Service Dog In Training and Handler Detained by Southwest Airlines.

A Southwest Airlines employee said he was sick and tired of people with their “fake service dogs” getting a free ride on the airlines, and decided to take matters into his own hands. But, he may have taken out his frustrations on the wrong person, dog and organization.

Richard Starks, a trainer with Florida’s K9s for Warriors, was all set to travel from San Jose, California to Tampa, Florida with Stew, a service dog in training on Saturday, August 31. Starks was transporting the 112-pound Bull Mastiff, scheduled to be assigned as a service dog to retired Staff Sgt., Alonzo Lunsford, a survivor of the 2009 Fort Hood mass shooting.

Starks and Stew had been cleared for boarding by Southwest Airlines Customer Service. They made it through security. But just moments before setting foot on the plane, Starks was detained by a Southwest Airlines supervisor who began loudly interrogating him, even stating, “You look fine to me…” Even after Starks presented the proper paperwork including Stew’s service dog ID, the employee would not allow the pair to board the plane. He insisted that Starks publicly disclose the details of his own disability before being allowed on the plane.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) clearly states that a service dog is permitted access to public places, including restaurants, hotels, theaters and taxicabs. A provision in the law designed to protect the privacy of people with disabilities and to prevent discrimination clearly states that the individual does not have to prove his or her disability. In fact, only two questions are permitted to be asked: 1) Is your dog a service dog? 2) What tasks has the dog been trained to perform? Businesses cannot require special identification for the dog or ask about the person’s disability. It does not matter whether the dog is wearing a service-dog vest or whether the owner’s disability is visible. These provisions have been approved by the Department of Justice.

But, the service-dog issue is posing some special problems for airlines, due partly to people traveling with dogs wearing jackets indicating that they are service dogs when they are not. The jackets are simply purchased over the internet, no questions asked. Employees, confused over the definition between a service dog and a therapy dog, are often not well-versed enough in the law and/or trained to act accordingly. To make matters more confusing, other laws supersede the ADA when it comes to air travel and housing. Unlike the ADA, the Air Carrier Access Act allows airlines to require passengers with emotional support and psychiatric service dogs to prove they are disabled and that their dog is trained to assist them. This is done via the requirement of a letter on the letterhead of a licensed psychiatrist, psychologist or clinical social worker stating that the passenger has a medically recognized mental or emotional disability and is under the professional’s care. The letter must be dated within one year of the flight.

Apparently, there have been enough passengers trying to board with emotional support and psychiatric service dogs (who fly in the cabin for free) that the U.S. Department of Transportation is letting airlines use their own discretion with regards to allowing such dogs on planes. So, was the Southwest Airlines supervisor operating within the guidelines or was he making up his own rules? At this time, Southwest Airlines is taking the position that he acted properly and within the guidelines. We would like to see those guidelines, especially the part where it states an employee is allowed to verbally abuse a passenger they believe is traveling with a “fake service dog.” 

And, here is the rub, Southwest Airlines: it’s estimated that 13 to 20 percent of the more than 2.6 million Americans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001, have or could develop Post Traumatic Stress Disease (formerly known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Every 80 minutes, a veteran commits suicide, which means the total number of deaths by suicide is more than 6500 veterans every year. That is more than the total number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq to date. 

Dogs, whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support, do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. However, according to the ADA, dogs that calm a person with PTSD during an anxiety attack are considered a “reasonable modification to ADA policies.” We would hope those policies include a person’s right to privacy and protection from discrimination.

Once the Southwest Airlines employee was satisfied with Starks’ answer, he allowed the pair to board the plane. Other passengers came up to Starks and apologized for the disgraceful conduct displayed by the Southwest Airlines employee. By the time Starks and Stew reached their layover in Phoenix, Southwest Airlines staff were on hand to greet them and ensure the rest of their trip was incident-free. But Starks admits that he was adversely-affected by the incident. He was, understandably, angry and upset and is currently contemplating his next step.

Finally on the plane, Stew provided relief to a fellow passenger. Photo provided by Richard Starks.

But, why aren’t the airlines lobbying Congress to correct these problems and clarify the laws, provisions and rules? It’s a question Shari Duval, Executive Director for K9s for Warriors is asking, and one that she will surely find an answer to as she plans to go before Congress herself. “Southwest Airlines could be the leader in righting these wrongs,” Shari told The New Barker dog magazine. “They could be an advocate for educating the public and industries that service the public on the ADA provisions, as supported by the United States Department of Justice,” she added. “Veterans who go through three weeks of training with their service dogs here at K9s for Warriors, deserve better treatment than this. And, believe me, I will fight for them,” said Shari.

About K9s for Warriors: A non-profit organization that provides and trains service dogs for veterans with PTSD. Ninety-five percent of the dogs come from rescue shelters. The office and training facility are located in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. The veteran is given a service canine, complete training, certification and housing during their training. There is no charge to the veteran for the service that K9s for Warriors provides. The Department of Veterans Affairs will not cover the cost of dogs assigned for mental disabilities like PTSD, according to new federal regulations. They will pay for service dogs assigned to veterans with impaired vision, hearing or mobility. Therefore K9s for Warriors relies on community support, donations and fundraising efforts. To learn more about this organization, please visit

Stew, safe and sound in Ponte Vedra, Florida with K9s for Warriors executive director, Shari Duval.