Robin’s First Flight: Tips for Flying with an In-Cabin Dog

Robin and I just returned from a week-long visit to my home state of Minnesota, his first flight and my first time flying with an in-cabin pet. Below are a few of the concerns I had prior to the flight, and how they panned out.

Potty breaks: Although Robin can easily hold it for six hours in his crate or ten hours overnight, I was concerned that the stress of traveling and waiting could cause problems when added to our four hour flight. My attempt to train him beforehand with puppy pads was comically unsuccessful. I ended up just feeding him his breakfast (eight hours before our 5pm flight) and picking up his water a couple hours before leaving for the airport.

There was absolutely no grass to be found on the departures level of LAX, so he refused to pee before check-in. LAX does have grassy dog relief areas, but they’re¬†inconveniently located on the arrivals level, which has gardens and trees across the street anyway. Fortunately, he¬†ended up being fine despite the missed potty break. He had to pee badly enough upon arrival that he was willing to use a light post outside, but not until we had walked up and down the terminal looking for grass.

For the return flight, we actually¬†found a nice small patch of grass on the departures level at HHH, so he had a chance to pee before we checked in. Since we’d just come from a short hike in hot weather, I offered him small quantities of water regularly throughout the flight. Despite the extra water, when we arrived at LAX he wasn’t desperate- he waited¬†until we crossed the street to a small garden outside the parking structures.

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Security: In-cabin pets must be removed from their carriers to go through security. Since Robin sticks to me like glue, I wasn’t at all concerned about him trying to run for it, but I was a little worried about getting him and all my bags through security without too much stress. Fortunately, we didn’t have any issues. Both times, he went through wearing his standard leash and his normal martingale collar (which has two metal D rings and a stainless tag) and didn’t set off the metal detector, so I was glad I didn’t buy any special metal free gear. At LAX, the TSA had me carry him through the metal detector. At Humphrey Terminal (Minnesota’s small, four-airline terminal), the very friendly agent called him through first, by himself, and I followed behind. Both times, he was happy to get back into his carrier, no treat or encouragement needed.

Stress and anxiety: Robin is generally very easygoing as long as he’s by my side, and he was well accustomed to his plane carrier, so I hoped that the flight would be a cinch. It wasn’t. Although he didn’t whine or scratch, he did pant heavily for the full 4-hour trip out and for a good portion of the return trip, and never really settled down. Fortunately, both flights were quite empty and we had a vacant seat next to us going out and a vacant row on the return flight. The flight attendants were also probably more lax since the planes were so underbooked, and no one said anything about me letting him poke his head out of his carrier’s top hatch. He was significantly calmer on the return trip, so I have hope for future stress-free flights!

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Popping ears: I didn’t think about this before the trip, but after the first descent Robin was clearly distressed about one of his ears and kept trying to scratch it and shake his head. Feeding him some stale, chewy jerky treats cleared it up within a few minutes, so on our return flight I fed him tiny pieces of jerky throughout the descent and we had no problems. Since he chews his food meticulously, this worked great. For a gulper, a bully stick or harder treats like Greenies might work better.

SturdiBag: Though some report difficulties getting this bag past the check-in agents, we didn’t have any issues and Robin’s SturdiProducts SturdiBag in size Large fit easily under the window seat with only an inch or so of roof compression. The front edge of the bag’s base was about even with the edge of the silver seat support (visible on the left side of the photo) even though the bag looks like it’s sticking pretty far out. There was about a five inch gap between his carrier and the side wall of the plane, just enough for my foot. On both flights, the middle and window seats looked equal in size, but there would not have been enough room under the aisle seat, which was significantly narrower underneath. Technically, based on his shoulder height of 14.5″, Robin should be using the 16″ tall XL Sturdibag (the L is about 12-13″) but I found it to be massive and unwieldy, and with Robin being tall but slim, he really doesn’t need that space lying down. The flexible roof allows him to get in easily regardless of the bag’s actual height.

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The bag itself is very well made, and seems to be durable. The mesh on the top is an absolute must for a plane carrier so that we can see each other during the flight, and I like the top porthole. The bag’s¬†shoulder strap has four individually adjustable attachment points, so the bag can be adjusted to sit level even when slung over your shoulder. Because it’s pretty subtle for a pet carrier, people didn’t seem to notice that I had a dog with me until he moved around or popped his head out. I do wish that the top porthole was a little smaller- Robin can almost get out through it, and a smaller dog probably could.

Getting Around: When traveling alone, it’s always a bit of a struggle schlepping luggage, and I was concerned that it would be harder with a dog to carry as well. Since I always travel with a 4-wheeled roller bag, I bought¬†a “Bag Bungee” from Amazon to secure Robin’s carrier to the top of my bag, which¬†it significantly stabilized the load. The SturdiBag doesn’t come with any sort of seat belt or luggage attachment point, but the Bag Bungee holds the carrier to the roller bag handle fairly securely.

Overall: Flying at off times was key to our comfort, especially on this¬†first trip, since the empty seats created a buffer so I could reach him more easily and didn’t have to worry about him bothering my neighbor. We also got through security faster, and everyone in the airport is nicer at quiet times. The trip would have been a lot less stressful for me if I’d had a (human) companion with me. I knew I couldn’t leave Robin under the seat to go to the airplane bathroom without him having a meltdown, and his carrier definitely wouldn’t fit in the lavatory. For a short flight, this was fine, but on a longer flight it would be a problem. If/when he calms down enough to sleep on the plane, I will probably be able to leave briefly.

I was very glad I acclimated Robin to the bag before trying to take him on a flight, and highly recommend just leaving your dog’s carrier in the living room as a bed for a period of time before the first flight. Robin was happy¬†to hop back into his carrier after each trip through security, which¬†made security a lot less stressful.

Since the SturdiBag only has one small pocket on its back panel (totally inaccessible while on the plane), I’m thinking about creating a removable pouch to attach to the side of the bag. There’s ample space under the plane seat for a small side pouch holding a bowl, some treats and a bully stick. Ideally, I’d even like for it to hold his jacket, leash and harness so that most of his gear is in one, unweighed spot (since I’d just remove it for his weighing at check in). Space and weight in my own bag is already at a premium!

Further reading: I referred heavily to the fantastic site dogjaunt.com in preparation for our flight. It’s a great resource for anyone planning to travel with a dog.

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