When Dogs Fly: Tips for Flying With Your Service Dog

Today I flew from my home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana to my hometown in Maplewood, New Jersey. Naturally, I took Daphne with me. Daphne has only flown once, three years ago when I took her home from her program in Albuquerque. Daphne is a solid service dog. She has great nerves, she’s focused on her job, and she approaches new challenges with a delightfully quiet demeanor. I have never been worried about Daphne. It didn’t matter whether we were on a subway in New York City or sitting through 3-hour lectures in school, Daphne had public access down to a science.


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Nevertheless, I was worried about flying with her. The biggest challenge with flying is you can’t simply “get off” the ride. Your dog needs to behave well enough not to be a nuisance in a small space and she needs to do it for an extended period of time. This is hard for full-grown humans, let alone a dog.

In the end, Daphne did great. She was polite and non-intrusive and she won over all of the passengers that noticed she was even on the plane (which was only a handful of people). The friendly folks over at United Airlines were extremely accommodating and it was just a pleasant trip.

Before I left, I set Daphne and myself up for success by going prepared. I came up with a list of things that were helpful for me when flying. You may notice that some of the things on this list go above and beyond the parameters of the ADA and ACAA, but in my opinion it’s best to be over-prepared.

  1. Alert the airline that you will have a dog with you

    If you buy your ticket from Expedia or a similar site you will usually have the choice to notify the airline that you will have a service dog with you. It’s just a simple check in a box when you pick your seats. A lot of sites don’t have a choice for “general service dog”. The one I used had “guide dog” and “hearing dog”. I checked “hearing dog” (even though Daphne isn’t a hearing dog) and went prepared to explain the situation. If you aren’t given this option when you purchase your ticket, call the airline and notify them. In the end, it’s best to give the airline notice well in advance. Because I notified them early United left the seat next to me empty so Daphne could have some room. They also knew to look for me when we started boarding.

    Keep in mind that advance notice might be legally required based on the length of your flight and the country you’re flying to, so advanced notice is always a good idea.

  2. Know your laws and have the necessary paperwork

    8e9Your rights to have a service dog on board an aircraft are not protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. They’re actually protected by the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). There are a few key things that you need to know about the ACAA before flying:

    -Foreign carriers are required to comply with the civil rights protections outlined in the ACAA if they fly into or out of the United States. However, foreign countries that require that all animals coming into the country are quarantined can apply for a waiver from this requirement. Before you leave, make sure you’re not flying into a waiver country or they may not let your dog off the plane.

    -If your flight is longer than 8 hours, the air carrier can request legal documentation stating that your animal will not relieve itself during the flight or that your dog will do it in a “sanitary manner” and they can define what they think is sanitary.

    -To fly with an emotional support animal (ESA), you need to have a doctor’s note stating that you are disabled and require the animal. If you have a Psychiatric Service Dog (PSD), a dog that performs task or does work for people with psychiatric disabilities, you may also need a doctor’s note to legally fly. It’s not fair, but it’s the law.

    -Make sure your dog fits under the seat (more on this later). The airline does not have to transport your service dog if she will block another passenger’s seat or an exit row.

    -Unlike the ADA, the ACAA does allow air carriers to request proof that your dog is a service dog. Legally, they have to ask a series of questions first, but even if you’ve answered all those questions, they can still ask for documentation. Just to be safe, always travel with your dog’s vaccination/titer records and a letter from your service dog program or trainer if you have one. To be extra safe, you may also want to carry proof of training, proof that your dog has passed a public access test, or anything else that can prove your dog is a service dog.

  3. Teach your service dog to eliminate on command and find your airport’s relief station.

    When you first get your service dog, whether she’s a puppy or a dog from a program, give a cue like “better go now” as the dog is eliminating then treat generously. Eventually your dog should eliminate on that cue. You can practice and proof it on walks.

    This is so, so important when you are traveling with your dog. Your dog may be in “work mode” during the few minutes you have outside to let them go. It’s good to have that cue as a line of communication between you and your dog. That way they can get their business done quickly and you can get on with your business.

    All major US airports should have a relief area for dogs. That area may be outside or it may be indoors. If it is outside you will have to go back out through security to get there. Just another reason why it’s crucial for your dog to go when you have the chance.

    San-Francisco-Dog-Bathroom-Pet-Relief-Area-SFO

    A service dog relief area in San Fancisco airport

    As luck would have it there’s an iphone app with all the information about service dog relief areas in airports across the country. Use it!

  4. Identify your dog as a service dog

    Yes, I know what you’re going to say. “But Laura! I’m not legally required to label my dog as a service dog! Stop trampling on my rights!” Well, uppity internet user, you are technically right. You are allowed to work your in only a collar and leash if you want. However, this blog is here to make your life easier and this one tip will eliminate a big chunk of your problems when flying. Presumably, when you are flying you are trying to actually get somewhere and you’re not going to get there very quickly or easily if everyone who passes you wants to know whether your dog is a service dog. Labeling your dog with a bold harness, vest, or cape will deflect a lot of questions.

    Princeton proves that you don’t need a ton of patches or a fancy harness to make a bold statement

    Also, I’m sorry to you gear minimalists, but I can’t imagine that a leash sleeve that says “service dog” and nothing else will be helpful. You want big, bold, and colorful. Daphne has a big, conspicuous sign on her harness marking her as a service dog and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  5. Use gear that is easy to remove

    Security is tough with a service dog. You’re distracted by taking off your shoes and fumbling with your laptop and phone. Cranky people behind you want to know what makes you so special that you can skip to the front of the line and take so damn long. It’s stressful! In addition to that, the TSA agents can request that you remove all metal from your dog. Your goal when preparing to travel should be to be able to do this as quickly as possible. Choose that vest, collar, harness with a slide buckle instead of a regular buckle. Make sure that you can easily remove any training collars. If your dog wears boots, take them off while you’re on line for security so you’re not caught trying to keep track of all four boots on top of everything else.

    Also, when in doubt a simple, metal-free slip collar will be your life saver. You’ll be able to get your dog completely metal-free and you’ll still be in control. Here’s a great one from Bold Lead Designs.

    Waiting on line for security. This is about the time when I start undressing her.

    Waiting on line for security. This is about the time when I start undressing her.

  6. Train a “wait” command

    So imagine this: Your dog has been stripped of her gear by security. You’re (understandably) flustered by everything going on. You walk through the metal detector with your dog and it goes off. You forgot that you had some change in your pocket.

    You could go back through the metal detector with your dog, get her into heel position, empty your pockets, and then go back through again with your dog, but wouldn’t it be better to eliminate some steps? Give a “wait” cue, empty your pockets, go backwards through the metal detector and leave your dog standing on the other side, walk towards your dog (through the medal detector) and release the dog. You don’t even have to let go of the leash, just walk to the end of it. Easy-peasy.

    You can teach “wait” at home. Set up a threshold. You can use a doorway or two cones or a line on the floor. Walk your dog in heel toward the threshold, waive your hand in front of the dog as though you’re making an invisible barrier. Say “wait” and continue walking. If the dog walks, neutrally put her back in position and try again. If you’re having trouble, take teeny tiny steps at first.

  7. Have a solid loose leash heel

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    You are definitely going to need a reliable heel. Your dog should be walking with a “J” in his leash. It doesn’t matter if you’re all about positive reinforcement or if you use a prong, you should not have to “manage” your dog at the other end of the leash. Foraging might cut it in the local mall, but rushing to the gate carrying luggage and weaving between crowds is just not the same thing.

    Even though Daphne has always walked on a loose leash, we did some brush-up training before we left to fly.

  8. Bring an empty water bowl with you, but be careful not to over-water

    We’ve addressed the pottying issue. Once you get on the plane, you can’t get out. Because of this, when I fly I withhold water because I’d rather she not pee all over the plane. She gets a chance to drink before we leave the house and when we arrive at our destination, but no water in between.

    However, planes can be dry and can increase the severity of dehydration so I always carry a travel bowl for water and I know how to check my dog for dehydration. Watch for fatigue or coughing. Also, if you press on your dog’s gums and the color doesn’t come back immediately, your dog needs water stat.

  9. Train a solid “under” command

    Perhaps the hardest part about flying with a dog is squishing them into those tiny little pockets of “leg room” on the plane and finding place for your legs. It’s important to make sure the dog is comfortable. You can put down doggy pillows all you want, but in the end they’re going to be the most comfortable if they have practice curling up into small spaces. Start in your house. Ask your dog to go under a table and lie down. While you’re out and about, decrease the amount of space they have to squeeze into. Work toward getting them to fit entirely under a kitchen chair. Let them stay there for a few minutes at a time and carefully increase the duration. Practice with bathroom stalls, desks, benches, anything you can think of. This will allow your dog to acclimate slowly to the feeling of being in a very confined space. If you don’t practice beforehand you risk the dog freaking out once you get into the plane.

    It's a tight squeeze!

    It’s a tight squeeze!

  10. Practice on public transport

    I don’t know if you’ve been on a plane, like, ever, but it’s loud…and there’s turbulence. Not to mention there’s about 300 cranky-ass passengers all coughing and grumping and crying. Engine sounds on airplanes can be very disconcerting for a dog who has never heard anything like it before. If your dog isn’t used to riding in moving objects, turbulence can be a bitch. Your dog may love the car, but there’s a big difference between a 737 cabin and the back of your station wagon.

    Dogs need to be eased into the concept of riding on and (more importantly) behaving on loud, crazy public transport before you can throw them into a crowded plane cabin. Start with asking them to behave as if at work while in the car. Once you’ve done that, work your dog on buses and trains until you feel they are 100% reliable. The difference between a plane and a bus is you can run off the bus in a blind panic if your dog starts barking and scrambling to get off. In a plane you’re stuck, so you’ll have to know that they’ll be solid.

    On a NJ Transit train

    On a NJ Transit train

    If you are raising a puppy, it’s a really good idea to get them used to the sound of diesel engines at a young age. Diesel engines sound different from plane engines, but unless you own your own private jet, the sound of a deisel engine may be the closest you can get to an airplane while still on the ground. When Princeton was a little puppy, we spent a few hours over the course of a week walking around an idling bus at a bus station (with the driver’s permission of course). You can never be too prepared.

  11. Stay aware of your dog’s stress levels and take a “time out” if your dog is getting too stressed

    It doesn’t take a genius to understand the basics of canine body language, but it seems like no one these days knows when their dog is getting stressed out. Before a dog starts shaking in pure panic, she does give certain signs. There’s a difference between “uh oh, something feels wrong about this” and “HOLY SHIT I’M SCARED!” but when it comes to dogs, if you recognize the former, you can usually prevent the latter. So that’s a big rule: know what your dog is feeling.

    Dogs don’t express nervousness and fear the way we do. Many canine signs of anxiety are not similar to human body language. When we’re nervous, we start sweating, the hair on the back of our necks stands up, and we lose our appetite. Dogs can’t sweat and by the time they’ve raised their hackles they’re already too overstimulated to do their jobs. If they’re shaking, you’re way beyond their threshold. Here are a few more subtle signs of canine anxiety that are your dog’s way of saying, “I’m not too sure about this, you crazy human”

    –Excessive lip licking
    –Excessive yawning
    –Shaking off
    –“Whale eyes” i.e. you can see the whites of your dog’s eyes
    –Stiff walking
    –Holding the tail stiffly

    If you’re really bad at reading or remembering canine body language, here’s a handy chart:

    bodylanguage
    If you are walking through an airport and your dog is giving you the signs that she’s nervous, take a minute. Make sure you leave early so you have the time and ability to take short breaks. Find a quiet corner and let your dog have a breather. If your dog enjoys squeaky toys, they’re a great way to break the tension (just don’t use them when you’re actually on the plane). If your dog enjoys treats, bring some high-value, super tasty treats for situations like this. Don’t be embarrassed to give your dog a belly rub to calm them down. As long as you’re not bothering other people and your dog gets up and continues to be well-behaved, you’re okay.

  12. Bring tummy-friendly treats and be generous

    Even the most experienced, well-behaved service dogs should be treated for working once in awhile. It maintains their drive to work and their interest in their job. Not only that, but if you train using treats, giving a treat is a way of communicating to the dog that “hey! You’re doing great!”  When traveling with your service dog, it’s important to show extra appreciation and encouragement. It’s not easy for them to bravely take to the skies, so make sure to give something back. Not only that, but frequent feeding creates positive associations with the environment. When Daphne and I took off this morning, I was constantly feeding her. Through take off and landing she was getting treats every few seconds.  She didn’t have to do anything for these treats except continue to be the well-behaved dog she is. That’s a good thing. It makes her willing to do it again. For her, the positive treats overcame her nervousness and she did great.

    When treating it’s also important to know your dog’s food sensitivities. If chicken gives your dog mud-butt don’t feed chicken. Mud-butt is not compatible with flying, especially when it’s your service dog with the stinky problem. Good treats for flying are usually higher in starch and lower in protein. Biscuits or bits of crackers are good. If you are a raw feeder or you’re not happy with your dog eating food high in grain or potato, try bits of carrot or celery. Whatever you pick, make sure you’ve fed it before so you know it will be compatible with your dog’s tummy.

So there you have it! Now you’re ready to take to the skies with your service dog in tow. Traveling with your service dog can be one of the best team-building experiences you can have. If you have any questions or comments or you just want to post pictures of your dog flying, write a comment. Until then, happy flying!

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