Barley and I flew from Panama to Minneapolis this weekend. It was his first time flying, and it went really smoothly!
Getting to the point where my dog and I could fly internationally wasn’t easy – but I wanted to share what I learned along the way.
While these tips apply to my 50-pound border collie and probably many dogs up to about 70 pounds, keep in mind that an extra-large breed (like a Great Dane used for mobility assistance) might be even trickier to fly with. I don’t know how airlines handle dogs that literally can’t fit in the foot-space allotted to you.
These tips certainly apply to smaller dogs as well – though you won’t have to be as concerned about foot-space if your seizure alert dog is 10 pounds.
What to Do When Flying Internationally with a Large Service Dog
- Make sure you and your dog meet ADA requirements for being a service dog/handler team. This means that your dog must be “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.”
- From the ADA website: “Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets.”
- Check the requirements of other countries. The ADA doesn’t apply in Panama – it’s US law. Other countries might have much narrower definitions of service dogs or require documentation – so your US service dog isn’t necessarily legit in another country.
- When I took Barley on an overnight ferry in Baja California (Mexico), I made this mistake. I assumed I didn’t need documentation to prove Barley is a service dog. I’m still not sure whether I was wrong or the ferry captain was wrong. I argued for a LONG time before I gave up and printed out a service dog ID card from one of those bogus websites that I hate. I’m not proud of having those documents – they encourage fake service dog/handler teams and promote the false idea that you need documentation and vests to have a service dog. But when you’re not in the US, you can’t rely on the ADA!
- Call the airline about your booking. Because international regulations vary, it’s best to check with the airline before booking.
- I called Spirit Airlines to confirm Barley and I were “all clear.” To avoid booking fees, I then booked online. I then called BACK to confirm that I had a Service Dog with me on my ticket. They automatically upgraded me to seats with extra legroom (YAY for Barley) and priority 2 boarding.
- Get seats with extra legroom if possible. Many airlines will upgrade you for free. Some won’t – if they don’t, for the comfort of your dog, consider paying for the upgrade. I find it easier to be on the window seat to ensure that your dog doesn’t stretch out into the aisle.
- Plus, this way people don’t have to step over your dog!
- Bring documentation, even if you don’t think you’ll need it. I don’t mean those fake Service Dog ID cards. I mean vaccination records, health certificates (usually required to enter/exit countries with a dog – get one from your vet), and any international paperwork you may need.
- Honestly, if you do have any documentation of training or your disability, bring it. Yes, you don’t need those papers in the US. But if you have them, bring them – you might need them in other countries.
- I needed a health certificate from a Panamanian vet, an export permit from the government, and vaccination records to get Barley onto the plane in Panama. Read the Panama-specific pet export regulations here.
- Be ready to be patient and amiable. There will be screaming kids, long lines, brusque TSA agents, distracting people making cute faces at your dog. Borders and customs make things even harder. You and your dog might get extra scrutiny at security.
- Introduce yourself and your dog to your seatmate(s)! They’ll appreciate it, and this lets you tell them a bit about how to (not) interact with your dog before it’s a problem.
- I know how hard this is – Barley is a service dog for PTSD and anxiety. I get nervous in social situations, especially in crowded areas (ie, airports) and when being talked to by people “of authority.” Breathe. And try.
- Make sure your dog is adequately trained. I’m not just talking about your dog’s ability to assist with your disability – though that’s obviously really important. I also mean that your dog is ready for an airport and an airplane.
- The beeping cars carrying elderly passengers are weird. Crashing luggage is scary. Screaming kids abound. You’ve got to weave through thick crowds of strange people who are all stressed out. Your dog will need to be able to tuck into a VERY tiny airplane seat.
- He’ll likely deal with turbulence and will definitely notice the airplane landing and taking off. While many of these problems should be part of good public-access training, some of them are relatively unique to airports. Brush up on these skills.
- Barley struggled with following those post-and-strap barriers that guide winding lines through TSA checkpoints, probably because he can’t see the waist-height guide straps that keep people in line. Barley has been on trains, boats, and buses. We’ve navigated 8 international land borders and hundreds to thousands of busy city streets and restaurants. But airports are still intense!
- Barley didn’t mind turbulence – probably because he’s used to bumping roads and has no idea that he’s 30,000 feet above the ground. He didn’t mind taking off. But landing made him sit bolt-upright and start stress panting.
- An implied stay and relaxed down around chaos are a must for traveling dogs.
- Pack a go-bag for your dog. We’ll cover that later – scroll down if you want to see it now.
- Plot out pet relief areas in advance. This is especially important if you’ve got tight layovers.
- Some non-US airports may not have a pet relief area. If not, prepare yourself and your dog for using potty pads in a family bathroom (they usually have floor drains). I made note of where all of our potential potty spots were.
- Ensure your dog is “empty” before getting to the airport. I pottied Barley several times before each flight. I exercised him well and made sure he hadn’t eaten for at least a few hours. You want a well-rested but well-exercised dog who won’t be nauseous, antsy, or doing the potty dance.
What to Bring When Traveling Internationally With a Large Service Dog
- Your paperwork. As I said above, don’t assume ADA requirements will stay the same. In New Zealand, for example, service dog requirements and the definition of a disability are FAR stricter. At a minimum, bring:
- Vaccination records.
- An international health certificate from your vet that’s appropriate for your destination country.
- An export permit (if required).
- If you have documentation, bring information about your dog’s training and your disability. I know this might make you bristle at the indignation of having someone demand this – but if you’ve got it, bring it. Better than getting stuck in limbo in a Mexican waiting lobby (trust me).
- Extra food for your dog. I was supposed to leave Panama city at 2am and get to Minneapolis at 1pm. In theory, that means I need ONE meal for Barley. But I missed my connecting flight, and my 13-hour trip turned into a 37-hour one. I’m really glad I had the extra food.
- A water bowl. Many pet relief areas will have a small fountain for your dog. But it’s better to be self-sufficient. I use the Gamma Travel-tainer for food storage and food/water bowls all in one neat container.
- Some waste bags. Again, most pet relief areas will have these. But when I had a layover in Fort Lauderdale, I actually took Barley outside to go potty because their pet relief areas are so hard to get to – I had to go through security again anyway because of customs. Glad I had those bags!
- A short leash. This is not the time for a flexi-lead. Then again, you probably know that if you’re really handling a service dog. I used a four-foot lead and I wish I’d had one even shorter.
- A mat for your dog. I use my jacket, but it’s helpful to have something a bit warmer and a bit softer for your dog to lie on. The floor of airplanes is quite cold! Many friends love using soft bath mats – they’re rollable and easy to bring.
- A lint roller. It’s not a must-have, but it’s nice to just clean up your pup’s fur after you leave a spot. People really appreciated that I did this!
- Non-stink dog chews. I gave Barley a chew for takeoff on each of our three flights. This let him chew to pop his ears and kept him calmer. While a longer-lasting bully stick would have been nice, I opted for stink-free dental chews for the sake of my neighbors.
- A vest or other easily-recognized ID for your dog. Yes, you don’t need this in the US. But man, it’s nice to have abroad. You’ll get fewer questions because it’s obvious that your dog is here for you. And you’ll watch parents stop their kids from approaching because of the vest. Yes, some people will ignore it. But it’s a nice buffer.
If you’ve got any questions or further tips about flying with large service dogs, drop them into the comments section below!
Kayla is from Ashland, Wisconsin but lives in Missoula Montana. She holds a degree in biology from Colorado College and has spent years working in zoos, animal shelters, and as a private dog trainer. When not working on Journey Dog Training, Kayla works at Working Dogs for Conservation. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. She shares her life with her border collie Barley.