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Can your ESA become your Service Dog and fly with you?

Updated: Feb 12

For the past decade, owners, suffering from a disability, were able to bring their emotional support animal (ESA) on the plane with them, even if those animals had not received any training whatsoever. All that was asked by the airlines, was a letter from a doctor proving that the animal was needed because of a disability. As a result, airlines had to adjust to all sorts of pets, not just dogs. People were flying with their guinea pig, their goat or their emotional support kangaroo. Until one day, the airlines couldn’t take it anymore. The advantage that was given to those who really needed an ESA was abused by others who saw an opportunity to travel with their pet. Little by little, more regulations were set forth to limit what type of animal was allowed on board. Finally, in December 2020, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) put their foot down on ESAs and decided to ban them completely.

Since the airline guidelines have changed, not a day goes by without desperate ESA owners calling us to get their dog certified as a service dog so they can keep traveling with them. Sometimes, that certification is needed within a few days! With so many questions, I decided it was time to write a blog to help ESA owners decide if this is an option for them.

Can your dog become a psychiatric service dog?

There are a few conditions for a dog to be considered a psychiatric service dog:

  1. The owner must be diagnosed with a disability according to the ADA guidelines. What that means is that whatever the condition, it must “substantially limit one or more major life activity.” A person might have depression or anxiety for instance, but those would not be considered a disability unless they limit what you can do. Some of our psychiatric service dog clients cannot go to the store without help, for instance. Others can’t go to work or crowded places. They might have sudden panic attacks and find themselves unable to cope with a situation. Service dogs allow a person to regain independence.

  2. The dog must be trained to alleviate the effects of that disability. The main difference between an ESA and a service dog is in the training they receive. To be considered a service dog, the dog must receive specialized training to help you. In other words, if having a dog calms you down, even if that allows you to go out, that’s simply not enough to qualify as a service dog. The dog must perform specialized tasks that will help you with your disability. Some of our dogs will interrupt self-harming behaviors by nudging with their nose and pestering their person until they stop. Most are trained to smell that their person’s anxiety is going up, and will start poking them, nudging or licking them to get their attention and calm them down. This often prevents a panic attack. Dogs can be trained to get on a person’s lap to give them “deep pressure therapy”. Their body weight and warmth can calm a person down and help get over an anxiety attack. Dogs can get help from another person or remind them to get medication. They can also stand in front or behind their human when standing in line, keeping people at a safer distance. Each one of these behaviors has been trained and will be performed by the dog when given a specific cue. To comply with ADA guidelines, your dog must have at least 1 trained task. However, to be up to the industry standards, i.e. The International Association of Assistance Dogs Partners IAADP and Assistance Dogs International ADI, your dog would need at least 3 trained tasks.

  3. The dog must be trained for public access. Service dogs have public access rights. Based on ADA laws, they are allowed to go everywhere their person can go. But with such rights, also come responsibilities. The dog must be under control and trained to behave well in a wide variety of situations and stay unobtrusive to the public. In other words, a service dog should not bother other people or put anyone else at risk. To earn the right to take service dogs in public, service dog organizations have set forth standards of behavior. Those standards are there to prevent any problems between service dogs and the rest of the world. They are important so that people who need them can continue to take dogs everywhere. So, what are those standards? The IAADP and ADI have established that a service dog requires a minimum of 6 months of training with at least 120 hours of training and 30+ hours of practice in public. When in public, the dog should:

  4. Not be aggressive toward people or other animals. The dog CANNOT be trained to guard.

  5. Not solicit food or attention from other people.

  6. Not sniff merchandise or people or intrude into another dog’s space.

  7. Be used to all sorts of situations and be comfortable working around strange sights, sounds, odors, etc.

  8. Walk without pulling on the leash and be well behaved.

  9. Be potty trained.

If you can meet all those requirements, your ESA can be considered as your service dog.

What about certification?

By law, service dogs do not need certification. If you have been diagnosed with a disability and if your dog meets the standards described above, you have the right to take your dog with you as your service dog. Here is the text from ADA about certification:

“Covered entities may not require documentation, such as proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal, as a condition for entry.

There are individuals and organizations that sell service animal certification or registration documents online. These documents do not convey any rights under the ADA and the Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service animal.”

When it comes to airlines however, some will require proof that your dog is a service dog. That’s when we get calls for help.

If you need certification, how can you get it ?

Generally, service dog organizations will only certify the teams that they work with when they provide fully trained service dogs. Those teams graduated with an ID and a certification letter after they complete Team Training. There are a few organizations that offer service dog training for owner dogs however. Medical Mutts is one of them. But this is a process. It cannot be done in a few days, or even a few weeks, no matter how urgently you need those documents.

At Medical Mutts, we offer group or private sessions. Your dog will first need to be assessed to make sure they have the right temperament and have at least a good chance to be trained as your service dog. Click here for cost and details about the assessment process. During the assessment, our trainer will discuss what training options might be best and how much you and your dog will need. With covid19, most of those sessions are now done online until we can resume to in-person classes again. We can also take your dog in for boarding and training if you prefer that we do the training.

We follow ADI guidelines, so in order to certify your dog, we must work with you for at least 6 months before we can schedule a Public Access Test (PAT) and provide you with an ID and certificate. The PAT will be done in person in Indianapolis with one of our trainers. To find out about our training options, click here.

Whether your ESA can be your service dog or not, has to do with your dog’s ability to handle being in public and the training that they have received. For many dogs, going out in public is challenging and many will be too anxious. But if you have taken the time to socialize and train your dog to help you, and if your dog is well behaved and happy to go everywhere with you, making your dog your official service dog should be an easy transition.

Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.


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