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.

Travel Pods for Pets?

Seasoned car travelers

I have quite a bit of travel coming up, and the plane trips require leaving Cali behind. So when I saw this article on Wired.com about a new travel idea, my mind went right to dog travel. Safe dog travel, not the current nightmare scenario.

The article is about an aerospace designer, working with Airbus, to create custom cargo pods with bunk beds. The airlines be shaped to put the special cargo pods aboard or not, depending on the needs for a particular flight. When used, they’ll be accessible to economy passengers who wish to rent a bed for the duration of a long flight. That means that there will be a way for passengers to move between the main cabin and the pod.

So … why not design a similar pod for dog kennels?

The article states that the pods are being designed for economy passengers, since business or first class fliers already get beds on long flights. The cost will have to be less than the cost of a first class ticket, or why bother, right? The article describes on other uses for these designable, modular pods: lounges, kids’ play areas, conference rooms.

So, seriously, why not kennel space? They’d need a way to secure the dog crates — not a problem since airlines that transport pets already do that. For any of the uses described, the pods would need to be climate controlled, have decent airflow, and be accessible from inside the plane. I personally would be much more comfortable flying my pet if I could spend the entire flight (other than takeoff and landing) with her, even if she had to stay in a crate. As for cost, well, a two-week vacation can already run about $500 (or more!) for dog-sitting; wouldn’t you rather spend that money to take your pet along? I would. And I’d certainly see value in flying Cali cross-country rather than subjecting her and myself to a weeklong car trip, should the need arise. (We’ve driven cross-country several times; Jana experienced about a dozen cross-country drives in her lifetime.)

I wonder why flying pets wasn’t one of the uses Airbus mentioned. Maybe I should suggest it!



Travel Nightmares

United Airlines is, once again, drowning in terrible publicity. This time, it’s about major screw-ups with canine passengers. I’ll put the news-averse among you out of your misery: In two of the three incidents, the dogs survived.

I’ll start with those. One dog, who was supposed to go to Akron, wound up on a flight to St. Louis; earlier in the week, a German en route to Kansas traded places with a Great Dane bound for Japan. Traveling with a dog checked in as cargo is nerve-racking enough without having to worry about whether the dog is headed to the same destination you are. But there really has to be a better way to arrange pet travel.

Which forces the conversation to the third incident on United: The puppy who suffocated. I don’t know who to be more angry with: The flight attendant who ordered a frazzled mom to put her puppy into the overhead bin — which is against policy, not to mention common sense; the mom who did it; or the other passengers who watched, heard the puppy crying … and did nothing.

Here’s my rant: You are your dog’s only advocate and voice. If someone tells you to do something that would harm your dog, there’s a simple response: Refuse. Don’t do it. I wasn’t there, and it sounds like the mom had more than she could handle. But that doesn’t let her off the hook. I’m sure that being a flight attendant is extremely stressful. That doesn’t let the flight attendant off the hook. And the other passengers? I don’t even know what to say.

Everyone let that puppy down, but the primary responsibility is with the owner. If you have a dog, you have accepted the enormous responsibility of being that dog’s advocate and protector.

United has the most incidents resulting in pet loss, injury, and, especially death. The airline has a terrible record. But the numbers (which anyone can look up here, on the FAA’s consumer complaints site) don’t tell the whole story. Why not? Because some airlines won’t accept pets as cargo. Others won’t accept pets on board. Some won’t accept pets at all. Many pet-owners have bypassed the system by pretending that their pets are emotional support animals, though airlines are beginning to close that loophole.

People who need to get pets from one place to another have few options. No trains or buses. Driving isn’t always feasible. I heard recently that Pet Airways, which closed down a few years ago, is coming back to life. I don’t know what their plan is or whether that will become a solution, but … Maybe we should all just stay home!


Better and Better

Montana just gets better and better.

Cali and Jana’s cousins came to visit recently. Ziggy and Hannah live in Kansas, where summer is full of scary thunderstorms and terrifying lawnmowers. Up here on the hilltop in Montana, there are no lawnmowers at all. Thunderstorms are rare. There’s a huge play yard and lot of places to go hiking. Ziggy was excited.

Cali, Jana, and their cousins went to Missoula to visit Scarlett and her sister, Gracie. Then they went for a walk by the river, saw a huge carousel, met some really friendly Montana kids, and then, best of all, they got to go out for ice cream. The nice lady at the Big Dipper gave each dog her own cone! Ziggy and Jana and Cali ate theirs really fast, but Hannah showed her good breeding and manners, licking her cone delicately and not dripping it anywhere.

Hannah and Ziggy quickly learned to use the automatic dog door, and they each got their own key. Hannah thinks that it opens when she barks at it. She likes to bark, so that suits her just fine. Jana’s friend Molly came for a visit, and she remembered how to use the dog door right away, even though she hadn’t been over to visit in a really long time! She’s super-smart because she’s a poodle. She knows that barking is not what makes the door open.

Molly likes to bark too, but with all the girls barking, Jana and Cali’s mom couldn’t get any work done, so she told everyone to be quiet. Meanie!

The cousins and Molly loved playing out in Cali’s big play yard. They chased the ball, chased Cali or Alberta chasing the ball, ate grass, barked at deer, chased each other some more … when they got tired, they went back inside and piled onto the dog beds or stretched out on a rug. Hannah and Ziggy thought that Montana was pretty awesome. Molly, a native Montanan, couldn’t agree more.

After Hannah and Ziggy and Molly went home, Cali, Alberta, and Jana finally made plans to go to Packer Meadow. Jana loves this place and told Cali and Alberta all about it, but Cali and Alberta had never been there. It’s huge and very green. Jana remembers being there when it was so full of purple flowers that it looked like water. Speaking of water, there’s this really great stream that runs through the meadow. Brrrr. The water is very cold. But a dog can jump in and climb out and jump in and climb out and jump in and … all day (or until her mom makes her leave. Meanie.).

Unfortunately, the day they went, Packer Meadow was closed because it was too close to some huge forest fires. Good thing that Mom always has a backup plan; the girls had a great afternoon at Jana’s second-favorite place, Fort Fizzle. Jana found the first of her heart-shaped rocks there. She loves splashing in the river, finding rocks, rolling on the bank, and chasing sticks. Cali chased tennis balls; one almost got lost way out on the rocks, and Alberta wouldn’t bring it back, but Cali finally agreed to go and get it. She got a bunch of cookies for that. Maybe Mom is not such a meanie after all.

And guess what! They still get to go to Packer Meadow in a couple of weeks. Montana sure is a great place to be a dog.


Montana Girl

We’re back in Lolo, Montana for a couple of months after three years’ absence. I knew that Jana would be happy to be back. She loves splashing in the river at Fort Fizzle, where she found her first heart-shaped rock several years ago, and barking at the abundant wildlife.

But it is Cali’s first trip to Montana, so I was really looking forward to her reactions. Turns out Cali is even more of a Montana girl than Jana! She loves the huge play yard outside Deni’s house — her own private dog park! — where she races over the ground, feet pounding the dry dirt, after her beloved tennis ball. The dry, stiff grass and stubble don’t seem to affect her at all, though poor Alberta winces with every step.

Cali is enthralled with the bunnies, chipmunks, and squirrels and fascinated by the deer. So far, we haven’t spotted anything bigger than a doe with twin fawns, but for Cali, that was a major life event. Every car ride is a source of great excitement and even greater smells, as sits up, looking out the window, not wanting to miss a thing. And if, oh joy!, the window is open, she glues her nose to the window and whuffs deeply, taking in the rich mix of scents.

The house has the most perfect windows, which are very tall and reach way down to golden-retriever-nose level, so Cali can watch the birds soaring as she looks out over the valley — or bark at the deer and squirrels who wander into the front yard.

Best of all is her new friend Scarlett’s house. Scarlett, aged six months, has a huge yard with the greenest, softest grass Cali has ever seen! And a play pool. And so many flower beds to dig in when Mom isn’t looking … If only she could get into that fenced veggie garden, she could help herself to more of those delicious peas and squashes. Cali thinks that Mom’s being awfully stingy with them. What kind of mom refuses to give her kid veggies?

For the first time ever, Cali has tried out Jana’s routine of stretching out on her back and exercising her abs. Sure feels great in that cool, soft grass. Jana’s enjoying the grass, too. Her new spa routine is a soak in the doggy pool, a luxuriant roll in the grass, then an abs workout. A short nap in the sun, then repeat. All day long.

When Cali is not working out, she’s happy to join a chase game that she, Alberta, and Scarlett have invented. They race in big circles around that garden (the one full of forbidden peas). Then one stops and the other two keep running. They switch out a few times, changing direction occasionally. Finally, they stop running, always ending up with Alberta in the middle as tug toy; Cali and Scarlett each attached to one ear. So far, the ears haven’t come off, but I watch nervously every day …

Cali hasn’t even experienced some of the best Montana treats, like dog cones at the Big Dipper ice cream store or the very cold stream at Packer Meadows or hiking… everywhere. Even so, she’s already sure that she was born to be a Montana girl!

Potty Parity for Pets, Pros

A new era for traveling dogs

Jet-setting working dogs, along with small traveling pets, have reason to rejoice! They are on their way to potty parity.

A recent trip took me through several large airports, and I noticed something new in Detroit: A service dog and traveling pet relief area inside the secure area. Update: A new relief area was opened at O’Hare airport in October! From the pictures, it looks a lot like the Detroit one.

Now, according to the law, this should not be a novel find. Air carriers are required to ensure that all traveling service dogs, whether departing, arriving or connecting, have access to appropriate facilities. The relevant law, 14 CFR Part 382 (Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Air Travel) Subpart D, 382.51(a)(5) states: “In cooperation with the airport operator and in consultation with local service animal training organization(s), [air carriers] must provide animal relief areas for service animals that accompany passengers departing, connecting, or arriving at an airport on your flights.”

Sadly for all those dogs running between flights with their legs tightly crossed, if these facilities exist at all, they are most often outside the terminal — meaning that they are on the wrong side of security if you are transferring to a connecting flight. Solutions have included teaching dogs to use pee pads, then taking them into the family restrooms that are commonly found in airports to squat alongside their human partners; running them outside — then trekking back through security; or asking airline personnel for an escort to the tarmac, where many a service dog is too distracted by the unusual scents and sounds to, uh, deliver the goods. A tight connection can make either of the last two options impractical. The outdoor pet relief area might be at the very far end of a terminal — or even a few terminals away, making for a very long trek.

The situation is finally improving, though, with a few airports now providing potty facilities inside the terminal.


The first one I discovered was in Seattle; I found it — and I am being very generous — rather disappointing. When I was there, a few years ago, it offered essentially a large litter box, some pee pads, a dirty concrete floor and a trash can. A dog I was traveling with turned up his nose and decided to hold on until we reached our destination where, he hoped, some grass — or even a patch of dirt — might be available.

Detroit’s offering elevates indoor canine commodes to a new level. I hadn’t been through the Detroit airport in a while, and the new facilities, in the center of the main Delta concourse, were quite a pleasant surprise.

IMG_1815First of all, the service dog relief area contains two stalls, each offering the dignified or shy dog a reasonable degree of privacy. A shared hand-washing area, presumably for the humans’ use, divides the stalls. Each stall offers a small fire-hydrant-shaped urinal (female dogs might find these distasteful, but we must all adjust to this dawning era of non-gendered relief facilities, mustn’t we?). The hydrant occupies the center of a smallish patch of fake, very green, grass. Bags and trash cans are also provided. The nicest touch, however, was the built-in sprinkler system. With the push of a button, cleanup is accomplished, leaving the stall fresh and green for the next working dog in need of a restroom.

Let’s hope this becomes the new standard for powder rooms for peripatetic pooches.