In this post we will provide a comprehensive guide of everything you need to know in order to travel with your service dog or psychiatric service dog (PSD). You may have heard that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) recently issued a major overhaul of the rules governing assistance animals on planes. We’ll go over those rules in depth and summarize what you need to know as a service dog or PSD handler, including the new paperwork requirements.
Under the DOT’s new rules, airlines are no longer obligated to recognize emotional support animals (ESAs) as assistance animals. That means starting on January 11th, 2021, airlines are no longer obligated to accommodate ESAs.
The good news for service dog and PSD owners is that their canine companions remain protected, with some caveats. Service dogs are still allowed to accompany their handlers in the airplane cabin free of charge. The DOT however has radically changed the procedures for how airlines process service dogs.
So 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 animal and 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 practical insights for dealing with flights and airports from experienced service dog owners.
What does the DOT consider to be a service animal?
First, let’s cover the basics. What does the DOT now consider a service animal that is eligible for special accommodation on flights? The DOT has revised their definition of service animal so it aligns more closely with 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 key difference between a service dog and a normal pet or other type of assistance animal is that a service dog must be trained to perform tasksrelated 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.
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, on a temporary or permanent basis, substantially limits one or more major life activities. “Major life activities” are things like working, sleeping, learning and other essential life activities.
The definition of disability covers both physical impairments (for example, someone that has limited mobility or has 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.
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
What kinds of tasks do service dogs and psychiatric service dogs perform?
Service dogs perform a wide array of tasks and it would be impossible to present an exhaustive list here. There is no official list of eligible tasks. The key criteria is 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, it’s important to keep in mind that a proper service animal should also be obedient and trained to be comfortable in public settings. Airplanes and airports are crowded, hectic areas with a lot of 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 is misbehaving or engaging in certain disruptive actions.
Does a service dog or PSD need to be professionally trained or certified by an organization?
A certified service dog does not need to be trained a third party trainer, school or organization. These services may be useful, 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. A service dog does not need to be certified by an organization that it has completed its training.