Beginning in 2009, the Department of Transportation (DOT) required all airlines to make sure there are animal relief areas at airports, and escorts to those relief areas, for any passenger traveling with a service animal. As a result, airports everywhere have created and expanded animal relief areas that are open to all pets as well as service animals. Most animal and pet relief areas were located outside the airport terminals.

As of August 2016, federal regulation requires airports that service more than 10,000 passengers a year to establish at least one relief area for service animals inside each terminal. Most airports have extended the use of pet relief stations to law enforcement dogs, emotional support animals and airport therapy dogs. The areas must also be wheelchair-accessible and close to airline gates so service animals can access them regardless of whether they’re departing or arriving.

Airports have developed various ways to provide relief areas for service animals and pets (see photo above, courtesy Des Moines International Airport). With the federal deadline passed, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it “will work with airports on a case-by-case basis to ensure that the service animal relief area requirement is met.” The federal rule requires one animal relief area in each terminal, including in sterile areas of the airport.

Dogs have been assisting people in need many different ways since at least 1927. 

The issue arises immediately of how to adequately symbolize ‘Service Animal Relief Area’.  In late 2016 for example, the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport installed new signs at their Concourse C to meet federal regulations. They appropriated the existing National Park Service (NPS) ‘Pets on Leash’ symbol and incorporated it into a silhouette of a fire hydrant (below).  Unfortunately, the signmakers have fallen into the typical trap of not defining the symbol content message carefully beforehand.

The result is the confusion of a pet on leash within fire fighting equipment hybrid message that may obscure the intent of the sign. One has to guess why, or if, there might even be an actual fire hydrant in the service animal relief area – joke, metaphor, or reality? Then add to the confusion by putting another sign up nearby without the hydrant. The reality is that some facilities will have a fake “mini hydrant” in the relief area to encourage urination, and some will not, thus the hydrant is not an efficient metaphorical concept for the subject. It is also doubtful that fire inspectors will be happy with their essential fire fighting equipment being depicted casually for non-safety reasons, blue or not.

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, doorway to Service Animal Relief Area

Are we being too literal here? Well, the bottom line is that the National Park Service (NPS) ‘Pets on Leash’ sign (below left), does not effectively convey a ‘service animal’, nor was that it’s intention when developed two decades ago by Don Meeker, an able environmental designer. The breed pictured, ostensibly a terrier with a leashed collar, is not commonly used for guiding the visually impaired. In the meantime, other international airports have also begun to create their own symbols for ‘service animal/pet’ (example: below, middle, from the Des Moines International Airport). Note that the middle sample, while somewhat more effective, is more illustrative than symbolic. The straps appear as more of a ‘gentle’ leash than a true seeing eye dog harness.  Again, the question remains, “What visually constitutes a ‘Service Animal?”

After researching the subject, Ultimate Symbol developed a new ‘Service Animal / Pet Relief Area’ symbol (above right), which more closely reflects the universal visual vocabulary of the NPS as well as other international sign systems. Importantly, the new symbol (below) accurately resolves the harness and handle visually, and utilizes the silhouette of a German shepherd, a breed more often associated with the task of guiding the visually impaired. The new symbol is specifically designed to contrast with the ‘Pets on Leash’ symbol (above left), while it covers the message content description of both ‘service dogs’ and ‘pets’. It will be available as a vector download in the Spring of 2017 as part of Official Signs & Icons 3, a comprehensive compendium of sanctioned international symbol systems.  Comments and suggestions are welcome.




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