Monday, August 26, 2013

Apple #649: Service Dogs & Air Travel

Last time, I did an entry about dogs on airplanes.  I found out about how people can travel with their pet dogs (or other pets).  Basically, the rules are you can keep your pet dog with you in the cabin if your dog is really tiny.  Otherwise, the dog flies cargo.

But I did wonder about service dogs.  Most service dogs are much larger than the tiny size limits the airlines impose for pets in the cabin.  So are the rules for service dogs different?  Can people take their service dogs on board?  Or do size rules apply for service dogs, too?

And what does the TSA do when someone comes through the line with a dog, whether it's a service dog or a pet?

I wish I could say they'd let your service dog fly in the cockpit.  This is Nathan, and he's a service dog for the Coast Guard. So he gets to ride on Coast Guard airplanes.
(Photo by Cyndi Perry, from Coast Guard Compass)

Service Dogs -- Basic Rules

  • In a nutshell, yes, service dogs can travel in the cabin with the passenger.
  • Size rules do still apply, though.  The rules are a little less stringent than the rules for pet dogs, but the animal has to be able to fit under the seat or at the animal owner's feet without obstructing an aisle or another passenger's space.  If the service dog can't fit in the space available in the cabin, it has to travel in a carrier in cargo.
  • There are some exceptions to this rule. For longer flights such as to Hawaii or the UK, service dogs may travel in the cabin.
  • Airlines are not allowed by law to charge extra to travel with a service dog.  Whether the dog is with you in the cabin or in cargo, you won't be charged.
  • Some airlines will also allow you to ship your service dog's carrier as a checked bag, free of charge.
  • If the service dog is with you in the cabin, it has to be on a leash or harness, and it should also be wearing a vest or other garment that clearly indicates the animal is not a pet but is working.

This service dog vest is clearly marked and it includes an identification pouch. This one costs $60. They seem to fall in the $50-$75 price range.
(Photo from

  • You will not be required to show any kind of documentation that you need the service dog with you.  
  • Some working animals are designated as Emotional Support Animals (ESA).  These animals are there to help people who experience some kind of psychological or mental health distress.  If you are traveling with an ESA, you will probably be asked to show proof (like a signed letter) that a licensed medical professional has said you need to have this dog with you.
  • Whether your animal is a service animal, an ESA, or a pet, it's best to let the airline know as soon as possible, well in advance of the flight, that you'll be traveling with a dog. 

This service dog is probably too big to be allowed in the airplane cabin.  But look what a good dog she is!
(Photo from The Blackburn Review)

 Service Monkeys

  • Pretty much the same rules apply to service monkeys.  
  • Yes, there are service monkeys. Or helper  monkeys, as they're more often called.

A Capuchin helper monkey in action.
(Photo from Blogapova)

 TSA Screening of Service Animals

  • Basically, the TSA (Transporation Security Administration; the security people at the airport) are going to screen both you and your service animal.
  • Again, you'll need to have your animal on a leash or a harness, and the animal needs to be wearing some kind of identification saying this is a service animal. You should also tell the security officer that your dog is a service animal.
  • You and your dog on a leash will walk through the metal detector.  The dog can go before or after you, or you can go at the same time, they'll leave that up to you. 
  • If you don't want to go through the metal detector you & your dog don't have to.  But you would in that event have to submit to a full pat-down.  And the dog would still have to be "inspected." I think this means visually, and also a check of the garment the dog is wearing.
  • The security officer does have to ask before touching your service animal.  The security officer will know better than to pet, play with, distract, or feed your service dog. 

A woman and her service dog, Hosta, going through the metal detector in Kansas City. Hosta is still on his leash as he goes through the detector.  She's actually training her dog to be a service dog, so she and several other handlers are taking their dogs to the airport for trial runs.
(Photo from KSDS Puppy)

Since Hosta set off the alarm -- probably because of his leash -- he had to get patted down.  He didn't mind.
(Photo from KSDS Puppy)

Hosta the service dog waiting while his owner is patted down.
(Photo from KSDS Puppy)

Hosta the service dog waiting patiently for his bag.  OK, that doesn't really have to do with TSA screening, but I included it because I thought the picture was funny.
(Photo from KSDS Puppy)

  • If you set off an alarm but your dog doesn't, they'll give you further screening and they'll let you keep your dog with you.
  • If your dog sets off an alarm and you don't, they'll separate you and the dog while they give the dog further screening.  They won't take off the dog's harness/vest/backpack, but they'll search it to see what the dog might be carrying in there.
  • Wouldn't that suck if your service dog were a mad bomber and you didn't even know it?
  • Seriously, though, I'm not sure what they do if they find, say, explosive material on the dog but not on you.  Remove the explosive stuff, first of all.  I guess they'd probably detain you and the dog until they found out who put the explosive stuff in your dog's pocket.
  • One final note on this topic: If you've gone through security and you go outside to let your dog, you know, do its doggy thing, when you come back inside, you and your dog will have to go through the TSA screening again. 

 TSA Using Dogs, Too

  • While searching for information on this topic, I found a whole bunch of news articles about how the TSA is using dogs to screen passengers for bombs, guns, and any explosives.  They're hoping the dogs will help to reduce the long lines of people waiting to go through metal detectors.
  • Dogs have been used to screen cargo for several years now.  But dogs screening passengers is relatively new -- even though the TSA were given the approval to do that many years ago.
  • The passenger-screening dogs can detect a "vapor trail" of explosives, meaning they can detect a suicide bomb vest, a backpack containing explosives, or a firearm.  When the trained dog detects an odor of explosives, the dog will sit next to where it found the scent.
  • The breeds they're using include Labrador retrievers, Vizslas, German shepherds, and Belgian malinois -- all breeds with an especially keen sense of smell, or they're good with people, or both.

One of the TSA working dogs.  Note the TSA patch on his vest.
(Photo from NBC-2 in Florida)

  • In early July, they announced they're trying out the dogs in Honolulu, Tampa, Indianapolis, Chicago, Denver, and Washington Dulles. If all goes well there, they'll use more dogs in more airports.  I think they must have since decided it's going all right, because that dog in the picture above was being used at the Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers.
    • The GAO (General Accounting Office) is skeptical about all this because according to their tests, the dogs weren't all that effective.  They said the TSA wasn't meeting the requirement that the canine teams get 4 hours of training every 4 weeks, the TSA doesn't keep track of which dogs are best at finding which  type of explosive material, and sometimes the dogs miss explosives or they say they've found something when there aren't any explosives present.
    • Apparently, also according to he GAO, the reason the dogs are being used on passengers at on some airports and not others is because officials at some airports have concerns about the "composition and capabilities" of the passenger-screening dogs, and they've said you can use the dogs on cargo at our airport, but not on people. 
    • The TSA responded to that report by saying, we're going to do better about complying with training requirements, and we'll keep doing assessments of the passenger-screening dogs that are being used so we can see where we need to improve.
    • Further evidence that the TSA doesn't have this down quite yet: in May, one TSA bomb-sniffing dog in Atlanta bit a passenger in the stomach.  The woman took a picture of the bite, and it looks pretty bad, actually.  The wound has now healed, the woman got a bunch of rabies shots, but she needn't have because the dog had been up to date on its rabies vaccine.
    • The woman wasn't even flying.  She was waiting in the baggage area to meet her sister, and the dog came up to her and bit her.
    • Now, here's another question: what happens when a TSA bomb-sniffing dog meets a service dog?  And what if the service dog is carrying explosives?  One hopes that it would all go well from a dog-civility standpoint.   But is this a scenario the TSA are trained to handle?

    The TSA names their bomb-detection dogs after victims who were killed in the 9/11 attacks.  These bomb-sniffing Labrador puppies in training are named Hoey and Hatton.
    (Photo by Reuters, from Travelers Today)

    National Service Animal Registry, Flying with Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals
    Alaska Air, Service and Emotional Support Animals
    American Airlines, Service Animals
    Delta Airlines, Service Animals
    United Airlines, Service Animals
    Transportation Security Administration, Service Animals and Passengers with Service Dogs and TSA Dogs & Aviation Security
    NBC News, TSA dog bites passenger at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airport, May 13, 2013
    Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Explosives-sniffing dog bites woman at airport, May 10, 2013
    CBS This Morning, TSA trying out screening with dogs, July 3, 2013
    Houston Chronicle, TSA tests bomb-sniffing dogs in a select few airports, July 4, 2013
    USA Today, GAO questions using TSA dogs to screen passengers, January 31, 2013
    The Hill, TSA ineffectively using bomb-sniffing dogs, GAO report finds, February 1, 2013


    1. I saw a FEMA staff person walking around with a sniffer dog at the Salt Lake airport the other day.

    2. FEMA has dogs too, huh? Maybe they were jealous of the TSA.


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