U.S. Guide to Air Travel with an Assistance Dog

Joss & Roobelle wait patiently as we eat at an airport restaurant

Traveling with an assistance dog can be as complicated as traveling with small children at times. However, there is a myriad of laws and etiquette when traveling with an assistance dog, whereas with children, not so much. Children will be children, as they say, but assistance dogs are expected to perform robotically.  As the grounding of a US Airways flight has proved, a hitch like emergency explosive diarrhea can turn into a national headline. So how do handlers minimize all of the extra stress and pressure they endure simply in getting around the country with their living medical devices? By engaging in preparation, learning from others, and more preparation of course!

Over the years, I’ve developed a system that enables me to deal with almost any hiccup that arises. Below is a list of FAQs I’ve often seen asked by fellow handlers and how I go about them. (Please note, I am not affiliated with any brand or professional service I might mention. They are simply what have been proven for me).


The very first thing I do is review or learn the laws governing my method of travel and the public access laws of the state(s) I’ll be under.  The internet makes this extremely easy.

Everyone’s experience will differ. After having employees ignorant of the laws attempting to hinder or complicate my travel unnecessarily, I will only fly Delta and its affiliates now. Delta’s employees obviously undergo training specific to people with disabilities and policies regarding service animals. Additionally, their CROs (complaints resolution officers) are amazing and if you do run into a problem, it is very quickly fixed.

Booking your flight
Shopping for optimal flight times helps alleviate some stress for both you and your dogs. If at all possible, avoid layovers that are fewer than 1.5 hours so that you have plenty of time to find the relief area and get to your next terminal for pre-boarding. This is especially important for people with mobility issues, as they might have to wait for their assistance or assistance vehicles to arrive.

Choosing your seats:  Optimal seats are highly subjective and situational. I always choose a window seat in bulkhead or economy comfort (a little extra leg room). I prefer window simply because I don’t like people having to step over my assistance dog.  On some aircraft, there is actually more room for your service dog if there is a seat in front of it for it to lay partially under. Bulkhead does not necessarily equal more room if there is a solid barrier between it and first class. If you have a large dog, it may behoove you to visit SeatMaestro to look up detailed measurements and seat maps of the aircraft you will be traveling on. The aircraft model can be found in the reservation information.

After you’ve figured the optimal seat location, book your ticket. Call the airline after you’ve booked to inform them you will be traveling with a service dog. They will assign you the seat you request without any extra charge as an ACAA accommodation within the zone type you purchased.

If you travel with an emotional support animal or a psychiatric service animal, you must provide at least 48hrs of notice to the airline and provide a letter stating disability from your licensed mental health practitioner. The 48hrs notice can be waived at the airline’s discretion. A sample letter can be found at Service Dog Central. Note that airlines may, at their discretion, accept an out of date letter as stated in the ACAA FAQs.

Packing your carry-on or go bag
Plain and simple, you are going to need a “diaper bag” for your service animal to keep certain items easily and quickly accessible. Here is what I pack for my own SDs.

  • Emergency Mess Kit: Baby wipes, poo bags, 3oz Nature’s Miracle, 3oz hand sanitizer, pee pad.
  • Travel water bottle: While giving your dog big drinks is not recommended during travel, they work hard in airports and can get dry mouths. If you don’t want to give them ice chips, these are great. I personally prefer Lixit Thirsty Dog bottles for their durability and convenience.
  • Emergency Med Kit: ASK YOUR VET FIRST! Imodium tablets for sudden loose bowels, pepto tablets in case of upset tummies, benadryl tablets because one time my dog got bit by some ants at a relief station and after watching her itchy misery for a few hours, I vowed to never leave without them again.
  • Mat: My mobility dog is a Doberman Pinscher, short and thin-coated. Airplane floors are really cold. I pack a foldable mat for him. It’s large enough that his body core can fit on it to help insulate him against that freezing floor.
  • Treats!!! My dogs get treated occasionally when they’re working hard and doing a good job. There’s nothing like randomly treating proper behaviors to keep up good attitudes and energy in high work areas like airports.
  • Enough food for two days in case of lost luggage.

Preparing for a flight

  • Know your dog’s digestive quirks. Depending on travel time and layovers, withhold a portion of food or an entire meal if necessary and limit water intake at least three hours before the flight. It is better to feed a little bit at a time throughout the day and give ice chips or small drinks than to have an accident!
  • Have a checklist! Lists are tedious to make but they are a great help in reducing stress before traveling, and with one you can be sure to not forget anything.
  • Play fetch or take your dog for a walk.  A bit of exercise and/or play before travel goes a long way toward a happy and effective assistance dog.
  • Know where the Service Dog Relief Areas are. All airports are now required to have relief areas inside of sterile zones (with very few exceptions). Find out the type of relief area and decide if it’s suitable for your team’s needs. Normally a call to airport information is enough to find out. Some have may have it on their websites as well.
  • Leave enough time for pre-boarding. You qualify for this service as an ACAA accommodation.
  • Try to relax! If your dog is properly trained, you will likely be more stressed than your dog. If hiccups happen, remember that the staff is very helpful if they know what you need. Simply communicate and they will probably be quite accommodating.

Checking in for your Flight
Assistance dogs are accommodated basically as medical equipment. Powered wheelchair users can’t be charged extra for needing to bring along a spare battery, and handlers can’t be charged extra for needing to bring things to support their dogs. If you have a bag or crate solely containing items for your assistance dog, you do not need to pay an extra check fee. Such items include, but are not limited to, gear, beds, food bowls, canine toothpaste, a crate, etc. Kibble is NOT included. Remember, in order for the bag or crate to qualify as a no-fee item, it must be free of personal items. Only those directly for the use of your assistance dog may be in the container.

Going through security
Security lines can seem intimidating to PWDs in general, let alone assistance dog handlers. The following information may help to reduce your stress! You qualify to go through the expedited line. If you have a friend with you, (s)he can get an assistance pass to go through security with you. This will help you handle your dog and carryon. If you are alone, you can also request an airline employee to assist you through the line. If you would like the help of a specially trained individual to aid your process through the airport, you can bypass the airline/airport employees entirely and request help directly from the TSA. Further below is more about this excellent service provided to people with disabilities.

Liquids:  If you need to bring water for your service dog, TSA must let it through. Declare that you have it and what it is for. The same policy applies for any liquid medications your dog might need.

Gear:  You do not not have to remove your service dog’s gear if you don’t want to. If you are certain that it will set off the alarms and don’t want to go through a pat down, place your dog in a downstay and go through the scanner by yourself. If you have mobility problems, the TSA is pretty nice about making sure you don’t fall over on your way through. When you are found to be “clean,” call your dog through the scanner. Then, the TSA agent will pat down your dog if it alarms, possibly swab your hands, and send you on your way.

Special Assistance from TSA: The agency’s policies and training concerning people with disabilities in the past decade have improved radically. Handling a dog, one bag, one carryon, and a personal item is extremely difficult, even for a person with some mobility and ability to focus. If you can’t put yourself through that, you can contact the TSA to aid you during all ground stages of your air travel. They can meet you at the curb and escort you through the security process to your gate, meet you at your connecting flight, and at your final destination. This would also prove extremely useful for people traveling to airports or airlines that don’t have proper relief areas inside of sterile zones. The service can be scheduled up to thirty days in advance once airline tickets are purchased. For more information, please visit the TSA website or call TSA Cares at 1-855-787-2227.

My dog gets nervous while traveling. What should I do?
Please don’t avoidably travel until it’s properly trained to deal with the circumstances of travel. Many awesome methods exist to do this, and a quick post to an online group will probably yield a plethora of ideas to choose from.

If you are wondering whether or not your dog will get nervous before its first flight, simply look at how it does in chaotic crowd situations and long trips in the car. If it tends to be calm and sleep in the car, it most certainly will on a plane. If it navigates chaotic crowd situations with ease, the airport should be no problem even if it’s never seen one before.

Do you have any tips or further questions about traveling with your assistance dog? Leave a comment, e-mail planet.bork@gmail.com, or tweet @Planet_Bork !

UPDATE 10/12/14: Special thanks to Cheryl Bloom for bringing to my attention additional information concerning the TSA and reminding me of bag fee policies.

UPDATE 11/26/2015: Added the relief area information according to a new rule issued by the DoT.

Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Programs or Activities Receiving Federal Financial Assistance: U.S. Airports 49 CFR Part 27

Rule Effective October 5, 2015:

“This final rule does require that airports not only have at least one relief area per terminal but also that this service animal relief area, with limited exceptions, be located in the sterile area of each airport terminal to ensure that individuals with service animals are able to access service animal relief areas when traveling, particularly during layovers.”

UPDATE 11/07/2016: Simple edits to prepare for a possible redesign after receiving feedback on accessibility.

UPDATE 12/25/2016: More simple edits for flow. Removed information not directly related to air travel. Added the brief excerpt concerning ESAs and Psych animals. Added the source ACAA FAQs.

8 responses to “U.S. Guide to Air Travel with an Assistance Dog

    • I’m very happy to assist PWDs and assistance dog handlers. Travel is so stressful if one isn’t practiced, so I wrote a guide I wished I had when I first started. If your community members have any requests to make the guide more accessible, please feel free to let me know.

  1. This is a great guide, and I’ve shared it with a FB page for K9s For Warriors graduates (disabled veterans with service dogs…like me and Freedom, my SD). In the guide it mentions a few things, like no-cost SD bags, TSA assistance escorts, carrying water for the SD, etc. For these very specific tips, I didn’t find specific references. I did follow the links to the regulations and websites, but was unable to find the very specific references for these specific issues. Listing those specific references as you talk about the specific issues would be very helpful. Thank you again for such a fantastic guide!

    • Thanks so much for your feedback!

      If I can get my hands on a document that’s linkable to sections like the new relief zone rule, I will insert footnotes with links to the relevant rules. Until then, we have to make do with my highlighted version of the ACAA, which is a quicker reference but not when you’re on the spot. 🙂 I’ll do some digging to see if I can’t find one since its been a couple of years!

      The TSA escort might be easiest to get by calling the number, as the TSA website can be challenging to navigate.

      I’ll ping your website if I manage to find a link-sectioned version of the ACAA.

    • Jim Kuiken, I still can’t find a source that’s linkable to line by line, but I did highlight and add an ACAA FAQ that’s found on the DOT site. It’s a bit easier to parse for some of the issues that arise. See links under the “Laws” section of the guide. 🙂 Merry Christmas

  2. Pingback: Guide for U.S. Handlers: Traveling with an Assistance Dog | Planet Bork

  3. Good to know about delta. I flew in Oct a
    2015 on united with my service dog, and had a horrible trip to my destination. Most of which involved not assisting me to the relief area for my dog. Interesting that as of 10/5/2015 they need to have an a relief area within the sterile area. Denver needs to get it together on that one.

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