Although we love them dearly, be they “seeing eye dogs,” hearing dogs, or wheelchair assistance canines, anyone who has a service animal knows that they are not simply pets. As vital an adaptive aid as a wheelchair or braille text, the general public needs to understand that service animals are tools, necessary to the lives of thousands of disabled individuals.

Under the ADA, privately owned businesses that serve the public, including restaurants, hotels, stores, taxis, and airlines are prohibited from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. As such, businesses must allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals with them, wherever customers are normally allowed.

For disabled travelers, this means that going on a vacation or a business trip doesn’t require leaving your service animal behind. Still, while the laws may protect your right to travel with your service animal, there is plenty of extra planning involved in making sure that your trip goes smoothly, both for you and your dog.

Air Travel

Airline carriers must permit service animals with appropriate identification to accompany an individual with a disability on a flight. Identification can include documentation, a harness, or simply the verbal assurance of the passenger using the animal. Also, bring along the dog’s health certificates with proof of vaccinations, and make sure you’ve checked out any international requirements when traveling overseas.

When booking your ticket, make sure to notify your travel or ticket agent that a service dog will be accompanying you in the cabin area. It is also helpful to provide the dog’s size and weight. The agent can then assist you in determining the most appropriate seating on the scheduled aircraft. If you can, travel on direct, non-stop flights.

Passengers with a service animal cannot be denied any seat, unless the animal obstructs an aisle or other area that must remain clear in case of an emergency evacuation. Deciding which seat is best for a person traveling with a service animal depends on several factors. Each aircraft model may be designed differently; floor space, bulkhead size and the amount of room under the seats can vary. Smaller dogs can usually fit under airline seats, which may provide them with a more secure ride. However, for larger dogs, bulkhead seats may be a better option.

Finding the right seat is important, but there are other issues to be aware of when traveling with your service animal. Harnesses, collars and leashes can set off the alarms at security gates. Security guards who are not familiar with service dogs may be uncertain how to handle the situation. One solution is to put your dog on a “sit-stay” using a long leash, while you pass through the security gate, and then call the dog to you. This will make clear that it is the dog’s harness which is setting off the alarm.

Try to avoid sedating your dog as drug reactions may differ at high altitudes and can lead to illness. Also, do not feed your service animal just before departure, especially on longer journeys. Moreover, for everyone’s comfort, relieve the dog prior to boarding.

Travelers with guide dogs qualify for pre-boarding. Boarding first can be both easier on the dog, you and the other passengers, as well as making any possible seating changes easier to perform. Once you’ve gotten to your seat, it is recommended by many that the dog’s harness be removed. This allows the dog better ease of movement and avoids the harness’ catching on objects around the seat.

Hotels

It is always a good idea, when making hotel reservations, to inform them of your specific disability and that you are being accompanied by a service dog. Even if a hotel or restaurant has a “no pets” policy, this never applies to service animals. Furthermore, it is unlawful for any business to assess an extra fee or require a special deposit in order for a service animal to accompany an individual with a disability, even if deposits are normally required for pets.

Two caveats do exist with regard to service animal access. First, the owner of a service animal is liable for the cost of any damage which might be caused by their animal to an establishment. Second, service animals may be excluded from a business if that animal’s behavior poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others; growling, snarling, or excessive barking may cause you problems, so be sure to keep your dog in check.

Traveling with a service animal allows you the comforts and ease of mobility that you are used to at home, and it need not be a difficult proposition as long as you are prepared. Know your rights, your responsibilities, plan ahead, make sure everyone’s aware of your situation, and you are on your way to having a great travel experience.