The Most Practical Tips for Flying with your Support Animal

Small maltese terrier in a black dog carrier in the living room

Flying with your dog should bring you comfort but if you and your animal are not prepared, it can become stressful. With a bit of planning, you and your Support Animal or Service Animal can become lifelong travel buddies. Here are our top things you can do before, during, and after the flight to make sure your dog is a good passenger.

BEFORE THE FLIGHT

Get your Support Dog used to their air carrier before the flight. This starts weeks before travel. Leave the carrier open in a main room of your house so your dog gets used to seeing it. Place food and treats inside it so they naturally discover it. Practice leading your dog in and out of the carrier with treats. Do not close your dog inside the carrier before they are comfortable. Have them spend time lying down in the carrier and give them treats with the zipper/door open so they can associate the carrier with positive experiences. Make sure you have an airline compliant carrier. This may vary depending on the airline, but generally your dog must have enough room to turn around and the carrier must fit underneath the seat in front of you. Soft carriers are generally more flexible for meeting different height requirements.

The Air Carrier Access Act does not require dogs to be in their carrier during the flight, but some airports do require carriers and the laws on the plane are different than the laws at the airport. The laws at your departure airport may be different than your arrival airport, so call ahead. If your dog does not fit under the seat, you can purchase them a seat next to you. Many dogs feel much more comfortable inside their carrier because it provides a safe space.

Call your airline with as much time as possible to let them know you will be flying with your dog and ask them if there is anything additional you need to provide them with or carry with you. Note when flying with your dog that airlines allow Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals to fly for free with their handler. Regular pets will have a fee when flying each way and can potentially be booted off a flight within 24 hours at the airline’s discretion. See if your dog can be an Emotional Support Animal.

Request a window seat towards the front of the plane. There are a few reasons for this. For most dogs the window is better than the aisle because it limits the number of distractions in the environment. The aisle seat exposes your dog to the flight attendants and people walking by frequently, which adds an element outside your control. It’s better for your dog to have fewer variables in a new environment. Choosing a seat at the front of the plane lets you get off faster, which can make a big difference when your dog needs that bathroom break.

Plan meals and drinks according to bathroom opportunities. If your dog is pee-pad trained, you’ve hit the jackpot. Simply take them to the bathroom with you, put a pad down, and let them do their business. However, the airplane bathroom may be scary to your dog and they may not go like they do in their usual environment. It’s best to assume your dog may choose to hold it while flying. Some airports have pet relief areas inside the terminal, like these top 10 most friendly pet airports in the US. Search “airport name”, “pet relief” to see if your travel route has this. This makes things a lot easier. Otherwise, the best option is to give your dog a smaller than usual meal with enough time to go to the bathroom before you begin your drive to the airport. Limit water a couple hours before the flight.

Once at the airport, check in at the gate and get your ticket/ drop your bags. Before going through security, take your dog outside for a final bathroom opportunity. Once you are through security your dog may not be able to go until you’ve arrived at your destination. Applying for TSA pre-check can help limit the amount of time you need to be at the airport and make the experience less stressful. As well, packing carry-on reduces the wait time at drop off and on arrival. Some international destinations require you to take your bag before exiting, which could mean an accident for your dog due to a luggage delay.

It’s a good idea to have light clean up supplies just in case of an accident. Paper towel sheets in the carrier, poop bags, baby wipes, etc… You don’t want to be stuck waiting for the help of a busy flight attendant.

DURING THE FLIGHT

Give your dog food, treats, and bones to chew on while flying. You know how your ears might pop during takeoff and landing and many people chew gum? You can give your dog treats or kibble to eat during take-off and landing to prevent their ears from popping. Bones are great to give them inside their carrier to keep them busy during the flight. Busy dogs are well behaved dogs. You can also give them treats as rewards for lying quietly, and use treats to redirect in case they get startled by something in the environment.

Give your dog an ice cube to hydrate without overdrinking. When the flight attendants come around with drinks, ask them for a cup of ice. You can let your dog lick the ice cubes to make sure they stay hydrated. Let them have a sip of water towards the end of the flight. Too much water up front is not comfortable for anyone.

AFTER THE FLIGHT

If you are travelling domestic, take your dog outside as quickly as possible. For a small dog you may want to carry them either in your arm or in their carrier to ensure they make it outside without having an accident. Since the airport is usually a new environment, they may be confused about where they are allowed to go.

If you are traveling internationally, you need to declare your animal and go through secondary customs. You’ll need a rabies vaccination and may want to have a certificate of health as well as their other shots and city registration. Have this ready with your passport for inspection. Always call your departure and arrival destination airports ahead of time to find out what you need. For example, the laws going into Canada and the US are different. You may be able to leave with your dog but not have the right documents to return.

IN GENERAL

Make sure their leash is on at all times, at the airport, on the plane, and especially when you get outside, even if they are inside their carrier. You are responsible for your animal at all times. When their leash is on inside their carrier make sure the excess leash is outside and does not pose any choking hazard to your animal.

Flying with your dog puts them outside their usual comfort zone. Make sure your dog is not put in a position where they might bark or become aggressive due to fear. If they seem tense, don’t let the person next to you pet them and keep them in their carrier for comfort and safety. Should you need a bathroom break, bring them with you. When you are not with your dog, you cannot be in control of your dog.

And finally, make sure your dog is safe. Their carrier should have mesh walls for airflow and you should be able to see your dog at all times. Your dog should only ever be under the seat in front of you or on your lap. If a flight attendant gives you instructions that don’t seem safe for your animal, use your judgement, ask to speak to someone else, remove yourself from the flight if needed and deal with it after. If you don’t have the right documentation to allow your dog to be with you, stay with your animal and figure out an alternate plan. Never put your animal or another person in a situation that may cause them harm.

Your support animal can provide great comfort at home and work but not all dogs are great candidates for flying. You know your animal best. Sometimes the best option may be to leave them with a friend or sitter. Always do what is best for your animal.

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