Are Travelers Abusing The System With Service Animals On Planes?

Are Travelers Abusing The System With Service Animals_editedIf you’re following me on Facebook or Instagram, then you know that I recently posted a controversial photo that quickly became the center of a heated debate between my friends and followers. The photo was of a woman walking a small dog on a leash aboard a flight from Los Angeles to Toronto. What caused the big ruckus? The pooch was wearing a “Service Dog” vest and it was one of those things that make you go…hmmm?

I didn’t want to say too much because I honestly have no idea if this woman’s dog was really a service dog or not, but the vest sure didn’t look like it was legitimate. My big beef is that I (sadly) know many people who buy these vests/certificates online through companies that don’t require any proof that they’re for an actual service dog. Travelers do it for a number of reasons. One is so that their dogs can fly with them on the plane rather than in the cargo hold. Another is so that they don’t have to pay the usual $125+ each way fee. That’s right…service animals fly for free.

I love dogs and I’m not allergic to them, so it doesn’t bother me in the least. I actually find them comforting. What bothers me is that I know that the increasing number of people and companies who are abusing the system are going to ruin it for those individuals who actually need a service dog for support. Have you seen an increase of “service dogs” when you travel? I have and perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Because according to New Yorker magazine: “In 2011, the National Service Animal Registry, a commercial enterprise that sells certificates, vests, and badges for helper animals, signed up twenty-four hundred emotional-support animals. Last year, it registered eleven thousand.”

Have you, or do you know anyone who has, purchased one of these “service animal” vests/certificates even though they don’t actually warrant one?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Good to know: According to The New York Times, one big giveaway is that “assistance dogs are trained not to bark in public, not to go smelling other dogs or people.”

Interesting Stories on the Subject:

Airline Policies on Service Animals:

Johnny Jet

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Johnny Jet

I used to be afraid to fly and at times even leave the house! I conquered my fear (long story) and now I travel to 20+ countries a year sharing my firsthand knowledge, tips and deals with friends, family and readers. Please sign up to our free newsletters and tell your friends!

32 Comments on "Are Travelers Abusing The System With Service Animals On Planes?"

  1. Husband highly allergic to dog “dander” (dogs of all kinds cause his breathing to falter). We cannot sit near one or be near one. I had to guide him out of a businss meeting last week
    because he could not breathe. Someone brought a LAP DOG to the meeting and sat 2 chairs from him. WHY DO THEY DO IT? If this is a “comfort” animal: STAY HOME.

  2. While my husband has terrible allergies, I just get “nauseous” smelling DOG STINK. Dogs have a peculiar odor which causes me a gag reflex if I am too close. SO I KEEP MY DISTANCE. Never go to a home where a dog lives and of course NO DOG WOULD EVER
    get into my home. We ask before we go anywhere but people think we are “kidding” about allergies to dogs.

  3. I know a lady who paid $80 online for a certificate for her dog as a “seizure alert dog”. Her justification was that she was sure he would stark barking and draw attention to her if she starts having a seizure. Saved over $500 in pet flight charges for her so far. It is the same as people using wheelchairs to get onboard a flight early. It all ruins the flying experience, increases airline costs and is overall just ridiculous.

  4. My dearest friend has a dachshund that is a service animal. My friend has multiple mental illness and panic issues and the dog not only alerts others of a serious complication, but also helps calm her so that she doesn’t have an attack when she’s out (including flying). I NEVER question whether a pet is a service animal or not, as I’ve seen the difference a small dog can make in the quality of a person’s life who might otherwise be housebound or even hospitalized. Please be aware that service animals are being used more and more for these types of issues.

  5. After working in the hospitality industry for many years, I have witnessed countless number of guest with their “assistance animals”. Not only dogs, but a variety of assorted animals, (cats, birds, hamsters, snakes etc). people have attempted to claim as assistance in order to get out of paying hotel pet fees. Abuse, yes. Probably in the high 90%. Currently only dogs and small horses can be delegated as assistance animals. Actual Assistance animals are a wonderful thing and are certainly needed. But those who abuse the system and treat their small dogs as fashion accessories (Thank you Paris Hilton) should be ashamed of themselves.

    • Justin (We Fly Free) | October 16, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Reply

      If you had the first idea what you’re talking about, you’d know that emotional support animals (the ones at question here, as they don’t require any certification) are only an issue on flights and for housing (pet deposits, housing that won’t allow pets, etc). Hotels are exempted, since the ADA does not apply to emotional support animals and other, more specific laws apply to housing and air travel. Hotels (as well as retail stores and many other businesses, for that matter) are only subject to the ADA which covers assistance dogs like those that assist the blind, etc.

      In any case, most airlines stipulate that they may require somebody with an ESA dog to furnish a letter from a mental health professional… simply buying a vest is not sufficient to travel with your dog if the airline employees are doing their jobs.

      The misinformation in this blog post and the comments only inflames the unjust aspersions cast upon those walking through the airport with their dog. I’ve never seen anyone not be [quickly] re-seated on any flight if they didn’t want to sit near a dog. Usually a dog lover is quick to volunteer to sit next to the dog even if the seat is “worse.” The undue burden on others is so minimal that it says more about the complainer than the complained-about. Fly private if you don’t want to deal with other people (and their problems).

  6. If you are so psycho you need a dog to cope, you are too psycho to fly.

  7. It is ridiculous of the airlines to not verify the legitimacy of these animals. I am an animal lover, but there is a time and place. I do not not agree with animals in the cabin even in carriers as those around them have to deal with smells, sounds, dander, etc.

    You can’t even go to The Home Depot without see people hauling their dogs with them. I have point blank asked management about it, and I was made out to be the bad guy. “What, did one bite you or something?” The policy is clearly posted on the entrance doors – ADA covered animals only. What does the greeter do when patrons enter with their 90 lbs lab in tow? THe sames thing as all the other bozo employees – stop, pet the dog, and tell the owner how cute it is.

    If it hasn’t happened already, it is only a matter of time before some kids gets a public mauling in a big box store resulting in a huge lawsuit. That store manager and shift manager will be gone. The greeter will probably survive though.

    • Our Home Depot welcomes our dogs. As long as they are well-mannered and on a leash. What’s wrong with that?

      • As long as they are well-mannered and on a leash, what is wrong with that? Are you friggin’ kidding me!?! These are DOGS, not people. They are a liability , not an asset. You dog may be well controlled, but what happens when they pass another dog in an aisle, or a three year old runs up and kicks it or pulls it tail? Not to mention that dogs bring parasites and bacteria with them wherever they go, they pee on everything, and some people are allergic or frightened by dogs. I love my dog like he is a member of the family, but when I run errands, he stays home. THis is not only out of respect for the store management and other customers, but also out of respect for my dog and where he would be happier and with less stress.

      • What’s wrong with that?
        I’ll tell you what’s wrong with that.
        These so called “service” dogs that are NOT service dogs. Service dogs that try to sniff you, jump on you or even try to walk towards you are NOT service dogs. Service dogs are well trained and perfectly calm. You can tell when someone is faking it. If it is in training? My gawd, go somewhere else. Like OUTSIDE public. I’ve seen people bring dogs into GROCERY stores. People putting their little lap dogs in the damn cart. This whole “it comforts me” thing is bull. I have a friend with a legit service dog for a legit reason. I’ve seen my fair share of fakers and people who actually need it.

        • Dogs don’t necessarily have to be service dogs to enter the store. You might want to check your facts before responding to posts.

  8. I think the problem lies with the airline industry. Of course, you are going to have people pulling whatever they can to get their “child” to accompany them on vacation or visiting the relatives and so forth. Not only that, but have you seen the cost of daycare or pet boarding?? If the only other option is to transport your “child” under inhumane conditions (we’ve all heard the story of Fido sitting on the tarmac in the blazing sun while the plane loads and the no temp regulated cargo hold where Fido is kept during the flight), I see why many people would opt for just being dishonest, especially when it’s easy, you know Fido is safe AND (bonus) it saves money$$$. Not that I condone the practice of being dishonest or selfishly inconveniencing the majority, but if airlines want to offer pet transportation, there needs to be a better solution than the basement of the plane. Besides, there are legitimate service animals whose owners validly need them AND have gone through the real legal process and do not deserve to be vilified with the rest.

  9. There will always be some people who will abuse any such system. It used to be that service animals were carefully trained animals that provided a specific function for a truly handicapped person. There was a time when most of the people permitted to park in handicapped spaces actually had some disability. My wife is a physician, and due to a head-on collision with a crack head, a disabled person. She has endless stories of patients who want her to sign paperwork for a handicapped permit, or scooter, or service animal. Very rarely do these people have any actual need for such things. Of course, most of the truly handicapped get what they need from a specialist. And the laws as I understand them are greatly in favor of the person claiming the handicap. The complicated part of the issue is that it is none of our business what medical issues a person may have. Medical privacy is a real issue. I think what will happen is that this issue will finally get so out of hand that some sort of universal permit will be required. The permit will require a real diagnosis to get, the pet will be specially trained, and the permit will not disclose any information that violates medical privacy.

  10. Absolutely correct. Even we occasional travelers notice the amazing increase in this business that cannot possibly be legitimate or folks would have been flying before. This will definitely present a problem for those who legitimately need help in the future. Yet one more indication of the Me, Me, Me attitude in the U.S. today.

  11. WOW – There are some oversensitive desensitized people on here. My thoughts, if you need the animal and they are a ‘Service’ animal you can bring them with you anywhere you want to go anytime you want to as far as I am concerned. The largest concern I have with those that just slap a vest on their pet is that they have not been trained how to behave in Public, in confined situations. Your pet may bark, react adversely to others, use the bathroom. Not to say that those things cannot happen with a Service animal but one that is a Service animal is going to be much better behaviors that a Pet. I love my dogs and sure I would like to take them onto a plane with me, but I wouldn’t, it wouldn’t be fair to those that need a service animal, nor to my dog, to place them in a stressful situation like that.

    I do think that the Federal government needs to step in here and mandate what is, and what is not a service animal. Many states do not have regulations on service animals and anyone with a label maker can have a ‘Service’ animal.

  12. A friend (acquaintance) of mine got a job in the Virgin Islands last year and said he would never put his Dog (75Lb MUTT) in the hold of a plane so he went on internet and bought a service dog kit. Now he and his dog are happily on an island. later X friend

  13. i would urge anyone considering calling their pet a “service dog” to read this post by Elise Lalor, a dog trainer who trains both Search & Rescue dogs as well as service dogs for autistic children.

    http://monkeytailranch.org/fake-service-dogs-real-problem/

    My personal feeling about this is karma. Would you want your faux service animal to keep a genuine one off a flight?

  14. Rosemarie Hudspeth | October 30, 2014 at 10:13 am | Reply

    Isn’t anyone reading the ADA specifics for what constitutes a service animal? A service animal must be TRAINED to perform a specific task, i.e., guide dog, task dog, seizure dog, etc. These “emotional” and “anxiety” dogs are NOT service animals because they cannot be “trained” to perform those functions. It infuriates me to see people who feel entitled bringing their dogs into the stores, on airplanes, etc. under the guise of being of service.

  15. If proper systems are defined with parameters then the risk of system exploitation can be decreased. Nice perspective by the way, Thanks

  16. Dead on – there needs to be more formal certification of the need, and it must be presented to allow travel. Too any people are stretching it in the name of saving money or their own time.

  17. and then there are all those blind people sneaking their dogs on for free !

    So much misinformation.

    Airline personnel are all trained in what’s needed. An emotional support animal is not a “Service Animal” and requires a very detailed letter from a doctor written within the past year. Documents are examined closely every trip. Veterans with PTSD are often users of ESA’s.

    There are service animals trained to warn of heart attacks and epilepsey before they occur. There are even more crucial service animals for other conditions.

    I travel a LOT and like the pets (and even some kids) who reduce the stress of flying today.

    People with animals should be courteous enough to take the very rear seats so as not to slow down deplaning and allow people with dander allergies to be seated further away. And they should be allowed to board early for those rear seats.

    Obnoxious a-holes are the worst to fly with.

  18. I have PTSD and have a service dog Dachshund(Two)..Although I rarely travel with both they provide a valuable service and I don’t need as many drugs with my dogs treatment.If anyone abuses the system(parks in handicap spaces),then they should be both ashamed and penalized.I have a paper card I carry with a toll free number if anyone has a question of the legality of my dog.I don’t take them where they are not welcome.I have never taken them on airplanes but many times at pet friendly hotels.I explain they are not a pet,but a trained service animal.
    Pet therapy for my disease is far better than the wacky drugs they give you.My card clearly says it’s my responsibility to keep my dog under control.She poops or pees outside and I clean it up.If she finds someone invading my space her motor rumbles before a bark and I settle her down.Most people try to pet her because she is cute and most of the time she allows this unless she feels I am threatened.Then a simple quiet growl deters people.She doesn’t go off on them.I think the people that you speak of that abuse this system should be ticketed and repotted.

  19. Yikes, this author is so ignorant!

    1) “the vest sure didn’t look like it was legitimate”: Legitimately what? There is no official agency handing out official vests and patches. People with legitimate issues are only required to have the necessary paperwork: the purpose of these vests and patches are to make it easier for them to interact with the public. That’s it. Which leads me to…

    2) “people who buy these vests/certificates online through companies that don’t require any proof that they’re for an actual service dog”. Yes, because these are not actually for any official purpose.

    3) Showing up with your dog in an official-looking vest at the airport won’t make the airline waive the pet fee. Almost every single American airline these days requires that you not only have paperwork from a doctor or mental health professional with you, but the large majority of these airlines require that you send this paperwork to them 2-3 days before your departure, because they will need to verify not only the validity of the license number of the practitioner, but also speak with the practitioner and confirm that the requestor is in fact their current patient and that they did write the letter.

    Which again brings me back to: the vest is irrelevant.

    Personally, I don’t fly THAT frequently, but frequently enough – maybe a dozen or more legs per year on average – and I have only seen 1 on-leash, non-carrier-bound service dog on a flight in the last 5 years.

    You say, “What bothers me is that I know that the increasing number of people and companies who are abusing the system are going to ruin it for those individuals who actually need a service dog for support”.

    Maybe so. But what you’ve done here is publicly post a photo in multiple venues, questioning the validity of an actual person’s service dog, instead of focusing about all the people who you know for a fact are trying to scheme the system. Why do you think that because (based on what I can see in the pic), the owner is a cute, young girl, and she has a tiny fluffy dog, that that necessarily makes the situation suspicious? Why not interview those people you know and discuss their reasoning? And while we’re at that, maybe the problem with those who do abuse the system is not that they are fee-dodgers but that the airline fees are completely obscene. Less than 10 years ago, the in-cabin fee was $50. Some airlines now charge over $200. The animal is basically a carry-on bag. It’s not to deter a everyone from bringing their pet on board because there is already a limit to the number of animals allowed in cabine. There’s zero reason behind these fees.

    Possibilities: the dog may be a seizure alert dog, or be comforting enough to her during PTSD-related anxiety attacks that she can avoid taking medications that come with side effects. Neither of those jobs require a golden retriever with a better fitting vest.

    Please write a better article next time, thanks.

  20. I have to have my dog with me in a hotel because of PTSD due to a traumatic home invasion and a hotel break in. I don’t abuse it – when I am not going to be alone in my room at any point, I don’t need her, so she doesn’t come on that trip. She is trained by a professional to check under the bed, closet, bathtub, etc. (FYI, I also can’t be alone in my house without her.) I don’t abuse it- I actually paid for her for a couple years because I felt like I didn’t want to be perceived as a faker. She was always perfect on the flight, quiet in her crate as I would travel even from Florida to Ca. But one flight when we sat on the tarmac for three hours (and one passenger actually fainted from the heat ) changed that for me. When the Delta attendant wouldn’t let me open her carrier just a bit to give her water, she got really sick and dehydrated. The result was humiliating for me and needless to say, very unpleasant for the other travelers. I ended up having to get off that flight. After that, I had my psychiatrist write a letter with my official diagnosis and joined the ranks of a traveler with a trained service animal who also provides emotional support for me. I still don’t abuse it- she stays in her carrier under the seat in front of me just like any other carry-on. Because I don’t need her to be on my lap. She is not there for any traveling needs- just my destination. She sleeps, and occasionally pokes her head up to look at me for maybe 10 seconds before snuggling back down . If people on the plane ask, I tell them I paid the fee, because I’m not going into my story. She doesn’t stay at non-dog friendly hotels- even though I could – and we eat outside if it’s allowed at a restaurant- otherwise she stays at the hotel. She does not wear a vest- because I have proper documentation concerning my diagnosis and also by a certified animal trainer. Because of people abusing the system-sometimes I guess, with unruly dogs, I have been subjected lately to undue scrutiny, especially at LAX , and it’s a real shame. Most of my seat mates are amazed when I get up (even after a six hour flight) and they see I have a dog. For the most part they are not aware she is even there- because she is a TRAINED service animal. I would not be able to travel alone without her.

    • You see this is fine. LEGIT service dogs? They’re wonderful – I respect that.

      It’s when people bring in dogs they claim to be service dogs, no vest (or sometimes vest), sniffing people’s legs, trying to get away from the owner and even jumping on people. They’re clearly not service animals. It’s people like that who make others thing that people like you are not legitimate owners of a service animal.

  21. Lighten up my goodness if a person goes to the trouble to register their dog, and the dog is providing them with some sort of therapy which is not drug related then more power to them.

    I do not think you have done your research on this topic. There is no governmental registry at this point, and these are federal rules that are supported by the Americans with Disabilities Act. What gives you the right to question them?

    Service dogs are legitimate for PSTD, seizure alert, & a variety of other disabilities. Its up to the owner to train the dog and if they feel the need to purchase avast and utilize the dog registry then more power to them. And why not provide some empathy towards person with disabilities. Never have I seen a service dog that has infringed on my comfort level or any of my personal rights. You don’t seem to understand the therapeutic aspect that a dog can provide.

  22. Really enjoyed reading this blog and very helpful information.

  23. As many people cheat the system with carry on luggage, I have to think many cheat with service dogs. I have see way too many untrained, unruly “service” dogs. If owner had to show certificate of proof for training as a service dog, the number would drop dramatically.

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