Updated: May 26, 2022
Updated to reflect the changes to the ACAA (Air Carriers Access Act) final rule January 4, 2021.
*NOTICE* Do not falsify your pet as a Service Dog. It’s extremely dangerous, illegal and hurtful to real teams. Help end the stigma and protect the safety of handlers by following ACAA guidelines.
Traveling with animals (referred to as dogs in this post) can be extremely stressful and chaotic. Here we will discuss the tips and tricks I've learned after 15+ years as an 'frequent flyer' Southwest Member, and traveling on 20+ flights with my Service Dog. Including specific links and recommendations.
It will be broken up in 2 parts; flying and road tripping. Let's start with easier of the two!
You and your dogs' safety is something to definitely take in account with traveling by car, especially for long distances. Dog's are like kids, they get ansy. If your furry friend is constantly moving around and trying to kiss and cuddle you, it can be dangerous since you're driving! This is why we don't travel without a backseat cover. It doubles as a separation from him jumping in our lap and a fur blocker for the seat. That's not all, you're also missing a pet seat belt buckle. This clips onto any harness and it will not only keep them in place but will protect them if you end up in an accident. Make sure its clipped to a secure harness and not a collar to prevent injuries.
Pets aren't in cars as often as we are and it can be extremely frightening for them. Something you can do to prepare them is to just hangout in the driveway with them in the backseat. Play with toys, feed them treats or just cuddle. Make it an inviting atmosphere and this will help them be more calm during your actual trip.
Fun fact is Hamilton wouldn't even get in car when he was a puppy! Part of his training was he had to get in and out on command as he would have to get in a car anytime his handler did. He obviously mastered it but you might have to be patient, each dog is different.
If your pup is extremely scared to even go in the car, then don’t push it. Start by having them walk around the car with the doors open, play and feed them treats. Encourage them to get in the car but don’t force it. Then work up to getting in the car over time.
Our preferred US airline is Southwest - Checkout this blog that talks on why it's our favorite.
As soon as you book, call your airline and let them know you will be traveling with a service dog or pet, make sure you are being honest.
Be extremely mindful of Service Dogs when you’re in an airport. Try to have your pet in a carrier or hold them securely. Most airlines are now requiring pets to be kenneled, check with your airlines policies and abide by them. Remember Service Animals are trained for life saving tasks so if they are being distracted from a pulling and/or loud pet they might miss an alert and their handler could become hurt or worse. They might look like they are resting or sleeping but as soon as their handler needs assistance; glucose/blood sugar/heart rate rises, oncoming seizure, etc they will instantly react.
If you are flying with a Service Dog, complete the DOT form and check with your airlines procedures if you need to submit it before your flight or at the airport. Always keep 2 copies on you in case they request to keep it. To be safe, I also bring a copy of his rabies vaccine and a medical letter from my treating physician. These are not required, but it definitely doesn't hurt.
What to Pack
We fly with a backpack like this: Collapsible bowls for food and water, food, treats, gear, dog boots (The top tear boots are Ruff Wear, is my favorite brand) tennis ball and any other toys, blanket (if you want to lay one down on the plane), medicine, shampoo! I always pack some dog shampoo so I can give him a bath before we fly back. Make sure you check it, you won't be able to go through security with more than 3 oz. Most airlines will allow you to bring 1 carryon/checked bag for your service dog (free of charge) since its considered medical equipment, same if you need to fly with a kennel. Call the airline ahead of time and see what their policy is.
To prep your dog to tuck under the airplane seat, have them sit on the floorboard of the passenger seat of a car. Hamilton is 60 pounds and he can fit with spare room, it's about technique and training.
I prefer sitting in the window seat on the 2nd row and not the bulkhead (we only found this out after 6 flights!) I prefer the 2nd-4th row, because it gives Hamilton a more structured space to stay. I also feel like I have more leg room since he can tuck under the seat in front of us. Since Hamilton is a Service Dog we pre-board so someone can assist me down to the plane. If you have a pet I would recommend anything past the 4th row.
In the bulkhead, I had to make sure to keep my foot down, whereas in the further rows I could lift up my legs and move around easier. I am also really short, so take that with a grain of salt.
I recommend fasting your pup from food and water one meal (12 hours) before the flight to avoid accidents. Even if your pup is good at holding it, it's possible because of nerves they might go when they shouldn’t. We prefer early morning flights, and before Hamilton was a frequent flyer I would fast him dinner before the flight and water was taken away at 6pm. When we arrive to our final destination, as long as it's before 12pm I will go ahead and feed him breakfast. Fasting doesn’t include treats!
Depending on your flight time you will want to build up your dog's ability to hold it. Take in account more than just flight time, you have to also think about the 2+ hours before the flight, de-boarding, baggage claim, etc. Estimate an additional 4 hours to your flight time. Hamilton will potty on turf but for some reason he won’t go in the airport relief areas. He hates even being in the room. So in case your pup feels the same way, be prepared and confident that they will make the flight with no accidents. Here are US airport animal relief areas.
If you are traveling with a pet in a carrier I would put a pee pad down in the bottom (and carry extra in a carry on) to help absorb any accidents. One person asked me about their dog overheating, sitting in a carrier under the seat. I would recommend icepacks under a blanket + pee pad. Here are TSA requirements for freezer packs.
As I mentioned, I only fly on early morning flights so I generally Hamilton in Doggy Daycare the day before. He gets a bath before I pick him up. I do NOT recommend exercising your dog the day of. They will need more water and thus increasing the chances of an accident. If your dog is not a Service Dog, and small enough to carry in your arms, you might use benadryl or approved sedatives to make the flight more enjoyable for you and your pet. Ask your vet!
Pets- you’ll be asking to walk through the older standard security scanner or the new scanner while they hold your pet.
Service Animals- You’ll also be walking through the older standard security scanner. I keep Hamilton in gear to make our lives easier. I have him sit before the scanner, I walk through, then I call him through. Only do this if your Service Dog is fully tasked-trained and has strong off leash control. They will ask to pat your Service Animal down and test your hands for chemicals and GSR. They might also try to have 2 agents swab your hands and pat down your dog at the same time. If this makes you uncomfortable (it does for me) be firm and advocate for yourself by saying "I would like to do this one at a time. Which one would you like to start with?"
An easy way to train going through the scanner is at doorways. Have your SD heel, sit and then wait. Walk through the doorway and then call them through. If you can have a friend pretend to be a TSA agent to pat down your dog in gear that helps. If you have access, going to the airport and training before the day of your flight with an empty suitcase is super beneficial. You won't be able to go through security but your dog will have a better understanding of walking with luggage, the sights and smells. You won't be able to go through security but he/she will have general exposure that will make the day of more smooth.
Some teams prefer to remove all gear to walk through the detector together. It’s totally up to your preference! YOU get to decide, not the TSA agent. If you go through together and your dog is in gear, be prepared to both be patted down.
For specifically dogs, pack some quiet and smell free toys. Remember the cabin is a small contained space so smell free options are best to respect the people around you. Hamilton loves durable chews by Sporn or Benebone; we order ours on Amazon. Though we don’t use them while he's working (including in flight) other teams or pets might want to. There’s nothing wrong with it, its up to you.
Now packing food can be difficult depending on how long you’re traveling and how much your dog eats.
I recommend packing food in your checked luggage. Sometimes security can be picky about food (that's not sealed) in your carry on. Portion out your dog’s food and include 2-3 extra meals just in case.
The other option is to pre-order it on Chewy.com or Farmers Dog and have it delivered to your final destination spot.
If you have a Service Dog you might (depending on the airline) be able to ask for an additional bag for your dog's gear and necessary because it is considered medical equipment. Call your airline before you fly and ask about it, if you feel like you need it.
Blind, disassociating, etc.
If you have a Service Animal and are blind, dissociate often or something else that might limit your ability to get to the different checkpoints, I recommend asking for a wheelchair and an attendant. I first heard about this from Molly Burke! It’s a physical representation of your disability and people can't forget to assist you and guide you to where you need to go. Only ask for this, if you actually need it.
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