What I learned about flying with a dog

When I first heard that Rockit and I had qualified for the NACSW 2014 National Invitational, I felt very honored, but assumed we would not be attending since it required us to travel clear across the country. I started to work out the logistics of driving, but there were just way too many items on the “con” side of the column. I also conferred with my fellow competitor Kathe Baxter, who would have to travel with her Norweigian Elkhound from New York. It was Amy Herot who convinced us to talk with a few seasoned travelers about the possibility of flying, and to really consider this as an option.

We decided to bite the bullet, and along the way, learned quite a bit about flying with a dog in cargo. I want to share all the information I gathered so others might benefit. After all, it’s not too early to start planning for next year’s Nationals in Colorado!

Some of this information is from sites I found on the internet, some of it is from NACSW instructors Jill Marie O’BrienPenny Scott Fox and Kim Buchanan. Thank you all for your help and support! Another helpful resource is this page from PetTravel.com.

Flying your dog – the Basics

  • You can only fly dogs during certain times of the year; check with the airline first
  • The cargo area is climate controlled and pressurized, just like the cabin where people fly
  • Get a direct flight if possible (even if it means flying to an airport that’s farther away from your destination)
  • Try to fly first thing in the morning or in the evening
  • Book your flight and cargo as far in advance as possible
  • Your dog must be crate trained, and ideally is used to traveling in a moving vehicle within a crate
  • You CANNOT sedate your dog before flying
  • You will need a certificate of health from your vet within 10 days of flying
    • You may also need a rabies vaccination certificate
    • If you are flying round-trip with your dog, be sure to get the certificate within 10 days of your return flight, if possible.
  • If you can get someone to fly with you and help, do it!
  • Be sure to get confirmation from the flight attendant that your dog has been boarded. If they do not give it you can stand up and refuse to sit down until they confirm. BE AN ADVOCATE FOR YOUR DOG HERE.
  • It’s not cheap. The cost is based on the weight of your dog plus crate, so the larger the dog, the more it will cost. My dog is 40 lbs and it cost about $365 each way to fly her from Boston to San Francisco.


Check out the ATA guidelines for pet travel crates before buying anything. I bought theMarchioro crate from Amazon as well as the travel bowls, which are required. Both water and food bowls must be attached to the inside of the front door and be refillable from the outside of the crate without opening the door. If possible, add bright stickers to make it easy to identify your crate (the cargo folks may paste stuff over them).

If you think your dog will chew up the travel bowls (mine did), buy a second set for the return flight.

Rockit’s travel crateThe crate doors must be secured with zip ties after the dog is inside. You will need holes in the top and bottom lip of the crate to put zip ties through. If you don’t have them, the cargo people might drill them for you. When I left Boston they must have ran the zip ties through the side grill because they did not drill any holes. But when I dropped her at the San Francisco airport, the guy at the desk whipped out his drill and put these holes in my crate:

Holes drilled in top of crate to put zip ties through.

Holes drilled in top of crate to put zip ties through.

Thankfully he did a nice job. I recommend putting them in yourself if you can, as these crates are expensive and you don’t want some hack going at it with a drill.

Crate wheels are optional. They need to come off when you drop off your dog. I purchased them but did not end up using them, since I did not have to wheel her through the airport at all. The Marchioro crate has a cool storage bin at the top that you can use for the wheels.

This crate has two storage bins in the top. One is deeper than the other. This is the deep one.

This crate has two storage bins in the top. One is deeper than the other. This is the deep one.

Check with your airline to see what’s allowed in crate. Most likely it will only be bedding or blankets/towels. Remember that your dog will not be supervised while in cargo, so don’t put anything in that you wouldn’t want them to have without supervision.

What is the process like?

You will drop your dog off in the cargo facility. Be sure to find out the location and hours of each facility. Usually they are located very close to the airport, and often close to the car rental places. When you drop off your dog they will check the health certificate, then ask you to put the dog in the crate so they can weigh it. Once it’s weighed they’ll tell you how much it costs and you’ll have to pay at the facility. Have a credit card ready. They will also ask you for a photo id.

You’ll need to take the wheels off, if applicable, attach your water/food bowls, remove your dog’s collar (choking hazard), and put your dog in the crate. Depending on the airline, you might not be able to have a toy or kong in there. Bedding should be absorbent in case water spills or the dog has an accident. I do not recommend leaving a bone or chew item (bully stick, rawhide, etc.) in with the dog, even if the airline allowed it, as your dog will be unsupervised and these could present a choking hazard.

The cargo folks will zip tie the crate doors (to prevent the doors from flying open in the case of severe turbulence). If you are concerned about your dog chewing stuff in the crate, ask them to make sure the zip tie ends are not poking through the crate where the dog can access them. They will then put the crate on a dolly or carry it into the storage area. At this point you might start to cry. Go ahead, let it out. Your dog may start barking. That’s okay, they’re used to it in cargo.

Once you are done at cargo you will head to the airport and get yourself checked in and on the plane. If you can get a view of the plane’s cargo side, you may be able to see your dog being loaded. After you board the plane, let the flight attendants know that you have a dog in cargo and that you want confirmation that it is on board before you take off. As I mentioned above, be an advocate for your dog here!

Once the plane has landed, you will need to get your luggage and rental car, if applicable, and head straight to the cargo facility. Be sure to have your photo ID ready. They will bring the dog out to the waiting area, still in the crate. It’s a good idea to have some good scissors handy (the guy in Boston had trouble with his and had to use mine; I ended up losing my good clippers because I forgot them there). Be sure to take your dog outside quickly to go potty. You can go back in to collect the crate if you need to make two trips. Again it’s nice to have a companion here to help out, if possible.

Parking may or may not be readily available at cargo. Be prepared to run in and run out as quickly as possible. The process took about 20-25 minutes at both ends for me.

Rockit having a sniff outside the SF cargo office.

Rockit having a sniff outside the SF cargo office.

Rockit is a little stressed but happy to be out.

Rockit is a little stressed but happy to be out.

United’s PetSafe program

If you can fly on United, do it. The dog is shuttled from cargo to plane in a climate controlled van that is easily recognizable. When I watched dogs being unloaded from another flight, they were placed gently onto a luggage carrier and then quickly moved into the van. The driver pulled away immediately and headed back to cargo. Both times when I went to pick up my dog she was right there, I did not have to wait. The animals are boarded after the luggage, at the last minute, and are unloaded first when the plane lands.

On our return flight from San Francisco, I watched Rockit being boarded. She went right from the van to the cargo conveyer belt.

United’s Pet Safe van, coming to drop off Rockit.

United’s Pet Safe van, coming to drop off Rockit.

Rockit being transferred from van to plane.

Rockit being transferred from van to plane.

One baggage handler stopped and poured some water into her bowl, and another was standing next to her crate at the bottom of the belt.

Rockit being loaded.

Rockit being loaded.

Rockit getting some water.

Rockit getting some water.

Waiting to be loaded.

Waiting to be loaded.

I didn’t see her go up because I had to board the plane, but my friends could hear her barking once she was loaded. The flight attendant also gave me confirmation that she was on board.

Be sure to review the checklist if you fly United:https://www.united.com/web/format/pdf/travel/animals/live-animal-checklist.pdf

Renting a car

If you are renting a car, be sure it is big enough to hold your crate. We rented the Ford Escape, which I don’t recommend if you have a medium or larger size dog (plus it was junk). Caravans are a good option. Be sure to scope out where the car rental place is in relation to the cargo facility on both ends. Usually they will be pretty close together.

Rockit in the rental car at Nationals in Santa Rosa.

Rockit in the rental car at Nationals in Santa Rosa.

The overall experience

Generally speaking, the trip went very well. We flew from Boston to San Francisco, drove up to Santa Rosa, and stayed for a week. Rockit chewed up everything in her crate, including the two plastic water dishes, during the flight. She also did a little damage to the inside of the crate. She is a shredder when we travel in the car, so I expected some damage. But she did not injure herself, and she was quite fine when she came out of the crate. I think she fared a little better on the return flight, which was about an hour shorter (she only chewed one bowl).

We were very lucky to have no delays or major glitches. I also did lots of planning and preparation to make sure I had everything in order. I was very nervous about how she would handle it, but she is a well-traveled dog. She flew from Puerto Rico to Boston as a puppy, and has traveled to many places in her six + years of living with me. Before flying to California, she had been to Canada, New York City, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Maine and Connecticut. She’s been on a plane, a boat, and too many car trips to count. So I felt pretty confident that she would be okay, and she fared even better than I expected.

If you are thinking about flying with your dog, do as much research and planning as you can, and talk to people who have done it (recently), if possible. Be sure to consider your dog’s health, age and temperament. And if you decide to go, don’t get too stressed about it. As with any travel, there’s always a risk involved. Your job is to minimize those risks and then envision a positive outcome.

Happy and safe travels!

Anne & Rockit


7 thoughts on “What I learned about flying with a dog

  1. Thanks so much for sharing. I had never before considered airplane travel with my dog. Actually now considering traveling to the Sniffstock Elite trial if we get in.

  2. Anne, I found this very enlightening. While I have no plans to fly now it could happen in the future.

  3. Again, thanks for sharing your experience. I was really struck by how much the dog is moved around between the plane and the cargo terminal. One thing that I saw a long time ago on Susan Garrett’s website (or it might have been her blog) was the way she gets her dogs used to being moved while in their crates. She starts with the usual tippy boards when the puppy is very young and progresses to other balance discs and boards all the way to teaching them to ride in a wheelbarrow. After that she goes through the same process with the dog in their travel crate with no door attached and then with door closed. It made a lot of sense to me so when I got my puppy (who is almost 4 now) I did the same thing with a Sherpa bag. I only did it for a few weeks when she was about 4 months old but it appears to have made a good impression because when I got it out recently she couldn’t wait to get in it. I’ve even taken her hiking in a backpack and she seemed very comfortable in there. Of course, she’s only 12# so that size dog gets used to being carried fairly quickly but I think that only serves to point out that all dogs could benefit from some form of this early training.

  4. Hi All

    My dog just got here from Korea. I was also very impressed with not only United and their PetSafe program, but PetAirlines. Miso was handled so gently they didn’t even spill the water in the open water container. She also had a closed container and a food bowl that was refilled with a funnel so the zip ties didn’t have to be opened. She had an 11 hour layover in SFO and she must have had the time of her life because she came to me filled with burrs from her jaunt. PetAirline has an office at SFO and while I waited for her in Maine the office kept her occupied.

    One other thing I was pretty stressed about was that Miso was 4 months old and obviously she wasn’t able to hold it for either the Seoul to SFO flight or the SFO to BOS flight. I imagined her sitting in a pool. Instead they used this soft blue pad that allowed the pee to go through, and the bottom of the crate was layered with pee pass so there was not one single wet fur area when I picked her up. They were nothing but gentle.

    The only downside is that at BOS there is NO parking at United cargo, the parking lot has lots of big and scary 18 wheelers driving in and out, and Miso had no collar. I had thought I could walk her nearby but when I got there I decided she might be terrified, having traveled alone, and I didn’t take the chance of even opening the crate till I was enclosed in my garage in Maine (we were meeting for the first time). So plan your route so that if you have your own dog, who is familiar with you, and you can chance a quick walk, pick a place beforehand and be safe.

  5. I know you said that airlines often will only allow bedding or blankets/towels in their crate, but do you think they allow toys? I’m thinking about traveling with my 6-year old chihuahua for the first time and know she would be comforted by her favorite toy. I found this resource about pet toys and travel, but I can’t tell if this is allowed across the board: https://www.dogsonplanes.com/shop/pet-toys/

    • Toys are generally not allowed as they could become a choking or other type of hazard. When you cannot supervise your dog, it’s best not to take a chance on anything they could potentially choke on, even if that item is usually comforting for them. My dog chewed up her water bowl, I’m lucky she did not ingest anything.

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