Traveling with a Service Dog


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First allow me to identify the difference between an Emotional Support Animal and a Service Dog because the difference changes the requirements for flying with your Service Dog.

An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is an animal that, by its very presence, mitigates the emotional or psychological symptoms associated with a handler's condition or disorder. The animal does NOT need to be trained to perform a disability-specific task. All domesticated animals (dogs, cats, birds, reptiles, hedgehogs, rodents, mini-pigs, etc.) may serve as an ESA. The only legal protections an Emotional Support Animal has are 1) to fly with their emotionally or psychologically disabled handler in the cabin of an aircraft and 2) to qualify for no-pet housing. No other public or private entity (motels, restaurants, stores, etc.) is required to allow your ESA to accompany you and in all other instances, your ESA has no more rights than a pet.

For flight, you'll need to contact your airline 48 hours in advance to report you will be traveling with an ESA. Every airline is different and will direct you to what documentation you will need to submit. Be prepared to present a letter to the airlines and property managers from a licensed mental health professional stating that you are emotionally disabled and that he/she prescribes for you an emotional support animal. Also be prepared for resistance. With all the recent fraudulent service animals claims, it's a struggle.

A Service Dog (which includes a variety of different specializations) is trained to perform a specific task for a disabled individual that they would otherwise have difficulty completing on their own. Amongst the different specializations for medical service dogs include Diabetic Alert Dogs, Severe Allergy Alert Dogs, Visual Assistance Dogs, Hearing Dogs for the Deaf, Wheelchair Assistance Dogs, Psychiatric Service Dogs, Brace/Mobility Support Dogs, Medical Alert Dogs, Seizure Assistance Dogs, and more. A medical alert service dog is often trained to alert their handler to dangerous physiological changes. A psychiatric service dog assist their handler with a psychiatric disability such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD via specific, trained tasks. 
All of the titles, distinguishing categories and types of Service Dogs have no bearing under federal law — a Service Dog is a Service Dog is a Service Dog.

The Law:
The first Federal legislation to directly address public access rights of people with disabilities who have service animals was the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986. The ACAA regulations provide one of the most specific statements of Federal policy regarding accommodation of service animals.
The act requires air carriers to permit service animals to accompany people with disabilities on flights
(14 CFR 382.55 (a)).
(1) Carriers shall accept as evidence that an animal is a service animal identification cards, other written documentation, presence of harnesses or markings on harnesses, tags, or the credible verbal assurances of the qualified handicapped person using the animal.
(2) Carriers shall permit a service animal to accompany a qualified handicapped individual in any seat which the person sits, unless the animal obstructs an aisle or other area that must remain unobstructed in order to facilitate an emergency evacuation.
(3) In the event that special information concerning the transportation of animals outside the continental United States is either required to be or is provided by the carrier, the information shall be provided to all passengers traveling outside the continental United States with the carrier, including those traveling with service animals.
Service animals are also referenced in the act's regulations regarding seat assignments and clarifies that in the case that the service animal cannot be accommodated at the seat location of his/her human companion, the carrier must offer the passenger the opportunity to move with the animal to another seat as an alternative to requiring the animal to travel with checked baggage (14 CFR 382.37(c)).
The Air Carrier Access Act prohibits discrimination in air transportation by domestic and foreign air carriers against qualified individuals with physical or mental impairments.


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 the airline first!

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My Service Dog:
Jake has been identified as a Medical Alert Service Dog. He is trained to perform specific tasks and alert me to physiological changes. Discussing my disability is a bit dreadful but just be aware, that by by law, under the Americans with Disability (ADA), you do not have to discuss the specifics of your disability. Additionally, under the The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), the law prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in air travel.

For flight, Jake wears an identifying harness clearly marked with "Service Dog" and has an identification badge. Additionally we travel with a Pet Passport which includes his health certificate, vaccinations, and training certifications. I encourage you to bring any and all documents that you can to battle the resistance. 

Arriving at the Airport: 
When you arrive at the airport, you might be asked to explain your need for a service dog or what the dog is trained to perform for you. You are not required to discuss your disability, you can simply inform them what type of service your pup provides (example: he is a medical alert service dog or he is a psychiatric service dog). Specifically, there are two questions that they are allowed to ask: 1) they may ask if the dog is a service animal that is required due to a disability and, 2) what type of work or task the dog has been trained to do.

Your service dog must also be clearly identified as a service dog by one of the following: service animal identification cards, other written documentation, presence of harnesses or markings on harnesses, tags, or the credible verbal assurances of the qualified disabled person using the animal. Again, check with your airline before flight to determine what you need to do to make your flight with your Service Dog smooth.

Warning: people want to and will approach your dog, reach for your dog, allow their children to approach and reach for your dog, ask you very private questions, gawk and point at you, whisper, and ask more private questions. I recommend you add a "Do Not Pet Me" or "Pet Me" patch on your harness. But still be prepared for comments, questions, and conversation.
Common questions: Is he yours? What's wrong with you? What does he do? Why do you need him?

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On the Plane:
You will be given the opportunity to board the plane first if you need a little bit of extra time to get your Service Dog settled. Many airlines will move you to a bulkhead seat to give you and your Service Dog a little bit more room. If not, have your Service Dog lay at your feet under the seats (there is more room down there for them than you think ~ Jake is almost 70 pounds and fits comfortable and is not bothered by the small space).

I always ask my seat mate if they're allergic to or fear dogs. I've never gotten a "yes" but if I did, I'd ask the flight attendant to move us. Bring along some cookies or a favorite toy for your dog. While they might experience a little bit of ear discomfort, your Service Dog should be well trained enough to remain calm during your flight. Jake will shake his head a little indicating ear discomfort so I either rub them or give him a treat so he'll swallow (just as when we swallow it helps clear our ears). I try to limit his treats (and water) during longer flights so he doesn't need to potty (many airports now have relief areas BTW; here's an airport relief area list by state).

International Travel:
Not every country recognizes Service Animals. Outside of the U.S., Service Animal travel is still fairly uncommon. Regulations are specific to each country so depending on your destination, you will want to ensure you meet their specific requirements. Often you will need a very specific health certificate, current rabies vaccinations, a micro-chip, and sometimes even an import permit. Here is a great by country list for animal travel. There are also banned breeds in certain countries.

If you are 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. Additionally, there might be specific vaccinations or other requirements that you and your dog must meet.

For Travel to Italy: 
Because this is where our expertise lies, here is what you need for travel to Italy:

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1 - Microchip - an ISO 11784/11785 compliant 15 digit pet microchip. We actually have an 8 digit microchip so our first trip (when we moved here) I rented a microchip scanner. We never needed it. Since, we've traveled back and forth and never needed anything more than proof (the certificate) that he indeed has a microchip and was scanned prior to his rabies shot.
2 - Vaccinations - and more specifically, you need proof that your pup has had his rabies vaccination (either the 1 year one or the 3 year one).
3 - Rabies Titer Test - ONLY IF you are entering Italy from a high rabies country. The U.S.A. is NOT a high rabies country.
4 - Health Certificate - this is the most important one that every personnel in the airport wants to examine (even though I'm certain they have no idea what they're looking at)... But this is the big deal that you NEED before leaving and you need it within 10 days of travel. It's not so hard, just listen:
  • Go to your licensed vet and have them complete this: non-commercial EU health certificate for Italy within 10 days of travel. (you can also get this document for FREE if you reach out to your nearest USDA person). Important: your vet must be accredited by the USDA.
  • Since you contacted your nearest USDA person like I suggested ^ you will have their contact info and specifics of what to do next: still easy, deliver the health certificate to the USDA official because the health certificate must be endorsed by the State USDA office.
    • If the health certificate was completed by a military Veterinary Corps Officer or GS-0701 series civilian government veterinarian employed by the military it does NOT need to be endorsed by the USDA office.
The health certificate is your dogs ticket (AKA passport) for entering Italy. And have no fear if you're entering the EU in another country (for example, I arrive in Munich or Amsterdam depending what state I'm flying from) - it's OKAY! This health certificate gets you in! 
Most most most important: call your airlines, every single one of them, not just your biggest flight, all of your connection airlines too, and TELL THEM you'll be traveling with your service dog. They will ask for this health certificate. With this document, send them any other documents you have too (training certification, letter from doctor if ESA, etc) - just to be safe.

Returning to the states is as easy as pie. There is nothing more you need to do. Just let the airlines know you'll be traveling with a service dog and have all of his documents readily available for all the personnel to look at (17 times) ;)
Customs will look through your documents upon arrival and stamp you right back in! 

Conclusion:
If your Service Dog is trained as he/she should be, you should not experience any problems. Your first flight together might be a little nerve racking since you do not know how your dog will react to the new environment, sounds, and smells ~ he/she IS a dog and it's OKAY. Just relax and stay calm and so will your Service Dog ~ he/she feeds off of your vibe. Do not worry about how you will be perceived or judged by others; they do not know you or your situation.

Be calm and be confident with your Service Dog and enjoy the opportunity to travel.

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Please note that this information pertains to traveling with a SERVICE DOG. The guidelines for traveling with a pet are different. We have flown and traveled all over the world; if you have any questions for specific country requirements or concerns, don't hesitate to message me!!

For more information about certifying your Service Dog, check out Service Dog Express