. My partner has learned the importance of calling ahead to find out about relief areas whenever booking flights and hotels, as assuming every airport or hotel will have an accessible patch of lawn is just plain unrealistic.

Security Screening Checkpoint Guidance

After checking in the luggage, we now face long slow moving lines where strangers in dark uniforms will paw through our hand luggage, jackets, and all the equipment on the tail wagging assistive device [that's me!].

A number of the security personnel will admire me, ask my name, while others stare right through me as if I were invisible. A few may be afraid of dogs and sometimes demand my partner let somebody else hold my leash while they do the hand check of her body and her wheelchair in another part of the security checkpoint. My partner will firmly explain that to conform with the Americans With Disabilities Act, in 2002 the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) updated their guidelines for screeners on how to handle passengers with service animals. They clarified that a disabled person should never be separated from his or her service animal at any point during the security screening process.

If needed, my partner will also speak up about another beneficial change detailed in that document. As confirmed by the TSA Fact Sheet in June 2002, the TSA mandates a hand check of my backpacks. Screeners can no longer compel my partner to strip off my harness and backpacks, collar and leash so they can put the gear through their x-ray machine. The TSA guidance goes on to explain that assistance dogs regard the removal of their equipment as a signal that they are off duty.

My partner reassures everyone, if they are still nervous about checking my backpacks or her wheelchair, that I'm an Assistance Dog, not a guard dog. I was chosen for my wonderful temperament. I'm safe with kids and all kinds of strangers and won't mind them doing their job in the least little bit.

Usually everyone relaxes and a hand inspection of my backpacks only takes a minute. However, once in a while you may have to endure an item by item inventory of the contents by a screener who wants to impress upon her colleagues how thorough she is at her job.

Something else to be prepared for is the occasional sight of a working dog such as a German Shepherd sitting next one of the uniformed security personnel, especially if you have a dog who gets excited or apprehensive when crossing the path of another dog. My partner makes sure we give these working dogs wide berth so they can keep their focus on their job duties.

Once in a while a passenger with a pet carrier wafting the intriguing scent of a cat spices up my day. Naturally I am a perfect gentleman, but if someday that carrier door should pop open and the cat streaks across my path, I wonder if I shall still be fondly known by the nickname, Mr. Goody Two Shoes? My partner would like to think so.

The Gate Agent's Assessment - Pet or Service Animal?

After leaving Security, the first thing my partner wants to do is find the Gate and check in with the agent so he'll know she is traveling with a service animal as he gives out boarding passes to other passengers. She also makes sure her wheelchair is tagged so it will be returned to the door of the plane on stopovers and at our final destination.

This chat with the gate agent may require my partner to provide evidence that I'm a service animal, not a pet.

Because many airlines have decided to ban pets in cargo at certain times of year and/or raised their shipping fees, there is increasing concern that some passengers may try to pass off their pet as a service animal to obtain free transport for the pet in the plane cabin.

The new Guidance issued by the DOT on May 9, 2003, instructs the gate agent to go through five steps in determining whether or not an animal will be permitted to fly with the passenger in the plane cabin as a service animal.

The primary way to distinguish a service animal from a pet is to find out if the animal received special training to perform tasks or functions which mitigate the handler's disabling condition. Begin with the question, "Is this a service animal or a pet? Appropriate follow up questions may include:

  • ``What tasks or functions does your animal perform for you?'' or
  • ``What has it been trained to do for you?"
  • ``Would you describe how the animal performs this task (or function) for you?''

The DOT Guidance goes onto state:
(a) If a passenger cannot provide credible assurances that an animal has been individually trained or is able to perform some task or function to assist the passenger with his or her disability, the animal might not be a service animal. In this case, the airline personnel may require documentation (see Documentation below).
(b) There may be cases in which a passenger with a disability has personally trained an animal to perform a specific function (e.g., seizure alert). Such an animal may not have been trained through a formal training program (e.g., a ``school'' for service animals). If the passenger can provide a reasonable explanation of how the animal was trained or how it performs the function for which it is being used, this can constitute a``credible verbal assurance'' that the animal has been trained to perform a function for the passenger.

Some service animals wear harnesses, vests, capes or backpacks. Markings on these items or on the animal's tags may identify it as a service animal. It should be noted, however, that the absence of such equipment does not necessarily mean the animal is not a service animal.

The law allows airline personnel to ask for documentation as a means of verifying that the animal is a service animal, but DOT urges carriers not to require documentation as a condition for permitting an individual to travel with his or her service animal in the cabin unless a passenger's verbal assurance is not credible. In that case, the airline may require documentation as a condition for allowing the animal to travel in the cabin. The purpose of documentation is to substantiate the passenger's disability-related need for the animal's accompaniment, which the airline may require as a condition to permit the animal to travel in the cabin. Examples of documentation include a letter from a licensed professional treating the passenger's condition (e.g., physician, mental health professional, vocational case manager, etc.)

With respect to an animal used for emotional support (which need not have specific training for that function), airline personnel may require current documentation (i.e., not more than one year old) on letterhead from a mental health professional stating

  1. that the passenger has a mental health-related disability;
  2. that having the animal accompany the passenger is necessary to the passenger's mental health or treatment or to assist the passenger (with his or her disability); and
  3. that the individual providing the assessment of the passenger is a licensed mental health professional and the passenger is under his or her professional care.

Airline personnel may require this documentation as a condition of permitting the animal to accompany the passenger in the cabin. The purpose of this provision is to prevent abuse by passengers that do not have a medical need for an emotional support animal and to ensure that passengers who have a legitimate need for emotional support animals are permitted to travel with their service animals on the aircraft. Airlines are not permitted to require the documentation to specify the type of mental health disability, e.g., panic attacks.

Service animals are trained to behave properly in public settings. For example, a properly trained guide dog will remain at its owner's feet. It does not run freely around an aircraft or an airport gate area, bark or growl repeatedly at other persons on the aircraft, bite or jump on people, or urinate or defecate in the cabin or gate area. An animal that engages in such disruptive behavior shows that it has not been successfully trained to function as a service animal in public settings. Therefore, airlines are not required to treat it as a service animal, even if the animal performs an assistive function for a passenger with a disability or is necessary for a passenger's emotional well-being.

If access is denied by the airlines, the passenger has a right to receive the reason for it in writing from the CRO within ten days after the incident . He or she may be offered the chance to have the dog travel in a crate, but only if the airline takes pets in cargo, the weather conditions are appropriate and if the owner brought a health certificate with proof of a rabies vaccination from the animal's veterinarian.

A health certificate is not required for an assistance dog traveling with a qualified individual with a disability in the plane cabin. While carrying proof of a rabies vaccination is sensible, it is not something a gate agent will ask for on the day of your flight.

My partner enjoys introducing me to the gate agent. If my bright red harness and backpacks with white patches labeled Service Dog are not enough to convince the person that I'm the real McCoy, my partner can wax eloquent on the subject of the many tasks I'm trained to perform to increase her safety and independence.

She also takes this opportunity to ask a favor. She politely asks that if the flight is not full, to please consider leaving the seat next to her seat in the bulkhead empty so I can stretch out and be more comfortable. She understands this is strictly a favor, not something an airline is required to do (there is a lot of misinformation floating around on this subject). The outcome generally depends on the needs of other passengers and how packed our flight happens to be on a particular day.

Boarding Safety & Etiquette

Wheelchair users are among those whom the airlines like to pre-board. Manual wheelchair users like my partner may wish to ask an employee to assist them by walking behind their chair in order to slow it down, as not all boarding tunnels have gentle inclines. Those on crutches or using a walker may have a difficult time too, unless the dog is trained to heel on a loose lead at a slow pace in unfamiliar surroundings for reasons of safety.

Be sure to keep a good grip on the leash while entering the plane cabin. You don't want to risk the dog bolting out of the boarding tunnel. Sometimes the crew starts up the jet engines while we are in the middle of pre boarding, which can be pretty scary to a dog who never has been previously exposed to that amount of noise in such close quarters.

The flight attendants are ready to assist you upon request with your carry on items and a walker or other mobility aids. They can stow them in the overhead compartment for you or in the nearest closet. They also will assist you during disembarkation to get through the boarding tunnel back to the gate area, if you ask them to.

Once seated, the inevitable questions about my name, breed and what kind of work do I do are sure to follow from an interested flight attendant. A request to pet me is usually turned aside by my partner with a smile and the news that I can't be petted till my backpacks are removed at our destination so I will understand that I'm officially "Off Duty." My partner does not want to give the public the wrong impression about how to treat a working assistance dog. Another strategy for deflecting unsolicited attention is to deliberately avoid eye contact with passengers while they are boarding the plane.

Some of my hearing and guide dog friends also have partners preferring to preboard and get settled before other passengers enter the cabin. Sometimes they are asked to wait until all the other passengers leave the plane before deplaning, but most just leave with the other passengers. After all, pre- and post-boarding are options that can be accepted or declined.

Before take off, after landing and during the flight itself, my partner will closely watch my tail and paws every time I have to shift positions to retrieve something or let someone in or out of our row. In all the years we've traveled together, no one has ever stepped on one of my paws or my tail thanks to her vigilance. As a result, I'm not too fussy about where I put a paw or rest my tail, as I don't think about the possible consequences. Your assistance dog will probably rely on you to look after him in the same way.

Considerations While in the Air

Many handlers do not disturb the dog's rest on a flight. Asking for a cup of ice or water for the dog is strictly optional.

Don't be surprised if a rather sensitive dog behaves on his first flight like I did, showing no interest in a treat or water, due to the temporary stress of the new experience. Don't worry about it. Some dogs need more time than others till they relax and become "an old pro."

Rest rooms on a plane are definitely not built with an assistance dog in mind. Most handlers prefer to leave their dogs at their seat in the temporary custody of a travel companion, nearby passenger or flight attendant. Otherwise they have to leave the dog stuck outside the lavatory door where someone may come out of the next cubicle and stumble over him. Other passengers who get up to wait in line may attempt to feed the dog or express alarm if they encounter the dog without you being present to exercise control. You may want to give these things some thought before leaving your seat.

A few inexperienced travelers may worry unnecessarily that their dog's ears might pop the way a human's ears might pop at certain altitudes. One service dog of my acquaintance shocked me when he confided his brand new partner put him on the seat next to her and gave him a stick of gum to chew on their first flight. He swallowed the gum in one gulp, of course. She gave him a second stick, then scolded him for not chewing it slowly so it could do some good. She later told her husband that service dogs are not as much like people as she thought they were. As the plane touched down with a jolting bump and he suddenly fell off the seat, she also reconsidered the wisdom of keeping a big Golden Retriever up off the floor on a seat meant only for humans. He told me that he much prefers the security of the floor, where he can get a real grip on the carpet with his paws during moments of turbulence and bumpy landings.

Generally I remain in a Down Stay position at my partner's feet. In the early days if I was nervous during take offs or landings, my partner would permit me to sit or stand up, as long as I remained calm and kept all four paws on the floor. The rest of the time, if I was not working, she insisted I lie down. During that first year of partnership, she periodically rewarded me with milkbones for remaining in that position to help me to better understand where my designated place in the plane cabin was supposed to be. I soon came to appreciate there was no cause for concern and ever since then, I have dozed peacefully through take offs and landings.

Ending the Trip on a Good Note

The last part of the trip should be pleasant, not nerve wracking. It all depends on you.

My partner tells handlers to put on a big act if they have to, as this is a crucial formative stage in the development of a future jet setter. If you appear totally relaxed and content while passengers jam the aisle and bang the overhead compartment doors, it will make a deep impression, quieting the alarm a new dog may feel in those circumstances.

She warns people that if they act sympathetic when a dog shivers, whines, tries to climb into their lap or refuses treats, they will end up with a dog who is a basket case. Soothing their dog's fear with an "oh you poor baby" tone of voice and/or petting just confirms their dog's belief that something awful is happening and he has every right to be upset.

She advises handlers to nip such behavior in the bud with a firm no nonsense "Down Stay" command. I've also heard her tell people about a doggy language approach, using a calming signal, a series of big yawns while looking at the dog. That's how I calmed down the nervous Labrador Retriever on the last flight when we had another team across the aisle from us. My yawns communicated to him that there was nothing threatening about this part of the journey.

According to my partner, maintaining a calm cheerful demeanor while going through the boarding tunnel, picking up one's luggage and finding one's ride is essential during this formative stage. She cautions people that anger, fear or anxiety and tension can "travel down the leash." A dog will judge this mode of transportation by his handler's emotional reactions in the airport and plane cabin. Whether he comes away with a dreadful impression or a good one will be pretty much be up to his team leader.

As an old pro who is nearing retirement age, I have some thoughts of my own to add to her advice.

Help your dog comprehend that his work is important to you, by giving him plenty of opportunities to earn your praise and approval on each trip, especially at airports. Maybe you don't have to rely on your dog as much as my partner does in the airport, for she needs mobility assistance, but if you give him something else to focus on like obedience commands, then tell him how wonderful he is, it can be just as effective. I know my heart sings when my partner praises me. There's no feeling quite like it in the world. I'm reminded that I'm an Assistance Dog. Pride in myself, my work, can be a terrific antidote to anxiety. Riding a monorail, an elevator, heeling through the Baggage Claim area, waiting outside for a van or taxi to show up, all can be taken in stride when I'm aware that I have a job to do.

My partner's first priorities on reaching our ultimate destination are to remove my harness, find me a patch of grass, then to unpack and fill my water bowl and food bowl. I must admit I look forward to our journey's end. There's no hard and fast rule that you have to put your assistance dog's needs first upon arrival, just like there is no way that my partner can force me to put her needs ahead of my own during our travels. It is just the way we've always done things. Since my goal is to get you and your assistance dog off to a tail wagging good start, sharing this tradition with you seemed like a good idea.

In closing, if you want to check to see if I got my facts straight or perhaps read more on a particular subject, in the section to follow, my editor will include Links to the relevant government documents I quoted from or referred to in preparing this article. Also a List of "Facts To Remember."

Here's wishing you, "Happy travels!"

Facts to Remember

1) Reserve a bulkhead seat or another seat of choice at least 24 hours in advance of departure. Also check in with the gate agent a minimum of one hour before a flight's scheduled departure time to exercise your priority seating right as an assistance dog partner.

2) Screeners at Security checkpoints should never separate a service animal from the disabled passenger.

3) Screeners should perform a hand or visual check of the service animal's equipment. No attempt should be made to remove the equipment. [if necessary, explain that service animals would interpret the removal of their equipment for x-rays as a sign that they are off duty.

4) Be prepared to provide evidence that you have a service animal, not a pet.
  • One standard method is to identify the animal through its equipment. This includes a guide dog harness, service dog pulling or stabilizing harness, backpacks, or vests and capes worn by hearing or service dogs.
  • If questioned, name some of the specific tasks or functions that the canine assistant has been trained to perform to mitigate your disability. If asked, describe how the dog performs the task or function and if not obvious, how it can mitigate your disabling condition. Describe the training the dog has received to elevate it from a pet to a service animal.
5) Pre-and post-boarding are options you may want to accept or decline.

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