What to Expect at the Airport with your Dog

service dog on airplane

Taking a dog on an Airplane: What to Expect at the Airport

Every wonder what you need to know to bring your dog on a plane? Wonder how to succeed at airplane dog travel? What kind of paperwork do you need to bring your dog in cabin? As we sit on yet another cross country flight, we figured we would take the time to discuss all the challenges, processes, and people that you may face when traveling with your Service Dog or ESA. We would also like to include some tips for training your dog to succeed in such a busy and hectic place.  For more information about flying with a dog please see our post about it here. Enjoy this full list of things to prepare for at the airport. But first….

Emotional Support Dog vs. Service Animal

We would like to make clear that there is an important distinction between a Service Animal and an ESA (Emotional Support Animal). A Service Animal is defined by the ADA here. This means that the dog is individually trained to perform certain tasks that directly mitigate its handler’s disability.  A disability is defined as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Having a particular diagnosis does not make you automatically “qualified” to have a Service Dog or defined as disabled.  You can be suffering from a similar diagnosis (Panic Disorder, Anxiety, PTSD) as someone with a Service Dog and it can have some impact on your life, BUT this does not mean that you are disabled. These diagnoses impact people in different ways and have different implications in daily life. Only a trained psychiatrist or physician who knows you diagnoses well can determine if you are disabled and require a Service Dog .A well trained ESA is NOT a Service Dog. It is our personal opinion that it is important for ESAs to be trained – worrying that your animal is going to misbehave on a plane or bark all day in your no-pets allowed apartment, lunge at other dogs ect, is definitely not comforting and very disrespectful to those around you.

What is Calvin? What is Samson?

Until late 2018, Calvin was an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) but his role eventually changed. After task training, public access testing (although not required), and doctor recommendation, Calvin became a fully trained Medical Response Service Dog. Over time, it became clearer that Calvin is better suited for other activities. He loves to work and continues to do so at home, but his energy levels have not been as well suited for public work. Samson has since taken over Calvin’s role and spent the first year of his life training with professionals to be a great helper. His training will continue but he has done an amazing job so far.

We keep our private life private and do not center our social media presence on the boys working. We included a little bit more information about the dog’s roles in our other airport guide and will therefore not go into detail here.

Airport processes with a dog:

  • Check In Line
  • Security Line
  • Waiting at the gate
  • Boarding
  • Exiting Plane

service dog in airplane cabin under seat

Sounds and Stimuli to Expect: If your dog comfortable around loud sounds? 

The best way to prepare for flights is to find similar stimuli outside of the airport and then work your way up to practicing in the airport without a flight booked (before security).  Stand in lines, sit at baggage claim, ect.

Moving walkways and escalators
Dogs are not naturally inclined to walk on escalators and moving walkways. Watch out for their toes! Practice at dog friendly outdoor places (if you have an ESA).  Try over and over until your dog gets used to the moving platform. When Calvin is afraid of something, we walk by it over and over until he can do so without darting away.

Nothing much to say here – business as usual.

Large trolleys
Trolleys carrying baggage, people, garbage ect are all things to expect.  They have big wheels and make a lot of noise.

 Hand dryer in bathrooms
If your dog is afraid of blow dryers, the bathroom is going to be a challenge. Practice at home when you dry your hair by keeping your dog in the bathroom with you.  Do this every morning until they seem comfortable with the sound.

Rolling suitcases
Just another thing to get used to. No biggie here.

Metal detectors/Security Equipment
Be prepared for a lot of commotion at the security line – it’s a good idea to place the dog into a down-stay while you are unloading your bag, taking off shoes, ect.  Down-stay is also useful when going through the metal detectors.  Some TSA agents make the dog go through fully naked while others allow them to keep on their vest (I think Service Dogs are allowed to keep their vests on but do not quote me on that).

Dealing with Reactive dogs
We do not believe that a legitimate ESA or Service Dog should be reactive on leash.  Airlines have clearly defined rules that reactive dogs cannot be allowed on planes, but there has not been any crack down on it. We have had reactive dog situations more times than we can count.  One woman’s small dog freaked out at a sleeping Calvin at the gate, looked us straight in the eye and said “sorry, she doesn’t like big dogs.” We weren’t sure what to make of this other than….wtf?! (excuse the language).  Part of us felt badly for her, but then we realized that dog training is entirely up to the owner and leash reactivity is not appropriate for working dogs. We have many more stories including a miniature pinscher “service dog” fighting with a Chihuahua “service dog” at the gate.  We like to think that Calvin (while watching and holding his down-stay) was silently laughing. Don’t even get us started on the Frenchie that we watched wiggle its way through security while its owner chased it. Establish a reliable “leave it” when walking by other dogs and use treats if needed to reinforce the command. Please note, that we believe ANY breed CAN be a Service Dog or ESA, we are just describing these particular experiences which have nothing to do with the dog’s breed, just their training.

service dog on airplane cabin

Types of people you will meet while traveling with your dog:

The REALLY Rude People
If you are an introvert (like me) having everyone watching your every move is already really intimidating.  Now, add in the rude people who think they have the right to hoot at you, throw things (yes this happened), make mean comments really loudly, squeak things in your dogs face while laughing (this literally just happened).  The list goes on and on. Most people are already in a bad mood because they hate flying, and you have to be ready for them. When situations arise, we have found it is best to keep our cool and just let Calvin sit politely while they are being rude so that they look like FOOLs. Some people are rude for no reason – let’s hope they’re just having a bad day.

The Curious People
These people mean no harm, they are just unfamiliar with the process and are understandably curious at how a 60 pound dog fits under a seat (he does!). They will ask questions, and it is up to you if you want to answer.

The Children
Children love dogs. They’ll want to say hi. Calvin also loves children…and wants to say hi. Sticky fingers, nose boops, ear pulling….his kryptonite.  For this reason, we tend to keep him under our seat at the gate so that he is seen by as few people as possible.  It is up to you whether or not you want to engage with the children.  We used to let children pet Calvin more when we were still socializing him but now we keep him tucked under our seats wherever we are.

The Dog Haters
Some people have had bad experiences with dogs, which is unfortunate.  They have also seen the news of untrained dogs causing havoc at airports or people trying to get their peacocks onto flights.  All of these things make them cringe when they see a dog, even well trained, walking through the terminal.  Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do but ignore them. If your dog isn’t bothering them and is tucked away under your seat, there really isn’t anything they should be upset about.

The Allergic to Dogs
This happened to us on a flight once and it was important for us to respect the woman’s allergy. She did pet Calvin at the gate (while sitting next to us) and was sitting three rows behind us (but let’s not talk about that).  Some people ARE severely allergic to dogs which leads to a more tricky situation that should be respected.  When this happened, the attendant came to let us know and we told her we were open to relocating to the very back of the plane to accommodate the woman’s request.  I am unsure what the protocol is if this happens with a trained Service Dog team and how they weigh the two requests so I cannot say what would happen in that situation.

The pilot and staff
They are generally friendly if you fly on the more “dog friendly” airlines.  We have noticed that airlines are inconsistent with how friendly their staff are so it’s just depends on who is checking you in. Many times, the pilots will want to say hi.  Of course, this is entirely up to you and they always ask for permission and understand your preferences. We generally let Calvin give them a BOOP for good luck.

Your dog can generally keep its gear on when going through security.  You will put him in a down stay and then walk through the metal detector with your back to him.  Then you call him to you.  TSA will test your hands and often will pat down your dog (Calvin’s favorite part).  They are generally very friendly but you should expect more scrutiny in terms of bag checking and pat downs. Also, if you bring canned food, they’ll let you by but it will set off the alarm. We set it off every time and they like to play a “what set off the alarm game?” – someone always wins with the dog food guess.

What does the dog do on the plane? How to prepare your dog for plane travel:

Jet bridge sound
You know when you get onto the jet bridge and walk down that long hallway to the plane entrance?  The air is stuffy, and it sounds like you are heading straight for a big vacuum. It took Calvin about 4 flights to finally get used to this sound. We had a great crew on one flight that let us practice Calvin (since we pre-board).

Treats and comfort are your friend. If your dog is used to being in the car, this shouldn’t be an issue.

Limited leg room
There is going to be a leg room shortage if your dog weighs anything more than 30lbs.  To pre-empt this, it always helps to ask at check in if there are any available seats on the plane.  If so, they can move you to a row with an empty seat or bulkhead.  Unfortunately, this isn’t a very common situation.  To prepare for less leg room, travel light and get your dog situated before other passengers get on the plane.  The best way to fit them is to push their behind all the way under the seat in front of you.  This fits a 60lb lab even though it is uncomfortable. If you are traveling with another person, the leg room is not an issue.  We have found that the comfortable amount of leg space for a big dog is 1.5 seats.  We rarely travel solo so Calvin’s head will often invade a bit of his dad’s legroom.

We do not want to sugar coat – the first flight will be stressful! especially if you are dealing with anxieties. It is totally normal for the handler AND dog to feel a little bit nervous on their first flight.  One thing that we used to settle Calvin immediately is one of our sweatshirts.  We always place a sweatshirt that smells like our home on the ground before we set him into a down-stay.  He feels more at home and immediately snuggles into it

Take off and landing
A Boeing weighs about 970,000 lbs. As a human, even I am shocked when they catapult into the air carrying 200 passengers and a full cargo of luggage. Because your dog will be at your feet, they will get the brunt of the engine rumbling.  Have your treats ready and you may need to hold them down for the split second that the plane takes off (again this will likely only be for your first flight).  They’ll likely settle down once you reach 10,000 feet.

Narrow aisles
Aisles are not large enough to fit a dog and human side by side.  Either have your dog follow in a heel, or walk between your legs (we call this “scoot”).  We aren’t really sure why but have noticed that we tend to use the heel when getting on the plane and scoot when exiting.

A reliable “back” command is useful if you are dealing with the narrow aisles and leg space.  If your dog ends up facing the windows, it will need to back out of the row to exit the plane.

Happy Flying (LOL),
Your Pal Cal

One Reply to “What to Expect at the Airport with your Dog”

  1. Hi,
    Do you have any experience with international travel with a large dog (mine is a Rhodesian) in cargo?
    In the past I have flown many times with my min. schnauzer in cabin. It was always smooth- from NY to UK to India.
    This time around I have a new one and he’s a giant. He is an ESA and I will be traveling business class but I still don’t see how he can fit in the cabin with me. Moreover, the airlines (Lufthansa) will only allow it from Frankffurt to JFK. The Indian leg of the journey he will have to be in the hold as per regulations.
    I’m terribly stressed already and it’s a month away.
    Is it better to just have him in the hold the entire way? I’m terrified off what the other passengers will think if he’s in cabin. He’s the size of a small pony. Any recommendations would be greatly appreciated.


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