Op-Ed: DOT made the right call with service animal guidance

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Almost two years ago, I was paired with PJ, a black lab guide dog from The Seeing Eye. He gave me a level of independence I hadn’t enjoyed since beginning to lose my sight four years earlier. I’m also a semi-frequent flyer, so I’ve been following the news regarding restrictions on service and emotional support animals closely since the rules began to be tightened early last year. After reviewing the DOT’s Final Statement of Enforcement Priorities Regarding Service Animals released last week, I’m generally happy with the results.

Among the new rules, airlines may request documentation about an animal’s vaccinations, training, and behavior. I carry an ID card for PJ from The Seeing Eye and would have no problem adding a record of his shots to the mix.

Also under the new rules, service animal handlers won’t be required to provide airlines with prior notice or check-in at ticket counters. Delta Air Lines initially required 48 hours’ notice for all service and emotional support animals but backed down after advocacy groups raised concerns about the impact on service animal handlers, specifically. Personally, I find it easier to call ahead to the airline’s special assistance desk and let them know I’ll be flying with my service animal. The call takes less than five minutes and allows me to be assigned a non-bulkhead window seat without a fee, even on a basic economy fare.

As has been permitted by the DOT in the past, airlines can continue to refuse carriage to misbehaving service and emotional support animals. Personally, I would like to see this rule strictly enforced for everybody’s safety.

However, the DOT also won’t allow breed restrictions for service animals after Delta forbade people from traveling with pit bulls last year. To my knowledge, pit bulls aren’t trained as guide dogs, but are used to mitigate other disabilities like seizure disorders. So a broad-brush ban on pit bulls, for instance, will not be tolerated.

PJ the service dog is accustomed to traveling with his owner. Image: Justin Yarbrough

The DOT is allowing some restrictions for flights over eight hours, such as prior notice and additional paperwork indicating that the animal will either not need to relieve itself or can do so in a way that won’t be a health hazard. I don’t bring PJ on long trips but I can understand why others might need to do so. An animal’s need to relieve itself can be controlled by restricting their food and water intake on the day of a flight. Relief harnesses, which attach to a dog’s waist, can also be purchased. These allow for a dog to relieve itself directly into a disposable bag.

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Additionally, the department is allowing airlines to set rules about the level of containment for animals, such as leashing, crating, and not allowing animals to take up other people’s foot space as long as the restrictions don’t prevent the animal from doing its job. As noted above, I always request a non-bulkhead window seat. When I get to my row, I remove PJ’s guiding harness, place it in the overhead bin, and back him into the row. He lays at my feet with his rear under the seat in front of me. I wrap his leash around my seat belt so he can’t wander off. If I’m sitting next to someone, I ask them to let me know if he intrudes into their foot space so I can move him.

While I’m fine with the rules regarding service dogs, I believe it’s a real shame that emotional support animals have been stigmatized to the point where their owners have to provide documentation from a mental health professional about their diagnosis and advance notice. I have a friend with an emotional support animal who pays the cabin pet fee for Kuchulu, her chihuahua mix, so that she doesn’t have to deal with the paperwork or disclose her diagnosis to bring him on trips. It’s shameful that some people took advantage of the system to avoid a fee, and caused those with legitimate needs to stop using a process meant for them.

Service animals allow people with disabilities a greater level of independence. I’m happy that the DOT’s enforcement priorities will allow service animal handlers to live full, independent lives including travel, while also balancing the need for safety involving those animals.

All images credited to the author, Justin Yarbrough

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11 Comments

  1. Raymond Larkin

    Bottomline ADA trumps all that you do not need to show anything only answer 2 questions.

    1. Is that a service dog
    2. What does he or she do for you

    That is it

  2. Diane

    Very well said. Thank you! I am continually embarrased when flying, shopping just everyday things others take for granted.

    • ADA does not apply to air travel (though it does in airports). The Air Carrier Access Act governs commercial airlines, and it gives the DOT a lot of leeway to craft enabling regulations. I practice and speak on service dog law.

      • Michael Ben-Yehuda

        I don’t understand how the airlines or DOT can demand documentation for something that doesn’t exist. Guide dogs (Seeing Eye Dogs) are the singular exception for requiring certification by a certified trainer due to the safety issues in relying on the dog for blind people. For all other service dogs, there is no legitimate uniform certification or registry process in the USA. The only “documentation” the handler can provide is their own affidavit that the animal is a service animal.
        The DOT or airlines cannot demand that you demonstrate a service animal’s trained special tasks, not can they demand the specific information about a handlers disability. HIPPA laws and the ADA prevent it, and it would be discriminatory.
        The airlines only flexibility is in observation of the service animal’s behavior. If they observe and document that the animal is behaving in a way that is disruptive or makes it unreasonable to think it will be able to comply with onboard movement restrictions, they can
        refuse cabin access.
        I think it is reasonable to give the airlines some notice that you are traveling with a service animal in order to manage seat assignments. I also think the airlines should contact travelers seated next to a service animal handler because of allergy or phobia and to avoid issues such as proximity to small children or other service animals.
        ESAs are a bigger problem because there is no specific training required. How do you distinguish an ESA from a pet?
        Although demonstrating service animal specific tasks can’t be required, I’m not opposed to being required to demonstrate all service animal and ESA basic obedience to the gate crew. It is reasonable to ensure passenger and flight crew safety that animals are non reactive and maintain down/stay with distractions.
        All the ID cards, “registration” and other certificates other than for Guide Dogs mean nothing.

  3. Charlie

    It’s very sad and disappointing you use an ID card with your service animal 🙁 It’s not required under the ADA and makes it so much harder for handlers that don’t use IDs because they will encounter more access issues since now businesses believe service dogs need an ID. It may be convenient for you but look at how many handlers you are hurting by doing so.

  4. Dawn

    You cannot ask for training papers or any documentation proving the animal is “certified”. That is illegal!! And you cannot restrict any breed from being a service animal. I have trained two of my own service dogs. My first was a Staffordshire Terrier and my current is a Pit Bull. They both have helped me with mobility issues. I have to live on a very meager disability check that is WELL BELOW the poverty line. I can’t afford to buy, or even wait for a service dog. I live alone and have no one to help me with taking care of myself, running errands and many doctor visits. Without her I couldn’t be as independent as I am. I live in a very dangerous city and I know my dog will do her best to keep me safe from people who would take advantage of my disability. How well she does her job is solely because she loves me and I would fight heaven or hell for her. She would fight just as hard and probably more so for me. We are one. I fight prejudices forced upon her. She fights for me to have a semi-normal and fulfilling life. If some one says I can’t take my dog into a store, flight, train, theater or anywhere else they are infringing on MY rights as a human being, not my dog’s rights. Delta HAD to stop breed restrictions because it was simply illegal. If we as disabled Americans give companies an inch they will take a mile. It wasn’t a win that they stopped breed restriction, it should never have been an issue to begin with. It’s a shame we have to fight over and over for what is already ours.

    • Katherine

      AMEN. YUP. I COMPLETELY UNDERSTAND. I HAVE A SERVICE DOG FOR THE SAME REASONS. LIFE IS DIFFICULT ENOUGH. BUT I LOVE HIM SO AND AM SO GRATEFUL FOR HIM. I’VE TRAINED HIM MYSELF FOR THE MOST PART AS WELL. BUT WOULD APPRECIATE ANY ADDITIONAL DIRECTION OR HELP.
      HOW DID YOU TRAIN YOUR DOG? LIKE I SAY I HAVE ALSO BUT ANY NEW RESOURCES MOST GRATEFULLY APPRECIATED. GOD BLESS YOU AND THANK YOU.

  5. Mike M

    My ex-wife has a seizure disorder and accidentally discovered her mother’s small dog is able to warn her of an impending seizure and alert her to sit, for safety and calm her. Unlike most other service dogs, dogs cannot be trained to detect seizures; either they have the ability or they don’t. It’s an innate talent. This has caused her trouble in better the dog registered. She is officially registered and wears a vest with a special patch sent to her by a seizure disorder organization and carries a registration card however she can’t get an official State of Michigan registration because they require that the dog to have been professionally trained to do the service for which they’re registered. To meet that requirement she’d have to send the dog away for a few months (and be without the dog’s services) and pay thousands of dollars. As she’s disabled and unable to work due to her condition, this is impractical not to mention beyond her means. I think in many cases these new rules have been hurriedly put in place, not considering unintended consequences, to rein in the onslaught of fake service animals (an emotional support Peacock on a plane!) and emotional support animals who are really nothing more than pets. These greedy people are causing unnecessary problems for the people who truly need these animals like Veterans with PTSD. Sad!

  6. Sabrina

    Dawn – your dog is not a service dog. It is a guard dog. Service dogs do not fight. I would not want to sit next to your dog on a plane, for fear of accidentally being bitten. This right here is exactly why there are rules and restrictions going into effect about what kind of animal may be brought into a confined space such as an airplane.