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Guest Blog: First Plane Trip with Your Service Dog Guest Blog: First Plane Trip with Your Service Dog

Sarah Wilson

Dog Expert

Guest Blog: First Plane Trip with Your Service Dog

| 34 Comments

woman with her service dogI remember my first plane trip with my Service Dog, Rowan, and how anxious I felt: Would I have problems at security or boarding the plane? Would my dog be restless on the plane?

Rowan, on the other hand, was not anxious at all. Being accustomed to working with me in a variety of public settings, this was just one more adventure that he handled with his usual calm confidence and love of working with me.

Assuming that your dog is well-trained and has been prepped by working in many public situations, flying with your service dog should go well. Here are some tips to help your first flight go as smoothly as possible:

Planning Ahead

If possible, schedule a direct flight, so you don’t have the additional time involved with a layover.

When you buy your ticket, select a seat that has a bit more leg room, if possible. Seatguru.com is one site that can show you which seats on the plane have more or less room. Be aware that on some planes, the bulkhead actually has less room than other rows because there is no seat for you for your dog to partially tuck under. Airline counter and gate agents often want to move you to the bulkhead, thinking it is a better option, but it may not be, so try to do your research ahead of time.

Window seats are generally better, as your dog will not be near the aisle where he could get stepped on.

Which seat is best for you may also depend on the size of your dog. Rowan is a medium-sized dog, and he goes partially under the seat in front of me. If your dog is larger, you may need to have an empty seat beside you, although this is sometimes not an option on a full flight.

Either at the time of buying your ticket or a few days before you travel, call the airline to inform them that you are traveling with a Service Dog. You do not need to ask for permission. Just calmly, confidently and courteously inform them of your plans. I was nervous about making this call the first time I was preparing to travel with Rowan, but I have never had a problem.

Bathe your dog or take him to the groomer a day or two before you travel. With the close quarters on a plane, it is courteous to do what you can to make sure your dog has little odor and is less likely to cause allergic reactions.

Before You Leave for the Airport

If your flight is early in the day, it may help to give your dog a smaller meal than usual that morning. I like to add water to my dog’s dry food when I am about to travel, because sometimes he doesn’t drink right away, and I want to be sure he’s hydrated. I prefer not to limit water, but if I know I’ll be unable to potty him for a number of hours, I do limit water ahead of time (other than what I put in his food) and then give him small amounts in the airport.

If possible, exercise your dog moderately before heading to the airport. As with us, it’s easier for a dog to lie still if he’s been able to burn off energy beforehand. I also like to exercise my dog well (but not excessively) the day before traveling.

Check your carry-on before leaving to be sure you have the essentials readily at hand—poop bags, collapsible water bowl (or disposable plastic cup), small treats, ID card or tags (if you have them for your dog), ADA Service Dog card. Make sure your dog and his equipment are clean and neat.

Checking In with A Service Dog

Plan on getting to the airport with a bit more time to spare than is typically recommended. If the recommendation is to be there an hour and a half before the flight, I try to be there two hours ahead of time. I rarely need the extra time, but having it helps me stay relaxed if there are any delays.

At times I have had to wait on a slow line to check in, because I have a Service Dog with me and can’t just use the automated check-in kiosks. Sometimes it takes a bit longer to go through security. And you’ll want time after you check in and before you go through security to potty your dog one last time before the flight, so that extra time is important, especially if the airport is large and the dog walk area a long walk from where you’ve checked in.

Remember that airplane lavatories are tiny and won’t have room for your dog to go in with you. You may want to limit your own intake of liquids, if your health permits.

Going Through Security with Your Service Dog

Security is an important and necessary hassle when flying, so I never object, but I have found ways to make it easier to go through with my dog. Some of what I do may not apply to you and your dog, depending on what your dog does for you, but some of these ideas may be helpful.

You do not need to remove your dog’s equipment (backpacks in my dog’s case). However, I do empty the packs and put the contents in the bins to go through the x-ray. To make that easier, I pack everything into his packs in large Ziploc bags, so I can remove them quickly and then return them easily.

I remove my dog’s regular collar before going through security and use a slip lead on him, so that he can walk through the scanner without setting off the metal detecting alarm and so not need to be patted down. Of course, if your dog has metal on his harness or other equipment, he will need to be patted down anyway. If this is the case, have one hand on your dog while he is being patted down and scanned, if possible, and talk to him cheerfully. Most security agents who’ve patted my dog down have been delighted to have a few moments with a dog, but if they aren’t dog savvy, you’ll want to be supporting your dog to help him stay calm.

Boarding the Plane with Your Service Dog

Whether or not you board early will generally depend on your mobility. Sometimes I’ve been asked to board early just because I have a Service Dog, but generally I board whenever my zone is called for, not ahead of time. As you walk along the aisle on the plane, scan the floor for food, gum or pills, so that your dog won’t grab something dangerous. Likewise, when you get to your seat, check under your seat and the seat in front of you for such items.

Depending on where your dog will be during the flight, you may want to back him into the row. My medium-sized dog lies with his head under the seat in front of me, so he goes in headfirst, but larger dogs often do better if they back in and then lie with their head toward the aisle.

Ideally your dog will sleep throughout the flight, so don’t ask for or give constant attention. One of the best compliments you can get is for someone sitting near you to be surprised at the end of the flight to realize that there was a dog on the plane. If your dog seems concerned during ascent or descent or when there’s turbulence, reassure him calmly and quietly and give small treats to help him with the pressure changes.

If You Encounter Resistance

The vast majority of airline personnel I have encountered have been supportive, pleasant, and positive about Service Dogs. The only time I had a problem was on my first flight with Rowan, when neither the airline attendant nor the pilot understood that Service Dogs must be granted access. I explained calmly over and over that he was a Service Dog, not a pet, and that he had to be given access, just as a Guide Dog for a visually impaired person would. I gave them the ADA card I always carry for just such situations. They made a call to the airline, and the situation was resolved, but if it hadn’t been, I would have called the ADA Information Line at 800-514-0301. Remember, in any such situation, it helps to remain calm, courteous, and confident, and most misunderstandings are easily resolved with no ill feelings.

During Layovers

If you have a layover during a long day of travel, you may want to take your dog outside to relieve himself. If you do, you’ll need to go through security again when you come back in, so plan adequate time for this when scheduling your flights. At some airports it can be very hard to find the dog walk area, so ask if you’re having trouble. If your dog is trained to use papers, you can potty him in a family restroom.

Give your dog a little water during a layover. Planes are dry and he is likely to be thirsty. I only allow my dog to have a small amount of water during layovers, unless I’m able to walk him before the next flight.

If you’re able and you have time, walk in the airport to stretch your legs and give your dog a chance to get some exercise. Be aware that you may encounter other Service Dogs, Police Dogs, and children darting about, as well as electric carts, wheel chairs and various other unusual sights.

After Reaching Your Destination

When the plane has landed, I do not get my dog up until I’m ready to deplane. Once he starts moving, your dog is more likely to need to relieve himself if it’s been a long time, so remaining at your seat, then exiting the plane and heading straight for the dog rest area is easier on the dog, especially since there is often a long wait to leave the plane after it has landed. After your dog has had an opportunity to relieve himself, you can pick up your baggage and leave the airport.

Then smile! You’ve completed your first plane trip with your Service Dog!

By Melissa Fischer, PuppyHomeschool.com

34 Comments

  1. Great article. Thanks for the tips.

  2. I have an emotional support dog and weighs 19.8lbs this will be my first time traveling with him. He is to big for a carrier and before I was told by my dr that I needed to bring him the tickets were purchased and I have an isle seat due to a handicap. He gets nervous with trucks and I’m already nervous going. I am flying jet blue and I have the ID tags, note and what think is needed. I am so nervous……

    • Hi Irene – Bit confused. Emotional support dogs don’t have public access, as important as that work is that they do. https://adata.org/publication/service-animals-booklet – Sarah

      • Emotional support animals do have public access and are allowed to fly, just as service dogs are. You need to have documentation from a licensed mental health professional. Irene I hope the flight went well!

        • Great article though Sarah!! It provided great information! I am going to be flying with my ESA for the first time in a few weeks, and certainly have been nervous about what to expect. I dont anticipate having any problems as my poodle does well in cars and boats and public settings. It is going through security that I am most nervous about.

        • With Public Access training. Any dog out in public with such access needs to have those basics in place so they do not intrude on other people’s lives. Loose leash walking in ALL circumstances, lying quietly at your feet the ENTIRE flight, not sniffing at stranger’s or any food, no barking or whining. Access is a privilege and basic Public Access training is a necessity.

        • Emotional support dogs do not have public access rights as service dogs do, but are allowed in public housing (fair housing law) and on airplanes (air carriers access act).

    • Irene Scleparis, pls update…how did the trip go?

  3. Hi, I’m also doing my first flight w/ my 97-lb Rough Collie service dog. He currently goes everywhere w/ me, all doctor/hospital visits, shopping, malls, has been on elevators, through revolving doors, in lots of traffic, but he is very afraid of thunder, gun shots, or unexpected loud noises. I’m afraid of the plane take off noise might really scare him. I googled about dogs puking or pooping on planes, & it has happened. Planes have had to make emergency landings b/c of the fumes. That would be so embarrassing! My dog is well trained, but I’m so apprehensive about this first flight. Should I get him some ear noise cancelling headphones? (I’ve read the baby noise canceling type work good on dogs), ask vet for a calming aide, although he is so totally calm, other than loud noises. Greatly appreciate your feedback – ty 🙂

    • Hi Sherry – How is he in the car? Also, he becomes so frightened he defecates? What does the school you got him from suggest?

  4. Wonderful, informative and well-written article! I have a 60 lb. Australian Labradoodle Service Dog. He has had wide exposure to most things, but never an airplane. I worry about all of the aspects of flying that you have addressed. I will try to relax in the knowledge that if I follow your advice, all will go well. I wonder if taking my dog to an airport ahead of time for a few visits would desensitize him somewhat. Thank you.

    • If he is social and steady and rides in a car well then chances are he’ll be just fine. However, you might benefit from a trip to the airport. 🙂

      In all my years of traveling with dogs, I’ve never had one freak out in a plane. Hope that is comforting. Fly safely – Sarah

      • You response is indeed comforting! By the way, he’s social and travels anywhere, sleeping no matter how far or short a trip! Thank you for replying! The very best to you!

    • Sherry, how did the trip go?

  5. Thanks for a wonderful article! We are taking my son’s service dog / seizure alert, on an international flight to the Netherlands’ (11 hours). He is well trained an potties on command – also will “hold it” in public for an amazing amount of time. He does signal when he just “has to go”. I’m worried about potty needs on the flight. What if he just HAS to go. He is a terrier and would most likely fit in airplane laboratory – I thought of using a potty pad in a pinch? If my son is awake, dog will stay alert and focused.. no no chance of him sleeping throught the entire flight.

    • That IS a long flight, but I would think he’ll be just fine. Stay calm, minimize food and water to necessities, bring a pad “just in case” and try not to worry. If you are relaxed and your son can stay relaxed, chances are good he’ll stay relaxed, too. Good luck! Sarah

  6. Hi. Thank you very much for the article. My SD & I will be taking our first flight at the end of March. It’s just a quick 2 hour flight so I don’t foresee too many concerns and your article gave good tips on how to circumvent several of those. I guess my only concern left is figuring out where to sit and how to keep my SD out of others foot space. He is a rather large great dane. I like your idea of backing him in, but his nose needs to be right with me to help with his task. That leaves his long body & rear possibly taking up the space of others. Any suggestions? He can only make himself so small.

    • Probably row 1. A Great Dane is a hard choice for a service dog because of the size. I’d be working on teaching him to curl up in a VERY VERY small ball, or to sit between your legs facing you for 2+ hours or buying two seats or driving.

      I don’t know the task but no properly trained alert dog with a normal nose needs to have it so close to do their work. They really CAN scent you a long way away – certainly a foot or two is no big challenge for a well-trained seizure or blood sugar alert dog. I would not fret about that. I’ve seen blood sugar alert dogs pick it up from across a room with no issue many times, so don’t fret that. Good luck.

    • Leann Hill, how did the trip go?

  7. This is super helpful thank you so much. I have an 18 hour flight with each airport only allowing 1 hour layover and no indoor dog bathroom. What do you recommend I do? Is that enough time to leave and go back through security? What’s the best way for my dog to pee in the bathroom if he needs to go?

    • Hi Sam – Ask your dog’s trainers about this one. A service dog should have all this well sorted out early. There is no easy way to get a housetrained dog to go in a restroom and I have no idea if you can get in and our of security in time. Most airports have an outdoor spot for service dogs, I assumed you have called about that? Good luck to you and your dog.

  8. We had an easy time on the flight, but once we were de-planed and walking briskly to try to reach the ‘relief are’ as soon as possible, the poor dog just could not hold it and voided while walking :(. We had pads, Natures Miracle and baggies in output carry-on backpack, and dis a very fast clean-up, but before next time, we are working on pad-training in novel place —- the key appears that be both learning the texture of the permissible pee-spot under foot, but anointing the pad with a trace of the dog’s own urine so it smells like the right place to go.

  9. I am traveling with my SD soon. I am not worried about security or the flight. Just the bathroom in between. My boy can make the 12 hour flight but in Japan they don’t have outdoor service animal spots. Only a family bathroom. Any suggestions? I have time to train but an so worried by but will go to the bathroom in the airport.

  10. Thank you for the advice, first flight with my SD in a few days. Despite researching for months, I’m still nervous and reading more! I think she’ll go straight to sleep on the plane like she does in a car, and it’s only a 3hour flight no layovers.
    I think I’m most nervous about going thru security, which is already complicated since they have to xray my metal cane and half the time can’t find the wooden cane they’re supposed to have, and hoping they’re actually listening when I explain have a metal plate in my head. Adding the dog to the mix is going to be interesting.

    • Sounds frustrating. Stay calm. Ask them: Would you like me to tell you where the metal is in my body? and then go quiet. When they say: Yes – they will be listening. Hold your dog or keep them at heel. Stay relaxed and praising of your buddy. Ask TSA: How do you go over my dog? As they do, stay calm and happy so your dog will stay calm and happy. You’ll do just fine.

  11. Your post information is very unique and useful for all readers.

  12. No one mentions giving a dog Tremadol if it’s their first trip on airplane.. My dog is going on her first flight as an Emotional Support Dog but is anxious over loud sudden noise, fireworks etc.. My vet says she’s very healthy and although it’s not recommended I could give her Tremadol.. I’m not sure.. I don’t want my dog to disturb other passengers especially since we are in the Prioraty Cabin.

    • This is a hard thing to say but if your dog needs Tramadol to be on a plane she should not be on the plane. If there is a possibility that your dog might “disturb” others than your dog is not ready for public access. Period. Public access is a privilege that is earned. Many dogs don’t have the temperament to function in public reliably. They can be a great help at home but are not appropriate in planes, trains, restaurants. etc.

  13. Thank you for your post. I am training my service dog myself. I have been looking into how to prepare my service dog for air travel and found limited resources. Your post gives me more insight into what I need to work with him on.

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