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How to Make Your Dog a Service Animal, Legally, and Fly Under the Protection of the Air Carrier Access Act

2021 changed everything about flying with your pet, especially if they are over 20 pounds and don’t qualify for the airlines new rules. I have found a way to fly for free with your pet.

But let’s go back to the beginning:

I’ve always not been able to see.

Prescribed glasses at age 10

Hated, never wore ’em

Couldn’t see shit for 3 years

Got contacts. Vow

Now this year, normally contacts cost $1075, but it was just $150. Why? I’m legally blind.


What does Legally Blind Mean?

If eyeglasses or contact lenses can’t fix your vision beyond a certain point, you’re considered “legally blind.” 

According to American law, the usual definition of legal blindness is based on central visual acuity and field of vision (what’s above, below, and to the sides of the person’s eyesight).

If you have a central visual acuity of 20/200 or less in your better eye when wearing corrective lenses, or if your field of vision is less than 20 degrees, you are legally blind.

Knowing this can help you out in a lot of areas, one of which we’ll be taking up today, which is making your dog a service animal and carrying it along on your flight. 

The acuity thing mentioned above implies that if your prescription contact number is -2.5 or less, you fall under the category of legally blind. 

And my prescription number is -10, which makes me 400% more blind than a person at the threshold. 

What Happened, I Used To Be Able To Fly With My Dog?


I used to fly with my Albie (my dog) everywhere I went. My wife and I used to take at least three trips to Europe in a year, but it’s not as easy as it used to be before. 

And I blame COVID-19 for doing this to Albie and me. In another instance, a Brazilian diplomat moved back to Sao Paulo from New York; he wasn’t allowed to take his pet parrots along. 

The diplomat had to airlift them separately via a pet transportation service, which cost him $10,000. 

There are many such examples that I have heard from passengers mid-flight or my network. 

This is what went down when people tried to get their pets onboard a plane during the pandemic. 

Three of the four leading airline operators in the US, Delta, United, and Southwest, said they don’t accept crated animals as cargo at the moment. 

They did, however, allow dogs in passenger cabins provided they are in certified carriers that fit beneath a seat. I could have carried Albie like this, but mind you, there were restrictions and a lot of them. 

However, there are certain limitations. Southwest allows six animals per 737 — the sole plane it flies – and no pets are allowed on overseas flights. It can also be costly: For domestic travel, Delta charges $125 per pet each way.

Pets were accepted through American Airlines’ cargo service, but with some limits. They must be at least eight weeks old, healthy, and under 100 pounds for domestic travel. 

They can only travel if the outside temperature at both the origin and destination airports is between 45°F and 85°F. Certain breeds, such as boxers and Pitbulls, were strictly off-limits. 

All this created a confusing situation, or might I say, a hotchpotch kind of thing for everybody because every country had a different rule for the pets coming in and going out of their country. 

In all this mixture, the best option seemed either to leave your pet with a trusted person back home or not travel at all. 

How Much Does It Cost To Fly With Your Dog?


Prior to 2021, Emotional Support Animals (ESA)

Before the ban in 2021, the airlines categorized any sort of animal as an ESA, and they were allowed in the planes as an accessory and companion to the passenger. 

Before the ban, their regulation was not as strict as it is now, which means that anyone could bring along a service animal, which did not necessarily have to be a dog. 

Any sort of animal could be classified as an ESA as long as they are prescribed by a mental health professional under the law. 

Note that emotional support animals are not considered at par with service animals. The ADA describes the qualifying criteria for both types of animals. Majorly, an emotional support animal has not received the required training to assist a person with a disability. 

An ESA was only meant to act as a companion for a person who is depressed or suffering from loneliness, anxiety, or any sort of phobia. These animals do not have the protection forwarded to a service animal. 

Why Did Airlines Ban ESAs?


source: NYtimes

According to a new Department of Transportation (DOT) regulation, Alaska Airlines was the first to restrict emotional support animals. United, American, and Delta airlines have all followed suit in banning emotional support animals in the following week.

This move came after several years of organizational lobbying, and ultimately the Transportation Department has approved a request by airlines to prohibit “emotional support animals” from flight cabins. 

However, the service animals are allowed to fly unrestricted. The airlines, led by their lobbying group Airlines For America, worked hard to smear emotional support animals and their owners, alleging that they carried aboard “comfort turkeys, gliding possums, snakes, spiders, and more.”

More than 50 million Americans suffer from serious mental illnesses, some of which may be helped by ESAs. Even so, naysayers continue to ask, “Yes, people require emotional support, but do even half of the animals brought onboard flights provide it?”

One line of reasoning forwarded by the airlines is the spike in the number of ESAs coming on board in recent years. It was reported that the number of ESAs increased by 60% in 2017, and in 2018, their number increased by 14%.  

However, in the same year, the airlines saw only a 4.7% increase in the number of passengers. According to the new policy, all ESAs will now be considered as pets and not allowed in a plane’s cabin as long as they do not satisfy the airline-specific guidelines. 

What is 2021’s Policy For Traveling With Your Pet?

As the new policy kicked in, a lot of things changed for carrying a pet along on your journey. The new rules dictate and define a lot of things, including;

  • A service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to perform duties for the benefit of a disabled person.
  • An emotional support animal is no longer considered a service animal. 
  • Psychiatric assistance animals must be treated the same as regular service animals by airlines. 
  • Allows airlines to require forms developed by the Department of Transportation attesting to a service animal’s health, conduct, and training and certifying that the service animal can or cannot hygienically relieve itself if traveling a long flight. 
  • Allows airlines to require passengers traveling with a service animal to submit the DOT service animal form(s) up to 48 hours prior to the scheduled departure date if the passenger’s reservation was made before that time. 
  • Instructs the airlines to ask the travelers with disabilities to physically check-in at the airport for traveling with a service animal as against the previous online check-in method. 
  • Allows airlines to demand that a passenger with a disability who wishes to travel with a service animal present the DOT service animal form(s) at the passenger’s departure gate on the day of travel. 
  • Allows airlines to limit the number of service animals that can fly with a single disabled customer to two. 
  • It says that the airlines can ask the passengers to limit their service animals within the foot area on the aircraft while traveling. 
  • Instructs the passengers to ensure that their service animals are tied, leashed, or harnessed at all times in the airport and onboard. 
  • Continues to allow airlines to refuse to carry service animals that are violent and constitute a direct threat to other people’s health or safety. 
  • Continues to make it illegal for airlines to refuse to transport a service animal based merely on its breed.

All these might sound a bit technical. So, here are the major points of the new policy explained easily. 



Based on the infographic and the information available in the public domain, I can only say that it won’t be easy to convince the airline operators to allow carrying your pet in the cabin. 

What If Your Pet Is Over 20 Pounds Or Can’t Fit Inside Their Carrier?

If your pet weighs more than 20 pounds and cannot fit inside the recommended carrier, it’s a problem. 

After the new rules, airlines do not permit pets that cannot comply with their regulations, especially if they are not service animals. 

However, there is leniency for service animals here; the same does not apply to other pets, including emotional service animals. 

Some airlines provide the option to carry them as shipping cargo. In this case, the pets will have to be kept with other luggage. And as far as the Humane Society of the United States is concerned, it is not safe for pets to be traveling with luggage. 

What is the Americans with Disabilities Act?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that protects disabled people from discrimination in all aspects of public life, including work, schools, transportation, and all public and private venues open to the public. 

The law’s goal is to ensure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as others. Individuals with disabilities are given civil rights protections equivalent to those provided to other people on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion under the ADA. 

Individuals with disabilities are guaranteed equal access to public accommodations, employment, transit, state and local government services, and telecommunications. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is divided into five parts (or sections) that address various aspects of public life.

To avail protection and equal opportunity under the ADA, a person must have a physical or mental impairment that significantly limits one or more major living activities. 

The ADA’s core provisions are broken down into three areas. Title I of the statute forbids discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities in the hiring, firing, promotion, salary, job training, and other areas of employment. It has jurisdiction over businesses with 15 or more employees.

State and local governments are covered by Title II. This section of the law extends anti-discrimination protection to eligible people with impairments. It mandates that these individuals have reasonable access to government services, programs, and activities. 

In terms of access to public venues, Title III prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. Restaurants, schools, daycare centers, movie theaters, recreation centers, and physicians’ offices are examples of enterprises that are generally open to the public. 

The law also mandates that any new, rebuilt, or restored places of public accommodation meet ADA requirements. In addition, Title III applies to non-residential commercial enterprises such as factories, warehouses, and office privately owned buildings.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) established criteria for accessible design in public accommodations. This includes the creation of automatic entrances, ramps, and elevators to accommodate wheelchairs. 

Water fountains must be placed at a height where people with impairments can reach them. The companies are supposed to provide a sign language interpreter during a job interview for a hearing-impaired applicant. 

They have to modify the work schedule to meet the needs of a person who requires treatment, or restructuring an existing facility to make it easily accessible to people with disabilities are all examples of workplace accommodations. 

The ADA does not compel an employer to make reasonable accommodations if doing so would be an undue hardship for the company and would incur significant costs in comparison to its size. 

Telephone companies must provide telephone relay services or comparable equipment for the hearing and speech-impaired under Title IV of the ADA.

What Does The ADA Cover For Travel?

Public transportation and travel are covered under the Title II of the ADA. If you would ask me, I don’t think there are enough frameworks put in place for helping a disabled person to travel via air. 

Simply put, the ADA does not cover air travel. Yes, it covers a couple of aspects that might be indirectly related to traveling. Like Accessible paths, Boarding ramps, Functioning elevators, etc., which are common to all the areas that get public footprints. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) ensures that people with disabilities have equal access to public transportation. This means that public transportation companies cannot refuse to transport you because you have a disability. 

Know your rights and protections for air travel. Look at another document, which comes in the form of, The Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA), 1986. 

No air carrier may discriminate against any otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the provision of air transportation because of such disability.

The Act required U.S. airports and domestic air carriers to make air travel accessible to people with disabilities within the United States.

The act covers people in a wheelchair, with hearing impairments, visually impaired, people with service animals, those who require oxygen support, and those traveling with assistive devices. 

Here are the things you can expect from the personnel at the airport while traveling. 

  • Get help with emplaning and deplaning. 
  • Use ground wheelchairs, board wheelchairs, ramps, mechanical lifts, etc. 
  • Preboarding services (for those who can self-identify) when the person requires additional time to board. 
  • The airport personnel cannot leave you unattended in a wheelchair for more than 30 minutes. 
  • Assistance for moving to and from seats inside a plane and while boarding and deboarding. 
  • Help for opening the packages to eat and identify food. 
  • Move to and from the lavatory. 

There are several other requirements that every airport and airplane needs to follow. You will find a summary of the entire act here

Based on the information above and what I have experienced, read, and understood in all the years. The ADA sets the stage for the public transport areas to accommodate and provide help to the disabled. 

It’s the ACCA that gets the ball rolling and provides you with the protection and assurances you need for traveling without facing too many issues and complaints. 


What Is Legally Blind?

The US government uses the phrase “legal blindness” to assess who is eligible for vocational training, rehabilitation, schooling, disability compensation, low vision devices, and tax exemption programs. 

It’s not a useful low-vision definition, and it doesn’t tell us much about what a person can and can’t see. You may find it difficult to do ordinary tasks if you have low vision, even whether you wear regular glasses, contact lenses, medicine, or surgery. 

Part 1 of the United States’ legal blindness definition states the following about visual acuity;

  • A better-seeing eye with the greatest conventional correction has a visual acuity of 20/200 or less (meaning with regular glasses or contact lenses).
  • This is a 20/200 visual acuity measurement that corresponds to the Snellen Eye Chart (seen to the left)
  • The doctor marks your vision (or visual acuity) as 20/200 with the best correction if you can only see line 1 (the big “E”) from 20 feet away while using standard glasses or contact lenses.

Update: The Social Security Administration changed the standards for determining legal blindness in 2007 when utilizing newer low vision test charts with lines that can evaluate visual acuity between 20/100 and 20/200. 

According to the new criteria, a person’s visual acuity is measured with one of the newer charts. And they are unable to read any of the letters on the 20/100 line; they will be considered legally blind, based on visual acuity of 20/200 or less.

Part 2 of the US definition of legal blindness talks about the visual field (the total area an individual can see without moving their eyes from side to side) of 20 degrees or less (commonly known as tunnel vision) in the better-seeing eye. 

What Is The Prescription Of Contacts Or Glasses That Makes You Legally Blind?

The identification of a person as legally blind depends on the prescription glasses or contacts, which further decides the refractive error. 

A person is considered legally blind if their visual acuity is 20/200 or less. This means that anyone with prescription glasses or contact lens numbers of +/- 2.25 and Higher is legally blind. 


If I’m Legally Blind, How Can I Prove My Dog Is A Service Animal?

There isn’t so much work as proving, but more of making your dog as a service animal is the hard part. 

According to the ADA, a Service Animal is a canine that has been trained to do tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability. A disabled person might have a physical limitation. A mental condition can also be considered a disability, especially when it severely limits one or more essential life activities. 

Conditions such as depression, severe anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are included in the disability. 

Individuals with disabilities have the option of training a dog themselves. Or hiring another person or organization to transform their dog into a service animal. 

While training the dog or getting it trained to take care of these aspects;

  • If you have a physical, emotional, or mental disability, you may be qualified for a service dog. 
  • At all times, a service dog must be well-behaved. 
  • A service dog must be taught to assist people with disabilities by performing specific duties. 

How can I train my dog to be a service dog?

To help you understand how your dog can become a service dog, we’ve outlined five basic stages. 

Identifying and Understanding Your Dog’s Breed. 

  1. Find a reputable trainer or train your dog on your own. 
  2. Training the Service dog. 
  3. Qualifying the public test.
  4. Consider getting your service dog certified and registered.

While the other steps are simple, steps 3 and 4 need some explanation. You will spend most of the time at Step 3. It’s critical to devote adequate time to training your potential service dog.

There is no minimum requirement in the United States. International norms indicate 120 hours over six months shall be allocated to training your dog to become a service animal. 

Within these 120 hours, at least 30 hours must be spent training the do in public while maintaining its concentration in the events of distraction or in case of surprises. 

Learning the exact skill your service dog will perform to aid you with your disability is the most critical thing you can teach them. 

Sensing a medical alarm, tactile stimulation during a panic attack, reminding the handler to take their medication, scouting a room for someone with PTSD, and grounding/blocking in public places are just a few examples of duties.

In step 4, your dog needs to pass a public test. In addition to being trained to do activities that help you with your impairment, a service dog must also be able to behave decently in public. 

Several groups have established guidelines for when a service dog is ready to accompany its owner in public. Here’s a quick rundown of some critical requirements for your service dog to meet:

  • There is no aggressive/hostile behavior against humans or other animals.
  • Unless you’ve given permission to do so, stop sniffing.
  • While on duty, there will be no requests for food or affection.
  • There will be no excessive excitement or agitation in public.
  • Capable of tolerating new sights and sounds in a variety of public places.
  • There will be no misbehavior or excessive barking.
  • There will be no public urination unless a formal directive is made.

Service dogs are an integral element of the assistance animal family and provide a valuable service in our community. When accompanied by their handlers, dogs that perform trained activities to aid those with disabilities who require their assistance are authorized to go out in public.

Having said this, you may not have to prove that your dog is a service animal necessarily. I say this for two reasons;

  • According to the ADA act, your service dog does not need to wear a harness, vest, or a special batch that certifies its ability to provide the services you require. 
  • Plus, the ADA does not require you to present any sort of proof at entry or certification to convince the airport authorities that your dog is a service animal. 

It depends on you to carry the documentation of passing the public test and show it at the airport in good stead. 

What Do I Need To Tell The Airlines To Fly With My Dog?

Unless the animal poses a safety concern, is too large to be accommodated, or creates a severe inconvenience, an airline must allow a service animal to accompany a passenger with a disability. 

To assess if an animal qualifies as a service animal, airline workers can ask two questions:

  • Is the passenger’s animal obliged to accompany them due to a disability?
  • What kind of work or duty has the animal been taught to do?

Suppose a passenger with a disability wishes to travel with a service animal. In that case, the airline may ask the passenger to provide a current, completed USDOT Service Animal Air Transportation Form 48 hours prior to the flight.

Besides this, you need to fill this form to get permission from the airlines before traveling. Flying with animals has become problematic in the pandemic, due to which the airlines now require more information on your service. 

Here is a summary of the rules and regulations you need to check out before traveling with service dogs. 

Can I Buy Service Animal Vests Or Badges For My Dog?

Yes, you can, but it is not necessary for traveling via air.  Documentation, such as confirmation that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service dog, cannot be required as a condition of access to a public place.

Certifications, IDs, and registrations do not confer any rights under the ADA. They are not accepted as proof that a dog is a service animal by government agencies. 

Unfortunately, many public employees will still want IDs or other forms of tangible confirmation of service dog status. Some service dog owners find it useful to have paperwork and accessories. It can help signal that their dog is a trained service dog for convenience, privacy, and setting suitable boundaries with strangers. 

When traveling with your service dog, this will help you avoid encounters with animosity or confusion. Choosing to carry a personalized Service Dog ID card and Service Dog Vest may be beneficial.

It helps in navigating public spaces with your service dog. You can also choose not to carry the ID card. Instead, stand firm on principle if you come across people who are unaware of service dog rights. 

Reasonable accommodations for service dogs must be granted legally. Especially when you verbally confirm that your dog is a trained service dog. 

It’s critical to comprehend these guidelines to know what rights you have as a service dog owner. And when third parties are infringing on those rights. Visit US Service Animals to register your dog as a service animal.

The Tragedy of the Commons

The ban on emotional support animals and mounting prohibitions have several reasons. One of those might be protecting people’s health and stopping the spread of the virus. But the problems with ESAs are longer than the pandemic.

Moreover, untrained animals in the plane cabin are only ticking bombs. People have been known to bring along small crocodiles, pigs, and even a peacock to the airport.

Imagine sitting next to a passenger who has a crocodile on their lap.

It’s dangerous, foolish, and a great injustice to other people on the plane. Carrying a dog is still manageable because dogs have been a part of our culture for time immemorial.

They can mix up with other people on the plane but how can you expect a crocodile to get along or vice versa.

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