For flight passengers that travel with dogs, there were significant new regulatory developments in 2021. Most notably, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) overhauled its rules for traveling with assistance animals, and airlines acted quickly to adapt.
That has led to confusion for travelers with dogs that are emotional support animals (ESAs), psychiatric service dogs (PSDs), or regular pets. In this article, we’ll explain the current state of affairs and provide a clear guide to flying stress-free with your dog in compliance with the latest rules.
If you’re new to flying with a dog, it’s normal to feel anxious about how things will go. The trick to having a smooth experience at the airport and during your flight is preparation: you want to make sure all of your documents are in order, and you’re familiar with the rules well before your trip. By the end of this article, you’ll be traveling with your dog like a pro.
- Flying with an Emotional Support Animal
- Benefits of Flying with a Psychiatric Service Dog
- How to Qualify for a Psychiatric Service Dog
- Training Requirements for Psychiatric Service Dogs
- DOT Form for Psychiatric Service Dogs
- Other Ways Airline Staff Can Verify a PSD
- Flying with a Pet
- Practical Tips for Flying with your Dog
- Final Thoughts
1. Flying with an Emotional Support Animal
If you own an emotional support animal, the latest DOT rules were an unwelcome change. As of March 2021, virtually every U.S. airline has stopped recognizing emotional support animals. That means that your emotional support dog can no longer fly in the cabin. ESAs are also no longer exempt from other animal policies, such as those relating to size, weight, or breed.
If you have an emotional support dog, there are two remaining options if you want to fly with your ESA in the cabin:
Option 1: Fly with your dog subject to the airline’s policies for normal pets.
Airlines will now treat ESAs as normal pets. As we will discuss in-depth in a later section, you will be subject to pet fees which can get quite expensive. In addition, airlines usually restrict the size of dogs able to board the cabin, so if you have a medium to larger size dog, they may not be able to board the cabin at all. Many airlines also restrict the breed of dogs able to board. We won’t even address having your dog fly in cargo because most ESA owners (and pet owners) refuse to entertain that idea.
Flying with your ESA in the cabin was once a relatively easy, inexpensive, and convenient procedure, but that is no longer the case. Now there are significant obstacles in place.
Option 2: Fly with your dog as a trained psychiatric service dog.
The alternative to flying with your dog as a normal pet is to obtain accommodation for your dog as a psychiatric service dog (PSD). It is possible to train an ESA to become a psychiatric service dog if certain requirements are met. PSDs are often used to help with the same mental health conditions that ESA owners deal with, but they are trained to perform tasks relating to the owner’s disability.
We’ll discuss who qualifies for PSDs and documentation requirements in the next sections, but note that if you are traveling with a psychiatric service dog, airlines are still mandated to accommodate you free of charge.
2. Benefits of Flying with a Psychiatric Service Dog
Under the latest DOT regulations, airlines must continue to allow psychiatric service dogs to board flights with their owners. A psychiatric service dog is a type of service animal trained to perform tasks relating to a mental or emotional health disability. Airlines cannot charge any fees for a PSD to board, even though they may apply fees to non-PSD animals. Note that only dogs can serve as psychiatric service animals.
PSDs are exempt from fees and exempt from other restrictions relating to pets, such as limitations on breed, size, and weight. That means that PSDs can generally fly in the cabin free of charge instead of cargo (except for huge dogs, which may not fit in aircraft cabins).
3. How to Qualify for a Psychiatric Service Dog
To qualify for a psychiatric service dog, the handler must have a disability recognized under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). The service dog must be trained to perform tasks relating to the mental health disability.
Your disability must be a mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. That means that you have an emotional or mental illness or learning disability that interferes with work, sleep, socializing, learning, and other “major” life activities. Handlers typically use psychiatric service dogs for conditions like severe anxiety, depression, ADHD, autism, phobias, and PTSD. A licensed healthcare professional can assess whether you meet the relevant criteria and provide a letter with their determination of whether you meet the ADA and ACAA definition of disability.
If you are starting on the path to owning a PSD or needing backup documentation regarding your condition, ESA Doctors can help. ESA Doctors works with licensed healthcare professionals that can assess whether you have a qualifying disability for a PSD. If you qualify, the licensed professional will issue a signed PSD letter that states whether you have a disability for purposes of the ADA and ACAA.
The licensed professionals who work with ESA Doctors are familiar with assistance animals and compassionate towards people who need animals for support. They also work remotely so that you can obtain a PSD letter from the comforts of your home.
You can have liability for falsely representing a service dog, and it’s crucial to ensure you meet all of the relevant legal criteria before claiming that you own PSD. A PSD letter can provide peace of mind in knowing whether you have an ADA-eligible disability.
4. Training Requirements for Psychiatric Service Dogs
It is not enough for a handler to have an eligible disability to successfully own a PSD. The handler’s dog must be individually trained to perform tasks relating to the disability. A dog in training is not considered a service dog—it must have completed the training.
A PSD must also be able to navigate public spaces and perform tasks in a variety of environments. Airports especially can be crowded and hectic, and the handler should be confident their PSD can handle all of the distractions and surprises of a bustling transit hub.
A psychiatric service dog does not need to be professionally trained. PSDs do not need to attend any particular school or be certified by any organization that they have been fully trained. The owner is allowed to complete the training on their own, and representations regarding whether the PSD has been properly trained are ultimately the responsibility of the PSD’s owner. The DOT has specifically stated that “service animal users are free to train their own dogs to perform a task or function for them.” However, if you are undertaking training on your own, it’s important to be honest about your capabilities as a trainer.
Psychiatric service dogs perform an amazing range of tasks for people that suffer from mental and emotional illnesses. This is just a small sample of the important jobs they have:
- Retrieving medication. PSDs have been trained to fetch medications that alleviate symptoms of a person’s mental health disabilities.
- Reminding handlers to take medications at certain times. PSDs can use their internal alarm clock to remind their handlers to take their medications at the same time each day.
- Calming with pressure. A PSD can be trained to use its paws and weight to provide pressure on its handler to calm during periods of distress.
- Bringing a phone in crisis. A PSD can be trained to recognize when its handler has a psychiatric episode, such as a panic attack or flashback, and retrieve a portable phone so the handler can call for assistance.
- Providing tactile stimulation to disrupt episodes. If the handler is experiencing emotional overload or an anxiety attack, a PSD can be trained to disrupt the episode by licking or pawing the handler.
- “Breaking the spell.” If the handler experiences a flashback, nightmare, hallucination, or dissociative state, the PSD can be trained to interrupt the “spell.”
- Waking up the handler and helping to maintain a routine. For PSD handlers that oversleep or are prone to long periods of sedation due to depression or another emotional illness, a PSD can prevent the handler from oversleeping and help maintain a daily routine.
- Panic prevention in crowds. A PSD can help a handler avoid panic attacks in crowded public areas by providing a buffer and managing large crowds of people.
Handlers are coming up with new and inventive ways of training their PSDs to assist with their condition all the time. The important thing is that the task the dog performs is tailored to the handler’s specific needs.
5. DOT Form for Psychiatric Service Dogs
To fly with a psychiatric service dog, the handler must submit a special form to the airline before boarding. Starting on January 11th, 2021, airlines have begun requiring passengers to complete the DOT’s “Service Animal Air Transportation Form” (the “DOT Form”). The DOT form should be submitted at least 48 hours before departure. If you happen to book a reservation within 48 hours of the flight, it’s okay to submit the form before the flight or at the gate when you depart.
The traveler has to make various self-certifications in the DOT form, including the following:
- The PSD has been individually trained to work or perform tasks relating to the traveler’s disability.
- The PSD will behave properly in public.
- The PSD will be under the handler’s control at all times.
The passenger also has to certify that their PSD has been vaccinated and list contact information for a veterinarian. Note, however, that the veterinarian does not need to sign the form. The form also asks for the name of the trainer of the PSD, which can be the name of the passenger if its owner trained the PSD.
The DOT form is intended to be universal, meaning that the same form will be used by each airline. This contrasts with the old procedures for ESAs, where each airline had its own form and requirements.
The DOT form is the only document that needs to be submitted to the airline, but having a PSD letter in your possession is strongly recommended. The DOT Form requires you to certify that you have an eligible disability which a licensed healthcare professional can help determine.
6. Other Ways Airline Staff Can Verify a PSD
In addition to the DOT Form, there are three ways the staff at the airport can verify if you have a legitimate psychiatric service dog:
a. Airline staff can ask two limited questions allowed under the ADA and ACAA.
Staff are allowed to ask two questions when it comes to verbally confirming a service dog:
- Is your service dog required because of a disability?
- What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
Staff members are not allowed to request documentation for the dog (other than the DOT Form), request that the dog demonstrate the task it performs, or ask about specific information regarding your condition. As the owner of a psychiatric service dog, federal laws protect your right to privacy regarding sensitive medical details and preserve your dignity.
b. Airline staff can observe behavior of the animal.
If a PSD is acting out of control, airline staff can used that as grounds to deny accommodation. A PSD can be banned from a flight if it is acting unruly, barking or growling at other people or animals, biting, jumping on others or urinating or defecating in inappropriate areas.
If a dog is demonstrating these kinds of actions, the airline staff can use that as evidence the PSD has not been fully trained to be in public settings. That is why it is so important to ensure your PSD is ready for the challenges of being in public spaces prior to flying.
c. Airline staff can look at physical indicators such as harnesses and vests.
Finally, airline and airport staff are allowed to take into consideration physical indicators such as harnesses, vests, ID cards and tags to determine whether a dog is a service dog. It’s important to note that these items alone do not qualify a dog as a service dog and they are completely optional. Service dog owners cannot be forced to utilize them. However, they can be helpful in signaling to airline staff members that your dog is a psychiatric service dog. PSD owners may find service dog paraphernalia especially useful since their disabilities are not visible to others.
7. Flying with a Pet or Psychiatric Service Dog in Training
If your flying with your pet or are in the process of training your dog to become your psychiatric service dog, you may still be able to fly with your dog in the cabin, subject to the airline’s policies for pets and pet travel fees (range from $250-$500 each trip). These policies vary by airline, so it’s important to check to see the airline’s current rules before making a reservation.
If you have a pet and are curious to see if you may qualify for a Psychiatric Service Dog and what the process is be to make your dog your PSD, you may find this article helpful.
Generally, airlines will restrict the size of dogs able to board the cabin and impose fees on each leg of the trip. It goes without saying that any dog in the cabin must also be well-behaved, or it can be kicked off the flight.
Here are how a few U.S. airlines treat dogs that are pets:
- Delta: Delta allows small dogs that fit in a small, ventilated pet carrier that fits under the seat in front of you. Pets in cabin kennels count as one carry-on item. Delta charges $125 for each pet one way on U.S. domestic flights. Pet fees for international flights are $200 one way.
- American Airlines: AA allows dogs in a kennel to travel as your carry-on bag, but it must be able to stand and sit erect, turn around normally and lie down in a natural position in their kennel (without touching any side or the top of the container). AA charges a pet fee of $125 one way.
- Southwest Airlines: Southwest allows for small dogs that can fit in carriers that are no more than 18.5” long x 8.5” high x 13.5” wide. Southwest charges a pet fee of $95 one way.
- JetBlue: Jet Blue permits small dogs that can fit in a carrier that fits under the seat in front of you. Your pet carrier cannot exceed 17″L x 12.5″W x 8.5″H, and the combined weight of pet and carrier must not exceed 20 pounds. JetBlue’s pet fee is $125 one way.
- United Airlines: UAL allows dogs in a kennel that must fit completely under the seat in front of you and remain there at all times. United Airlines charges $125 one way.
- Alaska Airlines: Alaska Airlines allows dogs that can fit in a hard-sided kennel that is a maximum of 17″ x 11″ x 7.5″ or a soft-sided kennel that is 17″ x 11″ x 9.5″. Alaska charges $100 one way.
- Spirit Airlines: Spirit Airlines allows dogs in a container that cannot exceed 18″ x 14″ x 9″ and must fit under the seat. Spirit charges $110 one way for dogs in the cabin.
You should notify the airline in advance that you are traveling with a pet or psychiatric service dog in training and submit any required paperwork ahead of time. You should also note that many airlines have age and breed restrictions for pets. Always check to see what the airline’s current policies are for pets at the time of travel, as they can suddenly change. For your reference, psychiatric service dogs are not subject to age or breed restrictions and the airlines cannot charge the additional pet fee for having your dog sit on the floor by your feet.
8. Practical Tips for Flying with your Dog
Below you will find some useful tips for flying with your dog, whether it is a pet or a psychiatric service dog, compiled by experienced travelers.
Before you make any plans to fly with your dog, you will want to make sure your dog is capable of coping with the hustle and bustle of an airport and airplane. If it’s their first time at the airport and on a plane, your dog may be understandably anxious.
Your dog should be adept at dealing with crowds of people in tight quarters and unexpected stimuli, such as the roaring of jet engines and sudden turbulence. If you don’t feel confident navigating your dog in public areas, you may not be ready for the ordeal of a flight yet.
You will also want to ensure that your dog has an opportunity to relieve itself before the flight, especially if the journey is long. It can also be helpful to allow your dog to get some exercise and work off some energy. That may mean taking your dog to the park or around the block before going to the airport. Many airports now have relief areas specifically for dogs. It can also be useful to manage your dog’s diet prior to the flight to lessen the likelihood of an accident or stomach sickness while mid-air.
At the airport, you may draw attention from strangers because of your dog. Many people and children love seeing animals at the airport and on the plane. You should make sure that you and your dog are prepared for those kinds of sudden interactions. If you have a psychiatric service dog, you should know that an ID card, tag, or harness is never required for a PSD. However, some PSD owners use these items to ward off strangers from approaching and set appropriate boundaries.
Checking in at the Airport and Boarding Your Flight for PSD Owners
If you are flying with a psychiatric service dog, you should submit a completed DOT Form to the airline as soon as possible after making your reservation. On the day of the flight, when you show up at the airport, it’s a good idea to have copies of your DOT Form (digital records on your phone should work). You may also want to keep a copy of your PSD letter handy.
You may have to navigate a busy airport terminal with your dog, including the security lines. Checking in bags might be a good idea, so you don’t have to deal with your bags in addition to managing your dog.
Ensure you have a tether or leash for your dog and perhaps a carrier bag if your dog is small. If your dog is calm and well-behaved, some flights will let your dog sit on your lap. However, the airline does have the right to place restrictions on your dog. For example, they may insist the dog be placed in a carrier, stay on the floor or be on a leash. In any case, your dog needs to be under your control at all times.
Airline crew can consider how dogs should be restrained on a case-by-case basis. The airline may consider the size of your dog, the rights of your fellow passengers, as well as the ability of your service dog to provide support if it’s restrained or kept in a carrier.
One last thing to note for international travelers: it’s always a good idea to check with your destination country to see their rules regarding animals. Some countries may have quarantine rules or require special health documents.
Remember to Relax!
Just relax when traveling with your dog. This is especially true for pet and PSD owners traveling for the first time and are feeling nervous. Dogs routinely fly on airplanes every day without incident. If you have taken steps to prepare and your dog is well-behaved, then you have little to worry about.
Many PSD owners are worried about whether other people will judge them at the airport or during the flight. It’s very common now to see pets and service dogs on flights, and most people are receptive to seeing a friendly canine aboard their flight.
Psychiatric service dogs are critical for coping with mental and emotional health issues, and PSD owners shouldn’t feel any shame for needing a PSD during their travels. Many people use dogs and service dogs to calm their anxieties, so it doesn’t help to exacerbate your nerves by worrying about what others think!
Remember, federal laws were created to give you the right to travel with your PSD on flights free from harassment and discrimination.
9. Final Thoughts
For most dog owners, the process of flying with their canines is smooth and stress-free, especially after gaining some experience. The first flight is the most intimidating, but you will quickly learn that the process is easy if you prepare in advance.
If you have a PSD, almost every airline now has an established procedure for handling psychiatric service dogs, and you should be able to take care of all your paperwork ahead of time.
If you’re interested in flying with a psychiatric service dog and need a licensed mental health professional to help, ESA Doctors is here for you. ESA Doctors will connect you with a licensed professional familiar with PSDs and can issue a PSD letter with a disability assessment if you qualify. The process is easy and convenient—the professionals we work with offer their services remotely so that you can handle everything from home. Just click on the link below today to get started.
Start here for your PSD Letter