One of the first things I bought for each of our dogs as soon as they joined our family was a carrier for them to travel. For Lorenzo and Cachita, I bought Sherpa Original Deluxe Carriers, and for Javier I bought a Sherpa Ultimate Carrier since I couldn’t find another Deluxe at the time. There are a lot cheaper carriers that you can buy, but the Sherpa ones have exceptional build quality and are approved by more airlines. When we’re not traveling, their carriers sit on the floor in our bedroom and office so that our dogs can use them as a den. They use them every single day but after more than five years, they’re still in great shape and going strong. it’s definitely worth the up-front investment to pay the little extra for these Sherpa ones – all carriers are not created equal!
When looking for a kennel, I wanted to make sure that I bought a good one and after reading a ton of websites and online reviews, the consensus seemed to be that the Sky Kennels by Petmate are the best ones for traveling. They’re approved and recommended by more airlines than some of the other kennels out there. Of course, you’ll have to make sure that the kennel you buy meets the maximum dimensions and all the other requirements of your airline.
Whatever you do, don’t cheap out on the kennel! Putting your dog’s safety in the hands of a cheap kennel is just not worth the risk! When airlines reject kennels during check-in, it’s usually because it was a cheap, unsafe kennel to begin with. don’t take that chance!
The Sky Kennels come with metal bolts – you definitely don’t want plastic ones. In fact, some airlines are starting to require metal bolts on all kennels now. You also want to make sure that the kennel has pre-drilled holes for zip ties, and if not, drill them yourself at home. DryFur.com has a ton of information on this, as well as a plethora of videos and tips for traveling with your dog – I spent a lot of time on that site while researching for our trip last year!
The Sky Kennels come with food and water dishes and "Live Animals" labels that are required by most airlines, but you can also buy these in a separate kit (including an absorbent, disposable floor liner), which I bought to have an extra set, just in case. I figured it was better to be safe than sorry and it turned out that we ended up needing it after all! I also recommend buying an extra set of metal bolts for the kennel and keeping them with you. The airlines will reject your kennel if it’s missing any bolts, so you want to have extra bolts on you just in case. Be prepared!
If you’re traveling for the holidays this year and don’t have a kennel yet, you want to get on that right away! I ordered one online and the shipping was delayed unexpectedly, so you want to err on the side of caution and give yourself more than enough time.
Most of the horror stories you’ll read about involve the pet trying to escape from the kennel. You should ask yourself, why are they trying to escape? If they’re used to being inside the kennel and learn to think of it as their "den," this should never be an issue. The problem is that people think of the kennel as something they use only for travel, so the pet isn’t given enough time to get used to being in there. Or worse, if you only ever pull out the kennel in preparation for a flight, your dog will eventually associate the kennel with the stress of traveling!
I’ve always left our dogs’ carriers on the floor and I encourage them to use it as a den year-round. They go inside the carriers on their own whenever they want a safe place to hide and that’s how they should feel in there – safe! Make sure you allow enough time to let your dog get familiar with the carrier/kennel long before your departure date.
I wanted to give our dogs at least a month with the new kennel, but since it was delayed in shipping, they only had it about two weeks before the flight. At first, Cachita was afraid of it (she’s overly cautious of anything big, even cardboard boxes on the floor) so to accelerate the process, I’d throw treats inside – the only way they were getting the treats was by going in there on their own. don’t force them to go in, let them go in on their own. And in order to make up for the lost time, I also took away two of their Sherpa carriers and I’d move the kennel to whatever room I was in. Eventually, all three dogs were going in there on their own to take naps and they were very comfortable sharing the space…
Another thing I suggest is that once your dog is going inside the kennel (or carrier) on their own, close the door every once in a while so they get used to it. Have the kennel next to you while you watch TV, start with 15 minutes at a time and work up from there. If they complain, don’t let them out and just go about your business like normal. When you go on the plane, you won’t be able to let them out whenever they want, so start getting them used to the idea that being in there isn’t a bad thing, it’s just normal. If the very first time your dog has to be locked inside the kennel it’s for a long flight, you’re doing it wrong!
The more time you can give your pet to get used to the kennel, used to going in there on their own, and used to being in there with the door closed, the better.
People only go to the airport when they’re leaving on a plane or to pick someone up, and for most people, that’s a very infrequent occurrence. Unless you work at the airport every day, it’s probably not a very familiar place to you. it’s full of confused, lost people, some of them probably stressed out and in a hurry, all of them moving around hindered by their heavy luggage and probably with tunnel vision, only focused on where they’re going. There’s lots of line-ups at the airport too and lots of waiting – people don’t like waiting! For most of us, there’s nothing routine nor "day-to-day" about airports and we’re never at our best in unfamiliar environments. The last thing you want to do is put your unsure-self into that environment with a dog at your side who’s looking at you to be their leader – they can tell right away that it’s as new an experience for you as it is for them!
So, go to the airport and do a practice run! it’s as much for you as it is for your dog. Yes, take your dog to the airport too!
You’ll benefit by familiarizing yourself with the process – the day of the flight you’ll know exactly where you’re going and exactly what you need to do in what order, and your dog will get the superior leadership they need from you. They can tell when you’re in charge of the situation!
There’s so much about traveling that’s a new experience for dogs, so I wanted to make as much of it familiar to our dogs so They’d be more comfortable on the day of the flight. There’s lots of new sounds, new smells, new places, tons of new people – and all experienced while having to stay inside the kennel. Whoa! Think about it from your dog’s perspective…
I read that you can sort of simulate the sounds that a plane makes when taking off and landing by taking your dog in their kennel and going through a car wash as you sit next to them in the back seat of your car. What a great idea, if you have a car that is! So I had to simulate the experience for them another way…
I had reserved a car rental to go to the airport on the day of our departure, but I couldn’t afford to rent another car for the practice run. So for the practice run, we took our dogs to the airport on the GO train, followed by the noisy subway and then a packed bus. The entire time, the dogs had to stay in the kennel which took a little over five hours by the time we got back home. It was the longest They’d been in the kennel with the door locked thus far, but it was still a little shorter than the amount of time They’d have to be in there during the flight. They did well.
When leaving Calgary, I had my mom take me to the airport a couple days before our flight to do another test run – it was as much for me to get familiar with the Calgary airport as it was for our dogs. I highly recommend doing this! My family thought it was a little weird and a waste of time, but if you ask me, (or our dogs) it was time well spent. Having less stress, being completely in charge of the situation, knowing where to go, what to do and in what order, with three dogs at my side who were getting very used to it by then – how do you put a price on that?
Going to the airport to do a practice run with your pet is the single most important piece of advice I can give you. Heck, if I can take a five hour trip with three dogs sitting on a train, then a subway, then a bus, walk around the airport, and then sit on a bus, a subway and then a train back home, then surely you can drive to the airport and do a test run with your one dog!
How are your dogs going to fit in your car on the way to the airport, along with all your luggage? Where will you park your car at the airport? Where do you get the luggage carts from? Where are the elevators? Where is the check-in counter? The washrooms? All of these are super simple questions and under normal circumstances it’s nothing to worry about too far in advance. The curve ball however, is that you’ll be trying to find the answers to these questions with a lot on your mind, while you drag your heavy, cumbersome luggage around, maybe in a hurry or pressed for time, and, with your dog in their kennel, possibly barking or whining… Need more of a curve ball that that? Expect the unexpected – the better prepared you are, the less you’ll be affected when something unexpected happens. Because it probably will!
Once at the airport, lots of people will want to come up to the kennel to take a peek inside, so your dog needs to get used to that. (Please people, don’t do this – you’re just creating more stress for our pets!) Get your dog used to being in their kennel around all the confused people at the airport as they push around their bulky luggage. You probably don’t encounter too many people pushing luggage carts or suitcases on rollers on your daily walk…
The noise that the luggage carts make is also something to get your dog used to. We spent a good amount of time pushing around our dogs in the kennel and on the luggage cart so they could get used to the sound of the tires vibrating against the floor tiles, as well as the sensation of being pushed around on a cart. Watch your dog and get a feel for what speed they feel most comfortable with. With Cachita, she hates waiting for anything and always whines when we’re at a crosswalk waiting for the light to change, so I wasn’t surprised when I discovered that gently rocking the luggage cart back-and-forth made her feel most safe and she’d immediately stop whining. Gently though!
Of course, the entire time, Michelle was pushing an empty luggage cart around too, since one of us would be pushing a cart with all our luggage on the day of our flight. How will you manage your luggage and the kennel? We needed to figure out the logistics of it all as much as our dogs needed to get comfortable with it. If you don’t figure it out beforehand, you’ll be stressed out while trying to juggle everything and your dog will pick up on that.
Find a quiet place to sit with your dog at the airport to get them used to the environment (the smell of the place, the sounds, etc.) Try to relax yourself too – it’s as much about training yourself as it is about training your dog. But don’t baby them or give them any reason to believe that they should be worried. We planned on taking this breather before checking-in on the day of the flight too. The idea was that it would be like a buffer of calmness after getting out of the car and being pushed around the airport on a luggage cart, and before standing in line to check-in and going for yet another trip around the airport, this time with a stranger, onto the plane… You need to allow yourself enough time before checking-in to get your dog calm and relaxed though, and obviously, the more tired your dog is, the quicker that will happen…
Once our dogs were relaxed and comfortable in their new surroundings, we got up, took another walk around the airport and then sat back down in the same place again. They understood that sitting in that spot meant it was time to relax. Good!
Finally, we went to stand in WestJet’s check-in line and had our dogs practice waiting in that environment too. There were uniformed WestJet representatives directing us where to go, lots of other people with luggage waiting to check-in for their flight, other pets inside kennels waiting in line, people trying to peek inside the kennel, etc., but we were able to observe everything without the stress of having to be anywhere on a tight schedule and it was invaluable practice for our dogs.
Once at the front of the line, I explained to the check-in agent that we weren’t actually going on a plane that day but that we wanted to practice with our dogs. I asked the agent to explain the process to me and walk me through what I should expect on the day of our flight. They were impressed at how prepared we were, didn’t see it as a waste of their time at all and told us that they wished more people would do the same thing! By doing this, it also gives you the opportunity to have the kennel inspected by the airline in advance to make extra sure that they won’t turn you away on the day of your flight.
it’s a good idea to designate (in advance) one person to carry everyone’s travel documents and ID and have them be the one person who checks everyone in and completes all the paperwork for the dogs. Meanwhile, the other person will stay with the kennel and/or carrier and tend to the dogs to the side. We also practiced being separated for a while so I could stay with the kennel that was being checked as baggage, while Michelle walked around the airport with Lorenzo in his carrier so he could get used to being away from me. We thought that separating Cachita & Javier from Lorenzo first, and then me, was going to be the best way, not separating from them all at once, and our practice run proved us right.
With WestJet in Calgary, they have a designated agent at the end of the counter that deals with checking-in all the kennels. It means there’s also a separate line-up for people with kennels (not in Toronto though) so it was good that we did the practice run to find that out.
I was hoping that I could get the required paperwork in advance so I could take it ready and completed on the day of our flight, but the WestJet agents in Toronto said they weren’t allowed to give us the paperwork in advance. it’s a stupid policy if you ask me, but luckily for domestic flights, there’s not a lot of information to fill out on the form. In Calgary, however, the agents didn’t hesitate at all to give me the paperwork in advance, so I was able to fill it out at home and take it ready on the day of our departure.
Once the paperwork is filled out, you have to take the kennel to the oversized luggage area to be scanned by security. An agent from the airline will accompany you. For this to go smoothly, make sure you bring a leash with you! You’ll have to temporarily remove your dog from the kennel, but everything else in the kennel stays inside (like towels, pillows, plush toys, etc.) For this reason, it’s important to remember that if you’re going to have a water dish for your dog, make sure the water is frozen in the dish, or it can potentially spill all over the place when it goes through the x-ray scanner. Once the kennel comes out of the scanner, they put a sticker on it to verify that it’s passed security, and they’ll watch you as you put your dog back in the kennel. You won’t be able to take anything out or put anything else in at this point, for obvious reasons. (So make sure the water is frozen in their dish! It will melt by the time they need to drink it.)
When there are dogs listed on the flight report, the pilot makes sure to turn on the heat in the baggage compartment, (or so I was told), but I wouldn’t count on it being all that warm down there… Also, since we were traveling in the winter and the tarmac can be extremely cold, I made sure our dogs had their winter jackets on. Putting bones in the kennel, chew toys, or anything that your dog can choke on is not a good idea since your dog will be unsupervised for the duration of the flight.
Next, the kennel is secured with zip ties. At first I didn’t like the idea of "locking" them in there but after I read so many horror stories of dogs escaping their kennels and running around on the tarmac, it just makes sense to do it. Though our dogs would never try to escape from the kennel since it’s their den where they feel the most safe, there’s always the possibility that the kennel could fall or be dropped accidentally causing the bolts to come undone and the kennel to split apart. The zip ties add an extra layer of protection! (Another reason why not to trust plastic bolts on the kennel – solid metal bolts are the only way to go!) Though the airline should have lots of zip ties, I wouldn’t leave this up to them – what if they run out or misplace their zip ties? Buy your own resealable zip ties and take them with you – I left a handful of zip ties under the padding in the kennel so I wouldn’t lose them and so it would be easy to remember where they were. I also insisted on putting the zip ties on myself – I wanted to make sure they were put on properly, very secure and not going to come off! By using your own zip ties, you can make sure they’re the resealable ones that are easier to remove than the ones you have to cut off. Otherwise, how will you open the kennel so your dog can relieve itself when you land? You can’t take scissors on the plane…
At this point, the airline agent will call for a porter to come take the kennel down to the baggage area. I was expecting this to take a while, but on both our flights, the porter was waiting for us and not the other way around. Good! You don’t want to have a huge "goodbye" session with your dog and worry them unnecessarily – this is also why we decided in advance that it would be best for me to stay with the kennel and for Michelle to be long gone – she would have felt sorry for them and caused them unnecessary stress.
Since I knew that our dogs would be in other people’s hands for some time, I wanted to make it easy for whoever was transporting them to calm them down if necessary – maybe knowing their names would help? Also, what if the kennel was lost somehow, or got onto the wrong plane? Or what if a dog escaped from another kennel, freed our dogs and now there were three dogs running around – how would they know which dog goes in what kennel? Sure, all these are very unlikely scenarios, but you hope for the best and plan for the worst!
I printed some large labels in advance with our dogs’ names, their photo, my contact information, flight number, reservation code, destination and date of travel, just in case.
I printed the labels on card stock (but any heavy paper will do) and made the labels to fit inside a ziplock bag, back to back. (If you only have one dog traveling by kennel, then print it twice and make it double sided.) Feel free to use my labels as inspiration for your own! I used a hole punch to make a single hole through the ziplock bag and top part of the label and attached it to the handle on top of the kennel with a zip tie.
But what if that label is ripped off? As an extra precaution, I made an extra one of these (two labels in a ziplock bag with a single hole through the top) and had it sitting inside the kennel under the dogs’ cushioning pad. Plus, if the dogs wet the kennel (taking off and landing can be scary for dogs!) then the label was still protected by the plastic ziplock bag.
I also attached another ziplock bag to the handle with a handful of small treats in case the person watching them thought it would help to calm them down, but, I kept them in a separate ziplock bag from the labels in case someone decided it wasn’t allowed and tore it off.
don’t forget to print the labels for your return flight too and take them with you!
Lorenzo going through security in his carrier was no big deal at all. Again, you’ll need a leash with you since the carrier is x-rayed without your dog inside. In my case, I was able to forgo the leash and just carry Lorenzo in my arms while I walked through the scanner, but you’ll want to have the leash with you either way. At the same time, you’ll have to remove your belt, shoes, jacket, etc., to go through security, so having the leash will make things a lot easier. (Plus most dogs aren’t feather-light like Lorenzo!) So give yourself lots of time!
Once at the gate, we were able to watch the baggage handlers load the plane, and we saw our kennel go up the ramp and into the plane while we were waiting for the boarding call. It was a great assurance for us, but I wouldn’t count on being able to witness it every time. So how will you know your dog made it onto the plane?
Once on the plane you’ll want to tell the flight attendant as soon as possible that you have a kennel checked as baggage. Remember that form you filled out? Did you notice the removable tabs at the bottom of the form? The idea is that the form stays attached to the kennel. Once the kennel is on the plane, the baggage handlers rip off one of those tabs and hand it to one of the flight attendants at the gate. When they hand you that little tab, you’ll know for sure that the kennel is on the same plane with you. don’t harass the flight attendant about it before take off (they’re busy), but definitely stay on top of it and make sure the plane doesn’t take off until you have that ticket in your hand! Without that ticket, you have no guarantee that your dog made it onto the plane and for all you know, the kennel is lost on the tarmac somewhere. (Relax, I’m not trying to freak you out, just understand how the process works.) For this reason, it’s important that you fill out those tabs at the bottom of that form – it’s easy to overlook. You also want to make sure it’s in your writing so that when you get the ticket handed to you, you know that it’s legit and not the flight attendant pulling a fast one to put your mind at ease… I doubt They’d ever do that, but if it’s in your writing you’ll know for sure and you’ll be able to relax better. There’s three tabs on that form to account for connecting flights, but if at all possible, try to schedule a direct flight – it will be much better for your pet!
As for the carrier under the seat, you won’t be able to take your dog out for the duration of the flight, and if you do, you could be banned from flying with your pet in the future, so don’t do it! I found that when I took off my shoes and Lorenzo could smell my presence, (yes, that’s what I call it!) he calmed down a lot more, not that he was super anxious to begin with anyways. Or maybe it was him sensing that I was going into relax mode… (Or getting dizzy from the smell of my feet?) And don’t forget to give your dog a little water mid-way through the flight, but only a little! The Sherpa carriers open on the top and make it super easy to place a plastic cup with water in there, just don’t overdo it. A little bit goes a long way.
Our flights didn’t leave until early in the evening but you don’t want to feed your dog before their flight, ever. (And no water for four hours before the flight.) There’s nothing worse than having to relieve yourself but being locked inside a kennel for hours while enduring multiple scary experiences before you can go!
Knowing that it would be more than 24 hours before our dogs would eat again, I figured it was a good idea to feed them a larger-than-normal meal the night before. don’t make the same mistake! Though we gave our dogs lots of opportunity to relieve themselves before the flight, Cachita just wouldn’t go. When we got reunited in Calgary, the kennel was wet with pee (probably from fear more than anything) and their water dish was contaminated with feces. We could also see that Cachita’s nose was a little red, probably from her obsessively rubbing against the pad trying to push the smell out the front of the kennel. But how did the feces get up into their water dish? I’ll never know for sure, but my theory is that she didn’t poop from fear, but that she really badly had to go and didn’t want to go in the kennel, so she positioned herself to try to get most of it to land outside of the kennel doors… If she had just a regular-sized meal the night before, it wouldn’t have even been an issue so don’t make the same mistake – they’ll won’t starve to death in just 24 hours, they’ll be fine!
The night before, you’ll want to fill their water dish with water and put it in the freezer. Put a post-it note on the kennel with a reminder not to forget the water dish!
You want to make the day of the flight all about your dog, but at the same time, don’t make it all about them…
In the late morning, Michelle took our dogs for a long walk through our neighbourhood (somewhere familiar to them) while I tied up all the loose ends around the house and loaded up the car with our luggage. In the afternoon, we headed to Bluffer’s Park with our dogs to make it an "awesome" fun day for them, but more importantly, to tire them out.
You don’t want to drug up or sedate your dogs for a flight, it just causes too many problems. Whenever you hear a story of a dog dying in their kennel while traveling as checked baggage, chances are, the dog was drugged. But if you absolutely have no choice but to sedate your dog in order to fly, then make sure you know far in advance how they’ll react to the medication. You don’t want the first time your dog has those drugs to be the day you fly, when they’re unsupervised and out of sight, that’s just dumb!
After spending the afternoon at Bluffer’s Park, we headed to the airport. Of course you want to give yourself enough time to account for traffic, the extra time it takes to check-in your dog, the time it takes for the porter to take your dog to the baggage area, etc., but you also want to make sure you go with enough time to give your dog the attention they need to get comfortable. The paradox is, of course, that you want to go with lots of time to do things right, but you also don’t want to go so early that your dog is confined to their kennel for longer than they need to be. Doing the practice run will help you determine how much time you’ll really need so you can strike the right balance.
Since traffic in Toronto can be very unpredictable, I wanted to make sure we were at least close to the airport with lots of time to spare. Once in the airport area, I found an industrial building with a large patch of grass where I could let our dogs run loose – this was their last chance to go potty before the flight, so I didn’t want to have to rush it. The day of your practice run, you can scope out the area and have it planned in advance. Plus, if you let your dog run there on the day of your practice run, it will be more familiar to them on the day of your flight…
By the time it was time to go to the airport, our dogs were exhausted from all the walking and running and they were ready to take a long nap in their kennel. Perfect! Having that predesignated place inside the airport for us to sit quietly and create a buffer of calmness after pushing them through the airport on a luggage cart, and before checking-in, definitely helped a lot too.
Once the plane landed, I wanted to be one of the first people off the plane so I could hurry to retrieve our dogs – I didn’t want them sitting there all by themselves for too long. But on both flights, there and back, it took a lot of waiting before our kennel arrived at the oversized baggage claim. There’s no reason to rush off the plane – take your time. In fact, our luggage arrived on the luggage belt long before the dogs did.
We had delegated Michelle the responsibility of retrieving our luggage, while I was supposed to take Lorenzo, Cachita and Javier out of the airport as quick as possible so they could relieve themselves, but since our luggage arrived first, we all just went together. Whatever you do, don’t make a big deal out of being reunited with your pet. I know it’s hard, but you’re not doing them any favors if you do.
Having their leashes on us the entire time (in Michelle’s purse) definitely paid off, as did having a dog towel. Given Cachita’s mess in the kennel, it would have been nice to have a roll of paper towel with us too, or even some napkins. We were better prepared for that on our flight back, but thankfully it was only a one-time occurrence.
When we arrived in Calgary, it was a surprise for my family (my older brother was the only one who knew we were coming) so there was no one at the airport waiting for us. I actually preferred it this way anyways, since there was no one there to excite our dogs inside the airport or create a bigger scene than necessary. If you’ll have people waiting for you when you arrive, it’s a good idea to explain to them what they can expect when you land (that your first priority is to take your dog out) and try to get them to tone down their excitement on your initial greeting, if you can… (Us foreigners can be scandalous at airports!)
Traveling by airplane can be very stressful for dogs, so don’t plan too many activities for the day you arrive either. Start the way you want to continue! Getting your dog settled and comfortable in their new environment before you do anything else will pay off for the entire duration of your trip.
We anticipated that our dogs would be very happy to see my family again, but we also recognized that we needed to give them the opportunity to unwind after the flight before loading on even more excitement. So before we headed to my brother’s house to surprise the rest of my family with our arrival, we took our dogs to a nearby park so they could run and expel all their frustration. (Actually, it was hilarious to see Lorenzo refusing to walk in the snow – he wasn’t used to seeing that much snow anymore!) After being locked up in the kennel for so long, taking the time for our dogs to run in the park (in the cold, and in the dark) was the least we could do for them, no? It absolutely set us up for success for the rest of the night!
When all was said and done, our dogs arrived safe in Calgary and apart from Cachita’s stinky mess on the way there, they did very well. By the time we flew back to Toronto, with the practice run in Toronto, the actual flight to Calgary and the practice run in Calgary, they were already seasoned pros! Getting them to that point wasn’t without effort, but they’re worth it! It ended up being a positive experience for both them and us.
Like I started out saying, I started doing a lot of research into the logistics of flying with pets more than a month in advance and came across a lot of good advice in the process. You can never read enough on the topic! I learned a lot from the experience and I sincerely hope you’ve picked up a lot of valuable tips from reading about my experience!
Have fun preparing for your flight, enjoy the process and bon voyage!