By Kitty Block and Sara Amundson
The Department of Transportation today announced its plan to issue new regulations that would prohibit airlines from banning certain breeds of service dogs. This represents a much-needed move toward ending discriminatory policies by individual airlines that cause unnecessary and cruel hardships for customers with disabilities and their animals.
The proposal follows a summertime announcement by Delta Airlines that it would no longer allow pit-bull-type dogs on its airplanes, even if they are certified service dogs. That decision failed to acknowledge what scientists and animal experts have agreed upon for years—that there is no evidence supporting the assertion that a dog poses a direct threat because of his or her breed.
With its decision, Delta placed an extreme and unnecessary hardship on its own customers, asking them to choose between air travel and essential service animals. It also ignored guidance from the DOT in August 2019 that instructed airlines not to prohibit service dogs on flights based on their breed or physical appearance alone.
The DOT confirmed that guidance in its announcement today and stated that it is not aware of nor has been presented with evidence supporting the assertion that an animal poses a direct threat simply because of its breed.
There is, in fact, absolutely no evidence that pit-bull-type dogs have more aggressive tendencies than other breeds. On the other hand, such dogs are increasingly serving as seeing eye and hearing dogs, as physical support dogs for balance and mobility, as medical alert dogs responding to various health issues such as low blood sugar, oncoming seizures or low oxygen levels, and as support animals for individuals with psychological conditions such as PTSD.
What adds to the confusion is that there isn’t a specific breed called a “pit bull.” Instead the term is used loosely to refer to any medium-sized and short-haired dog with a large head. As a result, a large number of breeds are clubbed together under this moniker, including the Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, American Pit Bull Terrier and endless variations of mixed breeds.
Experts like the American Veterinary Medical Association, American Bar Association, American Kennel Club, American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, National Animal Control Association and Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association oppose any and all policies that discriminate against dogs whose physical characteristics are lumped into a breed. As awareness grows, dozens of municipalities have also done away with breed specific legislation in the last couple years. Just this month, Washington became the 21st state to prohibit its localities from passing such legislation.
There are some serious practical problems with such policies, too. Even professionals who work in the animal industry, including veterinarians, animal control officers and shelter employees, are unable to accurately identify breed based solely on the physical traits of the dog. An airline employee would find it impossible to decide which dog should be banned on the basis of his or her breed, leading to highly discretionary and inconsistent decisions. Airline personnel already have the discretion to prohibit an individual animal from flying if they are displaying unsafe behavior, and instead of creating breed discriminatory policies, airlines should train staff to look for signs of behavioral stress in dogs.
We applaud this proposed amendment that would bring airlines in line with the latest science while ensuring that individuals with disabilities and their service animals are adequately protected from frivolous discriminatory policies. The DOT also announced today its intent to prohibit exotic species, including capuchin monkeys and other primates, as service animals—concerns we have flagged in the past because of the health, safety and welfare risks involved. Please submit your comments supporting this rulemaking, and help us make air travel a safe, comfortable and stress-free experience for all individuals, including those with disabilities, and the animals who play such an important role in their lives.
Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.