In June 2018, Delta issued a total ban on any service or support animal that is a “pit bull type” dog. The announcement immediately incurred criticism and outrage from pit bull advocates, service dog organizations and disability activists. And the government.
Last week, the Department of Transportation issued a Guidance Document rejecting Delta’s and other airlines’ ban on pit bulls. It states the while it is legal for any airline to ban any animal that is considered a threat to safety, “The Department is not aware of and has not been presented with evidence supporting the assertion that an animal poses a direct threat simply because of its breed. On June 22, 2018, the Enforcement Office issued a public statement indicating its view that ‘a limitation based exclusively on breed of the service animal is not allowed under the Air Carrier Access Act.’ The Enforcement Office continues to take the view that restrictions on specific dog breeds are inconsistent with the current regulation.”
When asked for comment, Delta sent a statement to This Dog’s Life: “Delta continuously reviews and enhances its policies and procedures for animals onboard as part of its commitment to health, safety and protecting the rights of customers with disabilities. In 2018, Delta augmented its policies on service and support animals to reinforce our core value of putting safety and people first, always.”
The 2018 ban followed a series on events that prompted airlines to begin evaluating the authenticity and safety of service animals onboard. In one incident, a passenger was bit by a man’s emotional support dog, a Labrador retriever mix. The type of service animals that passengers have claimed are emotional support have also expanded to include Daniel, an emotional-support duck, and an emotional support peacock that was not allowed to board.
But along with Delta’s list of banned animals, which includes farm poultry, hedgehogs, sugar gliders and animals with tusks, horns or hooves, Delta decided to ban any service dog that looks like a pit bull.
Delta’s announcement about pit bull type dogs is different from the other animals on their no-fly list. In these other cases, a species of animal is banned. This ban is on a so-called breed of animal, but what makes it even worse is the fact that the determination that a dog is a “pit bull” is based solely on the dog’s appearance.
This “eyeball assessment” is how Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) works in most cases. In Denver Colorado’s BSL, for example, “Pit bull type dogs are defined as any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of any one or more of the above breeds, or any dog exhibiting those distinguishing (physical) characteristics, which substantially conform to the standards established by American Kennel Club or United Kennel Club.”
Furthermore, Delta defines inappropriate service dog behavior as disruptive or aggressive, including growling, biting, jumping on passengers, and barking excessively. Their ban on the pit bull type dog is based on appearance solely, not inappropriate behavior.
Animal Farm Foundation, an organization that trains pit bulls found in shelters to be service dogs, was a vocal opponent to the ban. “When Delta or anyone puts out a regulation like this that dictates what kind of dog can be a service dog, they are reducing access for someone with a disability,” communications manager Regina Lizik told The Washington Post.
Another organization and community that was affected by the ban is the Pets and Vets program at Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF). The organization rescues dogs from shelters in Northern California to train as service animals for veterans with PTSD. Like most shelters, the dog population is represented largely by pit bull type dogs.
Elena Bicker, ARF’s executive director, told The Mercury News that decisions to allow or ban a service animal should be based on behavior rather than breed. “This is breed discrimination based on visual assessment of an unskilled airline representative pressured to make a quick pre-board assessment,” she says.
It is reasonable and necessary to train any service or support animal to behave in a way that does not disturb other passengers. It should be noted that the American Temperament Test Society found that the American Pit Bull Terrier has an 87.4 percent pass ratio on their temperament test; the American Staffordshire Terrier scores 85.5 percent; the Bull Terrier, percent. These are all “pit bull type dogs.”
The DOT notes that after its Guidance Document is officially published next week, airlines will have 30 days to comply. Unfortunately, they also write that their guidance is “not legally binding.” Ultimately, it may be up to the consumer to change unfair and unreasonable policies by affecting their bottom line and choosing not to fly on airlines that ban dog breeds.