Are Service Dogs Ruining Airlines Or Are They Legit?

Service animals fly for free

It is common knowledge that service animals, such as guide dogs for the blind, provide a valuable service for their humans. These animals help their owners to get where they need to go and do what they need to do. They also help to keep their owners safe by sensing and responding to emergencies. Along with blind people, service dogs (or miniature horses) often accompany deaf and wheelchair-bound individuals, as well as people with seizure disorders.

Traveling by plane with a service animal

When traveling by plane, most people that wish to take their animals with them must have them placed in an airline hold or buy an extra seat. Whichever route you choose, fees to travel with pets can be steep.

Service animals, however, are exempt from this law. Owners do not have to pay fees when traveling with their animals. The accompaniment of a service animal cannot be refused by the airline, either. This makes sense: service animals provide a necessary service to their humans — sometimes saving their lives.

Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)

However, there is a murkier category of animals often traveling by air these days, and that’s Emotional Support Animals, also known as an ESAs. Under the current guidelines, emotional support animals can be virtually any animal.

These animals do not have to provide any specific service aside from, as their name implies, emotional support. Someone who is diagnosed with depression, anxiety, PTSD, phobias, stress disorders or certain other conditions can apply to have their pet registered as an Emotional Support Animal. If the pet is registered, they are allowed to travel with their human for free.

This practice makes sense in a lot of ways. Animals can be extremely helpful to people suffering from psychological and emotional disorders. For just one example, someone who has panic attacks on a flight may be soothed by their furry friend and avoid a nightmare traveling experience. If a person has a special bond with an animal, that bond may be a saving grace in facing psychological problems and getting through day-to-day life smoothly. I truly feel for these people and understand the need for these types of animals to be able to travel with their owners unrestricted.

Misuse of service animal law

Some people make their pets look like service animals

However, there’s a problem. There has recently been a great deal of fraud surrounding the issue of both service animals and Emotional Support Animals. Many people who want to travel with their pets will disguise their pet as one or the other. Some people buy their dogs vests that look like service animal vests. Others have been passing off their regular pets as Emotional Support Animals. The prevalence of this problem has left airlines understandably vexed and a solution has not been easy to find.

Brian Skewis, executive officer of the California State Board of Guide Dogs for the Blind, says, “I see more violations than legitimate use of service dogs in public. A drastic majority of what I’ve observed in airports is misuse of the service dog law.”

Ambiguous laws make cracking down tough

Rod Haneline, chief programs and services officer for Rochester’s Leader Dogs for the Blind, agrees. He states, “The law is so ambiguous the airlines don’t know what side to come down on. Everyone is afraid of the ramifications of not allowing someone equal access.”

On this matter, Haneline adds:

“It’s the Wild West. Animals are much more connected to our daily lives, and the last thing people want to do is put their dog into a pet carrier and put them in the hold of an airplane. This is kind of an easy way to (avoid that) without paying.”

The delicate nature of the situation

Its easy to commit fraud with a service animal

The Department of Transportation has had some discussions about this matter. But as of right now, there has been no consensus. No timeline is in place for nailing down approaches to the issue of fraud.

It’s easy to see the delicate nature of the situation: denying equal access to someone with a legitimate need for a service or ESAs would be unacceptable. However, the way that the law is now, people can easily slip their pets by the radar.

What do you think: Should there be more stringent requirements for service animals and ESAs at the airport? How might we go about this scenario in a way that’s fair to people who really need their animals on board?

– Tanya Mead

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  1. John Davis says

    REALLY. I have a solution. Pull up your big girl/boy panties and get a grip. Either stay home with your ESA or fly without it. Airlines won’t serve peanuts lest they expose some other sissy to peanut dust in the air. But what about pet dander, dog farts, iguana shit, etc. Let’s all just grow up a little bit and quit adding to the pussification of America.

  2. Pat says

    I agree with John Davis, the rules should be well defined for the protection with pet dander allergies. I am one of those people and had to reschedule a flight because there were five animals on the flight. I also developed histoplasmosis which is caused by bird/bath droppings. Breathing in recirculated air and animal fur is not an enjoyable experience for people with allergies.
    No matter the animal, it can be a labeled as a “comfort animal”. There should be certain days that people can travel with their animals. This new law is just an excuse for people to avoid boarding fees while on vacation.

  3. Alan Hastings says

    Clearly you do not have a medical condition where you need a service dog and you do not care about people that do have serious medical conditions in which their service dog alerts them to an oncoming problem in time for their owner to take needed life saving measures..
    I have diabetes and my blood sugar is prone to drop very fast and I am not aware that I am in danger of going into a diabetic coma. In the past 3 years my service dog has alerted me that my blood sugar had drooped dangerously low. I carry glucose tablets with me all the time but if it were not for my service dog I would be unaware that I needed to chew some. She will even wake me up at night when my sugar is either to low or to high. She even lets me know when my blood pressure gets dangerously high so I can take my meds for that. I feel sorry for someone so heartless and lacking of understanding as you are. So far there has been 15 times that she has woke me up in the middle of the night and let me know that my blood sugar was way to low. If she had not woken me up I would have drifted off into a coma and died. I have not bothered to count the times when I was awake that she alerted me to a medical problem.Mr Davis I hope that you never have a medical condition where you need a service dog to help keep you alive but if you ever do develop one I am sure your whole attitude would change.

  4. John Davis says

    Clearly you failed to notice that I specified Emotional Support Animals. And just FYI I used to be diabetic. My blood sugar levels were 400+ a year and a half ago. I took charge of my own life and made drastic changes to my diet and lifestyle. Today my blood sugar levels never rise above 85-90 and as of my last blood test my A1c was 5.0. And I did it without ever taking my dog on a plane, or anywhere else because he’s a dog. If I can do it then it’s obviously not magic. It’s just necessity.

  5. Alan Hastings says

    I am glad that you were able to get your diabetes under control with life style changes. I have tried my best to get mine under control and have been able to keep it from getting over 160 but nothing that I have tried has stopped the sudden drops in my blood sugar. I have consulted several Dr s And people in the alternative medical fields and they all have told me there is nothing that I can do to stop the sudden drops without causing my sugar to sky rocket out of control. I was told that that something causes my pancreas to suddenly produce a large amount of insulin and dump it into my blood at times.while most of the time it produces very little at all. None of the health care personal can explain what causes this to happen, but when it does my sugar will drop from 120 to 50 in a matter of minutes.My service dog has always alerted me before it got lower than that but there have been a few times it got much lower before the glucose took effect. You are right in that I did not notice that you only spoke of ESA.. I do not believe that most people that claim to need them really do but I do know a young teenage girl that used to get really bad panic attacks (she had been abused badly as a very young child) she has a ESA that knows when she is about to have an attack and it gets her to leave the situation she is in and go to somewhere she can calm down.

  6. Eco Maniac says

    Well put!!
    People only see their own needs and refuse to see the abuses of others using this law and how we are negatively affected. Guess we have no rights .
    She rewrote the whole article again with her story and did not listen to your complaint at all …

  7. John Davis says

  8. Alan Hastings says

    I will be getting in touch with you for the information you are willing to share with me. Thank you very much.

  9. Alan Hastings says

    While rereading the post I really can not honestly say that I take my service dog on airplanes except for the one time I had a heart attack and had to be airlifted from Colby Ks to Hays Ks where they had a cardio unit. She stayed on the bed with me for the whole time I was in the hospital. Within two days the staff would all want to be the one that took her outside when she needed to relieve herself. She won all their hearts over and the Doctors said that the bond between my service dog and myself did as much or more to help me recover from a near fatal heart attack , than everything the medical staff did for me.

  10. Yasmedic says

    As a paramedic with over 14 years of experience, I find people like you downright comical. ESA dogs help people who suffer from mental illness the same way that working dogs help people with physical disabilities. After all, mental illness IS a disability and a real illness. Something you obviously do not understand.

    After years of treating people with panic attacks I suffered one myself years ago. I can tell you that they are not fun. It hit me out of no where and for no apparent reason while in a theater enjoying a movie. Even though I haven’t had another one again, I can relate to those who suffer from frequent panic attacks and I can see how their animals help them. My dog helped get through mine. And guess what, the causes of anxiety attacks, like many other mental illness, are unknown. There are some hypothesis but no one knows for sure what causes them.. And yes, they are real, brain scans and and brain chemical analysis proof it. These are not people just being “pussies” and acting up.

    To say that people need to grow up and stop adding to the pussification of America only shows your vast level of ignorance regarding mental illness. I have found from dealing with thousands of psych patients that those who attack people with mental illness are often undiagnosed or in denial mentally ill people themselves. Perhaps too afraid of those that deep inside reminds them of themselves. In your case it is easy to see that you have some anger issues that you project into others by projecting a sense of superiority. So get yourself some help because your macho man, grow some balls, attitude will one day get you killed. And like Betty White once said, “Why do people say, ‘grow some balls?’ Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.” See, pussies are tougher than balls after all, aren’t they? Haha!

  11. Yasmedic says

    You want a solution? Well, here it is. Part of the problem is that Federal laws prohibits people from asking for proof (certification) that your dog really is a service dog or what medical condition you have that justifies having a service animal with you. The DOJ has a brochure in their site you can print to give to store managers or people who ask you for proof that your dog is a working dog. It talks about what they can and can not ask.

    If I had a working dog or a therapy dog, why would it bother me if someone asked me for certification? I wouldn’t have a problem what so ever. Even though carrying a letter would be a pain in the rear and could easily be ruined, having some form of card that easily fits in a wallet or purse would be ideal and easy to carry.

    The real solution is to allow people to ask for the dog’s certification for working dogs and letter(s) from therapist(s) with a doctorate degree certifying that the person that owns the dog suffers from a medical condition and benefits from having the animal with them.

    The letter should contain the name and a description of the dog. It should also expired two years from the date it was written. Of course, whoever is asking for proof for certification must have legit reasons for asking. Like a security guard or employees of business where the person wants to enter with the dog. People walking down the street or having no real reason for asking for certification would still be prohibited from requesting certification.

    I understand that some people with physical disabilities could experience problems pulling out the certificate (card or letter) every time someone asks for certificate. For some it could be a hassle. The solutions is simple. The dog’s vest could have a pocket with a clear plastic window that would display a service or ESA ID on the vest that is easily visible to others.

    Oh, in addition and to protect people’s medical privacy, the dog’s ID cards or therapist letters should not display why the person needs a dog. What medical condition the person suffers from is none of their business. Just that the dog is a certified working dog or therapy dog.

  12. Veritas Vos Liberabit says

    It absolutely needs to be regulated to protect the future of working service dog teams. Self regulation within the responsible service dog community may have worked ok in the past, but the fuzzy laws involved in ESAs as a sort of loophole in real SD law has created a new situation that will have to be addressed. Every time another article goes out discussing how easy it is to fake it it just inspires more people to do it, & inspires more disdain & mistrust towards legitimate teams.

    As an SD handler ive never had any issues with travel, but the years of training (& regular upkeep) show & are the reason we’re more often complimented than questioned. Airline & TSA agents always comment on working skills, calm & focus etc as if it was unusual, when it should be just the basic standard! Ideally no one should even notice shes there (& often dont).

    SD task & public access training is already advanced, navigating a busy terminal, security inspection, & claustrophobic flight even more so, so allowing a completely untrained animal into the same situation (as an ESA) is just ridiculous. Its no wonder they’re destroying the reputation of all service dogs with public incidents, its like asking your toddler to file your tax returns, theyre in way over their heads!

    Establishing a national ID would just be rationally akin to requiring procuring an official placard to use a handicap parking spot. It would differ from say obtaining a drivers license because I dont believe there would be an agreable or affordable way to enforce any sort of testing (yet) but simply employing an official registry for SDs would be a step in the right direction, and at least relegate ESAs on species & location (housing not air travel).

    Presenting ID may have been considered a hassle & equality issue before, but the proliferation of untrained illegitimate support creatures of all species has created a scenario where I for one would be relieved to have a card system in place. It would certainly cut down on the discomfort of having so many people leering & just assuming you might be either fake or nuts if the public could just be assured only properly credentialed animals could make it past the gate.

  13. Veritas Vos Liberabit says

    Also businesses need more support in learning & applying the laws. Everyone has seen headlines about businesses being exposed & boycotted for denying access, so most have such a great fear of being publicly martyred they instruct employees to just accept all inappropriate situations- wandering out of control, peeing in aisles, showing aggression etc.,… ive seen them all, and when i approached employees with my trained SD about another animal growling or crapping or even trying to attack us they always say theyre terrified of getting fired & have been told to look the other way as long as its claimed to be a SD (or often dont even know that an ESA does not legally have public access rights). This informational abyss has greatly contributed to the proliferation of bullsh*t paid registries & pet posers (& an official national system could at least partially put an end to the abuse & confusion)

  14. Veritas Vos Liberabit says

    Absolutely, I wish someone in power would start working on a solution to unite the SD community. Support animal rules may have been carved out in attempt to help people, but unfortunately the lack of regulation & training with ESAs has actually done more to hurt the cause of recognizing, respecting & normalizing mental health issues & treatments.

    Having a companion animal is a wonderfully effective treatment for many people with manageable psych issues, but i believe they made a mistake in just pulling everyone under the umbrella of ADA law. A bit of aging related arthritis doesnt warrant one taking a handicap parking spot from someone with say severe rheumatoid arthritis in a wheelchair. ADA protection is about disability, and if a person has a psych condition serious enough to impair their daily life then they should go through the full public access & personalized task training & be respected as a legitimate service dog team no different from any other. Allowing these untrained comfort pets in public has just singled out & delegitimized all well trained psych dog teams

  15. KatWrangler says

    I finally got my BS under control, and have had a few episodes where my BS drops to dangerous levels. with no warning, too. Believe it or not, my cat Gracie has the ability to make sure I know I’m in danger. She gets in my face and paws me until I respond. And ONLY does this at these times. One morning it got down to 28, and she would not stop until I was able to get moving. Now it’s so funny – sometimes I wake up and her tiny pink nose is in my face, sniffing <3 checking me out. Gracie is not trained to do this.

  16. KatWrangler says

    Everyone he makes excellent points. I don’t like over-regulation, but in a world that’s been lacking integrity for some time, regulations are necessary . We can thank those who abuse people’s and businesses consideration. The Honor System is fading away.
    I flew from Phoenix to Newark and had to put two cats in the belly, and I sure could have used a comfort animal that flight – I was a basket case, worrying about them. They, thankfully, were fine.

  17. Alan Hastings says

    I am glad that you got your BS under control. My dog was not trained to detect changes in my blood sugar or my blood pressure. It was all the other requirements that Service animals have to meet to be certified that she had to be trained for. If it were not for the fact that for over 40 years I have trained other dogs for different tasks and knew howto train dogs, I could never have afforded to gotten her certified. Professional dog trainers charge several thousand dollars to train service animals. I was given a huge list of tasks that she would have to preform in order for her to get certified. While I was training her she had to wear a vest stating service dog in training. I had to have a statement from my Dr stating that she witnessed my dog preform a medical service for me to get the process started.What was the greatest part about the process she seemed to love doing the training it was like her greatest joy in life was making me happy and proud of her. I have owned a lot of great dogs during my life but she has proven to be the most easy to train of all that I have ever had. That is saying a lot because every dog I have ever owned listened to me really good.
    I took her to the vet last month for a check up and shots. The vet said that he had never seen more love in a dogs eyes than when Brownie would look at me.

  18. KatWrangler says

    I LOVE reading about dogs and cats that make our lives so, so much better. What would we do without our companion’s LOVE? Brownie sounds awesome.
    Like Gracie, I would swear they are more than just “animals”. You CAN see it in their eyes <3

    I only mentioned Gracie isn't trained because it's not unheard of, but not many cats do what she can do. But I do read about them around the country.

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