Response to DOT Proposed Changes When Flying with Service Dogs or Emotional Support Animals
Updated: Feb 8
*The changes have been decided as of Jan. 2021. See more here.*
The DOT has a proposal to change how service dogs and Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) are handled in regards to flying through commercial means. The period to comment ends April 6, 2020 at 11:59pm Eastern Time. If you want to see more about the proposed changes or comment, you can go to https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=DOT-OST-2018-0068-12959.
I'm sharing my comment with you both to get this information out there and to help others figure out some good ways to respond to these proposed changes.
The TL:DR Summary:
I suggest the proposed rule-making is changed as follows:
Emotional Support Animals are restricted to dogs and must require a muzzle
No paperwork should be required of a service dog and their partner
If paperwork is wanted, then an acknowledgment of liability can be required to be signed before boarding the plane (not before)
For larger service dogs, passengers should either be rearranged or asked to forfeit a seat so that the service dog partner can have an empty seat next to them
If someone must be removed from a flight (either the service dog partner or another passenger), compensation should be offered, as the law requires
No observation period or extra time should be required of a service dog and their partner
Credentials & Wording:
My name is Jenny Stamm, CPDT-KA, CTDI, CCDT, AKC CGC Evaluator. I am a professional service dog trainer, a service dog handler, and an anthrozoologist studying at Canisius College.
I first acted as a professional dog trainer around 15 years ago and became a full-time dog trainer in 2014. While I have trained dogs for a variety of reasons, my specialty has always been service dogs for those with invisible disabilities. In order to be considered a Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge-Assessed (CPDT-KA), I was first required to have at least 300 hours of dog training experience as well as pass a rigorous test. After receiving my certification in 2016, I have since been required to keep my knowledge of dog training and behavior fresh with Continuing Education Units (CEUs).
I got my first service dog, a mixed breed rescue, in 2008 and am currently on my third service dog. I just started using a cane this past November, but before that, I was invisibly disabled and know what it is like for people with service dogs to travel and receive public access denials.
My last major credential is as an anthrozoologist. Anthrozoology is a fairly new area of science that focuses on human-animal interactions. My specialty focus has been on service dogs. My capstone research project is also going to be related to service dogs, so I know much of the research that currently exists on service dogs.
Throughout my response to this proposal, I will call the disabled person who has a service dog a service dog partner or simply partner and the disabled person who has an emotional support animal the handler.
Supported Parts of Proposition
I want to start by applauding the inclusion of psychiatric service dogs into the general category of service dogs as they are trained to mitigate disabilities just like any other service dog. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability” (Department of Justice, 2011) while that same document says that Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) are not service animals.
Disallowing the restriction of service animals by breed is also a good step. When looking for aggressive behaviors, dogs need to be considered individuals as any breed can be aggressive and cause injury to others (Collier, 2006; Monti, 2007). Pitbulls, Dombermans, mixes, and even dogs that look like bully breed mixes are not necessarily more aggressive than any other breeds. In fact, one study found that more labrador retrievers caused injury to humans than other breeds, including the pit bull terrier (Collier, 2006).
I also support limiting the number of service animals one passenger can have to two animals. It is uncommon enough for one person to need and use two service animals. The most common pair of service animals is a guide dog (or guide miniature horse) and a service dog for another disability. While the ADA allows multiple service animals, the benefit of service animals past the first one would decrease as each animal requires some attention. Service dogs are also known to know and respond to over 50 commands. So, any concerns regarding the necessity of a third animal should be able to be put to rest as two dogs can be trained to aid all kinds of disabilities.
Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)
1. Why ESAs?
Emotional Support Animals (ESAs), as has been mentioned, do not require any specific training. While their owners are required to have a psychiatric disability, I can understand how the number of complaints—70-115 complaints every year from 2015-2018 (Office of the Secretary (OST) & U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), 2020)—leads to deciding to treat them as pets or at least require a fee for them. However, ESAs are an important coping mechanism some people require to travel by plane.
Aviophobia is a true, disabling fear of flying. In a study that looked at a population of 976 people to determine reliability of a measure of aviophobia, 10% were determined to have aviophobia (Skolnick et al., 2012). Aviophobia has extreme effects on people, including turning down lucrative job offers and, when they are required to fly, they often have days or weeks of persistent agitation before the flight and are only able to fly through the use of tranquilizers (Bor & Kahr, 2004). As tranquilizers can have many unwanted effects, being able to bring an ESA can make a huge difference for these people.
Of course, the problem with ESAs is that, because of the lack of training, they have caused many problems, including injuries, to both other passengers and staff such as flight attendants. Perhaps restricting to dogs and requiring a muzzle (which does require special training) could help prevent at least some of the injuries that are currently occurring while still allowing those who need an ESA to travel by plane.
2. Inconsistencies within Airports
The ADA only allows dogs and some miniature horses that are specifically trained to help mitigate their partner’s specific disability to have access to public locations that are normally not pet friendly (Department of Justice, 2011). This means that airports are covered by the ADA while airplanes are covered by the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). That can lead to awkward situations such as an ESA being allowed to walk through the airport to get to their plane, but not being allowed in a restaurant within the airport (Department of Justice, 2011; Office of the Secretary (OST) & U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), 2020).
Since ESAs are not trained, this restriction makes sense. If ESAs must be dogs and are required to be muzzled, that makes it easy for airport personnel to differentiate between ESAs and service dogs (who would not be muzzled). The proposed change to the rules (ESAs must be dogs and must be muzzled) would help clarify the difference between ESAs and service dogs visually.
Service Dogs & Human Partners
The proposed changes to how fully-trained service dogs will be treated has several problems, as well. The proposal, as it is, discriminates against service dog partners with dogs over about 40 lbs., those who have little income, and all service dog partners in general.
1. Sizes of Service Dogs
Currently, it is proposed that if a service dog cannot fit completely at their partner’s feet, there are three other options: if the plane is not full, the flight crew will move other passengers so there is an empty seat next to the service dog partner; the service dog may be put in the cargo hold for the flight; if the other two are impossible/denied, then the service dog and their partner will be removed from the flight and put on a later flight “if available” (Office of the Secretary (OST) & U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), 2020).
By requiring service dogs to be able to fit at a single passenger’s feet, this proposal limits a large percentage of service dog partners. While the number of smaller breeds used for service dogs is increasing, the majority of service dogs are medium or large dogs, including Labrador and golden retrievers as the most common breeds and mixes (Dollion et al., 2019; LaFollette et al., 2019; Otto et al., 2019). This means that the current proposition will affect the majority of service dog partners.
a. Empty Seat Next to Service Dog Partner
These days, many (if not most) flights are overbooked, with as many as 150 tickets sold to 100 open seats, as a standard practice (Lusinski, 2019). Lusinski explains how it is common practice to have a full plane and request passengers to voluntarily move to a later flight for some form of compensation. Passengers who are involuntarily removed from a flight are legally entitled to compensation (up to $1,350 for domestic flights and $700 for European flights) (Nielsen as cited in Lusinski, 2019).
This means that procedures already exist for asking for passengers to get off an overfull flight, which should include if the airplane does not have an open seat to offer next to the service dog partner. The argument that airlines make that flight crew need to take the time to rearrange seats (Office of the Secretary (OST) & U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), 2020) does not apply as, with the new law, a service dog partner is required to have an empty seat next to them, which will require moving passengers around anyway.
b.Service Dogs in the Cargo Hold
The option to allow a too-large service dog to be placed in the cargo hold for a flight makes no sense. First, crates of various sizes would need to be kept by the airlines at every single airport as no dog, no matter how well-trained, should be transported without some kind of restraint (normally, a leash when with their partner). This means that the airlines will actually be put out a significant amount of money. According to a quick Google search, a Medium travel crate is around $65, a Large travel crate is an average of about $125, and an Extra Large/Jumbo travel crate is around $200. Each airline would need to have at least one of each size, though they would probably need more, which is a significant investment with how many airports exist in the United States alone.
Even if the airlines decide to get the crates, keep them at each airport, and make sure that they are cleaned (and sanitized) between each service dog placed in them, travel in a cargo hold is dangerous. While the percentage of deaths and injuries, overall, is approximately 0.01 (Department of Transportation, 2016, as cited in Peachman, 2017), service dogs are costly to train and/or acquire (Wirth & Rein, 2008). So any chance of a service dog—which is considered medical equipment, just as an oxygen tank is—being injured, let alone killed, in a cargo hold is too much.
c. Removal from Flight
If no one else is willing to give up their seat and the partner, rightfully, refuses the offer to put their service dog in the cargo hold, then the current proposal says the service dog and their partner will be removed from the flight and put on a later flight “if available.” It is discriminatory to force a service dog partner to leave their flight with no compensation. As stated above, the law already exists that passengers removed forcibly from flights will receive compensation up to $1,350 (Nielsen as cited in Lusinski, 2019).
The main argument against larger service dogs is that it causes extra work for the flight crew as they have to move other passengers around or that it causes passengers to feel pressured by being asked if they are okay sharing their foot room with a dog in front of others (Office of the Secretary (OST) & U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), 2020). By requiring an empty seat or a willing fellow passenger in the seat next to the service dog partner, no extra work will be required as seats may be rearranged regardless. Also, to avoid making other passengers feel like they’re being put on the spot, the passenger who is seated next to the service dog partner can be called up to the desk prior to boarding.
If the passenger who is seated next to the service dog partner is not comfortable with dogs, then every passenger should be offered the chance to volunteer to give up a seat for compensation. If it cannot be determined, then the service dog partner (or another passenger) can be forcibly removed from the flight with compensation, as the law states.
2. Required Paperwork
The proposed changes to the law will require all service dog partners to submit a behavior attestation, a health certificate from a veterinarian, and an attestation that the service dog will not relieve itself if a flight is longer than 8 hours. This puts an undue burden on the disabled service dog partner, as even the Department of Transportation admits (Office of the Secretary (OST) & U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), 2020) and it will be ineffective.
An attestation of behavior is unhelpful for service dogs. Either the partner signs the form stating that the dog is trained and medically required or a dog trainer would need to sign it. If the partner signs the form, then it can be faked as easily as buying a photo ID off the internet. If a dog trainer is required to sign the form, there will be no way to trust the form as most dog trainers have no experience with service dogs and what is considered “acceptable” for a service dog varies, even among the large organizations that breed and train service dogs. So, any form requiring an attestation of behavior is useless and should not be required.
A health form, signed by a veterinarian, requires disabled partners to (possibly) pay to see a veterinarian with their dog, which is an undue financial burden that no other fully-abled passenger is required to do. Even if the service dog partner gets the form, a form filled out and signed by a veterinarian does not prove that the service dog will be healthy on the flight itself. There are also no statistics on service animals transmitting diseases to other airline passengers, suggesting that a veterinary health form is unnecessary, again adding to the undue burden put on service dog partners.
Another problem with the proposed health form is that it is asking the veterinarian to attest to the behavior of the service dog. However, most veterinarians do not have much, if any, training in dog behavior and, while qualified to discuss an animal’s physical health, they are unqualified to comment on whether a service dog displays any aggressive (or other unwanted) behavior. Veterinary behaviorists are the ones who have both a DVM and further training in behavior (Cole, 2010), but they are even more expensive due to their extensive training (Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), n.d.) and almost always specialize in bad aggression or fear cases (FAQ, n.d.). By requesting a non-behavior-specialized veterinarian to sign off on this, they may be more hesitant to sign the paperwork, leading to long delays and/or having more unscrupulous veterinarians signing forms regardless.
The last proposed form, an attestation that a service dog can hold its bladder and bowels if on a flight for over 8 hours, has the same problems as above. The form takes the disabled partner’s confirmation that their service dog will “hold it” for the length of the flight. The partner’s confirmation of that is useless as anyone can sign that. The only way to truly prove a service dog’s ability to hold it for 8+ hours would be to have the dog boarded somewhere with 24/7 supervision, which is expensive and, thus, another financial burden placed on the disabled partner.
Therefore, no paperwork should be required for service dogs flying on domestic flights. However, to lessen the risks of airlines and staff, a form could be required to be signed that states that a service dog partner understands that any damage or injury caused by their service dog will be their responsibility to cover. The problem with this is that, by requiring it to be signed early, it puts a huge burden on the disabled partner. An online form that must be signed before boarding (as opposed to 24 or 48 hours prior to the flight) allows the form to be signed even when at the gate using a smart phone or airline computer/tablet, so that doesn’t put too much of a burden on the disabled partner.
3. 1 Hour Extra Required
The proposed changes to the law will require all service dog partners to arrive to the airport to check-in one hour before the general public is required to check-in. The way the proposed law is worded allows for people running late, as long as the airline “can do so by making reasonable accommodations efforts, without delaying the flight” (Office of the Secretary (OST) & U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), 2020). However, it requires passengers flying with pets to go through a similar or stricter process and to have personnel trained to understand any service dog paperwork as well as dog behavior.
Learning to correctly recognize dog body language requires “advanced experience or training in canine behavior” (Loyer & Foster, 2019). In order to train staff to the level to be able to correctly recognize signs of aggression, as separate from signs of general nervousness, distress, or even excitement, it would cost a lot of money and time for the airlines. Most likely, airlines would have a couple of staff members watch a few videos and then have them observe these dogs without truly understanding what is being conveyed. This is not only useless, it can be harmful if the staff member misinterprets behavior shown by the dog.
The other problem with requiring an extra, supervised hour is that it will increase the amount of time required for a disabled partner to get to and take a flight. As disabled people with special equipment (including service dogs) are generally required to be at the airport at least 45 minutes ahead of time already, adding another hour significantly increases the burden placed on the disabled service dog partner. Having the time be supervised also means that the disabled person will most likely be stressed by the observation and it adds an hour of time where the staff member watching the service dog and service dog partner cannot do anything else.
Therefore, allowing airlines to require service dog partners to arrive an hour earlier than the general public is expensive, unable to meet its reason for being, and an undue burden on the disabled service dog partner.