I 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:
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.
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