Before the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily grounded us, my trained psychiatric service animal, a dog named Bobbi, and I flew at least once a month for my work as a travel writer (read more about our story here). As someone with a debilitating panic disorder that Bobbi has been trained to detect, flying with my rescue-turned-service animal used to bring me a great sense of peace. 

But in recent years, my flights for work had increasingly resulted in the same panic attacks Bobbi was trained to detect – often due to untrained emotional support animals (ESAs) in airline cabins.

During one flight, Bobbi and I were moved to the back of the plane after an unruly ESA seated across the aisle lunged and growled at Bobbi before takeoff.

“I’m sorry,” I remember the passenger saying to me. Then giggling: “It’s his first flight. I just got his certification card and I think he is nervous.”

I couldn’t have cared less if the dog was nervous. If the dog wasn’t trained and was acting aggressively he shouldn't have been on a flight where my dog was legitimately working. The flight attendant apologized and moved me and Bobbi elsewhere, but her hands were also tied as the passenger had presented a letter from a doctor certifying they needed an ESA.

But thanks to a recent rule change from the Department of Transportation, it's getting harder to bring any old pet into the skies. And that's a good thing.

A woman posing with her dog in an airport
Becca with her psychiatric support animal, Bobbi © Becca Blond / Lonely Planet

The rise of emotional support animals

In the last decade, the number of people claiming that their household pets are emotional support or service animals has dramatically increased. Every time Bobbi and I flew, we’d encounter dozens of ESAs in the airport. Many would enthusiastically bound over and try to interact with Bobbi – a general faux pas with service animals.

In 1986, Congress passed the Air Carrier Access Act, which prohibited airlines from discriminating against passengers with disabilities. Emotional support animals were given the same status as service animals and protected from discrimination. As such, they were allowed to fly in the cabin after passengers presented a letter from a medical professional prescribing the need for an animal that provided "emotional support," but not requiring the animal to have any sort of training.

Soon it became all too easy to fly with your pet, which included peacocks, ducks and pigs. People could go online, pay a few hundred bucks for a consultation with a mental health professional claiming they had a condition benefiting from an ESA and get a letter that would get their animals on the airplane. I knew more than one person who did this simply so their large dog could fly with them.

Taming the skies

So when I found out that the US Department of Transportation had finally revised its rules to the federal Air Carrier Access Act stating that airlines no longer have to allow emotional support animals to travel as service animals and could instead classify them as pets, I was pretty excited.

The new rule mandated that passengers who want service animals to accompany them can be required to fill out a government form attesting to the animal’s good behavior and training. As a trained service animal, Bobbi meets all the legal requirements. I’m not faking anything.

A dog on the floor of an airplane cabin
Bobbi ready for a flight © Becca Blond / Lonely Planet

So what is a service dog?

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service animal as any dog or miniature horse trained to perform a task in the aid of a disabled person. What comes as a surprise to many people is there are no requirements for a service dog to be trained or certified by a specific agency in the US.

In fact, the ADA specifically states that service animals do not need to be certified as such and that “covered entities may not require documentation, such as proof that an animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal, as a condition for entry.”

The ADA only mandates the animal has been trained to perform a specific task to assist the person with a disability. For Bobbi these tasks include alerting me before I have a panic attack, leading me home when I get disoriented in the middle of one, and lying on top of me to calm me with her body weight. I also trained her to ignore people when wearing her vest in public, to slide under the seat in front of us on airplane flights (despite being 65lbs she does this amazingly well), and to sit under the table without begging or making a noise — unless it is the paw and bark command she uses to alert me before a panic attack — at restaurants.

A TSA worker pets a service dog
Bobbi going through a TSA checkpoint © Becca Blond / Lonely Planet

She is also comfortable operating in environments that are often terrifying to dogs including riding escalators, clearing airport security and sitting patiently for a TSA pat-down (she lives for those actually; I’ll admit the pup likes to show off and is very proud of herself when working) and remaining calm in very crowded and loud situations.

When I posted on my personal Facebook page recently about the change in ESA rules and how I supported them, I had a number of friends respond about how disappointed they were in this rule.

A few claimed they had crippling anxiety disorders and flying with their dogs as ESAs honestly helped them. I couldn’t agree more – dogs do help, but they need to be trained. If you have a credible psychiatric disability diagnosed by a medical professional who treats you on a regular basis — not someone you paid over the internet — and you have a dog with the disposition to be a service dog, pay a professional animal trainer to work with your pup and yourself to learn the necessary tasks to actually assist you.

Not all dogs are cut out for this work, but many breeds, my service dog included, are relatively easy to train to perform tasks. It takes hard work and dedication but there is no law in the US, as there are in other countries, including the EU, stating you need to acquire a service dog from any specific agency. It is a crime, however, in many states for a person without diagnosed physical or psychological disabilities to pass a pet off as a fake service animal.

Rule doesn’t require banning ESAs

The new rule also doesn’t require airlines to ban ESAs. It leaves it up to the discretion of the airline, although with the exception of Southwest Airlines all the major carriers have grounded ESAs beginning in January or February on new reservations.

I’m not opposed to people flying with well-behaved ESAs either. There is definitely a portion of our society that has legitimate disabilities without the financial resources to pay for the required task-specific training of a service dog.

And it isn’t just about paying a pet fee either, pet dogs in airline cabins must meet specific size requirements and fit into carriers that can slide under the airplane seat. This means unless you have a small breed dog you aren’t going to just be able to pay for him or her to fly. If Southwest ultimately decides to continue allowing ESAs in some regard that is great. I just don’t want them forced onto every airline. I just want the choice to fly without having to worry about my dog getting attacked.

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