Traveling with Your Assistance Dog

In this article we cover some of the lesser-known aspects of travel with an assistance dog.  Have some tips and tricks we’ve missed?  Please tell us about them so we can share them with other guide and service dog handlers.   

What to Know Before You Go 

Whether your dog guides, alerts to sounds, retrieves items, or helps you stay grounded in public, traveling with an assistance dog means a few extra considerations.  Not only will you need to pack your dog's supplies along with your own, but you'll need to think about the places you're going.  Will you be traveling outside the continental United States?  If so, will you need a health certificate or other paperwork? And don't forget, there is a specific process you will need to follow to enter Hawaii with your assistance dog. 

Most vacation spots in the United States are places of public accommodation and do not require any type of ID or health certificate for your service animal. Some zoos and wildlife parks may have restricted areas such as petting zoos or aviaries.  Check the service animal policy before your visit.  The National Park Service does have some restrictions as it is not covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Check any national park you plan to visit for its service animal policy, and remember that your dog must be under your direct control at all times.  

If you have an older dog, check any tours you plan to take to make sure your dog can handle them.  An older dog may not be able to do its best work on tours that might include boarding buses with steep stairs or walking long distances or over rough terrain. 

You may want to practice some behaviors before you travel. Make sure your dog will go willingly and fit easily under seats – this can help speed up the process of airplane boarding, getting settled in restaurants, or riding on tour buses. 

Taking To the Skies

Let's start with packing. Although some airlines may allow an extra bag for your dog's supplies at no cost, this is not required under any civil rights law or accommodation.  We suggest packing one day's food and medication in your carry-on bag.  Everything else can go in checked luggage. 

When it comes to air travel, the civil rights laws can be confusing.  If you are on an aircraft, your rights are covered by the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA).  When on the ground and taking advantage of airport services, you are covered by a combination of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and ACAA. 

It's a personal choice, but not required, to let airlines know that you will be traveling with your assistance dog when flying unless you would like a specific seat such as a bulkhead or window seat.  You are not required to sit in a bulkhead seat because you have a service animal.  Additionally, when traveling within the continental United States, you do not need a health certificate for your assistance dog. 

Technically, if your dog is trained primarily to assist with your PTSD, it is considered a psychiatric service animal by the airlines under the ACAA.  This means that you will need a letter from a mental health professional stating your condition and that the dog is required to assist you.  This letter must be on file with the airline 48 hours in advance of your travel and is good for 1 year.  We recommend getting such a letter from your VA treatment team and providing a copy to the airline when needed. 

Sometimes airline staff confuse our working service animals with emotional support animals and ask for paperwork or letters from your doctor.  When dealing with misunderstandings or inappropriate behavior of airline staff, your first resource should be to ask to speak with the Complaint Resolution Officer or CRO.  Every airline has a CRO on duty at all times at all airports.  The person may not be readily available but you should be able to speak to him/her within a reasonable time period. 

If you feel that your civil rights were violated during an airline experience, you have 45 days from the date of the incident to file a complaint with the Department of Transportation to receive a mandated response from the airline.  You can file complaints up to one year past the incident date to have them investigated by the DOT.  The following link takes you to the page for filing complaints.  DOT Complaints 

Handling Airport Security 

Before you board that flight, though, let's talk about security.  There are several ways to go through the security process.  The most common method is to work your dog up to the archway, put them at a sit/stay and make a long leash.  Keeping hold of the leash, walk through the archway, turn and call your dog. If you keep the dog's gear on, it will alarm, and the dog will need to be screened.  If you do not alarm, you will not need to be screened, unless part of a random general screening.  You can also walk through with your dog. This will mean that both of you will need to have additional screening.  Taking off your dog's gear prior to going through the archway is a personal choice.  TSA staff cannot require you to take off any gear but may need to look in any pouches, pockets or under the harness or vest.  

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) offers assistance through specially trained passenger support specialists (PSS).  You can call ahead to arrange assistance from such a specialist or ask for one when you come to the security checkpoint. Not every checkpoint has a PSS on duty but TSA staff can call for someone if you are willing to wait.  The PSS can assist you through the checkpoint, watch, and return your items to you and help get assistance to your gate.  The best way to set up such assistance is to call the TSA Cares line before your travel at 1-855-787—2227. 

TSA also has a disability notification card that you can customize with information about your particular disability, any medical equipment you may have, or specific instructions on how to best communicate with you.  This card can be downloaded from the TSA website, which has a great deal of useful information about traveling with a disability or medical devices.  For more tips from TSA, click here.

At The Hotel

When making your hotel reservations, keep the following in mind: 

  • The hotel cannot ask you to notify it about the presence of your service animal.
  • The hotel cannot demand identification or health certificates for your service animal as a condition of staying there.
  • The hotel cannot restrict the type of room you have, i.e., pet friendly or smoking only, because you have a service animal. 
  • The hotel cannot restrict you from bringing your service animal with you to places where other guests are allowed such as dining rooms, pool areas, etc. 
  • The hotel can ask you to remove your dog if it is not under your control, is barking excessively, or acting aggressively toward other guests and staff.
  • Your dog should be under good control and should never be allowed to swim in a hotel pool or run freely on hotel property.

We understand that sometimes you may want to leave your dog in your hotel room while you enjoy the hotel’s amenities.  The best way to do this is first to ensure that your dog can be left alone without barking or being destructive.  You may consider using a portable crate to house your dog when you are not in the room.  If leaving your dog unattended in your room, use the "Do Not Disturb" sign to let housekeeping and other staff know you do not want the room opened.

Although your assistance dog is allowed on public beaches and in public state and local parks, it must be under your control and not allowed to run free.  After all, the reason you are accompanied by your dog is so it can assist with your disability. 

We hope these resources are helpful. For more information, please contact us at 1-866-282-8047 or at or  Have a great rest of the summer!

Department of Justice Americans with Disabilities Act 
DOJ Website
Hotline: 1-800-514-0301 (voice)
1-800 - 514 - 0383 (TTY)

Department of Transportation Aviation Consumer Protection Division 
DOT Website
Hotline: 1-800-778-4838 (voice) or 1-800-455-9880 (TTY)

Transportation Security Administration 
TSA Website
TSA Cares Hotline: 1-855-787-2227

Hawaii Department of Agriculture 
Guide and Service Dogs Entering Hawaii Website