Before Your Trip
9/27/2021: The DOT now requires travelers with a service dog fill out this "U.S. Department of Transportation Service Animal Air Transportation Form". and if the flight is over 8 hours, this Department of Transportation’s Service Animal Relief Attestation Form.
The most important thing you can do is communicate with the airline to let them know you’ll be bringing your service dog with you. When you book your ticket, either do it by phone or (if you book your ticket online) call the airline to tell them you will be traveling with your service dog. They will make a note in your records which will appear on your ticket.
The airlines will try to get you a bulkhead seat, but they don't always get you one. If at all possible, whenever you travel by air with a service dog, book a seat in First Class to give you and your service dog the maximum amount of space. If that isn’t an option, try to get Economy Comfort or something that will allow you and your service dog a little more legroom. When booking your flight, if you do it over the phone you can ask if a bulkhead seat might be your best option—in most airplanes this gives you more legroom, but in some planes (usually the smaller regional planes) the planes are configured in such a way that you actually get less room in a bulkhead seat. You will NOT be allowed to sit in an exit row.
If you are in First Class, or if you get a bulkhead seat, it’s best to sit next to the window. If you are in any other section, it’s best to get a middle seat. There is actually less room next to the window because of how the plane curves, and if you are in the aisle there’s a greater chance that your service dog’s tail might get stepped on or run over by one of the flight attendants’ carts.
Ask the airline or check online to see what their policies are regarding service dogs. In most cases, you will not need to provide any documentation, but it’s still a good idea to bring along a copy of your dog’s current vet records and your service dog registry card. Most airline employees are getting well-versed in what they can and cannot ask you, but it’s good to prepare ahead of time so that you know your rights, as well as your responsibilities.
If at all possible, take a direct flight rather than one with a connection. If you absolutely need to make a connection, research the airport(s) that you’ll be stopping at to see if they have a pet relief area available.
Pack a little “emergency” kit to bring along with you on the flight, including a small bottle of Nature’s Miracle, a few paper towels, poop bags, and perhaps some rubber gloves. It’s unlikely that your service dog will vomit or have an accident at the airport or on the airplane, but it’s best to be prepared, just in case. It can also be nice to bring along a small lint roller so that you can clean up any fur your service dog leaves behind.
At the Airport
Although it’s not required for your service dog to wear a vest or other indicator that it is a working dog, we recommend that you do have your service dog wear identifying equipment.
Whether or not you have bags to check, it might be worth going to the front gate to alert them to the presence of your service dog and make sure that it’s noted on your ticket.
When we attended the service dog aircraft training, they said it’s best for someone with a service dog to go through either the TSA Precheck line or the Employee security line, rather than going through the regular line. They want to get you and your dog through security as quickly and easily as possible.
Remember that your service dog is an extension of you and, therefore, you should never have to be separated from your dog. Most TSA agents will understand how to handle a service dog team, but not all of them will. Be aware of your rights before traveling, and always be patient and courteous with the TSA staff. They should ask before touching your dog, and you should let them know if there is anywhere that the dog is sensitive. Your service dog should always remain on-leash.
When going through security, best practice is to have your service dog sit and then, while holding the leash, you step through the screening area. Then tell your service dog, “Okay, come!” so they can follow you through. With so many distractions, your service dog might not hold their sit while you walk away; in this case, the TSA agent will probably want to run a scanner over you and do a hand-check of your service dog. Remember that you should not let go of your service dog at any time. (The only exception would be if you are traveling with a companion; they could hold the dog for you while you go through security, but only if you are totally comfortable with this.)
After you have gone through security, we suggest talking to your gate agent to let them know you have a service dog and confirm that you can board early. Then find a spot that is as quiet and secluded as possible in or near the gate area while you wait.
You should be able to board early, no matter which section you are located in.
On the Airplane
If you are in First Class or have a bulkhead seat, there should be enough room for your service dog to lie on the floor in front of you. We recommend bringing a blanket along for your service dog to lie on during the flight. This is helpful because it’s something familiar to them, it’s reminiscent of mat training, it will help keep your service dog a little more warm and comfortable, and it will keep your service dog from shedding on the carpet. (Also, if your service dog should happen to get sick or have an accident, the blanket would help keep the area cleaner.)
If you are in a standard airplane seat, your service dog will probably have to lie down under the seat in front of you. Again, set down a blanket along as mentioned above. Then ask your service dog to go “back” until they get into place; then have them lie down.
Your service dog must only take up as much space as your seat or the adjacent seats of anyone who is traveling with you. They cannot be in the space of someone you do not know.
It is VERY important to make sure that your service dog’s tail is not in the aisle. Not only could someone trip on it or step on it, but it could get run over by one of the flight attendants’ carts, which would be very painful and potentially dangerous for your dog.
For most flights, we suggest not giving water to your service dog during the flight. However, if you are on a longer flight, use your discretion.
Before deplaning, if you did not bring along a blanket, we suggest running a lint roller over the area where your service dog was lying to clean up any fur that was shed.
Once You’re Off the Plane
As soon as possible, get your service dog to a pet relief area or outside to go potty. Also, give them plenty of water. Since airplanes are so dry, they will probably be very thirsty.
Because this will have been such an eventful day for your service dog, try to allow them to have downtime once you have reached your destination.