New Psychiatric Service Animal Loophole?

Filed Under: Travel

It sounds like we should say goodbye to emotional support animals, and say hello to psychiatric service animals

DOT getting rid of emotional support animals

Yesterday the US Department of Transportation issued a final ruling regarding emotional support animals (ESAs). The biggest implication of this ruling is that airlines no longer need to accommodate emotional support animals.

For some context, it has historically been easy to get a doctor to certify you for needing an emotional support animal. When you have this, you can take animals with you in an aircraft cabin at no cost.

There’s no doubt that this has been used outside of the spirit of the rules, and I think that’s for a couple of reasons:

  • Some people have used this to avoid paying the pet transport fee on airlines
  • Most airlines limit in-cabin pets to 20 pounds, so some people have used this to transport pets in the cabins of planes when they’re more than 20 pounds, in order to avoid the cruelty of putting a pet in a cargo hold

As I’ve said before, personally I have no issues with seeing new rules on this, but I really think airlines need to consider coming up with humane ways to transport pets. Those who are against this say “oh snowflakes, can’t you be without your pets for five minutes?” But what about people with senior dogs who are moving around the world? In my opinion they shouldn’t have to risk their dog’s life to do this, when there should be better options.

Offering more humane pet transport options seems like a revenue generating opportunity for airlines, and also as a way of differentiation.

Anyway, for those celebrating the end of emotional support animals, you might not want to get excited too fast. It would appear that as one opportunity closes, another one is opening up…

Psychiatric service animals replace emotional support animals

The DOT’s ruling is 122 pages, and I didn’t read all of it the first time around. However, Live and Let’s Fly picked up on a very interesting detail. For all practical purposes, it sounds like people could use psychiatric service animals in the same way that some people previously used emotional support animals.

As the DOT describes the concept of psychiatric service animals:

Psychiatric service animals are treated the same as other service animals that are individually trained to do work or perform a task for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability.

While an emotional support animal calms its owner by its presence with no training, a psychiatric service animal is trained to provide psychiatric support to its owner.

So, how do you get your dog trained as a psychiatric service animal? Well, you can do it yourself:

It is our understanding that the vast majority of emotional support animals are dogs, and dogs can be task-trained to perform many different tasks and functions. We also note that the rule does not require service animal users to incur the cost of training by third party schools or organizations; service animal users are free to train their own dogs to perform a task or function for them.

How will people prove that they need a psychiatric service animal? They don’t need to:

Psychiatric service animal users will no longer be required to provide a letter from a licensed mental health professional detailing the passenger’s need for the animal, nor will they be required to check in one hour before the check-in time for other passengers.

To recap, psychiatric service animals can be trained by their owners, and there’s no documentation required that details a passenger’s need for this. Now, airlines can require travelers to fill out the DOT service animal form. This makes you agree to certain conditions, with the following warning:

It is a Federal crime to make materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statements, entries, or representations knowingly and willfully on this form to secure disability accommodations provided under regulations of the United States Department of Transportation (18 U.S.C. § 1001).

What do you have to agree to? Among other things:

  • That your dog is vaccinated and doesn’t have ticks or fleas
  • That your dog has been trained to perform tasks to assist you with your disability
  • That the dog will remain under the handler’s control for the entire flight
  • That your dog has not acted aggressively towards other people or dogs

The DOT notes that it will monitor if there’s an increase in the number of psychiatric service animals:

The Department would monitor the experience of airlines in accommodating the use of psychiatric service animals, particularly given the concern that unscrupulous passengers may attempt to pass off their pets as psychiatric service animals. We indicated that we would “consider revisiting whether it is reasonable and appropriate to allow additional requirements for the use of such animals if there is a demonstrated need — for example, if there is a notable increase in instances of passengers falsely representing pets as mental-health-related service animals.

Bottom line

The US DOT has issued a ruling that allows airlines to no longer accept emotional support animals. It’s going to be interesting to see in which ways airlines update their policies.

In the meantime, I’m not sure this policy change will necessarily have the impact that was expected. Psychiatric service animals will still be allowed on planes. The difference between a psychiatric service animal and an emotional support animal is that the former is specially trained, though it can be trained by the owner. And there’s also no certification or paperwork required, so…

I really think it’s time that airlines actually innovate when it comes to transporting pets, because if they did, this would be much less of an issue.

  1. Remember, a service animal is only a dog. So no miniature horses and pigs. It also has to fit within the floor space of the owner so no big dogs either.
    It’s a possible loophole but it doesn’t open up the floodgates like the ESA rules.

  2. It’s not 100 percent accurate to say no paperwork is required: you have to fill out, and submit to the airline, the DOT forms (found on pages 62 and 67 of the rule document). You sign them under penalty of perjury (which does have monetary penalties). Will people lie? Some will, but the option of lying under penalty of perjury should stop some of the abuse. These warnings on the form will help: “Warning: It is a Federal crime to make materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statements, entries, or representations knowingly and
    willfully on this form to secure disability accommodations provided under regulations of the United States Department of Transportation
    (18 U.S.C. § 1001).” and “I am signing an official document of the U.S. Department of Transportation. My answers are true to the best of my knowledge. I
    understand that if I knowingly make false statements on this document, I can be subject to fines and other penalties.
    Signature of the Service Animal Handler: “

  3. Watch the Melissa Carone video … Giuliani, trump and all their followers , no
    wonder so many Americans have psychological problems. It’s the dogs, cats and other animals I feel sorry for.

  4. @Icarus – why is it that people always jump at the opportunity to blame someone else and never look in the mirror first? trump is a byproduct of the real issue which is our society’s addiction of the dopamine you get from relentlessly checking social media, cable news, etc.

  5. Yes, because we need a person that needs psychiatric support locked inside a metal tube at 30k ft for hours.

  6. ANY service animal can be owner-trained, per the US ADA, ACAA, and other US regulations and laws. There’s no such thing as “certification” either — anybody with a “service dog certificate” or “service dog ID” in the US is using a non-existent credential (that’s not to say they’re not legitimate service animal handlers — just that there is no such documentation, certification, or registry). This applies to any service animal — whether that’s for those with limited vision, hearing, mobility, et cetera, and for those with psychiatric needs. This is not specific to psychiatric service animals. There’s just no excuse for not spending 5 minutes to look this up prior to saying that this will result in some loophole here.

    Furthermore, for a psychiatric service animal to qualify as a service animal, as they say it must be “individually task-trained.” What does this mean? For example, if you have OCD or a “nervous tic” and you are obsessively picking at your own skin and damaging your hands you can train a dog to interrupt you. This is an “individually task-trained service animal” because the the animal has been trained at a specific task for a specific individual with a specific disability. Keep in mind this is just one example. Others disabilities would include anxiety or panic attacks and such, where the animal can be trained to anticipate and interrupt this from happening, similar to how dogs can be trained to sense when a fainting or seizure episode is about to occur so the handler can sit or lay down to avoid injury.

    What doesn’t qualify as a “task-trained service animal”? The simple existence of the animal which provides comfort to the animal’s owner. Why? Because this isn’t a task and it requires no training.

    As for not requiring any sort of documentation from a “licensed physician”? This brings it in line with the ADA, which prohibits this sort of documentation for those with disabilities and requires the reasonable accommodation, as long as it satisfies the definition of a service animal (which, again, is an animal that has been individually trained to perform a task to assist a person with a disability so they can live a more normal life). The DOT (under the ACAA) permits airline personnel to ask the same questions that the ADA permits – “is this a service animal” and “is it trained to perform a specific task to assist you with a disability.”

  7. When I look at a blind person I can see the disability and the need for assistance. Not only do those animals go through extensive training those animals are also conditioned to be in a constantly changing environment since they go wherever the owner goes.

    On an emotional support animal. Where’s the line? Not that I don’t understand people with psychological issues but 30 years ago no one needed an animal next to them to give them comfort. At some point one needs to be adult, which means counseling and moving on. Not being able function without a cat at your side can’t be a healthy way of living.

    I hear on other blogs but my dog just sits on my lap, bothers no one and is well behaved. Unfortunately society has changed from I shouldn’t be an imposition on others to “it’s all about me and my wants.” So if my dog barks and growls (not to mention bites) those around me should just put up with it because I can’t function as an adult without Fido next to me.

    40 years ago when we traveled as a family our cousins would look after my mother’s Persian cat. We’d look after their poodle when they traveled. In other words we figured it out without dragging some poor animal half way across the country.

  8. @business – as this is entirely a US issue. No other country has people who need emotional support chickens , turkeys and snakes. Granted it has a population of 331 million , but you only have to watch the current s- show to see that they gave a serious issue with unbalanced people who have no right to be in any position of power.

  9. I sense the point of this “loophole” is to allow for PTSD dogs used legitimately by veterans and others. But as with many rules there are probably ways to abuse this and ruin it for others.

  10. Your last point hits the nail on the head. Airlines aren’t giving pet owners really any other options of transporting their pets. The result is that to safely carry their pets, the only effective option is to make them a support animal.

  11. One step forward, two steps back. Who’s going to responsible for controlling this? TSA seems appropriate, no?

  12. As someone with an emotional support animal is makes me mad to see people abuse it to the point it’s come to this. If I ever move and or have to fly somewhere for a long period of time, I would need to somehow get my cat there. She is detrimental to my long term emotional health. Just because someone has or needs one does not mean they are crazy or a flight risk.

  13. My wife suggested we classify our two sons as emotional support animals when they were young so they could fly for free, poop on the floor, and perform all of the wonderful functions of emotional support animals while neatly tucked under the seat in front of us.

    Alas the airlines don’t allow this for some reason and we have to pay for their flights and comply with other inconvenient rules relating to their air travel.

    Yeah, traveling with pets is expensive and inconvenient. That’s part of the gig, and it’s not really the airlines obligation to solve those problems for you. Much more so than kids, having a pet is a choice and people should think long and hard about whether they’re in a place to handle that responsibility before taking it on.

  14. @ askmrlee…not to make this more confusing but there are legitimate service dogs (under the ADA guidelines) that are for PTSD. ESA’s are not service dogs. If someone has diagnosed PTSD and the dog performs a task to help with anxiety. That is a trained service dog not an ESA.

    @AT best breakdown so far

    @C you can pay for your cat to come on board. No one is saying you can’t fly with your cat.

  15. Air France has always had tolerance for dogs. It’s engrained in French culture. Airlines that still have “real” first class often change the rules when the cabin is sealed off from the bumpkins in the rear. They let dogs roam in the F cabin often if no one one objects. BA and American carriers whose international first class cabins have deteriorated so much don’t count any more. It’s difficult sometimes on American carriers to distinguish between the animals and the passengers.

  16. I have a close family relative who has traveled with her trained service cat for 6 years. For her sake and others, I’m disappointed that cats weren’t included.

  17. Ben,

    This isn’t a “loophole” – it was included at the urging of the Veterans’ Administration to allow service animals helping treat conditions like PTSD. These are trained service animals, not pets or ESAs, just like trained service animals that assist people with physical needs. The DOT requirement is that the animal be documented in advance with respect to role and training.

    For you to claim this is a “loophole” that anyone with an ESA can exploit is reckless and seems intended to generate click bait. Hopefully you ACTUALLY understand the difference!!!

  18. So…basically nothing will change until they start arresting the fakers…or until another dog bites a kid in the face.
    That’s government for ya.
    Every time they “fix” something, they break something else in the process.

  19. I for one insist on traveling with my psychiatric service leopard which has only eaten three small children. It’s their fault that the leopard found them delicious!

  20. I don’t like *any* animals to be in the passenger cabins of aircraft. None. No exceptions. If that means providing better animal areas in the cargo hold, then the airlines should spend the money to do that.

  21. In today’s planes where you are sitting shoulder to shoulder with the person next to you there is simply no place to carry “emotional support” animals. They are an imposition to the passengers around you.

    I have personally watched flight attendants chasing up an down the aisle someone’s chihuahua which had gotten loose. Surely they had better things to do !

  22. @George N. Romney

    “When I look at a blind person I can see the disability and the need for assistance”

    A very dark play on words!

  23. @Kendor •Much more so than kids, having a pet is a choice and people should think long and hard about whether they’re in a place to handle that responsibility before taking it on.”

    Actually – it’s the reverse! Much more so than pets, having kids is a choice and people should think long and hard about the lifelong responsibilities. Or you know, use birth control!

    You must be one of those anti-choice idiots who only cares about a fetus but not about all the poor living children in this world.

  24. Psychiatric service animals replace emotional support animals. No, not at all.
    PSDs (Psychiatric Service Dogs) have been around for many years. They are trained just as are guide dogs, hearing dogs and mobility dogs. They are all legally Service Dogs. The average training time is still 18-24 months for all of them. All are trained to work in the public.

    An ESA (Emotional Support Animal) is a pet that requires no training. It has just been approved by a mental health provider so that the owner may have the natural health benefits that most pets provide. The only benefit that will now be available is for living in a no-pets allowed situation. So for those who live in their own homes or in pet friendly housing there will be no need to go through the requirements to have their pet dog classified as such.

    PSDs are not ESAs. The two are two different legal classifications. The DOJ (Department of Justice) has always classified PSDs as a SD. It is just now that the DOT (Department of Transportation) is reviewing their classification through the new regulation for the airlines.

    A quote from the DOT released on 12/03/2020 on this topic:
    The Department decided to exclude from the service animal definition all non-task-trained
    animals, such as emotional support animals, for various reasons. First, this approach reduces
    confusion among airlines, passengers, airports, and other stakeholders by more closely aligning the Department’s definition of a service animal under the Air Carrier Access Act with DOJ’s definition of a service animal under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Also, task-trained
    service animals are generally provided enhanced training in how to behave in public, while
    emotional support animals may not have received this degree of training.

  25. Lordy, Lordy. While, as a physician, I do see a true need for Service Animals (especially those who are extensively trained to assist the blind, those with epilepsy or difficult diabetes or other conditions, we all know that our airports and aircraft have been turned into flying zoos because we have people who truly abuse this privilege that is granted to those with special disabilities. All that I see is what one contributor above wrote as “One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward”. Yes, some of these crackpots will now have to fill out a form, but that will be a giant “so what” to them so long as “my precious Fifi can fly with me”.
    Even more disappointing is that my Emotional Support Alligator will no longer quality as a Psychiatric Support Dog (Psychiatric Support Alligator anyone?). But he IS trained !! He is trained to fetch a chicken on a rope if I put it into his pen with him. Come to think of it, I think that he can fly with me !! C’mon Bruno the PSA (Psychiatric Support Alligator), let’s fly !!!

  26. Can you please edit out the political posturing? While I haven’t taken a survey, I doubt this is a “Republican problem” as one prolific writer has intimated. I’m sorry if your life is so one dimensional. Take it from a past PAC coordinator, the two party system is the (new) opiate of the masses.

  27. @Pinky–It is YOU who is the “idiot”. Like most demon-rats YOUR “opinion” is the only one that counts. Every other person that disagrees with you is an “idiot”. I am not going to be dragged into a political debate but you have the right to disagree but you do not have the right to call people that want to disagree with you an “idiot”. Personally, I think YOU are the “idiot”.

  28. A note of reality, and no, I don’t think President Trump is responsible for my encounter with a “service dog” last week at an SF hotel. I don’t think it has anything at all to do with politics. Big guy with tiny dog coming down the hall, the dog is cavorting all over the place and the guy is kinda yelling its name over and over with no affect. I’m a real animal person, so I smiled and the guy said that his (maybe a Yorkshire terrier) was a service dog. So I backed up against the hallway wall. That dog was all over me, sniffing, jumping up on my leg, reluctant to get dragged off by his owner. He knew that I wanted to pet him. He was no more a service dog than I am a giraffe.

    So anyone with dog knowledge can easily spot the real service dog in almost all circumstances. And we know which dogs are just pets. Thing is, what to do about it? I can’t quite see how one human can tell another human that his dog is a fake, thereby calling his bluff. I mean, we have enough “violent” encounters in airports and on planes already, right? The new airline “ban” will be partially effective, tho, so it’s something positive.

  29. I work for an airline and I can tell you that most people that have ESAs are fake. This is really sad for people who really need them. I can’t wait until I have to tell a passenger that their “psychiatric service animal” is not behaving properly and that the dog will be denied boarding. We’ve had numerous cases where a “service dog” has bit a child on the face, bit other people and they take off as soon as we land. They should have to be held responsible, like people with pets, when their dog bites someone. We’ve also had a person who’s ESA dedicated all over the seats and the owner thought it was funny. That aircraft had to be taken out of service and the seats replaced, not just cleaned. That cost a lot of money to do that. He should have been held accountable.

  30. The last sentence is key. We have one dog (6lbs) who travels in a crate in the hold. We have another dog (35lbs) that is brachycephalic that no airline permits in the hold. She travels as an ESA. We don’t take our dogs on vacations, but we do split time between homes on two continents (5 months in one, 7 months in the other). Today, the ESA is our only option. I’d love for both of them to travel in the hold, tbqh.

  31. Literally any service dog can be owner trained also miniature horses are recognized by the ADA just not by the FAA anymore. Owner training isn’t a “loophole” for people to abuse the rights of disabled people. In fact this new regulation limits the rights of disabled individuals and should be revamped. I’m glad that psychiatric service animals are finally being recognized as what they are service animals they do different task them some other service animals but their basic function is the same they mitigate a disability. You have to be disabled for a service animal period psychiatric or otherwise. Having random pets especially large undertrained dogs In the cabins of aircrafts would affect the health and safety of not only the passengers but also the service animals and pets. Service animals are trained in intensive situations that other dogs or animals are not. Fear can cause aggression and the animal to lash out in unexpected ways which is not healthy for either the dog or all people involved. Plus people have to think about allergies in a situation with a service dog then both parties must be reasonably accommodated but that would be very difficult to do if there were more dogs than a small amount of dogs. More pets could also infringe on the rights of service dog handlers as unruly pets can be a distraction to even the most well trained service animal and that can cause a dangerous situation for the handler in which they could miss an alert. If people want to bring their pets on planes they can keep them in crates that fit under the seat if their small enough to fit and pay a fee. Baked people don’t need to constantly be around their pet because they aren’t medical equipment like service animals are they don’t provide life saving services that keep their owners functioning and out of the hospital able to live at least a semi normal life. This is an important right for disabled people and ableds need to stop abusing it and looking for “loopholes”. As a service dog handler and owner trainer this right is very important to me and it’s frustrating when people abuse my rights and distract my medical equipment that keeps me from being bed ridden.

  32. For the past 10 years, my husband has traveled with a Psychiatric Service Dog that has been self trained. We traveled to our destination the beginning of Jan & used the letter from his Dr, which we have always used. Now the form asks for the name & phone # of the trainer. What are people in our situation supposed to use. There is no place for that on the form

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