Flying — and Arriving — With Your Dog

You may have heard about the young dog dying after a United flight attendant insisted that it be placed in an overhead bin. And then just a day later, a family flying United went to claim their elderly German Shepherd at their arrival in Kansas — and found only a Great Dane someone else was missing. Their German Shepherd had been accidentally sent to Japan.

There is enough outrage over these incidents, as there should be, that I do not need to repeat it here. What I want to do is share how pet owners can prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future.

Dog in the Airplane Cabin

The 10-month-old French bulldog died in the overhead bin. I have no inside information in this particular case, but there is no fresh air circulation in the luggage bins and brachycephalic breeds such as Frenchies can get into respiratory trouble more quickly. Add anxiety — the dog was reportedly barking inside the bin for the first part of the flight — to burn through available air more quickly, and you’ve got a serious danger.

I certainly do not wish to blame the owners, who followed the directions they were given. I do want to explain that they did not have to, and how I would have responded in that situation.

“No, I will not put my dog in the overhead bin. No, you may not put my dog there, either. Your airline policy states that the dog must remain in its approved carrier, which I have, and beneath the seat for the entire flight. Yes, I am refusing to follow flight crew instructions, and yes, I know this means you can de-plane me. If you wish to divert the flight and land to off-load my dog and myself, I will be happy to take up this policy deviation with your agents there.”

Unless you’re dealing with a truly irrational person, she’s not going to want to do all that paperwork over her own policy violation. If she is that irrational, you probably want off that flight anyway.

black Labrador puppy in soft-sided Sturdibag pet carrier

baby Mindy (now Penny) en route to her plane ride

Yes, I am very aware of all flight policies when I fly with dogs, and I have plans A and B for compliance with them and for keeping my dogs a minimum of inconvenience for others. That means I don’t have to agree to anything that’s not policy. Again, you don’t need to follow dangerous directions outside of policy.

A lot of avoiding trouble is not drawing attention in the first place. Reportedly the problem started when the flight attendant complained that the pet carrier was not completely under the seat. This is not cause to put a dog in the overhead bin — but choosing a flexible carrier which fits well can prevent conflict. I like a soft-sided carrier which can expand to allow extra stretching room when we’re in the terminal and then compress to fit under a seat. (I have personally used the Sturdibag to carry three puppies, twice internationally, and I can strongly recommend it. If a flight attendant should ask for the carrier to be pushed in further, simply smoosh the top of the bag. That and other flight gear can be found here.)

Dog in Cargo

I cannot imagine the horror of arriving to pick up my dog from the baggage office and finding a different dog waiting for me (meaning someone else is missing this one!) and then learning my dog was in another hemisphere. Alone. Possibly facing quarantine.

Reportedly United’s initial defense was that the kennels looked similar. (As if cargo and baggage are shipped by looks, rather than by all those barcodes and tags we stick all over them.)

I prefer not to ship a dog by cargo, but sometimes it’s necessary. If that’s the case, I recommend marking your kennel so that it can be clearly identified at a distance (something dramatic on the upper surface) and then booking a seat where you can watch the dog being loaded below.

I had a tight connection and as I watched out of my specially-chosen seat, I did not see my dog loaded. I asked a flight attendant, who said everything was fine.

Everything was not fine.

A woman in the row ahead of me had heard my question. “Do you have a dog?” she asked amicably.

I whipped out my phone. “I do! His name is Shakespeare. Here he is performing on stage with a bunch of children. He’s a therapy dog, too. I’m still waiting for him to make the plane. Would you like to see more pictures?”

Now more people were interested, and someone else turned to the flight attendant. “Oh! Can you make sure her dog makes it?”

This was a fine line for me to ride. I was still standing, so the plane couldn’t move. If the flight attendant had insisted I sit and I refused, I could be deplaned. However, I didn’t want to leave my dog behind without me, either.

Fortunately, the flight attendant apparently felt she could brush me off, but she was less comfortable facing three rows of concerned passengers. She disappeared, and few moments later I saw Shakespeare’s kennel put on the conveyor belt into the plane.

Maybe he was en route already, and my polite standing and repeated requests didn’t make a difference. Maybe they did. Either way, I got my dog onboard without shouting at anyone and without risking him.

If you must ship a dog by cargo, never assume. Watch for your kennel to be loaded.

We Are The Gatekeepers

These incidents are so sad. Most professionals are conscientious and well, professional — but occasionally you may meet an exception. Don’t be afraid to stand up for your pet, on a plane or at the clinic or wherever he needs you to do so. Nearly always we can take care of our pets without being mean to anyone, but ultimately we are responsible for their welfare. That’s the deal we made when we became pet owners.

About Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP

Laura was born at a very young age and started playing with animals immediately after. She never grew out of it, and it looks to be incurable. She is the author of the bestselling FIRED UP, FRANTIC, AND FREAKED OUT. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, speaks at workshops and seminars, and is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.
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  1. I would never let my Frenchie fly in the overhead compartment or under in the cargo area! Such a sad tragedy because of some stupid flight attendant. Flying with pets is never easy lol

  2. This is such a horrific tragedy. Its always a hefty task when flying with pets.

  3. I too read the story about the French bulldog and couldn’t believe it. Maybe the owner should have known better, but the airline personnel doing this is….I mean, there’s simply no way this type of pet travel rule should ever be broken….even if it wasn’t a snub-nosed breed. It feels like flight attendants are given or take so much latitude in breaking some rules but upholding others, especially when it comes to pet travel.

  4. Getting your pet checked before traveling is a must in most cases. It is very important.

  5. Do you know anything about Pet Airways?

  6. I’m surprised putting a dog in an overhead bin was ever thought of as a good idea. You would never put a child up there for a flight for the same hazards as this. If anything else, hopefully this even raises awareness to airlines and pet owners alike to have a serious plan when traveling on a plane with an animal.

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