Is your dog a certified good boy? You might need proof when traveling abroad with a service animal.

Carissa Rawson
Special to USA TODAY
  • While most Americans with service dogs can find relatively easy accommodations when touring the country, it's a very different experience abroad.
  • You'll need your animal's paperwork for airlines, hotels, rental cars – anywhere you want to bring your service dog.
  • Although most countries have specific and detailed protections regarding service animals, they're not always clear.

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Traveling with an invisible illness isn't easy. Traveling with a service dog while passing as a perfectly healthy 32-year-old woman is exponentially more difficult. 

That's the situation I found myself in, two years after leaving the U.S. Air Force and with a newly acquired service dog in tow.

As a travel writer, I was always on the move – and I thought I was pretty savvy when it came to entry requirements, international airports and all things overseas.

I was wrong. 

There were approximately 500,000 service dogs operating in the U.S. as of 2016, but how many have you seen while traveling? There's a reason for this. 

While most Americans can find relatively easy accommodations when touring the country thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, it's a very different experience once you leave the safety of U.S. borders. Learning to navigate these differences is both challenging and rewarding – but never simple. 

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Carissa Rawson's service dog Brit

It’s all about the paperwork when traveling with an animal

Regardless of your destination, you'll always need paperwork when traveling with an animal. Laws vary by country, but the European Union requires a health certificate validated within the past 10 days.

Keeping your paperwork organized is key; you'll need it for airlines, hotels, rental cars – essentially anywhere you want to bring your service dog.

While traveling I always keep on me:

Is all of this always necessary? No, but it helps smooth my path, especially since I have no visible disability. 

Carissa Rawson with her stepmother, and service dog Brit.

Know your laws when traveling with a service dog

Did you know that there is no internationally recognized service dog certification? While large organizations such as the International Guide Dog Federation and Assistance Dogs International, have created their own registries of service dogs, they are far from all-encompassing.

In the EU, where Regulation (EC) No 1107/2006 dictates your rights when traveling by air, bus and train, there are woefully inadequate descriptions as to what constitutes an assistance animal. This is a recognized problem, as a working document notes:

The Regulation does not provide a definition of a "recognized assistance dog," consequently carriers are left without guidance to determine when a particular dog should be considered as a recognised service animal which can create disputes between airlines and passengers intending to travel with their assistance dogs.

A service dog named Orlando rests on the foot of its trainer while sitting inside a United Airlines plane at Newark Liberty International Airport on April 1, 2017.

This happened to me on a flight a few years ago. After pointing out that there is, indeed, no international registry or recognition, the airline reluctantly allowed me on board. 

Although most countries have specific and detailed protections regarding service animals, they're not always clear. But knowing them back to front – and keeping a copy of them with you – will help get you where you need to go.

Polite but assertive is key

"What's wrong with you?" 

My favorite question to never answer, I've been asked this more times than I can count. Whether I'm in a restaurant or trying to board a flight, this topic is a frequent occurrence in my life. Also common? Grabbing. 

When I got my service dog I realized for the first time what it was like to be in the spotlight. We are always center-stage, and that means I have needed to learn how to be assertive.

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A service dog strolls through the isle inside a United Airlines plane at Newark Liberty International Airport on April 1, 2017.

A simple "Nothing, thank you," or a quickly outstretched hand has helped maintain boundaries I didn't know I needed to create. Cultures aren't universal, but respect is.

I could have never dreamed that I'd one day wander the world with a four-legged partner. Is it hard? Yes. But I wouldn't trade it for anything.

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