For many people, air travel is a regular occurrence and for others, they only fly once in a blue moon. Whether you fly several times a week or only once every few years or anything in between, adding a Service Dog into the mix does not have to make your trip stressful or a hassle. Read this step by step guide on flying with your Service Dog, and you’ll be prepared for every single stage of your journey, from start to finish.
Booking Your Flight
Book your flight however you normally would. Don’t worry too much about which airline carrier you utilize, but many Service Dog handlers gravitate towards flying with Southwest Airlines, and Alaska Airlines recognizes and allows Service Dogs in Training to fly in cabin with their handler. All major United States airlines are required to follow the same rules of access for Service Dogs, which means that a dog that is task trained to mitigate their handler’s disability gets to fly in-cabin, at their handler’s feet, free of charge. International airlines likely have different rules concerning flying with your Service Dog, so make sure to check.
As a courtesy, you should consider calling your airline and letting them know you’ll be flying with a trained Service Animal. This can smooth the check-in process and reduce delays once you’re actually at the airport. However, you are not required to notify them that you’re flying with your Service Dog, although they certainly appreciate the heads up. Some airlines may ask you for your partner’s weight. If asked for your partner’s weight, an estimate is just fine. If you want to sit in bulkhead seating, you should definitely call ahead to request it.
Before You Fly
Before you fly with your Service Dog, make sure they possess the skills and training required for a smooth and stress-free flight. Both of you will be happier if the flight isn’t a struggle.
Gather your boarding passes (print them at home or use electronic ones), picture ID, and, if required, your passport. Make certain you have all documentation and “stuff” you need for the flight and at your destination. While it’s not required for domestic flights or flights to Canada, consider including a copy of your partner’s rabies certification. It’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. Check in for your flight online to streamline the process.
Pack lightly. Juggling multiple heavy bags and a Service Dog by yourself is difficult and unwieldy. Try for one checked bag, if you must, and one carry-on. There are lots of resources to learn how to pack lightly (such as this one that teaches you how to pack for a week in a carry on), and you can learn how to fit more in smaller spaces by using some folding/organizing hacks.
Consider fasting your Service Dog the day before you fly, or only feeding them a small meal in the morning. Give fasting your partner extra consideration if this is your Service Dog’s first flight, or if they tend to have a nervous stomach. Keep in mind that once you are airside (through the security checkpoint), you will not be able to leave the airport to take your partner for a restroom break without going back landside (the other side of security), and then having to come back through the screening process. Some, but not anywhere close to all, airports offer indoor-relief areas for Service Dog teams.
The day of your flight, offer your partner a small drink of water in the morning. Don’t overload their system, especially if your flight is going to be a long one or you have a long layover. They can eat and drink to their fill once you arrive at your destination. Make sure to pack a calorie dense, but healthy, treat, such as Wellness Protein Bars or Zuke’s Power Bones, so that you can offer them to your partner throughout the day to help keep their blood sugar levels steady and stave off rumbly tummies. You should offer them one of the bars (or a similar treat) every 3-4 hours throughout your travel time. If your partner has an especially sensitive stomach, then offer them a small handful of their regular kibble/food.
Arriving At the Airport
While you’re in the car or before you leave if you’re driving yourself, arrange your boarding passes (if paper) and your ID so you have quick and easy access. Empty your pockets into your purse or carry on. Typically, the best way to do this is to use a gallon sized ziplock baggie and place everything except for your ID, a credit card or enough cash for covering baggage check fees (typically $25 for the first bag and $35 for the second) and your boarding passes into the baggie, and then dropping the baggie into your carry-on or purse. If your boarding passes are on your phone, then leave your phone out. When you arrive at the airport, you’ll either park the vehicle or you’ll be dropped off curbside.
Either way, get your luggage and bags out, and then unload your partner. Place your partner in a down-stay on the sidewalk or between parked vehicles in a parking garage so they’re safely out of the way and not moving. Get your goodbyes out of the way, release your partner, and head into the airport.
Checking In For Your Flight
If you’re already checked in for your flight, have your boarding passes and have no bags to check, then skip the rest of this section. If you haven’t checked in yet, need your boarding passes or need to drop off bags for cargo shipment, then head to the proper ticket counter for your airline and get in line. When you get to the counter, place your partner in a down-stay and work with the agent to complete the check in process. Even though your partner could easily remain standing, placing them in a down stay demonstrates they clearly have training, and can help you bypass a lot of questions of a dubious nature.
Sometimes, an agent will ask you for “paperwork” for your Service Dog. Be friendly, but firmly inform them that federal law does not require paperwork for trained Service Dogs to fly. The presence of harness, vest or working gear, plus the credible verbal assurance of the passenger, suffices as proof of the dog’s Service Dog status. Oftentimes, they’ll ask you what tasks your partner performs, or what kind of assistance your partner offers you. Just answer their questions, be patient, and all will be fine. Ensure that your partner is relaxed and displaying excellent manners and behavior throughout this process.
Clearing the Security Checkpoint
After you’re fully checked in, with boarding passes in hand, proceed to the security checkpoint. Current regulations say passengers must remove their belt, outerwear, scarves and shoes. However, individuals with a disability are not required to remove their shoes. If you can remove your shoes, it’s oftentimes easier to just do so, as not removing them means you’ll be subjected to secondary screening, which includes visual or physical inspection of your shoes, and a possible hand test for trace explosives.
Begin removing your jackets, belts, scarves, etc. when you’re a couple people away from the bins. Double check you have nothing at all in your pockets, not even coins. When you arrive at the bins, grab one and drop your shoes, coat and anything else you were wearing into one, and place your laptop in another one, if you’ve brought one. Your carryon gets placed directly on the belt. You do not have to undress your partner.
Since you have a Service Dog, you will walk through a metal detector. You will not have to go through the full body scanner. When the security officer waves you forward, place your dog in a sit, down or stand stay a couple of steps from the metal detector, and walk through. You shouldn’t alarm, unless you have metal implants or medical devices. If you do, you’ll be sent to the other side to remove whatever made the alarm go off, and if it was a metal device, the TSA officer will perform a quick patdown to ensure that’s all that set the alarm off. You will then be asked to call your partner through.
Depending on your Service Dog’s gear, they may or may not set the alarm off. If they do not, then you’ll typically be released to leave the security checkpoint. If they do, then the officer will ask if they may touch your dog and your dog’s equipment. The answer to this question is “yes.”
The officer will put on gloves and, without removing any of your dog’s gear, run their hands under your Service Dog’s collar, vest/harness and lightly examine their leash. Once that’s complete, you’ll be able to pick up your partner’s leash, and you’ll likely be asked to hold your hands out to be quickly swabbed for a trace explosives test.
Once you’re released, grab your items from the bin, including your laptop, and go to the benches provided on the edge of the checkpoint. Place your partner in a stay, and then re-dress yourself, put your laptop back in your bag, and head to your assigned gate.
Waiting At the Gate
If you’d like, grab a bite to eat or a drink. Once you get to the gate, pick a seat, or take a spot on the floor against a wall, if you’re so inclined. Your only job now is to hang out with your dog and wait for boarding to begin. You may have to answer questions about your partner from fellow passengers.
When the gate agent begins the boarding process, they’ll ask for anyone who’d like to preboard to come to the gate. That’s your cue to gather your things and go line up.
The gate agent will scan your boarding pass, and direct you to the proper door. Most of the time, you’ll be walking down a spacious hallway to the plane, but sometimes, you may have to take a bus shuttle, or walk out on the tarmac to climb steps into the plane. If you’re in a wheelchair or require other assistance, the airline will have someone accompany you to the aircraft. You’ll be transferred to another chair, and your chair gate checked (you’ll pick it up at the end of the jetway once you arrive).
You will either board the plane, say hello to the lead flight attendant, and make your way to or be helped to your seat. Direct your partner into the proper row so they’re out of the aisle, and then remove reading materials or work you’ll need, headphones and anything else you’ll need for the flight. Zip your bag up securely and place it in an overhead bin. Then, cue your dog to either “under” or back into the appropriate seat area. Remember that your partner cannot encroach on another passenger’s space, so until you know if there will be seats open around you, place your foot on each side of your partner so they have clearly defined boundaries, for now. Once everyone else boards, you can relax a bit, and so can they.
Everyone else will board, and most people, if you aren’t in bulkhead, won’t even notice you have a Service Dog. Once boarding is complete, if there are open seats, anyone sitting in your row will be given the option to move so that your partner has more space.
The flight itself is pretty straight forward. Your partner should already be lying down and relaxed, and thus they should remain for the duration of the flight. You can provide a KONG or a bone for them to entertain themselves, if you’re so inclined. If you’re wearing headphones or plan on sleeping, then tuck your partner’s leash under your thigh so you’ll know if they move too far afield.
You can request a cup of water or ice from the flight attendant for your partner at any time. If your flight is over 4 or 5 hours, you and your partner should get up and walk the aisle, and then return to your seat and settle back in.
Landing can be difficult for some dogs because when the landing gear deploys, it causes a pretty loud “thump” and vibration, and then during the landing itself can be anything from smooth as silk to absolutely horrible. Either way, give your partner reassurance and don’t be surprised if they sit up or want to nestle a little closer to you.
Getting off the plane is much the same as getting on. As long as you’re relaxed, your partner will be. Stand up when it’s close to the time for your row to leave, and as you step into the aisle, release your dog and grab your carry on from the overhead. Head off down the jet bridge, and when you get inside the terminal, place your items back in your carry-on, if you’d like.
If you have another flight, then repeat the above steps until you arrive. You can seek out a relief area if the airport has one, and you should make a point of walking a bit so your partner can stretch.
If you don’t have another flight, then head for the signs that say “Baggage Claim.” Even if you don’t have baggage, that’s the way to the exit. When you see the “NO RE-ENTRY” or “YOU ARE LEAVING THE SECURE AREA” or anything like that, know that once you pass it, you cannot turn around without coming back through security. Make certain you didn’t forget anything, and make sure you mean to be leaving.
Waiting For Baggage
Gather around the carousel to wait for your baggage, if you checked a bag. Remember that an alarm will sound, and that the carousel makes a rumbling noise when it activates. Both things can startle first-time flying Service Dogs, so make sure to let them know all is good. Your dog should wait quietly. When you see your bag, both of you can wade through the crowd to grab it, or you can ask your dog to wait in a down stay while you grab it and return to them.
Leaving the Airport
There’s no special procedure for leaving. Go meet your party, rent a car, get on a shuttle to a hotel or event, or whatever it is you came to do. Make certain to give your partner a chance to relieve themselves as soon as possible, and feed them.
That’s all, folks! Here’s to happy and stress free travel ahead for all! If you have other tips for flying or want to share your experience flying with your Service Dog, please leave a comment.
Chris Garvey January 13, 2016
Recently I flew on US Air and my experience was terrible. Although not allowed they require that you have your doctor sign their paperwork at least 2 weeks before travel in addition to a letter from your physician dated within a year stating your requirement. Additionally, When you book and tell them you have a service dog they will not give you seating until they have their “special needs” desk call you. When I got to the airport and tried to get my boarding pass (which they will not issue online with a service dog) I was told by the agent that they didn’t believe my dog was a service dog because of his breed. After getting to the airport 3 hours early for a domestic flight (They say you have to be there an extra hour early so they can watch your dogs behavior) I almost missed my flight waiting for the 4th supervisor to come take a look at my dog.
Will never fly that airline again!
Rodney Ballard January 14, 2016
GREAT article. What about requesting a bulkhead seat?
Kea Grace March 14, 2016
That can be done during check-in, if you’d like to request the bulkhead. Some gate agents will swap seats as well, but that varies depending on airline.