Flying with a Dog in Cabin: Airplane Travel With A Dog

Everything You Need to Know About Traveling on a Plane with Your Dog

So how do you bring your dog on the plane? Traveling on a plane with your dog doesn’t have to be painful. Bringing a dog in cabin is something that you can prepare for to have a successful flight. Review all the required paperwork for traveling with your dog on a plane and make sure you are fully ready. Hopefully this page will answer most of the frequently asked questions.

How do you travel with Calvin?
Until late 2018, Calvin was an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) which is covered by the Federal Fair Housing Act and Air Carrier Access Act.  This is NOT the same thing as a Service Animal, and ESA animals do not have the same rights. Service Dogs are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. After intense board and train, CGC, CGCU, CGCA, task training, public access testing, and doctor recommendation, Calvin is now considered a fully trained Medical Response Service Dog. Services dogs are covered by the American Disabilities Act (ADA). Unlike a service animal, an Emotional Support Animal is not granted access to places of public accommodation. Read about the difference between a Service Dog and ESA here.  Because many ESA handlers are unsure of their rights, this post is written to help ESA handlers.  It is assumed that trained service dogs have received some sort of formal training so this page will not be as helpful for that use case.

How often do you travel with Calvin?
Calvin flies about twice a month, sometimes more. He has flown on short flights, cross country flights, and international flights.  His longest flight was 12 hours to Europe. Our flight counter is up to over 75 planes…

What does ESA cover? Can Emotional Support Animals fly in the plane cabin?
ESA covers housing accommodations even in “no pets” buildings.  Emotional Support Animals are also generally accepted to fly in cabin with their handler as long as they do not take more than the footprint of the seat. You are also permitted to buy an extra seat for your ESA but the ESA is not allowed on the seat (only the floor). It is important to check the regulations for each particular airline.  Different airlines have different policies. ESA status does NOT grant public access rights and cannot “go everywhere”. Emotional Support Animals can fly in cabin with their handler.

Does an ESA (Emotional Support Animals) need special training?
The short answer is no – however, we feel strongly that it is important for ESAs to be well trained especially if they will be traveling. A poorly trained dog is more stressful than therapeutic.

If your dog can’t walk at a polite heel, stay in place, listen to commands….it has no place being in an airport. People who bring untrained dogs into the airport just make it more difficult for those who take the time to train their dogs – having a particular illness also does not automatically excuse a dog from behaving poorly. Even if you do have a diagnosed illness that would benefit from a dog, your dog does not (and should not) get automatic rights to come with you when you travel. We recommend getting the Canine Good Citizen title as a way to gauge whether they can listen to commands and handle distractions. If your ESA misbehaves or causes destruction, airlines can ask you to leave. It is up to the handlers discretion whether their dog can handle flying.

What ESA documentation needs to be provided? Do Emotional Support Dogs require doctor’s notes?
A formal letter from a physician or mental health professional must be provided.  Always check with the airlines before hand to understand their regulations – each airline has a different process. The letter must:

  • Not be over a year old
  • Be from a physician or mental health professional who is currently treating you
  • Must be on the doctor’s official letterhead (include doctor’s license numbers)
  • State the reason for prescribing an Emotional Support Animal and why it is necessary

Almost all airlines have updated their requirements to include proof of training, a filled in form from a physician who must state they are currently treating the traveler, and a letter of health from the vet. These forms must be submitted at least 48 hours before the flight. We respect this and think it would be a great idea for more airlines to require additional documentation to ensure legitimate ESAs! These additional requirements help ensure the legitimacy of ESA animals and the function they perform.

Where does the dog sit in the plane?
The dog sits between your legs or under the seat in front of you. We recommend extra leg room for a better fit. Your dog must be able to remain in a down stay for the duration of the flight.

Where does the dog relieve itself? Can a dog go to the bathroom in the airport?
Most airports have signs to a pet relief area but they can be hard to find.  Ask a staff member or look up the map in advance. For a cross country flight, your pet will be expected to hold it for about 9-12 hours. We did not find pet relief areas in international airports so we gave Calvin the option of relieving himself on a potty pad in the human bathroom.

Taking a dog through the airport? What is the airport process?
Check with the airline you are flying to learn their ESA rules – each airline is different. Most airlines require documentation 48 hours before. Others require a fax from the doctor. Always call the airline beforehand so they know to put the animal on the ticket and make arrangements – you can sometimes get upgraded to extra leg room or bulkhead if it is available.

Once you get to the airport, bring the dog to the ticket counter to have your documentation verified by an agent.  Then, you head to security and pass through as usual. Security may ask you to remove all collars and harnesses. It is important for the sake of not making a fool of yourself that your dog has a very solid stay, come, and heel. With the dog, you will be able to pre-board and get settled before other passengers.  This gives you some time to get the dog settled and down between your legs on the flight.

Best airlines for dogs: Favorite airlines with dogs?
Our favorites are Delta, United, JetBlue, Alaska, Virgin, Air France, and Southwest. We’ve never had any issues. Always check the airline pet policies before flying.  It is also a good idea to call ahead to see what the airline dog requirements are.

What are some good things to teach an ESA (or an SD)?
When you fly, we make sure that your dog is on their best behavior.  The commands we use most often when flying are “park,” “scoot,” “leave it,” “under,” “sit/down,” “wait/go” or “heel, “go potty.”  Obviously, the dog must be also be friendly and not aggressive.  We have Calvin “park” himself between our legs when we are waiting on lines.  When the lines move forwards, he is able to “scoot” forward so that he remains between our legs and sits back down when we stop.  “Leave it” is an important one because there are many new smells (and other dogs) at airports.  It is important to be able to command your dog to look away from any distractions. We use “wait/go” when passing through security..  Generally, the handler walks through first and leaves the dog in a “wait” or “stay” on the other side of the metal detectors.  You also have the option to walk through with your dog – in which case you need to keep it at a “heel.”  Once through, the dog is commanded to pass through the metal detectors and patted down by TSA.   We use “under” when sitting in front of the gate waiting to board.  “Under” means the dog must put itself in a down under your legs (under the seats).  This keeps him away from foot traffic and out of the way.  There are designated areas where your dog can relieve him/herself, so make sure they know what “go potty” means so they can do it on command.

What does Calvin help with?
Calvin is formally task trained. We keep our private life private and do not center our social media presence on Calvin’s job. Without getting into too much personal detail, Calvin does help in situations for mitigating the impact of diagnoses with tactile stimulation, medical response, grounding, retrieval, behavior interruptions, and light mobility due to genetic hip deformities. Luckily, most symptoms have been controlled by medication and therefore Calvin is not needed in all situations. It is important to note that illnesses impact everyone differently so just because two people have the same diagnoses, does not automatically imply that both are disabled.

Additionally, Calvin is also TKA, PAT, CGC, CGCU, CGCA (See here for information about the testing process) and a Certified Therapy Dog through the SF SPCA.  A therapy dog is “a dog that might be trained to provide affection, comfort and love to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices, disaster areas, and to people with anxiety disorders or autism”. It is not Calvin’s therapy dog label that allows him public access.

Flying with a Dog in Cabin: Airplane Travel With A Dog
Tips & Tricks for taking a dog on a plane?

We no longer need any training tools during flights but here is what helped us during training:

  • Bring A LOT of long lasting treats and chews.  This means bully sticks, marrow bones, tracheas ect. Also, be sure to bring many high value treats in case you are having trouble keeping your dog’s attention.  Eventually, your pup will get used to flying and treats won’t be necessary during flights.
  • Make sure the dog is fully tired out before boarding.  A tired dog will be well behaved on a flight.
  • Refrain from feeding or watering your dog for about 5 hours before the flight.

Does an ESA wear a vest? Does a Service Dog have to wear a vest?
ESAs do not have to wear a vest (neither do service dogs) but many choose to.

Landing & Takeoff with a dog?
Treats are your friend.  Reward good behavior while on the plane, on escalators (we opt for elevators to protect the toes), in the security line.

Any Notable Experiences?

  • Reactive Dogs:  We had one experience where someone had a smaller but reactive dog with them in the security line.  The dog immediately lost its mind when it saw Calvin, and began barking and growling.  Its handler was clearly embarrassed and part of me felt very bad for him.  The man was asked to leave the line until his dog was under control. Make sure that your dog does not react back.  Work on the “leave it” command – When dogs bark at Calvin, he will look at them and then we say “leave it” so that he turns his attention back to us.
  • Dog Haters: Some people hate dogs – it happens.  We were once sitting in our seat with Calvin sleeping (not even moving) under the seat.  A woman walked by and SCREAMED at the top of her lungs.  Calvin stirred, looked at her blankly, and went back to bed.  It is important to be aware that situations like this will happen and that many people at the airport do not want a dog coming to sniff them (or even look at them).  Try to keep your dog fully attentive to you while in the airport.
  • Children:  Children are great but they do not know how to approach dogs.  We do not see this as an issue because we know that Calvin will someday have to learn to adapt with our children.  We will obviously try to teach them to behave appropriately but we know that mistakes will be made and we want Calvin to be reliable and patient around them.  We were once approached by a family with 4 very young children – they were mesmerized by Calvin.  The situation ended with one of the girls sticking a lollipop up Calvin’s nose, pulling his ears, and trying to ride him like a horse.  We quickly rectified the situation and luckily Calvin did not seem to care (not even a little bit).
  • Human Bathroom:  When traveling alone, the bathroom situation is tricky. The stalls are small and take time for pups to get used to, don’t expect them to be ok walking right in.
  • Full Body Pat Downs: If you get stopped at security for a full pat down and investigation of your bags, don’t panic but this does make it more difficult to control your dog.  It is helpful to get out of the way of foot traffic and try to find a quiet spot. This will make it more likely that the dog will not get distracted.  When this happens, we put Calvin in a down stay and talk to him with cooing noises so that he does not lose focus.  Make sure to reward after a success!
  • Escalators: Most dogs are not naturally inclined towards escalators or moving walkways.  Acclimate your dog to these before heading to the airport. You do not want them holding up other passengers because they don’t want to get on the escalator. Alternatively, you can opt for the elevator. We choose to use the elevators because we do not want Calvin’s paws getting stuck in the escalators.
  • Bad Days: Everyone has a bad day – especially puppies and teenage dogs. Here are a few lessons learned…

Lessons Learned?

  • Tire Out Your Puppy: A tired (exhausted!) puppy, is a well behaved puppy.  Make sure your dog is tired before you attempt flying.  Try daycare leading up to the flight or a long hike.
  • Chews: Bring lots of your pup’s favorite chews.  This means the most delicious bully sticks, tracheas, pig ears ect.
  • Prevent Accidents: Limit water and food intake before the flight.  This will minimize the chances of an accident especially after a long flight.  Thanks to this advice from friends we have prevented accidents at the airport! One of our travel days was 16 hours without a potty break (we do not recommend this)
  • Lots of treats: Use high value treats to keep his/her attention on you and not the surroundings.
  • Stay Calm: Everyone who has raised a puppy or dog knows that some days are better than others.  Stay consistent – Keep trying and don’t give up.
  • Be Honest: If your dog is anxious at the airport, unable to keep its cool in new situations, or reactive/loud (potentially disruptive to trained service dogs) skip the plane and leave them with the puppy sitter!
  • Apologize: If something goes wrong, apologize and take responsibility for it.  If it becomes a trend, you may need to reevaluate your decision to bring your pet along.

Happy flying!

-Your Pal Cal

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