Avoid Dog Travel Drama, Here's How to Prepare Your Pet for a Flight

Neil Gill, CEO & President of Dogtopia, shares tips on how to make your pet feel comfortable, safe and happy in the cabin or in cargo

Photo: Billy Hustace/Getty

It's only been a few months, but 2018 can already be called the year of travel drama.

Pet deaths, missing dogs, prohibited emotional support peacocks — all of these issues and more have been plaguing the supposedly friendly skies this year.

While must flights involving animals are uneventful, especially when airline staff and passengers follow the rules laid out by each individual airline, it's always better to go in prepared.

If you are planning to travel on a plane with your pet for the first time, there are several things you can do before you even leave the ground to make the trip less stressful for both you and your furry friend.

PEOPLE talked to Neil Gill, CEO & President of Dogtopia, a dog daycare, boarding and spa facility, about the steps you can take to make sure your pet is on their best behavior when they fly and that they stay safe for the entire trip.

What does your pet have to be comfortable with before flying on an airplane?

Your pet should be comfortable in whatever airline crate or carrier you will use for the trip. We want the crate to be the "safe place" during travel. It is also helpful if your pet is used to being around strangers. If they are flying in the cabin, other passengers/strangers will be around them. If they are flying cargo, then workers/strangers will be handling your pet's cage. It's helpful to socialize your dog on a consistent basis so that they are comfortable with unknown situations. Taking your dog to doggie daycare, the dog park, dog-friendly restaurants all help to develop your dog's socialization skills for any new situation. When your dog is comfortable around strange people and environments, it reduces their stress levels during travel. Being familiar with different sounds and loud noises is also important. Planes and airports are loud! If your pet is used to loud sounds, then they will be calmer and more relaxed on the flight.

What behaviors should a pet parent know before flying?

Since your dog is flying as a pet, they will need to be in their carrier for the entire flight. They should know how to calmly and quietly relax in their "safe place" without consistent attention from you. Your dog should also know how to potty on command AND in a variety of environments (like the Pet Relief Area at an airport). Remember, you know you are getting on a 5-hour flight, but your pet doesn't. You want to make the most of the last potty break.

How can pets learn these behaviors?

Patience and repetition! Learning to relax in a crate/carrier for long periods of time can be tough for some pets. Start slow by making the crate a happy place. Feed your pet in the crate. Sprinkle treats in the crate so that your pet discovers them when they explore the space on their own. Slowly increase time, as your dog gets comfortable in their space. You want to train your dog to settle in their crate/carrier for the length of the flight plus 2 hours (to account for security/boarding/etc.). Have them practice settling the same time of day as when the flight is. If your pup learns to calmly lay in their carrier from 8am-2pm, then a 2-hour flight at 9am is a piece of cake!

At Dogtopia, we utilize home-style crates for a two-hour nap during the day. This is also where we administer lunch and/or medications when applicable. This not only provides some much-needed rest time, but also prepares them for travel as well.

Having her potty on command also takes time. Start by saying "go potty" (Or whatever word you choose) as they start to potty. Over time, you will be able to say go potty to help them know what they should do. Also, have your dog potty on command in a variety of areas and surfaces such as fake grass, pavement and around other people and traffic.

How long should you start preparing your pet before flying?

As soon as you know you're traveling (the sooner the better)! And you should prepare too! Make sure to check with the airline when you book your pet's ticket. Airlines have different requirements for pet travel so you want to properly prepare you and your pet for a flight on the airline you booked. You may also want to look at several different airlines. Find an airline with a pet policy that works best for your situation and has the most ideal route to your final destination. This is especially important for dogs traveling in cargo.

Why is it important to prepare your pet before air travel?

Preparation of your pet reduces the stress levels for both you and your pet. If your pet is flying in the cabin, we also want the other passengers to have a smooth trip without having to deal with the vocalizations or behavior of an unruly dog. A well-socialized dog is a great travel companion.

RELATED VIDEO: How Can I Stop My Pet from Gaining Too Much Weight?

What are other ways you can make your pet more comfortable before flying?

Take road trips and socialize your dog! The movement and sounds of a car often mimic the movements and sounds of a plane. If a pet can settle in a crate/carrier for a road trip, then they will be better on the plane. Socializing your pet also helps them become more comfortable in new situations and around strangers. The more you can introduce them to new sights, sounds, smells, other dogs and other people, the better they will behave in this new situation. Dogtopia Canine Coaches are trained to assist with all your dog's socialization needs.

What is a safe way to test that your pet has the right behavior for air travel?

If you have the ability, you can try a short commuter flight before your actual trip. Seeing how your dog does on a short, 1-hour flight will help predict how they will do on a cross-country flight. You can also take your dog to the airport and crowded public places particularly with the need to go through security devices, such as a sporting event.

But, short of actually flying, there is no real safe way to test your pet's behavior. The saying "It is better to be safe than sorry" is especially true when it comes to flying with your pet. If you have any doubts at all, don't take your pet. Wait until the next time you fly when you can be better prepared.

What are some issues that pet owners might run into, but not think about beforehand, when it comes to air travel?

First, make sure to have the proper paperwork for your pet. Pet policies are changing rapidly right now, so the pet parent should check with the airline when they book their ticket, but also a couple weeks before the flight.

Build in extra time at the airport. A pet parent will likely need to go through some additional screening and have paperwork checked. If they are rushed, their pet will be stressed. The pet parent also wants to make sure to provide ample time for a little last-minute exercise and a potty break.

Consider downsizing luggage, shipping it to your destination or checking the carry-on bag. Most pet parents are used to navigating a couple large bags and a carry-on item, but the pet is going to be an additional bag (that happens to be holding precious cargo!) on top of that. It can get stressful fast! If the pet parent is traveling with a pet in the cabin, then the pet will have to be under the seat in front of the pet parent (where a bag normally fits) with the exception of certified service dogs.

The pet parent should think about what they will do if the pet dislikes flying. If, despite best efforts, the dog howls throughout the first leg of the flight, is the pet parent willing to miss the connection and drive the rest of the trip? Or the pet gets to the destination, but had such a horrible time in cargo that she refuses to get back in? Will the pet parent be willing to drive home? If the answer is no, then it is best to leave the dog with a dog daycare, like Dogtopia, during the trip

Through your own personal experience, what do you recommend to those flying with a pet for the first time?

Ask yourself why you want to fly with your pet. Is it for you? Or for the pet? Some pet parents want to fly with their pet because they will miss them or because they think the pet will want to come on the weeklong family trip, but new, restrictive environments can be extremely stressful for many pets. For example, you might be staying in a pet-friendly hotel, but some of the restaurants or activities you want to do are not-so-pet-friendly. This leaves your dog locked in a strange room all day on its own. Most dogs would be happier playing with their BFFF (best furry friend forever) at a dog daycare, like Dogtopia.

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