Written by Amie Chapman
Recently some airlines have changed their paperwork procedure for emotional support animals.
A little over a month ago another passenger was bitten by a dog scheduled to travel on a plane. This time the victim was a child. At least this time one of the journalists got it right and the dog was labeled as an emotional support animal, not as a service dog.
But are these changes going to be enough to keep the passengers and the animals safe when traveling? The changes include notifying the airlines 48 hours in advance that the emotional support animal will be on a flight and signing paperwork saying that the animal is not likely to bite anyone.
Oftentimes the mainstream media is confused about what the difference is between a service dog and an emotional support animal, and therefore confuses the general public even further. The difference is really pretty major in my eyes.
An emotional support animal does nothing other than provide comfort.
They are there for one to give a hug or pet when needed. They may provide a hug, nudge, or a headbutt. They may lick back. They may make one feel better emotionally. But nothing they do actually requires any type of training, just love. I’m sorry to burst everyone’s bubble, but providing love is not a trained task.
A service animal is specifically trained to do one or more tasks that directly aids someone who has a disability. I see news stories all the time about something happening to someone’s “service animal.” A few weeks ago I shared a news story on my personal Facebook Page about a woman’s “service dog” getting it’s foot caught in an escalator at LAX airport. The video footage shows the dog facing the wrong way on the escalator and the handler not paying any attention to the dog.
I guess it could be a service dog—how is one supposed to know if it is actually trained to do a task to aid its handler or if the handler is even disabled? But in my observation, the behavior shown by the handler and the dog in the video was not that of a well-trained service dog team. A service dog should be completely aware of its surroundings, know how to handle it, and be focused on what their handler needs. A handler should be setting their dog up for success (especially if it is still learning) and be aware of what their dog is doing and keeping them safe to the best of their abilities. This team was not the best example of what a service dog team should look like.
The thing is that people and as well as the media often call a dog a service dog because it will get more coverage and notice than a normal pet would. If the news had the headline of “LAX officer saves pet dog caught in escalator” it isn’t as flashy as “LAX officer saves service dog caught in escalator.” Now I have no way of knowing if this dog was called a service dog by the owner or the news station, or both. But you have to admit sharing a story advertising that a service dog was “heroically saved” sounds much better than “poor dog gets sucked into an escalator because owner was negligent.” Or it really could be a poorly trained service dog team—yes, those do exist and that is a whole separate topic for another future blog.
Same thing goes for missing dog posters and news.
If people say that their dog went missing it gets little notice. But if people say that their service dog is missing, they get way more notice and sympathy. “OMG! We have to find this person’s service dog, their life is dependent on it!” But this blog isn’t really about the misrepresentation of service dogs in the news. This too will have to be a whole different blog. It’s more about the issues of animals in the cabin on flights and how easy it is for some to get access and how difficult it is for others, like puppy raisers.
More and more people are traveling with emotional support animals, and not all are even dogs. People are trying to pass all kinds of animals off as emotional support animals. Just recently someone tried to board a United Airlines flight with an emotional support peacock. Seriously, how does a peacock provide comfort? In most of my encounters with peacocks, I have seen them act almost semi aggressive towards people— which is not exactly a great pick for someone who might be stressed and require something to snuggle with.
Some of the airlines are doing a better job of denying these animals, but some are not.
There was a story recently about a girl trying to board a flight with her emotional support hamster and upon being denied, she flushed it down a toilet because she said that it is what the airline told her to do so she could get to her destination. I’m still very baffled by this one. If an animal means that much to you that you need it to be able to handle flying, why on earth would you flush it? Then there are stories of snakes and ducks, and all kinds of other animals being allowed to fly. But in this day and age you have to wonder what stories are actually true and which ones are not.
Despite the influx of animals at airports lately, the most common support animal are still dogs. Almost anyone can board a plane these days with their dog as long as they have a note from a mental health professional stating that it is necessary for that person to have that animal with them when they fly. It has gotten so bad that people can purchase this type of letter over the internet without actually being seen by said professional.
Don’t even get me started on the multiple fake service dog/ESA registry sites out there.
On most of these sites you have a choice to register your dog as an ESA (emotional support animal) or a service dog for a “very reasonable” price. No proof is required that your dog is actually trained as a service dog or that you really do require an ESA. These sites are scams catering to people who want to abuse the system. These sites are one of the biggest problems with pets being faked as service dogs in public and causing harm for legitimate service dog teams. These companies don’t care and believe they are not morally responsible to take precautions about making sure the public is safe from dogs that could potentially by dangerous or not conditioned to handle the stress of working. Nor do they have tools or have any access to examine the mental health of the animal involved. These companies don’t know if the service dog in question is able to handle the stress of accompening their handler in stressful environments nor do they care to ask. They only care about making a dollar and in my opinion need to be shut down.
If that information doesn’t scare you enough, how about the fact that there is not a single requirement in place to show that any emotional support animal being allowed on planes is required to have had any type of temperament testing or training to show that they can handle the stress of airline travel. Sure some of the airlines have paperwork that an owner needs to sign saying that they don’t believe that their dog would bite someone. But how many pet owners are really able to read the body language of their animals correctly and know if they may not be comfortable with the situation that their owner puts them in.
Let’s face it, traveling is very stressful and I can see how having your furry or, in some cases, feathered best friend along for the trip can make a person feel better. But what about the animal? How do you think animals handle the stress of traveling, especially if they are not used to being in busy crowded airports that have scary thing like suitcases on wheels being dragged around, or fast moving golf carts whizzing around, voices over loudspeakers, kids crying, people darting through crowds to make their flight, or even going through security? Not to mention sitting in very tight quarters with strangers for a long period of time, with no option to leave the situation.
ESA dogs are not service dogs and don’t have the same legal public access.
So many ESAs are not accustomed to this type of stressful environment. It is no wonder why we keep hearing news reports about incidents on planes involving dogs. People are putting dogs in situations that are way past the dog’s comfort zone in order to stay in their own comfort zone. That doesn’t seem right, does it? To stress out a dog to lower one’s own personal stress level. Now not every ESA animal gets stressed by air travel, some are really good at it. But there is no way to discourage those that can’t handle the stress.
Do I dare talk about the animal’s relieving needs? How do you train a bird not to potty while on a plane or in the airport? Most support animals travel at the feet of their owner or in their lap, since they are not always required to be in a carrier. How well does this really work for animals other than dogs? What if someone was traveling with a rabbit or potbellied pig as their ESA? Do you know how often a rabbit poops?! Yet these types of animals have been allowed on planes.
Now airline travel is not for every person or animal.
It is no wonder that there are stories about animals misbehaving on planes or in the airport. It is stressful for them and they often don’t know how to cope. This is not the fault of the animal, but rather the person that puts them in the situation that caused them to be so uncomfortable that they didn’t know what else to do. As an owner of an animal it is my job to protect that animal from harm. Harm can be so many things, keeping them on a leash so they don’t run into the street and get hit by a car, safe from poisons, safe from eating or chewing on unsafe objects (dog proofing your house), keeping them away from aggressive dogs or abusive people. But most people are not aware that bringing a dog into a stressful environment that they don’t know how to handle is harmful to that dog and therefore don’t protect them. What happens to a dog that bites a person? They sometimes get put into quarantine, or are not allowed out into public (this includes parks, trails, or other dog friendly places), their lives are forever changed … more stress on the dog. But you still just need that little slip of paper and to make a few extra arrangements with the airline to get your “ESA” on the flight with you.
I have to say that as a puppy raiser, I find this very frustrating for many reasons. It’s upsetting to hear about incidents of animals being stressed out to the point of them biting someone. But another aspect is that the average person doesn’t necessarily understand the difference between an ESA and a service dog. They might think that this is typically behavior for a service dog and cause a bad perception of service dogs and less acceptance for them out in public. This makes it harder for service dog teams to be accepted and puppy raisers like me who are trying to raise and train a puppy out in public, a very necessary part of the process of creating a successful service dog.
According to their websites, some major airlines prohibit service dogs in training from flying in the cabin with their handler. Delta Airlines has on their website “In most circumstances, a service or support animal in training does not meet qualifications for a trained animal and can not ride in the cabin.” United Airlines has this statement: “United only recognizes service animals which have been trained and certified. Animal trainers are permitted to bring one service animal that is training to assist disabled passengers onboard free of charge.” But they also state that “trainers transporting service animals in the ordinary course of business or service animals who are not in training must check these animals.” Well, that is a very confusing statement. So dogs in training are not recognized by the airline as service animals, but a trainer is allowed to bring one on a flight? Many airlines say that they will allow service dogs in training in the cabin only if they are flying to their new home for final placement. It is very hard to get an accurate answer from the airlines on whether or not a service dog in training is allowed to fly in the cabin. The information on websites is either confusing or not there. If you call the airline directly the agents on the phone are often confused by the question and don’t know how to answer.
So if I have this correct…
airlines are more likely to let a dog or other animals on their airplane that have no evidence of training or having the temperament to handle the stress of flying, than a puppy or dog that is specifically training to handle situations like airline travel and more! Does anyone else see a problem with this?
Yes, I have flown with a number of puppies without an issue, but I have also been turned down by many airlines when trying to inquire about traveling with a puppy. It is usually because the puppy isn’t trained to assist me personally. But each time I have flown I faced the chance of being turned away. The communication with the airline employees on the policy of service dogs in training is all over the place. You can get a very different answer to question depending on who you ask.
The last flight I took with Penny back in the beginning of October, we encountered a slight issue. We traveled on an airline that we have used several times in the past with four different puppies without any issues. We checked in and boarded our first flight out of Minneapolis without any issues other than our plane was delayed. No questions asked about her, or “paperwork” for her. Penny was a super good girl and waited in the terminal very patiently. We boarded the flight during the pre-board time so we could get her all settled in. She slept almost the whole flight to Denver where we had a plane change. Because our flight was delayed we basically had enough time to get off the first plane and walk to to gate to the next one where they were already boarding, so no chance to pre-board.
We get in line and the agent at the desk calls out to us and asks if we are on the flight.
Why yes, of course we are. She then asked to see our tickets because she has nothing in her paperwork that a dog was scheduled on that flight. We were pulled out of line (in front of everyone) and questioned about how we booked our flight, where our “paperwork” for Penny was, and why didn’t we have clearance from the airline’s “medical” department. When we stated that we had already been on one flight that day with the airline the agent was quick to say that whoever checked us in at the Minneapolis airport messed up.
Long story short, it took over 20 minutes of this agent telling us that we needed paperwork and were supposed to get pre cleared through their “medical” department for Penny to fly with us. She said that it stated very clearly on their website that these were the necessary steps when you fly with a service dog. I admit I was not fully honest with them in letting them know that Penny was still in training, But they didn’t ask either. They never asked what she was trained for or if she was a service dog or an emotional support dog. I was terrified that they were only going to allow her to fly in cargo and if that was the case we were going to have to rent a car and do a two-day drive home from Denver, I will not put one of my puppies in cargo, so I did leave that detail out.
At one point, another agent expressed concern that the flight might not leave on time because of the situation and the agent in charge said, “Don’t worry, we can put them on the next flight.” Well that isn’t fair, we hadn’t done anything different booking this trip than I had in the past with previous puppies. The last thing I wanted to do was sit in an airport longer than I had to with a young puppy just trying to get home. We talked with a supervisor and then on the phone with this so called “medical” department and we were finally allowed to board the fight.
When we got home, I went to the airline’s website and nothing that the agent claimed was written as policy was there. And what was Penny doing throughout this stressful ordeal? Laying quietly at my feet being a model example of how a service dog should behave. Not a single sound out of her, not a single tug on her leash, barely a change in her position the entire time. On top of that when we went to our seats two other people had decided to sit there because the seats were next to each other and their assigned seats were not. We had to walk down the aisle past our seats and wait with Penny in the aisle as they shifted seats. Penny was then forced to walk backwards to our seats because there was not enough room in the aisle for her to turn around. She did so without a problem or fuss. She backed up down the aisle, into our seats and laid right down. I heard a few passengers behind us talking about what an amazing dog she was. We had never trained for this specific scenario, but because we had been working with her in stores with shopping carts and tight spaces and restaurants learning how to settle under tables she was able to adapt in this less than ideal situation. But she is the dog that was almost denied boarding a plane.
Now most puppy raisers are raising for specific organizations, and those organizations have their own policies about whether or not they will allow their puppies travel by plane. As an example, when I was raising for Guide Dogs for the Blind, I had to submit a travel request form before we went anywhere out of our home area with a puppy. We had to get that approved by our group leaders first and then approved by our community field representative. People above me had to make the final decision on whether or not the puppy in question was ready to travel, and airline travel required even more thought before approval. They keep very close tabs on the progress of their puppies.
We flew with Ricki on a very short flight to southern California when we were raising her and because she had a little bit of anxiety on the flight there and back, nothing major just a little panting, shaking and unsettled behavior, but enough that we were not allowed to fly her on our following trip to Las Vegas. We drove instead. Now not every organization is as stringent as this, but many organizations will not allow one of their puppies to be put into a situation like airline travel if they are not ready to do so. This is another factor in why I don’t understand why it is so hard to fly with a puppy in training when it is so easy with an ESA. There are safe guards in place for many puppies in training, but the airlines are not aware of these either.
Every time we have traveled with a puppy, the airline crew was always so happy to see a well-behaved dog on their flight, like it is a refreshing change. They must be used to stressed out, out of control ESAs. I would be willing to bet that the chances of a puppy/dog in training being better behaved or better prepared to fly than most ESAs on flights is almost a guarantee, but it is the puppy raiser traveling with a puppy or dog in training that has a higher chance of not being allowed to fly. No one ever talks about this. This is something that I think really needs to change. I’m not saying that ESAs should be banned from flying either. I’m sure many people do benefit from them, and that many dogs do behave appropriately on planes. But to allow any dog with just a note from a doctor is not enough. There really should be some sort of regulation put into place to protect these animals and the people that encounter them. Proof of canine good citizenship at the bare minimum, but more would be better. Each time I travel with a puppy, on a plane or not, it has always made a big impact on that puppy. They grow so much on these trips and travel is very valuable in their training process. I’m sure that is helps them to become better service dogs.
Not every puppy will be ready to travel by plane while it is with a raiser.
Many puppies we have raised I would never have put on a plane. There is no way that it would have been in the puppy’s best interest. I will also be the first to admit that traveling on a plane with a puppy can be very stressful for me, but my puppy’s needs always come first. I pick flight times that I think will work best for my puppy. I will plan for layovers if I think that flight length will be took long without a potty break for my puppy. I will pay extra for more foot room some my puppy will be more comfortable. It is usually not a relaxing flight for me because I am always watching and ready to reposition my puppy if needed or respond to anything my puppy may need to keep them stress free and comfortable for the flight. During Penny’s first experience flying I spent a good portion of the flight moving her feet out of the aisle and keeping her from touching the person next to us. She didn’t mind that I kept repositioning her, but I wasn’t able to relax at all during the flight. I need for my puppies to have a good experience or it may leave a lasting bad impression for the puppy and possibly anyone else on that plane.
I do everything I can to prepare my puppies for flight.
We practice lying quietly under seats for long periods of time. We take trips on crowded loud mass transit. I take them to the busiest shopping centers I can find. Anything that I can do to simulate going through an airport and sitting on a plane. The more I can get them used to these things the better.
Do all people who travel with ESAs think about these things or just that they want the beloved animal along and/or think the trip will be too hard to do without them? Is there anyone coaching ESA travelers on how to make the trip easier on their pet? I don’t think people really think about all of this when they decide to travel with an animal. I know that when I have been prepping and making plans to travel with my puppies by plane my coworkers often make comments of “I never thought of that” when I talk to them about the prep work I do to make the trip a successful one for all involved (that includes the flight crew, other passengers, the puppy and myself and anyone in my traveling party).
So who is advocating for the puppy raisers or trainers trying to travel while training with their puppy or dog? Service dog users have the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) to fall back on when in public, and the ACAA (Air Carrier Access Act) protects service dog teams and ESAs in the air. But puppy raisers don’t have anything in place, and neither do owner trainers. The foundation these raisers instill into these puppies is the reason why so many dogs make it through the training process to become fully functioning service dogs. Without all the hard work puppy raisers do and all the situations they expose and work these puppies through, there would be a lot fewer service dogs. But for some reason, the airlines don’t recognize this. The airlines can really help in the training process and the benefits that these puppies can receive by allowing them the access.
Some of the larger service dog organizations do have certain agreements with specific airlines for their program puppies.
SouthWest Airlines allows Canine Companions for Independence puppies on their flights with permission and proper paperwork from the organizations. But what about the smaller, lesser known organizations or owners who train their own dogs? They may not have the resources to make these same arrangements. Does that mean that the raisers in these situations can’t have the same opportunities for their puppies? Or that the dogs they place are not as entitled or important as the larger organizations? How about the number of raisers who don’t live close to an organization where the formal training happens? There are a number of organizations that allow their raisers to live anywhere in the U.S. as long as those raisers will be willing to transport the puppies to and from the organization when needed. Think how much those organizations and people with disabilities would benefit if transporting puppies on flights were allowed. It would be a win-win for everyone. The organizations who depend on these arrangements would get more raisers, potentially, and therefore be able to produce and place more service dogs with people who need them, and the puppies would get valuable training in the process. I can guarantee that the people who receive these dogs from even the smallest organization or who owner-train think that their dog is just as important and should have had the same opportunities as a puppy or dog from a large organization.
So I ask you the public, service dog users, puppy raisers, or just someone who uses airline transportation: Who would you rather sit next to on a plane? Or better yet, airline executives! Maybe you should ask your flight crew about who and what they would rather have to deal with at work before you write and implement a policy. A person with a puppy who is being raised and trained to behave appropriately and to be comfortable with air travel—or someone with a pet dog or, in some cases, a turkey, iguana, monkey, parrot, or anything else, that is traveling with that animal either because they need it for their own mental health or faking it to avoid the extra fees involved or the requirement to put their dog or other animal in cargo for transport. A pet that may or may not have been conditioned or mentally able to handle the stress of being on an airplane. Maybe it is time to speak up not only about the dogs who should not be on planes, but the ones who really should.