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Traveling with a Service Dog, a Complete Step-By-Step Guide

It’s that time of year again that many of us begin to think about traveling. While traveling with your trained and well-behaved Service Dog is your privilege, there are some steps you need to take to make sure your trip goes as smoothly as possible.

Know what to expect
The Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration has universal guidelines for traveling with a service dog or assistance animal. But each airline interprets them slightly differently. The key to success? Always call first!

International traveling
Are you flying out of the country or to an island like Hawaii? Service Animals may need to be quarantined depending on your destination. Check with the airline to find out what the current regulations are for your destination country. Confirm with your airline and ask if there are any quarantines happening that you need to be aware of. Each airline interprets TSA guidelines slightly differently. The key to success? Always call first!

Some people are uncomfortable flying, and so are some animals
Even the best trained Assistance Animal may have difficulty flying and you need to judge your own animals temperament before you consider flying. If you are at all concerned about how your assistance animal will react to flying consider driving, Amtrak or Greyhound. Please note that Psychiatric Service Animals may also require special documentation from your doctor in the form of a letter.

Contact your airline before you travel
The crew may need to make preparations for your boarding, so you must call to make them aware of what type of animal you use. The agent may also be able to help you select the most comfortable seat for you and your animal. Find a direct flight if possible because it will make for an easier experience for you and your animal.

We’ve provided some links to the major carriers to make your life easier.

Before you arrive, limit water and exercise your assistance animal
Most likely, it will be a long time before you’ll find a good place for your Service Animal to relieve themselves again. Note: If you need to leave the secure boarding area to relieve your animal, you must undergo the full screening process again. Inform the Security Officer upon your return to the security checkpoint and she/him will move you to the front of the screening line to expedite the screening process.

Tech Tip — Find airport dog relief areas: Do you have a smartphone? The free Working Like Dogs “Where to Go” app for Apple or Android can help you find airport dog relief areas.

You and your Service Dog must remain courteous at all times
The experience others may have with you and your Service Dog may be the first and only they will ever have. It is up to you to leave them with an excellent impression. While it is your privilege under the law to be accompanied by your Service or Assistance Dog, you still need to be respectful of others who may be uncomfortable around animals. While traveling with a Service Dog, keep your partner under control at all times to avoid becoming the center of attention. Do not play with or show off your Service Dog in the airport or during your flight. Remember, how you and your Service Dog act directly affects other Service and Assistance Dog teams.

Arrive at the airport early and let security know that your Service Dog is not a pet
Inform the Security Officer that the animal accompanying you is a Service Animal and not a pet. This will provide you with an opportunity to move to the front of the screening line since the Security Officer may need to spend more time with you. At no time during the screening process should you be required to be separated from your Service Animal.

Identification and documentation
Airlines do require some form of assurance that your dog is indeed a Service Animal and not a pet. Identification, such as cards or documentation, the presence of a harness or markings on the harness, a doctor’s letter or other credible assurance of the passenger using the animal for their disability is required. Please call or review each airline’s policy.

What tasks does your animal perform to help you with your disability?
What makes a Service Dog different from a pet are the specific physical tasks or work the animal can perform to help someone manage their disability. While it is inappropriate for someone to ask you about your disability, they may ask what tasks your dog is trained to perform. If you have a Psychiatric Service Dog it helps to have letter from a physician in addition to any other identification materials you may have. Remember, misrepresenting an animal as a Service or Assistance Dog isn’t only unethical, it’s against the law.

Be polite and accommodating of the Security Officers
Being polite and friendly with the Security Officers will go a long way to making your admission quicker. Remember, they have a stressful job and treating them with respect will make things easier. Security Officers have been trained how to treat Assistance Animals and their handlers. They know not to communicate, distract, interact, play, feed, or pet Service Animals.

You must assist with the inspection process by controlling the Service Animal while the Security Officer conducts the inspection. You must maintain control of your animal in a manner that ensures the animal cannot harm the Security Officer.

Traveling With a Service DogProceeding through Security
Recent changes now require that after you successfully go through the metal detector, you cannot make contact with your dog (other than holding the leash) until the dog has been inspected and cleared by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) personnel. Even if you walk through the metal detector and do not set off the alarm, you can be required to undergo additional screening if you touch your dog before it has been cleared.

Secondly, you may be asked to maintain contact with your dog’s leash at all times. If this procedure creates a problem for you — such as with a child who has autism — please explain this to the security officer. Of course, you are responsible for maintaining control of your Service Dog at all times.

Finally, passengers traveling with any kind of animal may now be required to undergo explosives trace testing. This process is quick and easy and generally takes place after you have cleared security. You may be asked to hold your hands out, palm side up. The security officer will then wipe a swab about the size of your palm across each of your hands and then ask you to wait while a machine analyzes the swab for traces of explosives. This process leaves no residue on your hands.

Remember, TSA personnel cannot request that you be separated from your dog nor are you required to remove your dog’s harness, leash or collar. If you experience any problems at the security checkpoint, you should request that a supervisor be contacted for assistance. If you wish to file a complaint against the TSA, send a message to: TSA.ODPO@dhs.gov and be sure to include your name, address, phone number and email address as well as the date/time you went through the security checkpoint, the name of the airport, and the name of the airline, flight number & departure gate if known. Give a brief description of what happened and include as much as you can remember about your experience and the TSA personnel involved.

Check in at the gate
After you’ve gone through security, check in at the counter at the gate. Let the flight attendants know that you have an Assistance Animal. If this is your first time flying with your Assistance Animal on this airline, ask them what you need to do. Most likely you will be allowed to board the aircraft first.

Boarding the airplane
Once you’ve passed through the skybridge to the aircraft, the flight attendants on board will guide you to your seat. Most airlines require your Assistance Animal to use the space at your feet. Small dry treats for your animal will help them feel more comfortable. Avoid bringing water onto the plane for your dog.

Consider using Pet Airways
Depending on your disability, you may not need your animal with you in the airport and airplane, though you will when you land at your destination. Some disabled individuals choose to book their Service Animals on a special flights with airlines like Pet Airways.

Traveling With a Service DogStill have questions about screening procedures?
The TSA recently launched TSA Cares, a new helpline number specifically designed to assist travelers with disabilities. You may call TSA Cares toll free at 1-855-787-2227 prior to traveling if you have questions about screening policies, procedures and what to expect at the security checkpoint. The hours of operation for the TSA Cares helpline are Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. – 11 p.m. Eastern time; weekends and federal holidays, 9 a.m. – 8 p.m. Eastern time. You can also e-mail TSA-ContactCenter@dhs.gov to request information about screening procedures.

If you feel you were the victim of discrimination
If you believe you are experiencing discriminatory treatment by air carrier personnel or contractors (e.g., pilots, gate agents, or flight attendants) you may request immediate on-site assistance from a Complaint Resolution Official, commonly referred to as a CRO. You may also file a complaint with the Department of Transportation (DOT).

For those wishing to learn more about the rights of individuals traveling by air with a Service Dog, you may call The DOT’s Disability Hotline at 1-800-778-4838 . The Hotline is available from 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday, except holidays.

Special thanks to The Evolution of the Soapbox for assistance in compiling information on the revised TSA screening procedures.

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Comments

  • Michelle July 2, 2012

    Unfortunately, not all personnel are trained on these procedures. I have always been asked to take everything off my dog and have him heel through security while his things go through xray. Also, I recently learned that you can ask for a seat for your service dog without extra charge if it is a large animal and will need the floor space. Sometimes bulkhead is not really more space….it is just a curtain behind the first class seats. Always call after making reservations to talk to them about your service dog.
    Don’t forget ADA law states you don’t have to have ID.

    • Thyjay November 25, 2012

      Fantastic Training! )Is there a way to train a default leave it when tairning with toys? Tennis Balls are a huge reinforcer for my dog and I want to try tairning more complex behaviors but treats aren’t motivating enough for her. And she gets overly aroused around toys. Thank you Marie and Lauren~

  • ComS July 3, 2012

    Seems pretty standard

    Except that animals are not allowed in the emergency exit row…that is illegal… service dog or not.

  • darlene schug-rushlow July 11, 2012

    Do you have information on traveling by train? I have a tiny service dog.

  • kathy lincoln April 1, 2013

    I just flew over 2000 miles [and back] with my 7 month old diabetic alert dog. She great on the plane ,alerted me serval times which made me more confident about traveling. The only problem was finding the dog relief areas at the airports.

    • Isabelle July 25, 2014

      I was thinking of trying to train my husband’s service dog to go on one of those pads during travel times. However she is completely trained to outdoors, & the other trainers I’ve heard from feel that this would be confusing for her. Any thoughts on this???

      • Mez December 31, 2016

        All my dogs from pets to my Hearing Dog Harley are trained to a command of Be clean you could train your dog to this command and the puppy mats I think you referre to.
        Also a small meal two or three hours before flight then exercise should empty bowels. Whilst on plane they are still as long as other passengers and children do not pet the dog.
        As no exercise your dog should be okay and just to quench thirst the you could ask the stewards to bring a couple of ice cubes as air condition does make one dry so this will help but not fill the bladder. One thing I would like to question if anyone has travelled in cabin with Assistant Dog have they had any problems with ear pressure can they suffer pain like some children and adults do? My children when young I would give them a carton of juice to drink taking off and landing. I would sit and havebit ready whilst on tarmac and then as the plane left ground I would tell them to suck on straw which worked.
        But do Assistant dogs have same issues as being a Hearing Dog he is my ears! So would like to here that. Hope above helps and makes sense
        Kind Regards
        Mex & Hearing Dog Harley

        • Alicia January 16, 2017

          My first service dog has been on 124 flights. I generally travel on the earliest flight out. I feed him the morning BEFORE we travel and allow him limited water. As soon as we land, and are outside of the airport, I feed him. I arrive at the airport early enough to take him on a 15 minute walk so he has time to be completely empty.

    • Casey July 7, 2015

      Hi , did you have to provide anything at check in?

  • Alicia June 2, 2014

    You’re article should be updated to reflect the full definition of “What makes a Service Dog different from a pet are the specific physical tasks the animal can perform to help someone manage their disability.” The law actually states that a service dog must be trained to perform “WORK or physical tasks” to mitigate the disabled handlers disability.

      • Angela February 18, 2016

        What you do if your service dog never been on a plan before and might act up for the first time .will they kick you out ?? I’m going on a plan for the first time with my service dog .my dog started to be trained for 5 months and she’s doing great but I don’t know how she will act on a plan .what should I do ?

        • Kea Grace March 14, 2016

          Try taking local public transit first – a bus ride or a train/tram ride. Buses are a good choice, due to the tight fit, low manuverability and the rumble of the engines, as well as the loud brake noises. You can also attend a movie you’d like to see, as that will help you practice navigating tight rows with close seats. It’ll also allow you to practice and reinforce long-duration down stays, which are required for flying.

        • Alicia January 16, 2017

          In my experience I want to make sure my “service dog in training” has been exposed to a number of environments that might give me an idea of how they will do in a crowded plane. But I choose environments we can get out of quickly in case the dog is over stimulated and stressed. So, I take the dog to a crowded movie theatre, concerts, sports events, etc. Once the dog is confident and behaved in these environments then I would take her to your local airport, and walk in the public areas (meaning BEFORE entering security). Ride an elevator, if you can carry your dog you can ride an escalator. I teach my dogs to jump off at the bottom as I do not want their nails to get caught in the flattened steps, but I have tall SD’s that can make that jump easily. But anymore, if an airport has escalators it also has elevators. I use them because it doesn’t put my dog’s paws at risk.

      • Alicia Smith March 14, 2016

        Thanks for your quick reply. I was very pleased when anythingPawsable finally included WORK in your information. It’a nice to know we can count on you for up-to-date info. I really appreciate what you offer.

    • CHUCK February 18, 2017

      THE ONLY REQUIREMENT IS BEING DISABLED AND ANY HELP A SERVICE DOG YOU NEED THAT HELPS WITH YOUR SPECIFIC DISABILITY. THAT IS THE ONLY REQUIREMENT UNDER THE ADA LAWS. I USE MY SD FOR BALANCE AND MOBILITY. HE DOES NOT NEED TO PERFORM ANY TASKS OTHER THAN HIM WALKING AND BEHAVING WELL IN PUBLIC FOR ME TO USE HIM AS A SD FOR MY SPECIFIC DISABILITY AND THIS SEEMS TO BE THE PROBLEM AND CONFUSION WITH THE ADA LAWS BECAUSE IT IS SPECIFICALLY WRITTEN VERY BROADLY IN SCOPE TO ACCOMODATE MANY DIFFERENT DISABILITIES AND PEOPLE TEND TO FORGET THAT FACT WHEN THERE ARE MANY DIFFERENT DISABILITIES WHERE A SERVICE DOG IS VERY USEFUL FOR MANY TYPES OF DISABILITIES. THIS IS WHY THERE IS NO SPECIAL REGISTRY OR CERTIFICATION FOR A SERVICE DOG UNDER THE ADA LAWS.

  • josie February 3, 2017

    Any one has a sample letter for the airlines requirement.
    Confirmation, that your dog can relieve itself in a controlled way. On international flights over 8 hours long you may be asked for documentation that your service dog will not need to relieve itself on board, or that the dog can relieve itself in such a way that does not cause sanitation issues or other hazards to your fellow passengers. You may provide an obedience training certificate. If this is not available, a statement written by you confirming the above is acceptable.
    · Breed and weight of your dog

  • Roger Smith June 14, 2017

    Emotional Support Animal like cat, Dogs, rabbit etc bring so much emotional, psychological and physical health benefits on human being.

  • D T August 8, 2017

    Roger,

    Emotional support animals are NOT service animals and do not get special privileges. Only dogs and miniature horses, last I knew, can be Service Animals. No cats, rats, snakes, rabbits or anything else! Do not even try taking them anywhere as a “Service Animal”.

    Duane

  • Jayden McReynolds August 17, 2017

    Hi There

    Thank you for all of this very helpful information.

    As a Army combat veteran with PTSD, would a letter/email from the psychiatrist who diagnosed me, be enough documentation needed to have my dog accompany me on an airline?

    Thank you

  • Kenneth Gladman June 21, 2018

    I like that you mentioned having the proper documentation with you to get your dog on the flight. This means having them registered with the proper agencies. It is best to double check this before so there are no confusions.

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