A Comprehensive Look At Flying with your Dog

Ticket, Trek, and I recently returned from New York after competing in the 4th Westminster Agility Championship.  We had an amazing time, enjoyed the event immensely, and I was able to do a little sightseeing.  As a veterinarian, it’s hard for me to take too much time off of work, so one of the reasons I am able to travel to events like Nationals, Tryouts, and Westminster is because I am able to fly with my dogs in-cabin.  I have been flying with my dogs for several years, on several airlines, and I thought I would share a few tips that I have learned over the years.

First things first — you need to choose a bag, and determine if your dog is small enough to fit under the seat.  There are a million bags out there, in all different price ranges.  I’ve previously posted about a few different options before.  First, the Sturdibag.  The large Sturdibag is a fairly economical option for a smaller dog.  Trip and Trek are both around 13″ at the shoulders — Trek is 12 pounds, and Trip is 15 pounds.  Both easily jump in this bag, turn around, and are completely comfortable.  The bag itself if very lightweight, decreasing the weight you are lugging around the airport.  It’s fit into the smallest underseat storage areas on United, Southwest, and US Airways, and it’s flexible poles make it easy to fit and yet expand to give the dog as much room as possible.  For shorter trips with the little girls, this is my bag of choice.

There is an Extra Large version of the Sturdibag as well.  While I own one, I’ve never been brave enough to use it when flying, though I know people who have.  I’ve also known people who have been nearly turned away from the plane using this bag, so you definitely try it at your own risk.

Ticket is 15.25″ and around 20 pounds.  The Large Sturdibag is definitely a no-go for her.  So in looking around and talking to people about what they’ve used, I came across the Celltei bag.  This is a higher end bag that can be customized to suit almost anyone’s needs.  I originally bought a stock model of the Large Backpack-O-Pet, which fit Ticket perfectly despite my reservations when placing the order.  However, after all of Ticket’s knee surgeries, I decided I wanted a custom version to allow her more room in flight.  I was able to customize the bag with 3″ zippered extensions on either end, so that after takeoff, I am able to give her extra space to stretch out.  This is the bag I would recommend for medium sized dog, and the bag I would choose to use if Trek ever travels to Europe.  In the posts above that I’ve linked, I’ve taken some pictures and measurements of my dogs with the bags and listed their dimensions, to give you some comparison for your own dog.

OK, so you’ve decided your dog is small enough, and you have your bag.  You want them to be completely comfortable in this bag, so spend some time teaching them to get in and out of it.  I start by throwing treats into the back of the bag, and letting my dog get comfortable reaching in to eat them.  After multiple repetitions of this, I will hold my hand on their bum, to keep them from backing out of the bag, and apply a little pressure.  Not being able to back up, most dogs will then attempt to turn around, but with their head in the bag, this will actually result in their hind end in the bag, and their front end facing out.  BIG jackpot with lots of treats.  If they do manage to back out of the bag, just keep working at it.  It doesn’t take long for them to learn that good things happen inside that bag.  The easier it is to get your dog in the bag, and the happier they act about it, the fewer questions an airline employee is going to ask.

Your airline may limit the number of dogs allowed in cabin, so make sure you call or make a reservation online.  The airline may require a health certificate from your veterinarian.  This is always required for dogs traveling in cargo, but policies can vary for pets in cabin.  I ALWAYS have one, but I have NEVER been asked for it.  Still, I don’t take chances.  If you want to know for sure, check with your airline.  If you want to fly with more then one dog, you are going to have to phone a friend.  In general, airlines allow one pet in cabin per ticketed passenger.

So your trip is booked, and you are on your way to the airport.  I understand you want your dog to have freedom for as long as possible, but ALWAYS take your dog to the ticket counter IN THE BAG.  I really cannot emphasize this enough.  99% of the time, nobody even know I HAVE a dog in the bag until I point it out.  This is how you want it.  Your dog is an afterthought — of course they are happy, of course the bag is big enough, here’s my money, and we are on our way.  In the dozens of times we have flown, the only time an agent said anything to me was on a return trip home with Trip, when I got lackadaisical and walked her to the counter on leash.  DON’T DO IT!

No dogs to see here…

I will insert a warning here.  Unless you have a tiny toy breed dog who is inches from the top of your carrier, and you could comfortably fit 3 of them in your bag, there is always going to be some potential for an individual ticket agent to give you grief, or even prevent you from bringing your dog.  I know a dog who has flown numerous times, in the same bag, on the same airline, get turned away at the counter and not allowed to travel because the agent that day decided her dog needed to be able to completely stand in the bag.  That’s why you should do everything possible to not draw attention to your dog, and minimize questions.  But at the end of the day, there are individuals who may make your life difficult.

Your next stop will be security.  Your dog will come out of the bag, the bag will go through the x-ray scanner.  You can either walk your dog through the metal detector, or carry them.  TSA may stop you and swab your hands, checking for explosive residue.  After that, back in the bag, and on your way.  I will often allow my dog to stick their head out while we’re waiting for our flight.  Technically, your dog is required to be in the bag at all times inside the airport, and you could get a ticket for not following this rule.  This is also the case when you are on the flight.  Please don’t be the jerk who insists on taking Fluffy out and sitting them in your lap.  It’s not fair to your neighbor or the flight attendants.  You’re on a plane, and the rules exist for a reason.  Please don’t ruin it for everyone who wants to be able to travel with their dogs.

Final note — if you think your pet might need a sedative to be calm enough for travel, please rethink flying with your dog.  If you think crying babies on planes are bad, crying/barking dogs are just as bad.  If you’re not sure how your pet will do, spend your time really focusing on acclimating them to the carrier.  Feed them in it.  Take them on trips in the car, or to pet friendly stores.  If they can handle that, they can probably handle a flight.

I hope this helps anyone who has considered flying with their dog.  I have links for the Large and XL Sturdibag in my Amazon Store.  And you can see what Celltei offers here.  Do you have any questions I didn’t answer — comment below.  Enjoy your adventures!

Hiking with Trek in Colorado

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