Please scroll to the end of Ed’s story for some tips and advice about
flying with a service dog, from the NEADS staff
Our First Flight
When Toffee and I finished training at NEADS, I immediately wanted to make plans to visit my mother in Issaquah, Washington. My Mom always has a dog or two running about her house and she has been a huge supporter in helping me reach my decision to get a hearing dog. While training with Toffee at NEADS, I received an abundance of helpful information in regards to flying with service dogs. Before I bought my ticket, I reviewed the information on American with Disabilities Act and the Air Carriers Access Act. I also read this great article, “The Real Scoop,” by Professor Dakota on the IAADP website. All of these gave me great information on what to expect while Toffee and I embark on our first plane ride. It pays to know your rights, and it pays even more to be calm and informative to people who may not understand these rights. In the time since I have received Toffee, I have found that most people are eager to help and just need a gentle voice to let them know how.
I travel often and I knew it was going to be a long day flying from Boston to Seattle, so I felt it was best that I take a direct flight. If I took a flight with a stop, it would have taken more time and I wanted this to be as painless as possible for the both of us. I have personally traveled hundreds of times and I have been through the worst of it when traveling by plane. But I have never traveled with a service dog and I wanted everything to go as easy as a walk in the park. While I couldn’t anticipate what Toffee’s attitude towards flying would be, I was confident in her training and had a hunch that things were going to be just fine.
I booked my flight on JetBlue and purchased a seat with extra legroom (this did cost additional money). Toffee is a medium sized dog (35 lbs.) and she doesn’t take up much room, but I wanted the extra space so that we both would be comfortable and be able to stretch out our legs without bugging the passenger next to us. It was well worth the extra money.
Since I knew the flight would be over 5 hours long, I wanted to be sure that Toffee got enough exercise so that she would rest on the plane. On the day before leaving, I placed her in a doggie day care facility that we know and trust so that she could run around with her dog friends all day. I did this again the next morning for a few hours before we left for the airport. As the old saying goes “a tired dog is a good dog.” After spending all that time in the day care, she was definitely worn-out.
Not everyone knows and understands the laws and procedures of traveling with a service dog. That is why it is so important for the owner of the service dog to not only know and understand these laws, but also understand that the people you encounter on your many journeys may not be as knowledgeable. In fact, count on it. The best way to handle this is to be calm and informative.
While checking in for my flight, the airline representative asked me for Toffee’s “papers”. I calmly replied to her that Toffee is a service dog wearing a “Hearing Dog” vest and I am not required to have any papers for our domestic trip to Seattle. She asked another representative, who corrected her and said that the dog is wearing a vest and that “The Vest” is considered her ID. (Toffee is actually not required to wear a vest.) She replied, “Oh, ok,” then proceeded to tap away at her keyboard to check me in. The airline rep saw Toffee’s vest and how VERY well behaved Toffee was being. She understood that Toffee was the real thing. Then she turned to me saying, “You should call in to let us know that you are traveling with a service dog. “
I calmly replied, “Actually, I am not required to call in. If I required special assistance when boarding the plane, then I would have definitely called your airline ahead. However, I have a hearing loss and Toffee is a hearing dog, and we don’t really need any special assistance. But thank you.”
She then stated that when someone is traveling with a disability or service dog, they put a special code for “Priority Seating” on the boarding pass so that I can be one of the first passengers to board the plane. While this is great and definitely something to take advantage of, you are not required by any laws to “call in.” Unless, you need special assistance, you can simply tell them when you arrive, but be sure to get there an hour before departure. I understood her intention was to help me. I said, “Sounds great, sign me up!” Since I had a window seat, I wanted time to get Toffee and I situated and relaxed while others are boarding.
Getting through security was easy! After waiting about 20 minutes in line, it was finally our turn to be screened. I commanded Toffee to “Sit Stay” and the TSA officer allowed me though first while also holding the leash for Toffee. After I passed, I called Toffee across and, of course, her collar set off the alarm. They pulled us aside for a quick check on Toffee. The TSA officer kindly asked if he may take a closer look at my service dog. Toffee was very good and allowed the officer to pat her vest down and look under her collar. Her short nub of a tail was wagging, so I think she liked it. Then off to the gate we went!
Getting situated on the plane was a hoot. We were one of the first on the plane and had plenty of room. I placed a blanket, that I brought with me, down under the seat in front of me and Toffee got right on it to lie down. I gave her a chew toy, which kept her semi-interested. I reminded myself that while I have traveled many times, this is her first time. This was a whole new world for her! And she wasn’t nervous at all. She was looking out from her position as the other passengers boarded. She likes little kids and when a few passed by, her ears went back and her tail started going. When my “neighbor” came to his seat, he did notice Toffee, but didn’t seem to have any issues and sat right down. Toffee stayed in her position. She was such a good girl throughout the entire boarding routine and I gave her a special treat.
After everyone was in their seats and the doors were closed, the plane started moving. I’m sure Toffee noticed, but she didn’t react to it as she was busy with her chew toy. To her, it must have felt like a ride in the car. However, when we reached the runway and those engines started powering up for take-off, Toffee knew something different was definitely happening here. She stood right up, but I made her Sit and Stay. I had some special treats ready for her and offered it to her, but she didn’t want it. Her eyes were wide and she was looking all around. I told her calmly, “Leave it.” I knew from my training that I didn’t want to praise her for being afraid. I just needed to show confidence and that everything was fine. After the plane leveled off and started cruising, I commanded Toffee back to her down position. She was a bit reluctant, but soon gave in. I placed another small blanket on top of her, as it seemed a little cold down there, and offered her some more special treats, but she still did not want it.
For the first hour or two of the flight, I could feel her shivering a little at my feet. I knew she was a little scared, but she was a champ through it all. During the five hour flight, she got up once or twice just to stretch out her legs and look around. My neighbor never said anything to us and Toffee didn’t try to disturb him. I worried a little when she would not take any of the special treats, but I knew she was fine.
When the plane hit the tarmac while landing in Seattle, Toffee jolted up. With the plane bouncing around, I am sure her thoughts were, “WHOA!!! WHAT’S GOING ON!!?” I kept her calm with a firm “Leave It” command and she calmed down when the plane decelerated and started taxiing to our gate. Being the last to get off the plane has the same benefits as being the first on the plane. With no one else on the plane, there is plenty of room for Toffee and I to pack up and go. However, while waiting the other passengers are getting up and grabbing their bags and slamming the overhead doors. These are all unpleasant distractions for Toffee. She seemed nervous about it and started to shiver and whine a little. Here again, I remembered it is important to be firm and confident with a “Down Stay” command. And like the very good little girl that she is, she obeyed my very words. After most of the passengers have left we got up, packed and left the plane.
And just like that, our first journey on a plane was over. In the weeks leading up to this trip, I admit I was a little nervous. I wanted things to go very easy so that Toffee and I would look forward to flying again. I was pleasantly surprised when it went a lot easier than I thought. Our return flight to Boston was just as trouble-free. There was absolutely nothing to be nervous about. From Toffee’s extensive training at NEADS, she set an excellent example by being very well mannered. I am looking forward to many more exciting trips with her.
Tips for Traveling with an Assistance Dog from the NEADS staff
Reminders of your access rights
- You do not need to pay for additional legroom to accommodate your dog.When you tell the airline that you are flying with an assistance dog they will move you and your dog to an appropriate seat for you and your dog at no charge. This is considered a reasonable accommodation under the law.
- Under the law, employees from all kinds of facilities may not request papers, identification or even a working dog vest as proof of service dog status. This includes hotels, airlines, trains, restaurants, etc.
- Though you are not required to, we recommend that you notify the airline in advance of your flight (after you have purchased your ticket) that you will be traveling with a service dog. You may not feel the need for special assistance, but the airline is required to provide you with some special accommodation, so you should take advantage! (These accommodations include appropriate seating and priority boarding.)
- You should think of the leash between yourself and your dog as an umbilical cord. You should never let go of the leash — even when going through security. New security screening processes may make this a challenge, so you should request a “pat-down” if necessary.