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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 founded Journey Dog Training in 2013 to provide high-quality and affordable dog behavior advice. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant who’s worked with hundreds of private clients, thousands of shelter dogs, and dozens of working detection dogs. Kayla’s dog and cat behavior advice has been featured in NPR, the Chicago Tribune, and Pet MD. She’s an avid adventurer who is currently doing #vanlife on the Pan-American Highway with her two border collies and a cat. Aside from running Journey Dog Training, Kayla also runs the nonprofit K9 Conservationists, where she and the dogs work as conservation detection dog teams. You can get 1:1 advice with a Journey Dog Training team member here.
I grab a pack of potty pads and baby wipes from the dollar tree to fly just in case mine gets sick. Also, I reuse a SmartWater bottle. Its empty when I go thru TSA and when I get to the other side I fill it up from a fountain to give my boy. American Airlines has been great in seating me and my mobility assistance Bernese Mountain Dog. They always try to put larger SDs in window seats at the bulkhead and leave the seat next to you vacant. They have never charged me for that upgrade. A regional airline with animals on their planes has been extremely rude to me. So bad in fact that I would NEVER fly with them even if I didnt have a service dog. Their planes are so tight anyway and Ive found American has roomier seats and better prices.
The potty pads and baby wipes are a great idea! So good to hear that American is good – Spirit did the same for me. I just flew United and did NOT have a good experience.
One more thing, MANY people have allergies and as you said airplanes floors get cold. My boy wears a ShedDefender bodysuit. It protects surfaces and people from flying hair & dander. Protects him from cold floors AND I think 1 of its best features is that it acts as a compression garment thereby eliminating any nervousness or anxiety he might experience. For the cost of a big bag of dog food it’s just amazing!! My 🐕 wants his on all the time. He has several!!!
The shed defender is a great idea!
Might you know what the Quarantine location is in Australia. I know that it is 10 days, and from what I’ve read, it seems to be at your hotel.
Can you confirm that?
Also, might you know if owner trained Service Dogs are accepted in Australia.
I have used a professional Service Dog trainer, with over 300 hours of training, but she is not with an ADI organization.
Sorry, Karen – I don’t know the answers to those questions.
I will be flying to Mexico next year hopefully for a wedding. Do you know what all I’d need for documentation for my service dog to enter the country? Would he have to quarantine? This will be my first time traveling with him internationally. I don’t know where exactly the wedding is yet!
Hi Beka, I’m not sure for flying! We drove into Mexico and had no issues at all, but flying will be different. It varies quite a bit from country to country.
What do you do if you are flying alone and have to go to the bathroom? Do you just tether him up in front of the bathroom and go?
I take him into the stall with me. If we can, we use a family bathroom.
Hello Kayla, I am finishing up medical school and plan to work as a travel tech and within my field can travel internationally as well. Work assignments can be for any duration, but typically 13 weeks, both domestically and internationally. I have two questions for you. Unfortunately, my job does not grant access for my SD to accompany me to work [I work in a sterile environment (the OR)] most hotels do not want any pets left unattended, do you have other suggestions? And second, before we embark in international travel where can I find information on each countries jurisdictions about SDs? BTW, I trained my SD myself and we did not go through any significant official training. Any help would be appreciated.
Hi Roper, I’m not quite sure about the first question. If your dog is not allowed at the hospital, I assume you’ll have to leave them behind at your housing situation. That’s what we did while traveling. As for the resources, I’m not quite sure – I don’t have such a list myself. Unfortunately, many countries have very different regulations from the US. Self-trained dogs are not accepted in New Zealand, for example (or weren’t when I checked in 2019). In Mexico, they demanded that I have “certification papers” from one of those fraud-y $20 papers sites (ew). It varies widely and the ADA rules do not apply when you’re no longer in the US.
Hi, I’m seeing that animals have to be quarantined at home for 4 months upon arrival in Panama, did you not have to deal with that while you were there?
We did not – although this was back in 2019 and we arrived by land, not sea or air.
Hi, I’m looking to get a dog specifically as a PSD and was worried about traveling out the country with said PSD. Do you know of any website(s) that might list a general list of rules for countries especially in Asia and Europe? Or would I have to call the embassy of every nation I wanted to visit and get the information from them? I started getting worried since there were a few times where you mentioned some countries’ definition of a SD were more stringent than others.
Hi Lilly, I don’t know of a service-dog specific site, sadly. That would be a great idea, and maybe it exists, but if it does I’m unaware of it.