I flew with my service dog this weekend, going home. I am about to undertake a mini-rant about that experience. And knowing me, the “mini” is relative. Fair warning.
First, there are two types of animals covered by law: service dogs and emotional support animals. Service dogs are dogs which are trained in tasks and/or jobs which specifically help a disabled handler. The dog is trained in public access and in tasks, and has full access to all types of housing, all areas of public, and air travel. Emotional support animals are pets for a person with a psychiatric/emotional disorder. The animal is not trained in any way, but just provides emotional support to their handler by their very presence. They have access to housing and air travel, but have no general public access rights.
The above is totally correct.
Under the DOT, who governs the rules for service animals flying, psychiatric service dogs (public access trained and task trained) are grouped into the same category as emotional support animals (untrained pets).
So. When you travel with your extensively trained psychiatric service animal you have to meet all the requirements the DOT has put in place for a special-case pet. Including one big one, which the DOT specifically says in other places in their rules is restrictive and unreasonable for service dog handlers.
That rule? You have to have, on letterhead, from a mental health professional, a letter dated within one year of travel stating that you have a DSM IV condition, that the animal is required either on the flight or at your destination, that the professional is treating you, and the details of the professional’s certification.
You have to carry this letter every time you fly. You have to get a new one every year. And whenever asked, you have to present it. In addition to answering any questions they may have about everything except the details of your disability, as all service dog users do.
In a year of flying with Toby I have never been asked to present the letter. He is clearly trained, and clearly identified as a service dog. I have been asked if I have it, but only by well-meaning people who want to make sure I know the rule in case someone else decides to get bitchy about it. They can tell he is not just a pet.
I am in the airport waiting to fly home (where I can’t get web access, so this will be going up later). Earlier, I checked in to my flight. The woman watching the line asked if he was a service animal. I assured her that yes, he was, and offered documentation. She declined it. I went to check my bags and print my boarding pass. No questions. Went through security. No questions. Went to my gate. No questions.
Got to my gate. Went, of my own free will, to the ticket agent to ask if I could preboard since I was traveling with a service animal (as I usually do when traveling with Toby, that way the two of us getting situated doesn’t slow others down. It is allowed, and that info is confirmed on their website.). She pulled up my file and saw that he was technically an emotional support animal in their system. How did she see this? I had marked it on the information when buying the ticket. Even though the question was “Is he a service animal or an emotional support animal?” and it galled me to write emotional support animal when he is a trained service animal, I knew the intent of the question so I did. Me being obedient and trying to work with the system getting me screwed #1.
She looks at me and asks (very abruptly and accusingly), “Is he a service animal or an emotional support animal?” I remembered their phrasing and said, “Well, he’s, well, to you, an emotional support animal, but he’s really a psychiatric service dog.” Me being obedient and trying to work with the system getting me screwed #2.
She glared at me and I said, “I have his documentation, would you like it?” She asked, “Has anyone looked at it yet?” I replied, honestly, “No.” MBOATTWWTSGMS #3.
She said, “Well, then, I have to see it.” I agreed, and pulled it out of the folder in my bag where I had kept it. It was on letterhead. It said everything required. It was perfect.
It didn’t have a date. The regulation is that it has to be a letter from withinin one year on letterhead that hits those four bullet points. But having a date is not a bullet point, so I hadn’t noticed it was missing when running the checklist in my head. She examined it for a long time and said, again very abruptly, “This has no date on it.”
I turned pale. “Really?” I said. “I am so sorry, do you want me to call the person who wrote it to get her authorization? I have his previous letter, too, which expired just a few days ago that I can show you.”
“No, no, it’s fine,” the agent told me, annoyed. I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that was the end of it, and making a mental note to update the letter ASAP. “Did you fly out here with this letter?”
“Yes,” I answered, confused. She tried to find my flight out and couldn’t. When I realized what she was doing I said, “We didn’t fly on your airline (Southwest), we flew Horizon.”
She looked at me for a long second. “OK,” she said. “I’m going to let you on.” (Said as if she was doing me a big favor). “But only because you are flying home. If you were outbound, I would have to deny letting you get on the flight.”
At this point I am shaking and unsettled. “Alright,” I tell her. “Thank you,” I say gratefully. Grateful, because even though she was abrupt and rude she really does have the power to deny my fully trained service dog, who has met all of the additional requirements placed on an emotional support animal including a letter meeting the fairly detailed requirements with everything but a date.
She was doing her job. She was taking it to the letter of the law and being vaguely bitchy about it, but she was just doing her job.
What pisses me off is that I have a fully trained service dog, but because my disability is psychiatric, it is treated as if it is less real than a (more obviously) physical disability. I say “more obviously” because psychiatric disabilities are physical. My brain does not work right. It is not just that I haven’t decided to try hard enough. My wiring is wrong. And my dog, by his presence and by his tasks, helps keep me alive and lets me go out in society. If I was in a wheelchair, no questions would be asked.
It also pisses me off because needing the damn letter is so stupid. Honestly. The rationale behind it is that it is easy to fake having a psychiatric disability to fly your pet for free. Fine. So make untrained ESAs bring letters, since they are just pets. But psychiatric service dogs are trained. Extensively. Just like balance-assist dogs. Or autism dogs. Or hearing ear dogs. And, just like with those dogs, it is visible in the training. Plus, this law only applies to psychiatric service dogs. It is specifically said it would be an unfair burden for other service dog users. But if you want to fake getting on a plane, all you have to do is say you have a seizure disorder and this is your alert dog. Even easier to fake, as seizure disorders often don’t show up for weeks at a time, no one expects to see any symptoms! And seizure alert dogs are much more well-known than psychiatric service dogs.
Plus the only reason I almost lost my place on my flight was I was trying to be obedient! I could have side-stepped the prohibition at any of the three points above, just by answering differently. I could have side-stepped the whole thing just by not asking for a pre-boarding pass and flying more under the radar (no pun intended). I probably could have even farther avoided it by acting more confident (you know, not having a psychiatric disability). If you’re trying to sneak your dog on, it’s easy to avoid the rules. But if you have a legitimate disability, it is a hassle to meet all the extra requirements (the letter is just one, the biggest, but not the only). Even though for last year I was never asked for my letter, I still had to obtain it, carry it at all times, and keep track of it between flights. So frustrating!
It’s just another type of security theatre. To prevent people from brining on pets and claiming them as service animals, they punish legitimate service dog users with a bunch of hoops to jump through. And anyone wanting to sneak a dog on can do it just as easily, by claiming they have a seizure disorder (something more people are going to be happy to claim anyway, as psychiatric disorders are so taboo in our culture). It’s just like how the TSA now has to squeeze our breasts and run their hands along the underwire in our bras to look for contraband, when anything that could fit their could go in like a tampon just as easily. Does it make us safer? No. Does it hassle a lot of lawful people? Yes.
I don’t mind losing freedom or going through hassles for a procedure if it is effective at what it is doing. But when it’s not, it ticks me off to no end. And more to the point, it sends my anxiety through the roof. In this case, a lot of untrained minimum-wage workers have the power to deny me what is, essentially, a life-saving treatment, on a whim. It’s been over an hour and every muscle in my body is still tense.
Oh well, at least I have my psychiatric service dog here to help me calm down and re-center. I didn’t have a panic attack, in part thanks to his presence. And he has been performing one of his tasks to help me re-center as I sit here, waiting for my delayed flight.