by Veronica Morris, PhD
When you’re training in most situations, you can just leave if your dog is having a rough time or being troublesome. This doesn’t apply in flying contexts!
That’s why it’s so important to train your service dog ahead of time. There’s both training for flying in a crowded metal tube at 30,000 feet in the air, and training for a busy airport full of rushing and stressed people. Don’t forget that this two-part training is actually doubly needed for most journeys. If your dog doesn’t do well on a flight to a particular destination, it’s going to be even harder to get them to cooperate on a flight back—if the airlines will even allow them on the flight back.
This may all sound scary, but there’s good news. There are a lot of training opportunities you can take advantage of. If you take some time and do the training, you can make sure you and your dog have the best chance at a smooth flying experience.
Training in an airport with beeping karts, screaming babies, restaurants, and the din of a crowd
The key to all this training is the phrase “slow is fast”. What this means is that if you train your dog slowly to gradually accept and behave in more and more complicated and stressful environments, your dog will progress faster overall to being fully trained for that environment than if you rush it. If you rush it and just drag your dog onto a plane without proper prior training, your dog could end up so stressed that they develop fears about flying or airports. Those fears would take much longer to overcome with retraining (if they even can be retrained) than if you had done it wisely the first time around.
Along the way, remember that your dog needs to develop psychological shock absorbers to handle the flying context. The airport and airplane are both extremely stressful environments where a lot of unexpected things happen. You can’t train for every specific scenario, but if you prepare your dog, they will be able to take everything in stride.
There are three types of training to do to prepare your dog for the flying context: transportation, security screening, and the airport environment.
Airplanes and airports are not totally different from other situations you’ll be training for. It’s great to incorporate this type of training early and in harmony with your other training goals.
If you can, it’s best to begin your flying prep when you have a young puppy during their early socialization phase, prior to 4 months old. At this age, puppies’ minds are very receptive. Experiences they have during this time will be remembered later in life and thought of as less stressful than if you wait until your puppy is older to expose them to these things. But if your dog is older than 4 months when you’re reading this article, you can still do this training and succeed at it!
The first step is to get your dog used to being around and riding in or on all sorts of different contraptions.
Your puppy will probably be riding in a car from an early age. Make sure that your puppy is happy and confident in the car. If they aren’t, you’ll need to train your dog to accept the car. Below, I’ll describe steps for training your dog around the car. You can and should use these for all the forms of transit you’ll be exposing your puppy to. At each step along the way, repeat that step until your dog is completely comfortable before moving onto the next step. This sort of training might take several days to several weeks for each form of transit. “Slow is fast”!
Start out near the car and toss treats on the ground or cue your dog to do simple obedience near the car to ensure they aren’t scared of the thing itself. Then with your dog at a safe distance, have a friend drive the car past you and your dog so they get used to the sounds of the car. Reward your dog or do simple training while the car is driving by.
Next, while the car is stationary, encourage your dog to get in. Don’t require them to be in any particular position, just reward them for getting close to the car or being in the car with the car stationary. Then get them used to whatever position you want them to be in for the car (for cars we recommend dogs be seatbelted into the back seat). When they are comfortable there, have someone drive the car slowly while you reward your dog, and gradually build up to riding at normal speeds and going around turns in the car.
When you use rewards and solidly trained behaviors that your dog enjoys (like “sit” or “shake”), it can help in two ways. They can be slight distractions from potentially scary situations and they can help build positive associations. Your dog needs to be somewhat aware of the car during the training, not totally distracted, or the car might as well not be there! In addition to making sure your dog is still aware of what’s happening, be careful not to reward so ecstatically that your training gets your dog overly excited or anxious. You want your dog ultimately to just accept the car as normal and boring, so remain calm and be sure the reward level doesn’t get your dog amped up.
Go through the same steps with as many small forms of transit you can find. Use a wagon, a wheelbarrow, a bicycle basket or trailer, an office chair, a shopping cart (only at a pet store!), anything that safely moves. Also use many different cars, not just your own car.
Another great thing to train on is a wobble board. This is a flat board with half of a ball underneath in the middle of the board. When the dog walks or stands on the board, it wobbles around unsteadily. This will get your dog used to being on unstable surfaces that are often experienced while on various forms of transit.
Training on different surfaces can prepare your dog for unusual flooring, like jetways
Once your dog is comfortable and confident in all of these situations, I recommend trying a bus. Busses are more complicated because you usually can’t ask them to stop and sit there with the engine off while you train. However, some transit companies will allow you to arrange this with them or you can train around a transit hub. You can call or write your local transit agencies to find out what your options are.
Hang out at the bus stop for a short while once or twice a day over the course of many days or weeks. Personally I like to start taking my puppy to bus stops as early as possible in their life (remember the 4-month window). I sit there and every time a bus or loud truck passes, I give my dog treats or reward them for simple obedience exercises until they don’t care about loud busses.
Be especially vigilant about not starting out too close to the bus! The air brakes can be very scary to dogs, so you may want to start out 20 feet away from where any bus pulls in. You can gradually move closer over your training sessions as your dog becomes more comfortable with the noises.
Do lots of training around the door to the bus when it is at the stop and passengers are loading and unloading until your dog is totally comfortable being around this activity.
Then, one day when it is not crowded, walk confidently onto the bus with your dog and with your fare ready. If you do this when the bus is crowded, you may find there’s no space for you to sit and you’ll have a much tougher first experience.
It’s a good idea to plan to go just one stop, and to have someone with a car available to come pick you up if the trip doesn’t go well and you can’t take the bus back. If you have someone your dog knows in your bus-boarding group, it can help with your dog’s confidence to have that person get on right in front of you.
Find a seat quickly (drivers don’t tend to wait for you to get comfortable) and get ready to shove treats into your dog’s face! When the bus starts, give your dog loads of treats. You may want to position your dog between your legs or lengthwise fixed points. When the bus starts and stops, they can be pulled forward or back, so this way they don’t slide around much.
Practice several potential positions before getting on the bus for the first time so you can easily communicate with your dog. The bus can also pull your dog toward a side of the bus when making turns, so be ready to help your dog stay in place!
That said, I personally don’t like to ask for a position on the first few rides if my dog seems comfortable. I only ask for a position on the first few rides if they appear uncomfortable with the sliding around and need more stability—then I ask for a position between my legs.
The first few rides, I don’t require top-notch service dog in training behavior. I let my dog do a little more exploration than I normally would (not wandering, of course). I let them sniff around a little without physically bothering anyone, and don’t require them to be completely out of the way. I recommended only going one stop because then you don’t need to worry about tripping anyone who gets on at the next stop. I just want them to experience the bus ride as something that calmly gets them treats. I can improve their behavior later.
Over time I do start to require my dog to be in an out of-the-way position while riding, and not to sniff around in any big way.
One trick about busses is that I prefer the forward-facing seats that my dog can go under instead of the sideways-facing seats where they are open to everyone walking past. The forward-facing seats allow my dog more room and fewer distractions of people walking right past them. If you can stand, save standing up on the bus for more advanced training.
Service dogs in training experiencing their first bus rides
Once your dog is comfortable riding busses, then if you can find trains or streetcars or trolleys, train for these using the same methods. The more forms of transportation your dog gets used to, the easier riding in an airplane will be. After all, dogs won’t know they’re up in the air, they’ll just feel vibrations and rocking motions and hear a lot of noise—all of which are experienced in busses, trains, and planes.
If your local city doesn’t have a bus system, park at an airport’s outer lot and use its busses that take people to the terminal. More on that later.
When riding transit, try to simulate the airplane environment with your seating choices and positioning of your dog. Even if you plan to fly in bulkhead, practice in the forward facing seats with other seats in front of them so your dog will be used to lying down underneath the seat in front of you. Many bulkhead seats have curtain instead of wall panels and still do have seats in front of them that your dog can lie under.
The second thing you want to train for is going through security. Stress levels are very high in the security screening area, and you and your dog are expected to behave in very specific ways. So it’s a good idea to prepare as much as possible for this.
Start off as early as possible in your dog’s life training them to accept a pat-down by a stranger. Even if your dog doesn’t set off the metal detector when going through screening, sometimes they still want to pat them down to make sure there’s nothing hidden on or under them. So no matter your security procedure, your dog needs to be able to safely tolerate this.
Many security screeners are afraid of dogs or leery of dogs because they’ve been bitten by many unprepared animals in this context. So while it might be fine for your dog to give a bubbly greeting to people when permitted in other situations, this can be disrespectful and scary for security screeners. You want to train your dog to not interact with the screeners as much as possible, and allow the person to pet them all over, even their belly.
I like to start training this by holding a treat out in front of my dog’s nose while friends and family members pet my dog’s back. I start out with just a little petting, and gradually move on to them patting down my dog like a screener would do. I give little nibbles of the treat during the petting, and then when the pat down is over, I let my dog calmly have what is left of the treat.
During an actual pat-down, you can’t count on being allowed to closely interact with your dog. Gradually I phase out the treat and work on a solid stay while people are patting my dog down. Start off with people your dog knows doing this, then graduate to strangers.
Next figure out what your procedure is going to be for you and your dog to go through a traditional metal detector. Generally, you won’t be able to go through the fancy body scanner with your dog.
Remember that if you walk through the metal detector frame with your dog at the same time and their gear sets off the alarm, you will both need to be patted down. The decision is ultimately up to the security screeners, but there are several ways to help avoid you having to be patted down.
Handler and dog going through the metal detector next to each other
One method is to remove all your dog’s gear (vest, collar, anything with metal on it) and use a completely non-metal slip lead to take your dog through the metal detector. This is easy on the way through the detector, but takes a lot of prep time getting your dog undressed and then redressed on either side.
Another method involves keeping your dog’s gear on, and just walking through the detector at a different time than your dog. To do this, you’ll need a leash of at least 4 feet in length. If your dog’s gear sets off the machine, they will be patted down. But if you walk through at another time, they won’t have to pat you down.
You can train your dog to do a sit- or stand-stay while you hold onto the end of the leash and walk through ahead of your dog. Then call your dog through the detector. Alternatively, you can send your dog to the agent on the other side of the machine first, then you walk through afterwards. The first method is less scary to the security screeners, so that is the one I recommend.
Both a handler going through before the dog and one going through after
Always hold onto the leash! It is very important that your dog not be able to get away in case something spooks them. I’ve heard some distressing stories. There’s absolutely no need to assume your dog is the one perfect dog or that no unexpected bad event could possibly happen to you.
Not all gear is going to cause the metal detector to alarm. You can use gear with minimal metal in it and still get away with not alarming. For example, I often use a vest with all plastic buckles, but a leash and collar with metal hardware, and not have it alarm. Some detectors are more sensitive than others, so be prepared either way.
Whatever method you’re going to use, practice it at home and out in various places in public. Use doorways to simulate the metal detector.
Finally, it’s time to try it out. Think about buildings in your area that might have metal detectors. Courthouses often have them, for example. Visit a courthouse or other building with a metal detector to practice.
When you go through a metal detector, most security screeners have no idea what to do with a service dog. They might not know how to direct you, or they might direct you incorrectly (for example telling you to remove all your dog’s gear when you don’t want to). What I like to do is politely inform the person what I’ll be doing before I do it.
So I approach the metal detector, smile in a friendly way, and say to the screener: “I’m going to have my dog stay here while I walk through, then I’ll call them through”. Don’t ask! Politely and confidently tell. If you ask or wait for them to say something first, they might think they can have you do something differently or that you need approval to do what you want. Just nicely tell them what you will be doing like you are super experienced and do this all the time. As long as it makes sense from a security perspective, this works with almost all security screeners.
You won’t be able to reward your dog during the screening process, but I always like to give them a big treat when they are done going through the metal detector and pat-down process. Repeat this a few times until your dog gets used to the process.
You’re responsible for knowing and obeying all the laws where you live, so make that part of your prep.
The airport environment
Many people forget to train for the airport environment itself. To a human, it seems like many other public spaces. But to a dog, it can be an assault on the senses. You’ve got the smell of jet fuel and cinnamon buns. The heightened anxiety of everyone in the airport. The flowing people-movers and running between gates. The rolling luggage and honking transport carts. It’s a very, very stressful environment.
Luckily, you can prepare for this! Start at least a few months before you plan to travel so that if something is scary, you have time to train it through before you actually fly.
First train for rolling luggage. Place the suitcase in your living room and reward for calm investigation. Roll the suitcase a little, and reward your dog when the suitcase is in motion. Eventually build up to walking your dog on leash while you pull the suitcase, rewarding along the way. Finally, enlist a friend to pull the suitcase around you, rewarding your dog for remaining calm and ignoring it.
Figure out when are the least busy times at your airport. You can call airport services and ask, then pay a visit to your airport during these times. You won’t be able to go through security without special approval (more on that in a second), but you can walk around the main terminal. You will be able to hear and smell the planes, and experience the crowds. Do this, at a minimum, before your flight.
Training outside the secure area of the terminal around airport escalators
If you want to prepare further, you may be able to arrange practice times to go through security and walk around the secure area of the airport.
To do this you will need what is called a “gate pass”. This is like a ticket, but it only gets you through security—not onto a plane.
There are a couple of different methods you can use to get a gate pass. You can try contacting the airline you’ll be flying and explain that you want to prepare your dog for the flight. Ask them if they can issue you a gate pass to do so. It can be difficult to talk to the right person for this, so try calling different numbers, emailing different people, and asking around. It may require a trip to the airport in person to find the right person to talk with.
If you have to go in person to find the right person, be prepared that you won’t get a gate pass that same day. They have to get your information and do a check on you before they can issue a pass.
The other method is to contact TSA Cares. Sometimes the TSA Cares people will help you arrange a practice time to go through security and walk around the secure part of the airport. Here is the webpage where you can get in touch with them:
Related to this would be the disability support people at your local airport. Check your airport’s website to see if they have contact information for disability support people listed, and ask them as well.
Once you get to the airport environment, treat it the same as any other training opportunity with lots of positive reinforcement and many breaks.
Walking from a crowded baggage claim to an outside relief area
Be sure if you go through security to check out the service animal relief areas (SARAs) that are found in many airports. Every airport seems to have a different type of relief area. Some are before security (usually outside of the main terminal) and might be grass, mulch, or rocks. Some are after security and are usually some form of fake grass in a small room or a large, open box of some kind.
Encourage your dog to use the relief area, but don’t be surprised if they refuse the indoor ones especially. Many have been treated with smelly chemicals that put off a dog. Other times dogs have so strongly been conditioned not to use the bathroom inside that they simply won’t go. It’s a good idea to check if your dog might be willing to use a relief area so that you can better plan your connections.
When I flew with my first service dog, they didn’t have relief areas. When I flew with my second, he refused to use the indoor ones. When I fly with my third service dog, she happily goes in all the relief areas we’ve tried. It is an individual preference. Don’t force your dog, just encourage them and be happy if they use them, but plan ahead for if they won’t.
If you have any connections, it’s a good idea to leave at least 2 hours between flights. You then have time to exit the airport, find an outdoor relief area, and come back in through security and find your gate.
It’s important to prepare for the flying context steadily over time using positive training methods. Exposing your dog slowly and happily to different forms of transportation, to the security screening process, and to the airport environment will set your dog up for success during their first flight.
Keep in mind that dogs have differently shaped ear canals than humans, so their ears won’t pop when the airplane takes off and lands. Still, it may be a good idea to provide a special toy or chew during these times as they can be a bit scary the first few. Be sure the toy or chew isn’t smelly, messy, or noisy.
Hestia’s first takeoff was intense for her, but not traumatic
Finally, a word on seat choices. Bulkhead seating is the front row of a major class of service that sometimes has extra leg room. It doesn’t always have extra legroom, though, and especially in smaller planes it sometimes has much less than other seats.
To help you figure out which seat to reserve, you can use seatguru.com to look up the layout of the plane you’ll be flying. This will help you determine which seats will have the best legroom options for your service dog’s comfort. Buy your ticket online, and then if you need special seating accommodations, call your airline and speak to disability services with your needs.
Personally, I prefer flying in regular seats, even with my very large Standard Poodle. I find that the regular seats usually have just as much room if not more room for my dog than bulkhead.
I prefer flying in the middle seat as it has the most legroom. The window seat’s legroom is impeded by the curvature of the side of the airplane. The aisle seat’s legroom is impeded by the presence of the aisle, which also isn’t forgiving if your dog accidentally stretches a paw out a few inches—they can easily get stepped on or run over by the beverage cart. No matter where you sit, be sure your dog is not encroaching on someone else’s space without their permission.
No matter your training experience, don’t forget that a professional trainer can be a great help to get you started and keep you on the right path. I wish you happy training for happy flying!
Ollie travels across the country, from outside the departure airport to the tram ride on the other side