Preparing to Fly with A Service Dog:

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So Spring Break is rapidly approaching, thank goodness, and it’s time to start thinking about vacation! No more school! No more papers or tests! Just the warm, sunny beaches of Southern CA and a bottle of suntan lotion.

My vacation plans require me to fly across the state, only a few hours, and while it won’t be Rally’s first flight, I thought I’d write up a short guide for anyone flying for the first time with their service dog. Even if your service dog has displayed excellent adaptability and manners when on busses, trains and cars, flying is an entirely new challenge. Airports are a true test of a service dog’s training. To humans, the noise and bustle is manageable, but to a dog the crash of baggage, the hum of cars and the roar of crowds can become overwhelming.

Only service dogs and Emotional Support Dogs are permitted to fly with their handlers. Emotional Support Dogs are prescribed by a licensed psychiatrist to combat a variety of anxiety disorders, but unlike service dogs, have minimal training. An Emotional Support Animal’s rights only include being able to fly in the cabin with their handler, and being able to remain in “no pets allowed” apartment areas. They are not allowed in restaurants, movie theaters, shopping malls or anywhere else as they haven’t undergone the countless hours of professional training that service dogs have.

If you have either an Emotional Support Animal or a service dog, it is important to have taught them some basic rules before attempting to fly with them. Remember, airlines have reserved the right to deny a handler and his/her dog access if the dog is misbehaving or violent.

The first important rule to teach your dog is to remain calm in all situations. This is useful when squeezing between revolving doors, descending escalators, wading through a crowd or getting caught in the middle of a traffic jam. Emotions flow straight down the leash into your dog’s brain, so remember to remain calm and confident, and your dog will follow your lead.

Another useful lesson is to get your dog to become comfortable lying down for long periods of time beneath your feet or chair. This is imperative when flying, as your dog must remain in a confined space for hours at a time.

A further useful lesson to teach your dog is to tolerate being handled. When passing through security, they will perform a standard pat-down of your dog, and he must be able to stand still and patiently wait until given permission to move.

Lastly, when going through the security check, it is very useful to have your dog know “stay” like the back of his paw. The way it works when going through airports is either you can walk through together with your dog, or your dog can go first and you follow, or you can go first and your dog can follow. Any beeping from either of you will be investigated. I personally have worked extensively with Rally to ensure that when I walk through the metal detector first, he will remain lying down and in a stay on the ground where i left him. I then turn, release him from the stay, and he walks through the metal detector after me. Either way, be sure your dog knows “stay”, or else it’ll become much more difficult to navigate security.

Once you are confident that your dog has been trained throughly in all of the above commands, the next step to prepare for your flight is to schedule it. Call the airlines, reserve your flight, then hang up. I’ve heard horror stories about people who’ve informed the airline they will be traveling with a service dog, only to abruptly find the flight has suddenly become “full”. So, just to be on the safe side, I like to confirm my flight with a reservation number, hang up, then call right back and add, “i will be traveling with my service dog, and would like to request bulkhead seating”. While bulkhead seating is by no means required, it does provide more legroom and is more comfortable for you and your service dog. The only reason an airline can have for denying you bulkhead seating is if that row is deemed an “emergency exit row”, in which case you and your dog will be offered your choice of other seats.

After reserving and confirming that you do indeed have bulkhead seating and the airlines is aware you will be traveling with a service animal, it’s time to go to the airport and walk around. The goal is to familiarize your dog with the high level of noise and activity that would ensue. It’s a good idea to keep your service dog on a short leash; with so many people rushing to and from the baggage claims and check in counters, a paw could get stepped on.

I’ve made a list of all of the items for Rally that I bring on a flight.  If you have a service dog and are flying, the service dog’s saddle bags don’t count as luggage, so you can keep any treats or medical supplies for yourself in the bags. in my own backpack packed for the plane, I carry Rally’s food (dry kibble in plastic bags), treats (dry, crumbled pieces of bacon and a Dream Bone), a blanket for him to lie on in the plane, a few toys (not the squeaky ones through least my ears begin to bleed) and a spare leash and collar. I also carry my folder with all of my information. On one side, I have Rally; his vet and vaccination records, proof of service dog training via a training log, the rescue organization’s information where I adopted him from, and any information on service dogs, airplane policies or relevant laws.  On the other side of the folder, I’ve included my own medical history, doctor’s notes, proof of my disability and emergency contacts. I’ve never encountered any serious opposition to Rally’s presence, but if I ever do, I have enough information and proof with me to ensure my access.

When arriving at the airport on the day of your flight, it is vital that you arrive with ample time to spare. This will ease your stress and give you plenty of time to get through security to your boarding gate.  Once at the airport, you can go to the boarding gate and request pre-boarding, which will allow you to board before any other passengers and get settled without having to crawl and navigate around other passengers with Rally.

Well, I hope this article is helpful for anyone flying with a service dog! If you are flying with an Emotional Support Animal, then you obviously don’t have the same rights, but the training commands and tips for going through security with your dog should still apply! Let me know if you have any questions and I’ll be happy to answer them to the best of my ability! On my upcoming flight, I will take tons of pictures to document our trip, so that folks can see firsthand what it’s like to fly with a service dog!

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