Both of my dogs are technically Emotional Support Animals, which are similar but different from a service dogs.
An emotional support animal or ESA, is not trained to perform any function. Instead, they provide emotional support (it’s almost as if the title tells the purpose…) to their humans who suffer from psychological disorders of some kind. If you’ve read this blog for a long time, you’re probably not surprised to hear I have a psychological disorder… and though I probably do, I’ve never been officially diagnosed.
So how do I have ESA’s? Simply put, I paid for the paperwork. Before I moved to California, I got the number from a friend of a company that provides ESA paperwork to people if they qualify. It’s not that I thought the move was going to turn me into a crippling emotional mess who couldn’t function without her dogs (although shocker… that actually happened!), but really I wanted the paperwork for housing purposes. Almost all apartment complexes around the university only allowed small dogs, if they allowed pets at all. So my ESA paperwork allows me to keep my dogs with me in my apartment, and it also skirts the $50/month pet rent that I would have to pay in addition to the greatly inflated fee I already provide for living here.
Getting their paperwork was pretty simple. First, I filled out some forms about me, my emotional issues, and my dogs. Then I scheduled a phone interview with a counselor to determine if I was emotionally disabled. As it turns out, it’s shockingly easy to be considered emotionally disabled in the eyes of the government. If you had a traumatic experience that resulted in a 40% or more drop of productivity at work (check and check) – congratulations! You’re emotionally disabled.
I fit the bill, and then some. On the phone for my counseling session, I answered every question honestly. When he asked me the role that my dogs played in moving on after my husband’s death, I burst into tears… and I was not acting. Though I don’t need my dogs around me every minute of the day, it’s not a lie to say that they support me emotionally.
So how does all this relate to flying with Eliot? When I got the ESA paperwork for my dogs, I added the letter for airline travel for an extra $10. I figured it might be nice, but wasn’t sure if I’d ever fly with them. Truth be told, I was incredibly nervous about the idea of putting my dog on an airplane where there was no way to remove him from the situation if he couldn’t deal. But during the holidays, I changed my plans fairly last minute (in the world of finding dog boarding) to leave from Austin instead of Riverside. Pascale is easy to find someone to care for her, because she loves children and other dogs. Eliot hates both of those things, and guess what all my friends in Austin have?
Though I don’t really stress about traveling without a dog, I absolutely do stress about leaving them behind. The idea of a stranger with my dogs, or even them in a boarding care facility, gives me huge anxiety. With the ESA letter in my pocket for airline travel, I quickly said screw it and decided to bring Eliot with me.
Preparing to Fly
Before the trip, I bought Eliot a service animal dog vest from Amazon. This isn’t required, but for him it let him know he had to behave a certain way when wearing it (we practiced before) and for others it says please don’t mess with my dog — which is very helpful when your dog hates many people and especially children.
Even though Eliot is an ass hole, he’s a really well trained ass hole. A few days before our flight, I freshened up his sit/stay/come commands with hand signals since he’s lost all his hearing. We also practiced heeling whenever he wore the vest.
I also got a prescription of Xanax for him to help with nerves. He took small doses both flights, and I think it helped take the edge off.
At the Airport
I flew Southwest, which is a great airline for ESA animals (in my opinion). On our way out of Austin, I gave myself plenty of time. We got to the airport 2.5 hours early, and I had my printed out ESA letter in hand to show the staff. As soon as they saw Eliot, I got waived past the ticket machines and to the counter. I showed them my letter with my ID, and they did read it carefully so don’t think this is something you can use a 5 year old copy for or something half ass. After they accepted my paperwork, they printed out boarding passes for me with medical pre-boarding. With that, we checked our bags (I don’t suggest having a large carryon while trying to handle a big dog in an airport) and were on to security.
Pooping in the Airport…
Eliot is twelve, and has old man pooping issues. Despite only giving him a handful of food the night before and not feeding breakfast at all that day, he pooped in the airport … twice. Yes, it was embarrassing. But I cleaned it up immediately and thoroughly, and then went on with life. Some people stared, some people laughed but nobody knew the difference five minutes later. On the return flight, I didn’t feed really at all 24 hours in advance and we had 0 issues.
Getting Through Security
This part stressed me out, but it was incredibly easy. You go through the process of taking off shoes/loading items onto the belt just like you usually would, but instead of going through the giant zoomy super x-ray all your lady bits machine, you go through the smaller medical detector. The trick is, you can’t go through that with your dog. This is where our training comes in. I dropped Eliot’s leash in front of the machine, signaled him to stay, walked through, and signaled him to come when the TSA agent told me to. He was perfect both times.
Since a dog has metal on his collar/leash, the TSA agent will need to pat him down after. Most dogs will probably love this, because they are dogs, but Eliot is more of a disturbed emo teenager than a dog. The first TSA agent he liked, and the second he was afraid of so patting down was a little tricky. Still, nobody got upset and the agents were incredibly nice about the dog.
Other People in the Airport
Some people loved Eliot. He got compliments, people asking to pet him (nope sorry he sucks as a dog but sure does look pretty) and one person openly gasped when she saw him trot by. Other people rolled their eyes and were extremely annoyed about an animal sharing their space. I can see why though, there were dogs everywhere and it’s clear people (including me) are abusing the system.
We walked past one family with a tiny, yappy dog that was raising hell growling at people walking by. They spread a pee pad out in the middle of the airport, and tried to get the dog to pee while it wanted to eat everything. Those kind of dogs make me roll my eyes too.
The Actual Flight
With my medical pre-boarding, I was one of the first people to board. For two of my flights, this meant I got to sit in front row, bulkhead seat and Eliot could just lay down in front of me. For one of my flights this was already full by the time I got on, but the flight wasn’t packed so I was able to take an entire row to myself. That worked the best, because we sat in the very back of the plane and he laid down without bothering anyone.
I’m not sure I would ever fly any other airline than Southwest with a large ESA. Because people can pick their own seating, nobody came to sit next to me unless they already liked dogs. I would hate to be stuck to someone that hated them or was allergic. Bad situation for everyone.
Flying wise, Eliot was honestly a trooper. On the way there, he got restless two times during the flight. The first was because he was super thirsty (I was only giving tiny amounts of water so we didn’t have a pee issue), and he went back to sleep once I gave him some water. The second time, he needed to pee and I said he just had to wait.
On the way back, I realized that if he could see the other planes/cars in the terminal out of the window, he got a little worried. So I shut the shade until we were high up, and he slept the entire flight.
Now that it’s all over, I can tell you that my ESA did not help me relax during my flights. Was it fine? Yes. Was it super stressful? Also yes. I would fly Eliot again if the logistics pointed that way, but not for fun and not for a quick trip.
I would never fly with Pascale. She is a great dog (arguably better at dogging), but she has a lot of quirks/fears that would make flying a nightmare.
At the end of the day, I felt a little guilty doing this. I don’t need my dog to fly. I’m not truly medically disabled and in need of pre-boarding. On my flight home, a girl with a large ESA Labradoodle sat in the row across from me. She picked the middle seat to discourage people sitting next to her (full flight, didn’t work) and her dog encroached on their space the entire time.
I couldn’t say for sure if she needed that animal, just like nobody can say for sure if I needed mine. I’m not saying I’ll never fly with a dog again, but my current feels are that it’s a huge loophole that is getting taken advantage of.
What are your thoughts?