Travel with a Service Dog

Info on flying, taking a bus or subway, or traveling by car...with a Service Dog.

1. Flying

Service Dogs can help people with disabilities become more mobile. It may seem intimidating to travel on an airplane with your Service Dog, but it can help to realize that employees who work with the airline see passengers with disabilities traveling with their Service Dogs all the time.

Most handlers call the airline ahead of time and let the airline know they'll be traveling with a Service Dog (because the airline may put a note on the ticket). When you walk up to the security line, the employee in charge sometimes sends you to a separate line. This is oftentimes a shorter queue, such as the one for known travelers or employees of the airlines. There will still be security stations to contend with (usually old-school metal detectors rather than the scanning booths). We recommend that you take off the dog's vest, collar, and leash at this point, so you can put them through the conveyor belt and they can get x-rayed  (just like they do with people’s luggage). The procedure varies, but often the handler walks through the security booth, leaving the “naked” dog, then calls the dog through, and then the dog is directly inspected by security. Then you can put the dog’s collar, vets, and leash back on. Sometimes the TSA does a hand-swab on the handler, too.

When you arrive at at the gate and it's time to board, you'll board with the dog when you seat is called. You will probably then go to your bulkhead seat, which gives you a little more room at your feet. Some handlers with a Service Dog prefer to buy "stretch seating" or "economy comfort" so they get the extra room a bulkhead seat would provide and then they also get the under-seat baggage room (this option costs money, but some handlers find the extra cost worth the expense). Some handlers even choose to pay the extra money to fly first-class. The dog then lies at your feet during the trip. The goal is to make everything as easy as possible—many passengers and flight attendants often don't even realize there was a dog on board!

Special notes:

You will probably feel more secure bringing paperwork (such as doctor's notes, the dog's service dog graduation certificate, and immunization records), but the airline often doesn't ask for any of this paperwork. Optional: Many passengers find it helpful to have medical documentation as a way to discreetly communicate information about their needs to security, and so the TSA has created a Notification Card that passengers can use for discreet communication. The URL of the card keeps changing, but you can go to https://tsa.gov and search for it there. Use of this Notification Card, or of a doctor' letter, does not exempt a passenger from screening, but the card can be a nice reassuring way of smoothing out situations.

We've always recommended that you do not get a connecting flight because would add too many hours of stressful travel. Plus, you would need to bring the dog outside to pee (and find a spot for them to pee outside), and then go back through security. Instead, we've advised that a direct flight is the way to go. At one point, a Pawsitivity family told us that they prefer a connecting flight because when traveling with a child with a disability, they found that two 2-hour flights are more manageable that one 4-hour flight...however, they have since changed their mind and now agree with us that a direct flight is (by far) their best choice.

You may see people without a disability who fly with what is called an emotional support animal—if they have a recent note from their doctor and a recent health certificate from their veterinarian, they’re allowed to do that under the Airline Carrier Act. But if you have a severe disability and a trained service dog, you don’t need a doctors note nor a veterinarian’s health certificate.

We recommend not bringing a Service Dog to Hawaii. Hawaii has its own special exceptions due to its unique ecology and correspondingly strong anti-rabies laws. Under normal circumstances, any dog coming into Hawaii must go through quarantine, and exceptions are rarely made.

In general, while a service dog will willingly travel with you on the airplane, it’s stressful for them. The act of flying on a plane is the equivalent of performing an extended Sit-Stay or Down-Stay in a very small area with uncomfortable air pressure, loud noises, strange smells, and lots of crowding. That kind of situation can put a lot of stress on an animal, and traveling on less-busy days/times plus upgrading to first-class (even if it’s more expensive), as well as flying out of smaller terminals will really help mitigate your companion’s stress levels.

2. Bus and Subway

As with airlines, please note that dogs hate traveling by bus or subway. The noise, the crowds, and the smells all create a high-stress environment. They’ll do it, but they don’t like it, and this should be taken into account when planning the day.

During subway rides, it is highly recommended that a handler stands with the dog rather than find a place to sit. That way, ome doesn’t need to worry about another passenger stepping on his animal’s tail. Busses can pose a different challenge. In the best case scenario, a handler will find a double seat to share with the Service Dog. If it’s really crowded, then standing is the way to go.

3. Traveling by Car

Option 1: We recommend a kennel in the back seat or far back of an SUV. Dogs are happier and more secure in a smaller area, and it’s harder for them to interfere with driving so long as they are confined to their kennel.

Option 2: Pawsitivity’s vest comes with a secure handle. You may put the Service Dog in the back seat, have the dog wear the vest, and strap a seatbelt through the vest handle. You can then latch the seatbelt securely.

Handlers are often tempted to keep their dog in the front seat for company, but in the unlikely event of an accident, having a dog interfere at that crucial moment can prove disastrous. It’s much better to be safe than sorry.

Note that virtually any dog will get car-sick if you drive for far enough. Their bodies can’t understand the way the car is moving the same way that people do, so it’s always a good idea to hold off feeding until after the trip is over.