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‘We Are Coming for Your Phony Service Animals’

‘We Are Coming for Your Phony Service Animals’
Joe Cortez

Airlines, labor unions, and veterans organizations all want Washington to make a major change in how they define “service animals.” In a co-signed letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation, all groups are asking leaders to create concrete rules around which fur-covered flyers are allowed and which need to be left at home.

With the holidays in full swing, travelers will be packing aircraft heading to their holiday destinations around the world. Many of them may be traveling with “service” animals. Some are duly trained and actually provide a medical response for their owners, while others are simply pets dressed in vests that read “service animal” or “emotional support animal.” With multiple documented cases of animal policy abuse documented, airline and travel groups are teaming with veterans organizations to demand change. The New York Times reports over 80 organizations are petitioning the U.S. Department of Transportation to create concrete rules to weed out legitimate service animals from pets.

A United Front Against Illegitimate Service Animals

The problem with service animals is so out of hand that out of an abundance of caution, many airlines are turning away actual service animals. Retired U.S. Marine Corps Captain Jason Haag, founder of Leashes of Valor, told one such story to The New York Times after he was barred from boarding an American Airlines flight with his dog in 2015. The reason: Gate agents did not believe the dog was legitimate.

“My dog is specifically task-trained to help with flashbacks,” Haag told The New York Times. “I do not have any physical injuries that you can see. It does make it more difficult to say what is my dog is for.”

Earlier in Nov. 2019, Leashes for Valor joined over 80 other organizations, including Airlines for America, the American Kennel Club, the Global Business Travel Association, and labor unions Air Line Pilots Association and Association of Flight attendants to call on the U.S. Department of Transportation to make serious changes in service animal regulations. Their goal is to “…protect the legitimate right of passengers with a disability to travel with a service animal and adopt the definition of service animal from the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

Why Everyone Wants to Change Service Animal Regulations

In a constantly divided industry, all stakeholders in the aviation space agree that a unified measure for service animals is not only good for passengers, but for airlines and their employees. From a report written earlier in Nov. 2019, carriers often complain about untrained service animals “frequently urinate, defecate, occupy seats (instead of remaining in the passenger’s foot space), and eat off tray tables.” We’ll certainly never forget the dog who’s in-flight nervous diarrhea caused a flight to divert.

Furthermore, when things get bumpy, an untrained animal can get hostile and attack cabin crew members. In July 2019, a flight attendant required five stitches on their hand after an emotional support dog attacked without warning. As FlyerTalk noted in 2018, the animal support problem is getting out of hand. By creating a national standard for service animals, those who need the support can get it without hinderance, while those who are not can – and should – be left home.

While the U.S. Department of Transportation is expected to hand down rules by the end of this year, the oversight body has not tipped their hand as to when new rules may be introduced.

View Comments (44)


  1. IBobi


    November 26, 2019 at 4:07 pm

    Give people a legitimate option, for pay, other than handing over a family member to a baggage handler to be stored in the hold, and people will use it. Until then, Service Animal it is.

  2. shadow520

    November 26, 2019 at 4:57 pm

    Disagree. Most of the fake service animal are from pet owners trying to avoid the fee, even for bringing them in cabin.

  3. caljn

    November 26, 2019 at 5:35 pm

    lBobi: how about leaving the animal at home?

  4. am1108

    November 26, 2019 at 7:02 pm

    Its way too easy to buy a $10 vest for a dog on ebay that says “Service Dog” there must be a way for people to legitimately prove they need a service animal. When people bring other types of animals (horse, snake, etc) on board I truly think that people are stretching the definition of service animals. I for one am glad that this is being cracked down upon. In addition there are some animals that are banned from certain countries so I’m not sure what the fakers do when they travel to a different country…

  5. Hipplewm

    November 27, 2019 at 5:15 am

    There are several legitimate options, the problem is they cost money. Half of the “Service” animals I see could fit EASILY in softside cases under the seat in front of the passenger, bbut that costs money on most airlines, but service animals are a one time fee to get a certificate over the internet.

    This doesn’t just apply to airplanes – Restaurants, hotels etc are all feeling ther wrath of over entitled pet owners.

  6. MitchR

    November 27, 2019 at 5:38 am

    It’s about time. I wrote AA a few years ago about an “Emotional Comfort Animal” that was roaming free in the LAX Admirals Club, knocked my food off of the table and ate it. I wasn’t asking for compensation, just for AA to tighten up their policy. I received a snarky reply from a customer service agent stating that the Airline could not, and would not, provide an animal free environment and that I should have checked the flight to ensure that no “Service Animals” were aboard. I wrote back, pointing out that this wasn’t a “flight” but the Admirals Club. I got another snarky reply that I should be more tolerant of people with emotional issues and that the “case was closed.”

  7. AADFW

    November 27, 2019 at 5:39 am

    The rapacious fee policies for in-cabin pets are the real reason for this “new” problem. I remember in the mid-1990s the cost to bring a pet in cabin was $25 per segment. Pets had to remain in their carriers and a limited number were allowed on each flight. Now it costs many times that much. Bring the fees back down, or simply eliminate them completely, and passengers won’t game the system.

  8. Ellie1819

    November 27, 2019 at 5:44 am

    There’s no question that some flyers abuse the privilege of flying with a service animal. But the airlines make us jump through so many hoops to get our animals aboard that I’m surprised most people even try. Personally I would be happy to pay for my dog to fly with me in the cabin when I go back and forth from my home in Europe to my home in the US. It would greatly simplify things. But I would never put her in the baggage after a puppy I was bringing home in baggage came out of the plane deaf.

  9. Tharos

    November 27, 2019 at 5:47 am

    Pet owners who elevate an animal to the status of family member are the culprits. They never give a second thought for people with allergies or other people in general. If you have a legitimate need for what should be a narrow group of animals officially recognized to be service animals, welcome aboard. If not, check your animal into the cargo hold.

  10. sailor279

    November 27, 2019 at 5:48 am

    I’m hopeful that this problem is finally addressed with a national standard for service animals as we need to protect the rights of passengers with disabilities, and accommodate them in every way possible.

    Irresponsible pet owners like the one above who is willing to claim their animal is for service when it’s not, have created this issue. You have several very legitimate options– crate your pet and stow it if you must bring it with you or pay for it to be cared for at home.

  11. awayIgo

    November 27, 2019 at 5:52 am

    I get it’s a “family member” but when this “member” is not toilet trained, aggressive and interferes with the safety, security and rights of others – they belong caged!

  12. SJWarrior

    November 27, 2019 at 5:59 am

    It’s about time they crackdown on this nonsense. I think if you get busted with your BS pet you should be put on a no fly list for a month or twelve.

  13. khestee

    November 27, 2019 at 6:09 am

    Ibobi just acknowledged the problem, FAKE, UNTRAINED animals being brought on flights by lying, self absorbed people. That is fraud and a danger to others on the flight.

  14. m44

    November 27, 2019 at 6:18 am

    What is wrong with you people? Don’t you have anything better to do? Just simply allow the traditional pets – cats and dogs – to be taken just as your carry on without charging just because they are pets. If they can fit into the pet carry-on – they cannot go. Otherwise – if you have allergies – go to the doctor and take care of yourself – do not impose your problems onto the others.

  15. D2travel

    November 27, 2019 at 6:18 am

    It’s up to the airlines to provide a better way for passengers to take their beloved pets with them when traveling–until then I have no problem with animals traveling in the passenger cabin. Animals going into baggage hold is a cruel practice! How about removing a few rows of seats in the back and install shelving to hold pet containers!

  16. RedElmo

    November 27, 2019 at 6:26 am

    Agree it is from people avoiding the fee. I know someone who paid $100 to a online vet and got a so called emotional support animal certificate just to fly her cat around for free. Unbelievable. Crooks all around. I like animals. But It needs to stop.

  17. kokomo2

    November 27, 2019 at 6:27 am

    I agree with shado520. People want to take their pets with them and avoid paying the fee.

  18. jarofny

    November 27, 2019 at 6:31 am

    I know several people that use the phony service animal trick to take their pets on planes for free. When I question them they respond that the airline charges an unreasonably high fee for animals so they are justified in getting around it. I find that to be curious logic. To follow their reasoning if I feel that gasoline is too expensive then I am justified in paying less. If I feel the contractor who fixed my roof is charging more than what I think is fair they I’m justified in paying less. Using fake service animal status is theft of services. Traveling on an airline is a service for which you must pay – not a right. If you find the airlines policies or costs to be unreasonable then don’t fly.

  19. msconk

    November 27, 2019 at 7:01 am

    If your service animal is truly a service animal I have no problem with it. If not leave them at home , no one cares about your animal except you so take care of them if you must travel. Sitting or laying under an airline seat is cruel.

  20. Ronlap

    November 27, 2019 at 7:17 am

    IBobi – There is a legitimate option. Pay to have your animal in a carrier in the cabin. But as shadow520 points out, fake service animals are solely to avoid even those fees.

  21. Ledog

    November 27, 2019 at 7:34 am

    Planes aren’t the only problem. The fake “Service Animal” is getting out of hand everywhere. There is nothing like going to the grocery store to see someone’s “Service Animal” setting in the grocery cart. The same cart the next customer will be putting their groceries in along with the feces the “Service Animal” has left behind. I have no issues with a legitimate trained Service Animal being in stores, on planes, or any other place as they have a legal right to be there, but to buy a vest and certificate on line, so the owner can take their precious mutt anywhere is ridiculous. Do like I do, leave them at home when going shopping and kennel them when going away.

  22. donna538

    November 27, 2019 at 8:17 am

    Yep they need to identify and make hefty fines for those people. They will soon realize it is cheaper to pay for the pet.

  23. snidely

    November 27, 2019 at 8:48 am

    Agree w. Shadow520. Things are out of hand. However, I was refused boarding w. my service animal, yesterday even though. The Turkey was well behaved and muzzled.

  24. Kathleen541

    November 27, 2019 at 9:05 am

    Avoid the fee??? I think NOT. Let me buy a seat or space inside the cabin. We drive days across the country to our winter home because I will not put my oversized Shih Tzu (weighs more than 20 pounds) in the belly of ANY plane! Oh wait my dog is not even allowed in cargo due to being a breed they won’t carry. So he is too big for the cabin and they won’t carry him in cargo.
    PLEASE just charge me a fee to carry my fat but trained and well behaved ShihTzu!!!

  25. Kathleen541

    November 27, 2019 at 9:07 am

    PS I would never ever try to pass my Furry family member off as a Service Dog but boy do I see Shih Tzu on planes with owners doing just that!

  26. aspidites

    November 27, 2019 at 9:31 am

    IBobi wrote: **Give people a legitimate option, for pay, other than handing over a family member to a baggage handler to be stored in the hold, and people will use it. Until then, Service Animal it is.**

    PLEASE! Animals are perfectly safe when they travel. People just use the service animal thing as a way to avoid fees and as a way to get attention for themselves, NOT because they think Fifi is going to be mistreated. If you have a problem with that there is a terrific legitimate option – DRIVE! It is unfair to subject an entire plane to your untrained “Service Animal.” Unbelievable that someone tries to make this argument. Too many snowflakes.

  27. Debnzona

    November 27, 2019 at 9:34 am

    IBobi….you are the reason the airline needs to crack down. People like you are also why those who legitimately have issues and need their support pet are being questioned…we have too many people who are flat out lying to get their dog/cat on the plane at no cost.

    You dont want to check your family member into the belly of the plane? Have a loved one, friend or family, take care of them while you are away. Your pet will not have the anxiety of flying and be well taken care of.

    Karma is a bad, bad thing….. Lie about needing a service animal–need one in the future. Just saying…..

  28. CEB

    November 27, 2019 at 9:46 am

    Sorry IBobi, a pet is NOT a family member regardless of how your feel about it. It is a pet and that is all there is to it.

    IMHO the optimal solution is to require a license type card for each service animal which includes a CLEAR picture of the specific animal in question. This ‘license would need to be renewed on a regular basis, say every five years, and specific validation of both the animal and the disabled person would be carried out by the state in which they live. The process would be similar to getting or renewing your driver’s license and dramatically reduce the abuse we see in today’s world. Forcing people to prove that their service animal is legitimate and obtain a state issued ‘license’ would also get those who are always ranting about the service animals to see the legitimacy of the need where it really exists.

  29. Ellie1819

    November 27, 2019 at 10:37 am

    The airlines have really cracked down in the last few years. They have lists of the fake online ESA providers. Now they phone my psychiatrist to verify that she and I are legitimate. I need to certify that the animal is trained, that she can go the required time without relieving herself. For those of us with homes abroad and in the US, leaving the dog behind for 6-9 months is not an option. I would happily file for a certificate for 5 years. I must currently submit mounds of paperwork for every flight.

  30. DCAFly

    November 27, 2019 at 10:46 am

    Lying….the new American tradition.

  31. TLindgren

    November 27, 2019 at 11:43 am

    This issue didn’t exist 10 years ago. I have complained to Delta, recently, about a passenger in f/c with a LARGE dog. Passenger was on the aisle. Dog didn’t fit under the seat and as a result the dog slept on the floor. In an emergency or even going to the restroom, the passenger in the window seat would have to crawl over the “service’ animal. It’s a scam being played out right in front of everyone. When did some many ‘emotionally’” affected people start flying. It’s time for the airlines to crack down on the abuse

  32. boerne

    November 27, 2019 at 1:40 pm

    I have looked at the AA form for health care providers to allow an emotional service animal. The third question states that the person requesting as a patient in fact has a psychiatric disease and the physician certifies that. So if the animal causes financial harm to a person or AA, those professionals who signed the form and the patient are liable for damages. In addition, since big data is being sold every where, if AA puts in your profile you have a psychiatric disease, and sells that de-identified data, it is pretty easy to cross reference two big data bases, and suddenly the world knows you have a psychiatric disease. Fair warning…

  33. DLFan2

    November 27, 2019 at 2:00 pm

    What is wrong with charging a fee for a service animal? People with disabilities pay for doctor visits, special equipment, medicines, medical attendants, etc. that most people don’t require. So why not pay the same fees for an animal on board? And I also feel that service animals should be in carriers and meet the same size requirements as pets on board. Who wants to be tripping over a panicked service animal during an emergency evacuation. Subjecting service animals to the same fees as pets would quickly eliminate the phony service animal problem.

  34. peterk814

    November 27, 2019 at 3:34 pm

    Classic pussification of America. We can’t say anything about illegitimate service animals that belong at home or under the plane.

    Keep your pets at home or board them. If you’re moving look for alternative transportation. An entire plane of people do not need to suffer to accommodate the needs of one

  35. avw

    November 27, 2019 at 8:55 pm

    I am getting so tired of seeing precious puppy everywhere I go. IF you can’t part with your animal, stay at home. Don’t subject me to your animal. It’s not just money. These people can’t leave their beloved animal at home ever. I saw someone with an untrained puppy running all over the lobby while checking in to a timeshare with a no pet policy. I asked the desk agent what a person has to do to prove that it is a legitimate service animal. He said they can only ask if it is service animal and if the person says yes, they can’t question it. What??? THis was very clearly not a service animal. A legitimate service animal should go through proper training. Let a government agency certify the animal after proper documentation of need and training. Let the owners pay the full cost of such certification. Few of them would pass the test.

  36. IanFromHKG

    November 27, 2019 at 9:43 pm

    If the article is true, then AA breached the ADA when their gate agent asked the traveller about his disabilities. That is impermissible. Staff ARE allowed to ask the traveller what service the animal provides, but NOT about the disability itself. I’m not American and even I know about that.

    Unfortunately, and again if the article is to be believed, the response was something along the lines of “a bunch of stuff”. That’s not a helpful or appropriate answer. I can only go by what is written in the article, but from what is written here it doesn’t seem to show that either side was at their best.

    My own position is that genuine service animals, that are properly trained and fulfil a genuine medical need (be it physical or mental), and those that they serve, should be given proper accommodation. They should also, however, be subject to proper assessment both at human (for need) and animal (for service competence) level, the animals should be properly trained, and there should be a nationally or (preferably) internationally recognised licensing scheme operated by properly trained assessors. Sadly, I think these are unlikely in the short term.

    The only time I shared a cabin in close proximity with a non-human, it was with a dog who was accompanied by an emotional support human, who sat in the seat next to me on a domestic US flight. The poor creature (the dog, that is) was so distressed that its owner had to inject it with sedatives twice during a four-hour flight.

    Incidentally, I object to the part of the headline which refers to “all groups are asking leaders to create concrete rules around which fur-covered flyers are allowed”. Whoever crafted this clumsy phrase should have researched the issue enough to know that not all service animals have fur. By way of example, miniature horses are now fully recognised as service animals in the US under the ADA. For many people who have difficulty with manual tasks, monkeys are invaluable service animals (albeit not recognised under the ADA).

  37. MimiB22

    November 28, 2019 at 3:32 am

    I was recently on a flight with an “emotional support” duck. On another flight, the woman next to me had a small dog as her “support”, but refused to keep it in it’s carrier and instead the animal was restlessly squirming in her lap, tried to get in mine, shed and drooled all over me and tried to eat my sandwich. I asked the FA to act, but she wouldn’t get involved. This must stop. A well trained service animal is never a problem, but these veteran groups are right, there’s a backlash against all service animals now, because of the abuses of selfish pet owners. It’s a problem in grocery stores too. Animals are put in the carts, where little kids are supposed to be seated. It’s unsanitary and ridiculous. There must be a certification program and abuses punished.

  38. yasmas

    November 28, 2019 at 3:55 am

    Only USA problem, never problem on international flights and rarely see any flights outside the USA, privilaged USA people problem.

  39. Counsellor

    November 29, 2019 at 12:08 pm

    Long overdue!

    Additionally, airlines should be required to ban pax who try to foist off pets as “service animals”. It’s simply fraud!

  40. stiphy

    December 2, 2019 at 11:49 am

    On many of my flights the cost of my 12lb dog who not only doesn’t get a seat but also counts as my underseat carry on is more than my seat. I would gladly buy an entire seat for my 12lb dog in these cases. But they won’t sell that to me. While I have not abused the service animal thing I understand why people do. Airline policies around legitimately getting your dog from point a to point b are so silly people game the system. Let’s crack down on illegitimate service animal designations but let’s also get to where we have rational airline policies and costs!

  41. formeraa

    December 3, 2019 at 3:26 pm

    A crowded cabin is NO place for an animal — EVER. Why, suddenly, does everyone need an “emotional support” animal? Are we all becoming “snowflakes” — as some would say?

  42. MRM

    December 3, 2019 at 5:26 pm

    Pets are ANIMALS and cannot be human family members. Non-service ANIMALS belong in the cargo hold or left at home. Period. The self-entitled idiots and their “fur babies” are ruining airline travel, shopping (keep your dang mutts OUT of the grocery stores and restaurants you morons! It’s a health safety issue. Let’s put it another way: Nobody but other self-entitled idiots think your mutt is “cute”, “sweet” or “handsome”.

    Leave your non-service ANIMALS where they belong: at home urinating, defecating and eating off YOUR plates/tables there. If you insist on bringing them, stick them in the hold with the rest of the cargo.

  43. divrdrew

    December 4, 2019 at 10:17 am

    When did all this ‘service’ animal stuff begin? When I was growing up, there was no such thing as a ’emotional support’ animal…just legitimate service animals that helped the visually impaired. Then we started seeing trained support animals that assisted with things like PTSD. I have no problem with legitimate service animals. I do have a problem with people like the woman who tried (unsuccessfully) to get an emotional support peacock on a plane??? Really? What was she thinking? It’s gotten out of control and we need to have a way so that legitimate animals can be differentiated from the ones that have vests bought on eBay.

  44. jimmc66


    December 4, 2019 at 5:07 pm

    I travel with a service animal. I cheerfully explain the extensive training that I paid for when the dog was a puppy. He’s trained to monitor my blood sugar level (high/low) and associated seizure risk. With governments buying up all the beagles (also considered a “smelling” dog and most of the others too large for travel, we paid (along with the Australian health system) for training a Bedlington Terrier. It has been a blessing for my frequent travel. He’s been with me on 70+ flights in the last four years including trips to Europe (from Chicago) and Tokyo and Manila (from Hawai’i). They are non-allergenic and don’t shed. He sits quietly at my feet the entire flight and on more than one occasion the FA’s didn’t even realize he was there!

    He has only NOT made one trip that I knew would be unfair to him and the rest of us. The 16 hour flight from San Francisco to Singapore. The only way he could have made that trip is if I had broken it up into shorter segments.

    I never would have thought this possible before it was first suggested. For a frequent traveler his presence is important with the changes in time zone, diet, hydration, and other impacts of travel.

    I can understand the clash that exists between personal privacy and the rights of the majority, that’s caught the airlines in the middle. And with no “Standards” governing the animal training business I can’t see things changing all that much in the near future. In my experience however passengers can clearly see the difference when exposed to a real, trained service dog vs. the others.

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