|Lily being a good sport during our long delay.|
Because I am guessing this post might be found by a few non-regular readers who are looking for information about the topic, I will start out by giving you a little bit of info!
First of all I should explain the difference between an Emotional Support Animal and a Psychiatric Service Animal. The main difference is that a SERVICE animal is trained to do specific things in order to help the person with the psychiatric condition. A SUPPORT animal just helps you by existing and offering the comfort that a pet would offer. A SUPPORT animal is supposed to be prescribed to you by a doctor or mental health professional. So for instance, a random person can't just say, "I will feel better if my dog comes with me on the plane." You have to have a condition that would make it difficult for you to travel without a support animal.
Here are some fictional examples I am just going to make up to illustrate the point.
Tom has schizophrenia. Sometimes he experiences hallucinations and becomes very upset. Other times, he becomes extremely withrawn and disconnected from himself. Tom's dog Spike is trained to notice or sense when Tom is about to have an episode. Spike knows how to jump up on Tom and interrupt him when he's getting upset. Spike can also paw at and lick Tom to help him "come back" from being withdrawn and disconnected. Spike is also trained to carry Tom's medication, bring it to him at a certain time each day, and paw at, bark at, or otherwise bother Tom until he takes his meds. This is why Spike is a Psychiatric Service Dog.
Julie has an anxiety disorder. She gets very anxious about being out of her house and being around a lot of people. Being on an airplane is extremely stressful to her because she has to be around people, up in the air, with no way of escape. Julie has noticed that her pet dog, Tricky, has a very calming effect on her. When Julie feels herself becoming anxious, she can focus on Tricky, pet him and hug him, and start to calm herself down. Julie has talked about this with her therapist, and her therapist feels that Tricky is an important part of Julie's treatment plan. Tricky is an Emotional Support Animal.
Alyssa does not enjoy flying. She always gets a little tense at takeoff and landing. Alyssa has a dog named Pooky, and she wonders if bringing Pooky on the plane with her would distract her and make flying on an airplane more tolerable. But since Alyssa does not have any diagnosable psychiatric or emotional condition, Pooky is really a pet
The part where it gets a little hazy is the fact that there are now companies that will diagnose you with an anxiety disorder, and prescribe you an Emotional Support Animal, for a certain amount of money. They will try to get extra money from you by having you purchase extra things, such as a special vest or identification card.
The fact is, a Service Animal is not required to wear a vest or have an identification card. Service animals are not required to be certified or registered or anything else. If a person walks into a public place with a service dog, employees are not allowed to ask what your disability is, or ask you to have your dog demonstrate what he is trained to do. They can really only ask, "Is that a service animal?" and "What is he trained to do?" That is it. The real "proof" of whether it is a real service dog or not would be the dog's behavior. A service dog needs to be under the control of his handler at all times. If the dog is jumping at the end of his leash, running around a restaurant trying to jump on tables, having accidents on the floor, etc, he is not a trained service dog.
However, airlines seem to not differentiate between a Psychiatric Service Animal and an Emotional Support Animal. A person who needs a service dog for any other disability or condition needs only to show up with their service animal, and possibly answer the questions, "Is that a service dog?" and "What is he trained to do?" But people with Psychiatric Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals need to arrange it with the airline ahead of time, and be able to show a letter from their doctor or mental health professional stating that they need the animal.
Okay. Now that we alll understand that...
The airline I flew to and from Chicago was Spirit Airlines. I knew months ahead of time that I was going to be flying a lot with Lily, so I sent out emails to several different airlines, asking about their service dog policies. I chose Spirit because they sent me the most personal and detailed response, explaining exactly what I'd need to show them and what they could offer me. They even let Lily and I sit in a special row of seats with more legroom, for no extra charge. This was a really good thing, because Spirit is a no-frills airline with really tight seats, and if we had sat in the regular seats we would not have fit. As it was, it was a tight squeeze.
Anyways. I had to bring a letter from my therapist, saying that my service dog was necessary for me to manage my symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder and Generalized Anxiety. All I had to do was bring this letter to the "check in" area when I got to the airport. The people at the front desk looked over it, and made a little note on my boarding pass. (Some airlines are more stringent about this and ask you to actually fax the letter several days ahead of time so that they can call your doctor and verify it. If you are going to fly with a Psychiatric Service dog or Emotional Support Animal, you should call or email the airline as early as possible to find out exactly what they need you to do.)
That part was easy. The next part we had to conquer was going through security. I really hate going through security because I sometimes have trouble understanding the instructions they tell me, and I get all mixed up. I feel like there is a timer set and I have 30 seconds to get my shoes off, put everything into the baskets, put my backpack and baskets on the conveyer belt, go through the x-ray vision thing, and then quickly collect all my things on the other side. I've had to learn to take my time and not worry about what the people behind me might be thinking!
The only thing that was different about going through security with a service dog was that they had to swipe my hands with some sort of cloth and then put it into a machine to test, in case I had traces of explosives on my hands. I am not exactly sure why that is. It has something to do with the fact that they cannot let me let go of Lily's leash as I go through the X-ray machine. But couldn't I just as easily have traces of explosives on my hand if I wasn't carrying a leash? I was a little confused about that. But the security people were basically friendly and it wasn't hard or anything. (I did hear one of them making a remark to another one about how annoyed he gets when people pay those special companies to give them an Emotional Support Animal letter. I don't know if he was implying that I had done that?)
We were also allowed to get onto the plane with the first boarding group, when they announced that they are boarding people with disabilities or people with young children who need extra time. It is supposed to give us a few extra minutes to get situated in our seat.
I was really worried about how Lily would act on the plane. She has ridden on all sorts of forms of transportation and she is always perfect, but since planes go up in the air and none of those other modes of transportation do, I was worried about whether the air pressure would bother her or anything. It is impossible to train a dog to ride on an airplane, without actually riding on the airplane! I was imagining her howling with pain because her ears were hurting or something. But I shouldn't have worried! Lily laid in my lap the whole time and barely moved. It was very uncomfortable for both of us, because the seats are ridiculously narrow. I couldn't really read or anything because there was a lug of a dog on my lap. (In hindsight I could have had her sit on the floor I guess.)
The flight attendants were very nice to both of us, and told me to ask them if Lily needed a drink of water during the flight.
And really, that is it. It was very simple. The only bad thing (which was not Spirit's fault) was that O'Hare doesn't have any animal relief areas (potty break areas for dogs) once you get past security. I had let Lily go potty right before my flight both times. But going back, we got delayed several hours. I wasn't sure how much longer we'd be delayed for because they kept changing it, and I was worried that Lily might have to go to the bathroom eventually. She is really good at holding it, but I didn't want her to be miserable! But in order to take her out, I would have had to leave through the front door of the airport, and then go all the way back through security and do the whole thing over again. This would be easier if there were multiple people together, because then one person could watch all of the carry-on stuff while the other took the dog out, and this way going back through security would be a lot more simple. But this time, it was just me and Lily! Luckily, she was fine.
I am going to be flying back to Chicago again for Thanksgiving, and I will be on a different airline, mostly just because Spirit didn't have a flight that would be convenient for me during the time I need to go there. So I will be able to review another airline as well! In the mean time, I'd love to hear about your experiences traveling with a Psychiatric Service Dog or Emotional Support Animal!