Sunday, August 7, 2016

Flying with a Service Dog

I realized when I wrote my post about traveling with special needs from our trip to Texas that while I did mention a few things about traveling with Leni, I didn't really go into detail about what traveling is like with a service dog. I was going to add more to the last post, but then I realized it was already bordering on being longer than any book I ever read for college and decided a separate post might be better.

Plus, since today is the first day of International Assistance Dog Week, consider this my attempt at yet another planned post =) First off, packing!

As I mentioned in the previous post, I pack Leni's supplies in my medical bag. These supplies include food (individually portioned into ziplock bags for easy use), collapsible bowls, boots, cooling vest (or coat depending on the season), treats, toys (bone and squeaky toy), travel bed, and for our Texas trip, a bow for the wedding. I like to individually portion out her food because it is super easy to just grab a bag and pour it into a bowl at meal times. Plus, it takes up less space than a larger bin.

We flew out on an early morning flight. That was Leni's first flight, so we had no idea how she would react to take off and landing. We figured she would be okay once we leveled off since that feels about the same as riding a bus or train and we've done those multiple times. In order to minimize the chance for an oopsie on the flight, we decided to wait to feed her until we landed in Austin. We also limited her water so she wouldn't need to go to the bathroom since we couldn't take her out until we got to Texas.

When we got to the airport, we first had to go through security. I wasn't sure how this would work since I cannot go through the scanners myself. It ended up that Nick took her through the scanners while I was screened separately. TSA had me remove her vest and leash and send those through the scanners with our bags. Nick put Leni in a sit-stay next to him, then TSA had him walk through the scanner first by himself. After he was cleared, TSA had him call Leni through. Once they were both good to go, Nick could put her vest and leash back on while I was getting screened. Service dog handlers, make sure your dogs have a good stay with lots of distractions around! Although I will say that TSA was super nice and loved Leni!

After going through security, we made our way to our gate. As I said in the previous post, I go to the person at the desk and request pre-boarding. This gives us extra time to get situated and lets us get on first so we are not caught up in the boarding craziness with a super cute, snuggley, everyone-wants-to-pet poodle. Since we were flying Southwest, this also allowed us to get the bulkhead seats because they have open seating based on boarding number. (Other airlines you will have to call after booking your tickets to request bulkhead if you want it.)

For all my worry and preparation to make sure the flight wasn't scary for her, take off was about as eventful as my bad days. Translation: She did nothing...She might have picked up her head at one point during take off, but that was the extent of it. Same reaction at landing. She picked up her head at touch down, but other than that, was about as stressed as a sloth (they never seem stressed, right?). I had lots of treats all ready, a bone to keep her occupied, snuggles if she needed them...and nothing...she was great! What a good service dog =)

Also, fun fact, dogs have different ear anatomy than we do. What that means, is they get to avoid the oh-so-fun ear popping that happens during changes in altitude. So really the only indication that anything was happening was the noise on the plane and maybe how it felt, but apparently that wasn't even anything to get excited about anyway.

Once we landed, we waited until the plane was mostly empty before we got off. It's just easier to let Leni get up and stretch and not feel like we have to rush. After we got off the plane, she got to eat and drink while we were waiting for our bags at baggage claim. And of course, bathroom time as soon as we got out of the airport.

Pretty much the same drill heading home except for one MAJOR mistake on my part. Our return flight wasn't until 11:20 am instead of zero dark thirty. We still decided that it would be better not to give her a normal meal, but just light snacks instead of breakfast and still limit her water. Even though she was so good on Thursday, we still wanted to make sure we had no oopsies. I had planned to wait to take her to the bathroom until just before we entered the airport, knowing she could hold it for our 5-6 hour travel time. Once we landed back in Ohio, she'd get her dinner with a bit extra and be good to go. Sounds like a good plan, right??

We thought so, too...until I forgot the most important part of our plan...the whole take-her-to-the-bathroom-BEFORE-entering-the-airport part...yeah, MAJOR oops on my part! Can I just say, I felt HORRIBLE when I realized what had happened about 15 minutes before we boarded our first flight! Unfortunately, in both the Austin and Atlanta airports, the service dog relief areas are outside the airports before you go through security. We didn't have enough time to go back out, and our layover was too short in Atlanta to try, too. Leni was such a trooper! She had to wait almost 20 hours before she had the chance to pee after my awful forgetfulness. Don't worry, she was just fine and had no lasting issues. She was back to her goofy self (not that she ever lost it) as soon as we got home and was happy to see her Bonky and hedgehogs (sadly not real, just squeaky or at least were at some point).

Flying with Leni wasn't nearly as challenging as I expected, and if anything, having a bit extra leg space in the bulkhead seats was a nice plus! Nick (at 6'4") was especially glad to have some extra foot space...even if he did have to share some of it with Leni!

I hope this helps anyone else preparing to travel with a service dog or encourage anyone who felt that traveling with a service dog is just too overwhelming. Like I've said before, no, it's not as easy as just packing and going. But let's be real, if we have service dogs, what part of our lives is ever that simple? Having a service dog doesn't mean that traveling is off the table, just that is takes a bit more planning and preparation ahead of time.

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