There are few instructions for flying with your dog. Yes, there are guidelines and restrictions but there is no outline detailing “how it works.”
This is something left to asking friends and perusing message boards for answers. None will be sufficient. Why? Because every dog is different, every owner is different, and every flight is different.
Over Thanksgiving, myself, Bobby, and our little dog-boy Scooter travelled from Los Angeles to Georgia, on a non-stop flight. The decision to bring him was the result of a love affair between the dog and my niece, which we (I) wanted to continue. We were having a family reunion: it was only appropriate that the little dog-boy would join as well thus his required air travel.
But here is what goes unsaid in New York Times stories and message board tips: it’s a stressful ordeal the first go around. There’s a lot you have to do before and during and after the flight. It’s not easy either, particularly with a dog like Scooter, a very vocal, whiny, spoiled dog who isn’t so much codependent as he is extremely independent. He’s not crate trained and can barely follow the few commands we’ve drilled into him. Putting him into a tiny case under a seat is a recipe for a crying, whining disaster. And it was that. It was both as bad and as easy as it sounds.
In brief, the first flight was bad-good while the second flight was good-bad. The first flight I was super mellow and positive about the trip while Bobby was stressed. After a month or two of practicing with Scooter in his dog carrier, I was confident that he would be as chill as he was at home despite one car trip in the carrier where he whined non-stop. When we brought him on the first plane, he lost it. He was a constant whine, a low moan, a yelp and a yelp and a yelp. I let the noise drift up and over me as he sat in the middle seat between my legs. Bobby was a bit concerned, stressing, and relaying said stress to Scooter. The result was a semi-stressed dog that we eventually ignored and he, like us, ignored back. He was also on a few dog Xanax.
The flight back was worse—for me. After a two hour drive to the airport where I held him and allowed my legs to be a skating surface for his small claws, I was fucking tired of traveling with Scooter. When we got to the flight counter to check him in (in his case), the attendant warned over his whines, “If he acts like that, you are going to get kicked off the flight.” Trigger warning, perhaps? We walked Scooter through the airport, attempting to tire him out despite more dog Xanax and exercise. I tried to put him in his case and he had discovered a new technique for attention: a high pitched, crackling cry. It not only hurt to hear but was one of the more annoying sounds to have to endure. Pair that with a loss of control regarding his training and something in me flipped from patient and loving parent to semi-abusive, “SHUT THE FUCK UP.” enforcer. Thankfully, Bobby maintained his cool and applied a technique we toyed with on the first flight: put him in the case, cover it up, and pray the canary in the cage falls asleep. Despite a solid hour of yelps, he eventually slept the rest of the flight. The technique worked.
It was all better and worse than expected. There was no “breaking even”: it was bad and good. No one will tell you this either because, unfortunately for you, their dog and their dog parenting is not your dog nor your parenting. Trust your instincts. I knew my dog would be bad and he was and he wasn’t.
So what can you do to get your dog ready for flight if you’ve been toying with the idea? A few thoughts on the subject.
As noted, I practiced and practiced and practiced with him—but it wasn’t enough. Get the dog used to being in the case by luring them in with a treat and let them stay in there for a while. Do it for hours a day, whenever you are home. Take them out in the case. Drive around with them in the case. Get to the point where the whines in every possible scenario are nil. That may not be possible but try, to test both the pet and your patience.
Crate train your dog.
This sounds so obvious but, if you dog isn’t crate trained, chances are they’ll be a mess in their little flight house. Scooter isn’t crate trained since he’s good at being home alone. However, the downfall of this independence came with trying to confine him: he hated it. He vocalized and made it known that this was not for him. Had he been crate trained? Non-issue.
Do your homework.
What does your flight allow? Do you need a veterinary health certificate? What size dog bag can you bring on the flight? How much does it cost? Does your terminal have a dog bathroom? These are things to know. You can’t just show up with a dog and expect to get on a plane. You have to reserve your dog a seat well in advance, pay fees, and follow certain rules. Every airline is different so call immediately after booking if you want to take your dog.
Book budget direct.
While Virgin is cute and sophisticated, go for the most trustworthy budget, the type of flight that will attract families and screaming children. Why? If you have a shitty, loud dog, the chances of them being drowned in sound are much higher. That is something to hold to your breast: loud ass kids, who can be heard everywhere, at all times. And don’t take multiple legs on the flight: go direct. The less hassling and having your dog go in and out of the case, the better.
Know it’s louder than you think…
One silver lining: planes are naturally louder than you think. It may sound like hell, in your seat, but when you stand, a low dog moan can only be heard by the people directly in front of and behind you. The whines disappear in a way children do not. Phew.
…but know your dog.
If he is loud, he will be loud. A lot of it will get drowned out but don’t put your coins in that basket alone. That dog will be heard.
Work, work, work that dog.
I fucking ran scooter for miles and miles for months before the flight. We got him dog Xanax. We took him to dog parks. We took him out in public. We did everything to exhaust him for the flight. It worked. Had we not done all of the above, he would have been perked up and poking around, letting his presence be known.
Window Seat > The Rest
Airline employees will suggest taking a middle seat for a dog because of “more room.” Fuck that. Go with the window because there is less sonic resonance to the whines. The wall will bounce some, yes, but it will also shield a lot of the cries and offers a barrier on one side that will not offer a distraction to your dog.
Don’t go solo.
If you know you have a bad dog, don’t fly alone with that bad dog. Why? Because if you break, the dog breaks too and you will have a panic attack and it will be bad news for everyone. That other person can offer the comfort or brunt of the trouble, to leave your mind at rest. Moreover, another person can help deflect questions and attacks on you for bringing a dog. Safety in numbers.
Keep in mind: you don’t have an excuse—and that’s fine because some people love dogs as much as you.
The truth in dog flight: since they aren’t a service dog, you have no reason to bring them along. Sure, you might be traveling someone else’s dog or bringing them for a surgery but it’s a dog. They don’t have to go anywhere. People will question your reasons. Don’t let that get to you because the value of a dog, the adorability factor, will draw people to you to check in on the pet, to echo your concerns, to offer some reassurance. That is the power of these pets.
Do not put the dog below deck.
Sometimes this seems like the only option but checking in a dog, in cargo, is a nightmare for everyone. If you can avoid it, avoid it. The dog risks mental scarring, literally messing themselves, and—at worst—death. Keep away.
If you are thinking about flying with a dog, know that it’s hard but not impossible. In fact, maybe your dog will be great at it. Mine wasn’t.
If you go to that worst case scenario and expect your dog to rise to that worse occasion, hopefully this can help. Having done it twice, this is what I wish someone told me. Good luck to you and your pup person.