Time to Weigh In on Flying Dogs (Hurry!)

Koala, a black Labrador, rests. She's wearing her guide harness.
Koala is an excellent traveler.

The peacocks, the pets trying to travel as service or emotional support dogs, the misbehavior — from pooping pigs to biting dogs — and the “service dog” whelping her litter near gate F81 … it’s all too much.

Not only are airlines tightening up their rules on which of our furred, feathered, and scaled friends may board, the Department of Transportation is considering changing sections of the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), the law governing air travel with service and emotional support animals.

The root of the problem is that federal laws governing access for assistance animals are vague, different laws allow for different things in different spaces (public businesses, housing, and air travel), and it’s easy to exploit loopholes or deliberate omissions in these laws. The result, as far as air travel is concerned, is a mess.

In a nutshell, the ACAA allows people to travel with service animals or with emotional support animals (ESAs). The ACAA definition of a service animal is different from the more familiar ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) definition; the ACAA definition of ESA is loose indeed. For one thing, no training is required; for another, passengers are not required to crate or otherwise contain the animals during the flight.

Problems include threats to (and harm to) the safety of other passengers, interference with legitimate service animals working with their partners, and undue stress on the animals themselves, who generally have had no public access training and should not have to endure a strange, noisy, smelly, stressful, cramped, terrifying experience (air travel is all of that and more for me, and I am used to it!).

The DOT is soliciting comments by July 9, 2018 specifically in these areas:

  1. Psychiatric service animals; ADA treats (some) PSAs as any other service animal, while the current ACAA groups them together with ESAs
  2. Whether to maintain the distinction between ESAs and service animals
  3. Whether ESAs should be crated or otherwise confined / restrained throughout the flight; similarly, they are soliciting comments on whether service / ESAs should be required to be leashed or tethered
  4. Whether to limit what species of animals would be permitted to fly as service and/or ESAs; ADA allows only service dogs and a limited number of miniature horses
  5. Whether and how to limit the number of service / ESAs a passenger may travel with; currently neither the ACAA nor the ADA limits the number of animals
  6. Whether to require that passengers with a service or ESA should be required to attest (sign a statement declaring) that the animal has been trained  for public access
  7. Safety concerns regarding travel with “large” (undefined) service animals and suggestions for addressing those concerns
  8. Whether airlines should be allowed to require a veterinary health form or immunization record from any or all service animal users
  9. Issues with airlines denying / allowing passengers to board with ESAs / service animals on foreign airlines’ code-share flights

For more details, read the full notice. Post a comment here. Read others’ comments here.

Post your comment by July 9!

Wrong on So Many Levels …

a poster announces that service dogs are welcomeI was in St. Petersburg when the Tampa Bay Times ran this story about a “service dog” whelping a litter of puppies at the Tampa airport. Columnist Daniel Ruth’s response is spot-on. This is so, so wrong.

The initial article said that the dogs’ owner claimed both dogs (the puppies’ dad was present for the whelping) were service dogs; it also said the puppy-mom was a service dog in training. The initial article says that the owner has mobility issues; Ruth’s column mentions blood pressure. It’s impossible to know which is accurate or whether the owner meets the ADA definition of a person with a disability. It’s also impossible to tell whether either or both dogs do anything to mitigate the disability. While the reporting could be more clear, part of the problem is that the various laws covering public access and air travel with service dogs are so vague and poorly written that they are a nightmare for gatekeepers — and an engraved invitation to fakers. (I’m not saying this person was faking; I am saying it is nearly impossible to know.)

The second problem is that it’s legal in some cases for people to use two service dogs and request public access with both simultaneously. I know that people might have multiple disabilities that a dog or dogs can help with. And if you’re an owner-trainer and want to train a dozen service dogs for yourself, I don’t think any law should stop you. But I also advocate for some common sense in access laws.

I’ve worked with dozens and dozens of service dogs. Even the best dogs get spooked in airports or on planes, and I know that it’s hard enough to find and train one dog for the really difficult, demanding job of working while traveling, through an airport, and on an airplane. Expecting someone to be able to safely handle more than one dog in these circumstances, while dealing with the many hassles of travel — that’s just not reasonable. It’s not fair to other travelers or to airline staff. No one can predict what will happen. I’ve seen “service” dogs react aggressively to working dogs, kids come out of nowhere to grab the dogs in a hug, people interfering with dogs by doing everything from reaching to pet to trying with gestures and noises to distract the dog to actually enticing working dogs with food.

Add to that the exploding number of emotional support animals traveling these days — a concept that many people, including Ruth, in his column, have trouble separating from service dogs — and I’m surprised that any dog can navigate air travel without losing her cool. Expecting a person, any person, to keep tabs on multiple service dogs with all of that going on, and keep everything under control so that the traveler, dogs, and everyone else is safe? Not realistic.

Finally, the most egregious part of this story: Who boards a plane with a dog who’s that pregnant? It’s not that hard to know when a dog is due to whelp. Gestation is about 60 days. If your dog has been bred, don’t travel after about 6-7 weeks. And that doesn’t even address the bigger issue: Any professional service or guide dog trainer will tell you that a working service dog should be spayed or neutered. Regardless, a pregnant female shouldn’t be working that close to her due date. And if she is a service dog in training, as some accounts said, she shouldn’t have been allowed to fly anyhow; no law gives access to service dogs in training. (In a probably vain attempt to forestall criticism, I will state that I think that trainers should be able to fly with dogs-in-training, but that is a whole separate issue.)

A service dog partnership is not a one-way street. The dog helps the person in a way that only a dog can. The dog also provides companionship and love. In return, the person owes the dog care and respect. I don’t doubt that the owner of these dogs loves them and appreciates their service. But she did not fill her obligations as their guardian and steward and advocate, nor did she show respect for the dog when she let a working dog become pregnant and then attempted to fly with that dog so close to her due date. The person’s needs do not always come first, and in this case, the owner was selfish and irresponsible.

As a person who cares deeply about the human-canine connection while also deeply respecting the work dogs do for us, I become angry when I see or hear about any dog owner who treats her dogs that badly, whether they are service dogs or pets. (I’m not alone; the Times apparently heard from lots of others who were outraged.) While travelers who saw the puppy birth might have thought it wonderful, miraculous, cute (or gross), that this poor dog had to whelp her puppies in such awful, public conditions is outrageous.

Don’t Fake It …

I spent much of the day prepping for two short classes I am teaching on service dog access law. I’ve done this before, but most recently, I had an entire semester to teach students about access law and other dog-related laws. We spent seven weeks on the crazy quilt of federal laws that govern public access for people who have service dogs. Paring the vast amount of information down to two one-hour presentations is tough.

I decided that the most important things that the students, future service dog trainers need to know are:

  • The ADA might be the most important law to study, but it is far from the only law that touches on people with disabilities and service dog access
  • The right to be accompanied by a service dog is far from absolute
  • Not all dogs can be or should be service dogs

Beyond that, I hope to give this group of students an overview of the applicable laws and plenty of info on where to get more in-depth information.

The biggest problem with the number of laws and variations in how and where they apply is how easy it is for people to break the law — sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.

What do I mean?

People often confuse service dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support animals.

Service dogs, individually trained to assist a specific person by performing tasks that mitigate that person’s disability, are often seen in malls, restaurants, supermarkets — almost anywhere that members of the public can go. The ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, gives people with an ADA-recognized disability the right to take their service dogs into these places. But dogs that merely provide comfort or “emotional support” are not considered service dogs. Animals other than dogs (with limited exceptions for miniature horses) are not covered by the ADA.

However, people can get permission to live with an emotional support dog or other animal in housing that doesn’t allow pets. Other people get their dogs certified as “therapy dogs” and visit hospitals, schools, and other places that normally do not allow pets. What gives?

Different laws govern access to housing, air travel, Veterans Administration facilities … the laws are confusing. There is no requirement for any kind of public access test or identification. Emotional support animals that accompany people in no-pets housing or on airplanes are not required to have any training.

Many people honestly believe that they have the right to take their pet along to the coffee shop because they have a letter, a “prescription” that turns their pet into a service animal, or because they’ve passed a test given by Pet Partners or another therapeutic pet organization. Other people know that they are breaking the law when they purchase a vest online and head off to the coffee shop with Fido in tow; they just don’t care.

They also might not think they are harming anyone, but that’s often untrue. Most pets are not temperamentally suited for the stress of being in public. Stressed-out dogs might pant, drool, pull toward an exit, hide behind the handler  — or become aggressive. It’s not fair to subject a pet to this level of stress. A dog that is reactive to other dogs, has high prey drive, or any tendency at all to behave aggressively should not be in public. These dogs pose a threat to other people and to people with legitimate, well-trained service dogs.

What’s important for everyone to know, whether members of the public, pet owners, or managers and employees of businesses, is that the right to access is not an absolute right. A person can be asked to remove a dog who is misbehaving, is showing aggression, or is not under the handler’s control — even if the person does have a disability and even if the dog is a trained service dog. Asking a person to remove a dog under those circumstances is not a violation of access laws.

Ethical service dog trainers are careful about which dogs they place as service dogs, both to ensure that the person’s needs are met and to ensure that the dogs they place are comfortable and safe working in the public eye. Service dogs get lots of attention, including petting and hugging from random children (and adults) who run up to them out of nowhere. They endure a barrage of noises, smells, and sights that most pets cannot even imagine. Not all dogs can (or want to) do this work. It’s unfair to expect an unprepared, untrained dog (or other animal) to behave perfectly and calmly in public, even if he is wearing a really nice vest. And it is unfair and unethical to endanger properly trained working dogs and members of the public by taking a poorly prepared, frightened dog into situations that he or she cannot handle.