Air Travel & Service Animals

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Warning: This post contains adorable puppy photos!

We here at The Trip Takes Us love all things travel-related, so we recently accompanied a service dog in training on a familiarization trip to Washington Reagan National Airport (DCA) for his first exposure to all the craziness an airport has to offer.

Come meet Hero Dogs Captain as he explores this new environment and find out what  we learned!

Hero Dogs Captain posting in front of photo of the U.S. Capitol
Hero Dogs Captain reporting for duty at DCA

In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed landmark legislation known as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to prohibit discrimination based on disability. One provision of the ADA specifies that,

“[a] service animal is any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not considered service animals.”

Sorry, that means no “service peacocks”!

Individuals with disabilities can bring their service animals in to all areas of public facilities and private businesses where members of the public, program participants, clients, customers, patrons, or invitees are allowed.

Meet Hero Dogs Captain

Captain, a Golden Retriever puppy, is being trained through Hero Dogs to become a service dog to assist a military veteran or first responder with a disability. Naomi, Paul, and their daughters have taken on the significant commitment of being Captain’s puppy raisers.

Hero Dogs Captain, a service animal in training, at DCA
This patriotic pooch found just the right spot to pose for a photo in DCA’s National Hall.

According to the Hero Dogs website, puppy raisers are responsible for “raising, training, socializing, and loving the puppies in our program from the ages of approximately 2 months to 16-18 months of age.” As part of that role, Captain’s puppy raisers must expose him to as many situations and people as possible. On a recent Sunday, I accompanied them to Washington Reagan National Airport on an excursion designed to help prepare Captain for the day he may need to take his first flight with his partner. Here’s what we learned:

service dog is familiarized with baggage claim carousel
Captain’s first encounter with a moving baggage claim carousel piqued his curiosity and provided a never-ending supply of luggage to sniff.

Traveling with a service animal

Although the Air Carrier Access Act protects the right of individuals with disabilities to travel on an airplane with their service animal, it is important that handlers know their airline’s policies prior to booking travel. Each airline has slightly different rules for flying with a service dog.

Service dog vest for air travel
When service dogs are wearing a vest, you can be sure they are on duty. Vests are not required though, so don’t assume that a dog without a vest is not a service animal.

Before booking air travel with a service dog, we suggest Googling “service animal policy” and the name of your airline for their latest rules. This is particularly important when booking international travel. Laws do vary from country to country (for example, service animals are reportedly denied entry to Jamaica, which does not allow entry of any animals). Service animal documentation may also be required for international travelers.

Common airline provisions regarding travel with a service animal

While policies vary slightly from airline to airline, some general themes are:

  1. There is no additional charge for the service animal.
  2. A service animal traveling in the cabin is expected to sit at the passenger’s feet or in a kennel beneath the seat in front of them.
  3. Service animals are expected to behave properly and follow handler commands.
  4. Service animals are not allowed to block the aisle.
  5. A passenger traveling with a service animal cannot sit in the exit row.

What to do if you see a service animal

To walk through the airport with Captain was to see the face of every person we passed light up. It is hard not to melt in the presence of such cuteness!

Service animal in vest preparing to travel
Cuteness Exhibit A

If you do encounter a fellow passenger traveling with a service animal go ahead and smile, but please also bear in mind the tips below. Even though these are highly trained animals, there is no need to make their work harder:

  1. Do not pet or otherwise touch or distract the animal.
  2. Feel free to speak to or address the handler directly, but please do not talk to or make eye contact with the dog (this is very distracting to the dog).
  3. Do not ask the handler the nature of his/her disability (just a tad intrusive, no?).
  4. Do not offer the animal food (the ultimate distraction!).
  5. If you are traveling with a pet, do not allow it to approach the service dog.
  6. Do not take pictures of the service dog team without permission.
  7. Do not fear the animal. (Some people are nervous around dogs, but you can rest assured that service dogs do not reach that position unless they are expertly trained and mild-mannered.)
  8. Do not assume that a resting dog is not on duty.

How You Can Help

A service animal can make an enormous difference in the life of a disabled veteran or first responder. While it costs approximately $40,000 to raise, train, and place a Hero Dogs pup, the organization provides the animals to disabled veterans or first responders at no cost to the recipient. To volunteer or provide support for this mission to help America’s heroes, please visit

You can also follow Captain’s adventures on Instagram: @HeroDogsCaptain

For more travel tips, check out these articles:

My secret strategy for getting kids to love museums

How to get kids excited for each day of a vacation

Ask a Pilot: Crew Pet Peeves

2 thoughts on “Air Travel & Service Animals

  1. Thanks for the fantastic and informed blog post about Hero Dogs and service animals altogether. I’m so proud to be a part of this wonderful organization and to have the opportunity to work with these amazing dogs! ❤️🐾❤️🐾

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