Living with a panic attack disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and a sensory processing disorder is challenging as a travel writer, but my life changed for the better when I started flying with a service dog six years ago.
My panic attacks are often triggered by airline travel, which is not ideal considering my occupation, but incorporating my first service animal, Bobbi, a 65-pound pit bull, into my travel routine was a serious game changer. Bobbi was trained to alert me moments before I had a panic attack and then assist me during the terrifying time it lasted. For the first time in forever I felt like I could breathe at work.
After Bobbi passed away during the pandemic, I began flying with my second service dog, Poppy, a 13-pound Chiweenie. Since late 2021, Poppy has flown around 70 flight segments with me on trips in the U.S., Mexico, Europe and the Caribbean, so I’d say we have become experts on everything you need to know about flying with a service dog. Here’s the scoop.
What is a service animal?
The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service animal as any dog or miniature horse individually trained to perform a task or do work in the aid of a qualified individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability. The service dog training does not have to be done by a specific agency in the U.S. but can be done by a trainer or even the person with the disability.
In fact, the ADA specifically states that “covered entities may not require documentation, such as proof that an animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal, as a condition for entry.” The same rules apply when taking a service dog on a plane. So, skip all those websites advertising service dog certification cards purchasable online; they are a complete scam.
There are many legitimate organizations that train service dogs for people with disabilities, including Freedom Service Dogs of America, but going through an organization like this is not required by law.
The ADA only mandates the animal has been trained to perform a specific task to assist the person with the disability. For Poppy, these tasks include alerting me before I have a panic attack and assisting me during one. Poppy is also trained to ignore other people and dogs when wearing her vest, to never bark unless she is alerting me before a panic attack (and then she uses just one short bark) and to sit quietly at my feet when dining at restaurants or in other public places.
These are all guidelines that the ADA outlines owners must follow when traveling or taking a service animal into businesses pets are not allowed in. Additionally, you will need to make sure your animal is trained to not relieve itself in a public setting.
Can service dogs fly on planes?
Yes, service dogs can fly on planes in the U.S. and on flights to most countries that originate in the U.S. or return directly to the U.S. from the international destination. The Air Carrier Access Act is the Department of Transportation regulation that mandates airlines allow service dogs on planes. Prior to Jan. 2021, this law also allowed emotional support animals to fly with documentation from a medical doctor verifying the animal was necessary for comforting the passenger. ESAs did not have to be trained.
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But after rampant abuse of the system that included people taking everything from peacocks to snakes to untrained and aggressive dogs on flights, the DOT revised its regulations to allow airlines to ban ESAs from the skies. Although the ultimate decision was left up to the airlines themselves, all major U.S. and Canadian carriers quickly changed their policies to stop non-ESA pets from flying. You can still fly with a small dog (under 25 pounds), but the pup must be in a carrier and you will need to pay the airline pet fee to fly.
Can service dogs fly internationally?
Many countries allow service dogs to fly internationally, but some do not and U.S. airlines traveling to foreign countries are subject to the laws of the foreign country they are traveling to. You will need to check with your airline about the country’s laws before booking a flight with your service animal.
Just because a service animal is allowed to fly internationally does not mean you can automatically enter the country. You will need to follow the country’s health regulations. Some countries, such as Mexico and Canada, make it extremely easy for American dogs to clear customs, requiring only a paper copy of a valid rabies vaccine and a brief agriculture screening looking for parasites or obvious signs of disease.
Related: The reality of international travel with your dog: How Bandido flew from Vietnam to the US
All other countries require dogs to have an international health certificate at minimum to enter their borders. Some countries, such as South Africa, also require advance permission from the ministry of health, which makes traveling internationally with a service dog a serious endeavor.
To fly to European Union countries and Switzerland with your service dog, you’ll need an EU health certificate from your veterinarian that is then endorsed by a vet at the USDA. The entire process must be done within two weeks of entering the EU and costs around $300. The good news is that once you get to Europe, in many countries it is quite easy to visit a European veterinarian and get your pup an EU Pet Passport, which will be good for subsequent trips to the continent for as long as their rabies vaccine is valid.
Do service dogs fly for free?
Yes, service dogs always fly for free.
Is there a weight limit for service dogs on planes?
There is no specific weight limit for service dogs on planes, but the ACAA does allow airlines to deny transport to a service dog if it is too large or heavy to be accommodated in the cabin. Your service dog must be able to either slide beneath your seat or sit at your feet without touching another passenger or impeding their leg room. Airlines are also not allowed to discriminate by breed.
What proof do airlines need for service dogs?
You don’t need to provide any proof or certification papers to take your service dog on a flight. But nearly all airlines require you to fill out a Department of Transportation form annually that attests to your service dog’s health, behavior and training. Lying on the form or faking a disability to fly with a service animal can result in felony charges. You will also want to bring along a paper copy of your animal’s current rabies vaccine.
For flights longer than eight hours, you must also fill out a form stating your dog can either refrain from using the bathroom on the flight or provide a plan for how they will relieve themselves — such as wearing a diaper or using a pee pad.
Service dog requirements by airline
All airlines flying in the U.S. have similar requirements for service dogs on planes, but here are the specifics on how to book and declare for some of the most popular.
Airlines limit the number of service dogs to two per individual, dogs under the age of 4 months are not allowed to fly as service animals and many airlines do not recognize service dogs in training as service animals. Service dogs also are not allowed to sit in the exit row of a plane.
Flying Delta Air Lines with a service dog
Delta allows up to two trained service dogs per passenger. The dogs must be “properly cleaned and must not have a foul odor.” You must fill out the DOT Service Animal Air Travel Form for validation prior to the flight. Service animals must be current on all vaccines.
For travel booked more than 48 hours in advance, you must submit the documentation for validation through the Accessibility Service Request Form located in the My Trips section of the website. Your service dog must be seated in the floor space below your seat or in your lap. Delta specifically states that “the size of the animal must not exceed the footprint of the passenger’s seat.” For more information, visit this page.
Flying American Airlines with a service dog
American Airlines has the same requirements as Delta when it comes to service animals on planes. Once you have submitted your form and it’s been approved by American Airlines, you will be sent an email with your Service Animal ID (SVAN ID). You can then add the SVAN ID when booking future travel with the same animal and be approved without resubmitting the form for up to one year from the date of signature or when the dog’s rabies vaccine expires, whichever is first.
American Airlines states that if your dog is too heavy or large to be accommodated in the cabin of your flight you may need to rebook on a flight with more open seats or buy a separate ticket for the dog. More information here.
Flying Southwest Airlines with a service dog
Like the above airlines, Southwest requires you to fill out the DOT forms to fly with a service animal. Southwest requires you to present the completed form at the ticket counter or gate on the day of travel and mandates the form be dated on or after the date you purchased your ticket (so you will need to have a new form each time you fly).
You can also let the airline know in advance that you will be flying with your service dog by using the Special Assistance link when booking a ticket. More information here.
Flying United Airlines with a service dog
United allows service dogs in training who are flying with their trainers to fly. The DOT forms must be filled out before your flight. For domestic flights, you can complete the forms electronically and store them in the My Trips section of the app or website. You must also carry a printed copy of the forms while at the airport and on the plane.
For international flights, as well as flights to Hawaii and Guam, the forms cannot be completed electronically. You will need to call the disability access line to add your dog to your reservation. More information here.
Flying Air Canada with a service dog
For flights to and from the U.S., Air Canada allows up to two service dogs, provided they both fit within the seat footprint of the passenger. For other flights within Canada, international flights and Caribbean flights that do not originate in the U.S., your service dog “must have been individually trained by an organization or person specializing in service dog training.” Note that this is different from what U.S. airlines allow.
For flights to and from the U.S., you will also need to fill out the DOT paperwork and send it to the Air Canada Medical Assistance desk at least 48 hours before departure. More information here.
Tips on how to fly with a service dog
Flying with a service dog is easy. You’ll submit your paperwork in advance, but when you check in at the airport, the airline representative may ask you the question about what task your dog is trained to perform as well as ask to see the DOT form and a copy of the rabies vaccine.
Many airports have a disability access line for TSA screenings. Going through TSA with a service dog is also easy. You will be directed through the metal detector with your dog. After going through the detector, you will have your hands swabbed (this is always done when traveling with an animal). Once cleared you are good to head to the gate.
Airports in the U.S. and Canada have dog bathrooms, usually with AstroTurf and mini fire hydrants. Some are nicer than others. Getting a dog to use a dog bathroom may be the most challenging part of flying! Poppy goes every time, but Bobbi always refused.
Related: My first-class seat was taken by an emotional support animal
As mentioned above, your service animal cannot take away space from other passengers. Your service dog should not sit on the seat with you or occupy an empty seat next to you just because it is vacant. If your disability requires your service dog to be near your face or in your lap as part of its task, and the dog is small enough to easily fit on your lap without touching another passenger, then you may place the dog where you need it.
In some cases, airlines will block off the seat next to you if your service dog is too big to fit at your feet. But this is at the discretion of the airline. Your dog must also always remain under your control and be on a leash.
Finally, while not required, it is always a good idea to put a vest stating you are traveling with a service dog on your pup at the airport and on the flight. This allows other people to know your dog is working and often alleviates questions from authorities or people trying to pet the dog without asking.
Can an airline deny a service dog?
Yes, in certain instances. The only questions an airline can ask a person with a disability regarding their service dog is whether the dog is required to accompany the passenger because of a disability and what work or task the animal is trained to perform.
Airlines are not allowed to inquire about your specific disability, and they cannot deny your service dog from flying because you don’t have a visible disability or discriminate by breed and say such things as your dog is a pit bull and “looks scary.”
However, if your dog is showing aggressive behavior, growling, or barking (unless the bark is the dog’s alert command) or clearly not under your control, airlines have the right to prohibit you from boarding.
As a person with a disability and a well-trained service dog who is not gaming the system, I support this policy fully. I am on my second service dog now. My first service animal, Bobbi, was a 65-pound pit bull with cropped ears. We flew at least once a month for three years, and during this time no airline representative denied us access to our flight.
Other reasons that airlines can deny service dogs from flying, according to the ACAA, include:
- Violates safety requirements — for example, too large or heavy to be accommodated in the cabin
- Poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others
- Causes a significant disruption in the cabin or at airport gate areas
- Violates health requirements — for example, the dog is prohibited from entering a U.S. territory or foreign country.
If you encounter a problem, here’s who to ask for
If you believe your rights under the ACAA are being violated and you are denied boarding with your service animal, ask to speak with a Complaints Resolution Officer for the airline you are flying. This individual is the airline’s expert on disability accommodation issues. Airlines are required to make this person available to you in person at the airport or by phone during operating hours at no cost to you.