How to Keep a Dog Calm on a Plane: 11 Simple Steps

how to keep a dog calm on a plane

It isn’t a massive revelation to say that flying on a plane can be stressful. Now imagine that stress but with a dog in tow and trying to keep them calm in an unusual environment like a flight. The trick to keeping a dog calm on a plane is all down to planning and preparation; it can make all the difference between having a great flight or being covered in poop for four hours.

Speaking from personal experience, the only good part of smelling like dog poop at 30,000 feet is that you finally get some personal space without having to pay extra for the leg room!

All joking aside, I’m here to give you some tried and tested advice about flying with your pampered pet and have broken down these words of wisdom into 11 easy steps. Follow the tips, and hopefully your dog will keep calm when you next fly.

1. Get your dog used to the carrier

Commercial flights will insist your travels in a secure carrier. Regardless of whether you are flying a full-grown adult Mastiff or a juvenile Yorkshire Terrier, it will do no one any good if you try to cram your dog into a pet carrier that they have never seen before.

It is so important to sensitize your dog well in advance of travel. If they are used to the carrier, then are more likely to be calm on the plane, and not be as anxious compared to being put in it for the first time.

With some training at home, you would hope that eventually they are willing to go into the pet carrier on their own volition and you can zip them up and have them in there for longer and longer periods.

I’ve found with puppies, this can take only a day to get them comfortable but with a grown dog, that has never seen a carrier, this can take weeks of encouragement and positive reinforcement.

If you don’t yet have a carrier, you can buy airline approved ones on Amazon. You can see what they look like in the photo below.

2. Get a cosy carrier with home comforts

Make sure that the pet carrier is the right size for your dog. If you want them to fly in the cabin with you, then the maximum dimensions for a soft-sided carrier are generally 18 inches long x 11 inches wide x 11 inches high. (according to United Airlines).

You will need to have them under the seat in front of you for taxi, take-off, and landing and likely in the pet carrier for most, if not all, of the trip so it’s important your dog is comfortable enough.

One way you can keep your dog calmer on the plane is to place a blanket or item of your clothing in the carrier with familiar scents on. Smells of you and home, can keep the dog more relaxed.

3. Consider a calming collar or anxiety thundershirt

A pheromone collar or pheromone spray is supposed to help calm down dogs on flights, but to be honest, I’ve never used them and reckon it might be a bit of a gimmick. If it makes you feel better, then I’m all for the placebo effect. You can buy them on Amazon.

Something that has more reliable feedback as working to calm a dog, would be a Thundershirt, also known as an anxiety wrap. They are said to work with 80% of dogs who are anxious, and you can read the reviews on Amazon, or click the image below for prices.

4. Be cautious with sedatives

The American Veterinary Medical Association does not advise giving your dog a sedative. It can lead to unpredictable side effects at high altitudes, including possible respiratory and cardiovascular problems. It also affects your dog’s balance making them more disoriented and unable to brace themselves in turbulence, meaning risk of injury is increased.

Sedatives can also lead to a loss of bladder control.

Put these factors together and medication is not going to help your dog remain calm on a plane. It could do the exact opposite.

However, if you do have a dog with a history of motion sickness, possible mild sedation is an option, but talk with your vet first, and try a test dose before a flight.

Instead of sedation, your vet might recommend an anti-anxiety medication. Most dogs do not need these, but it can be nice to have it on hand just in case you notice your dog freaking out once you board the plane.

According to websites I have read, low doses of gabapentin, alprazolam, or trazodone are sometimes used for dogs during a flight, providing it’s been prescribed, and you’ve got guidance from a vet.

5. Tire your dog out before the flight

A tired dog will be more inclined to sleep and act calm, so do as much as you can to make sure your pup is exhausted before take-off. That means lots or runs and walks, plus mental stimulation too where possible.

keep dog calm on flight
Your dog should be tired out before getting on the plane (Image via https://unsplash.com/photos/0M4ssharUoE)

6. Be conservative with food and water

Depending on the time of the flight, try not to feed your dog in the eight hours previous to flying. Some people recommend that you shouldn’t give your dog water for two hours before flying; however, if your dog is fine with using the puppy pee pads, then this won’t be an issue and drinking water will make them more comfortable.

This can help to calm your dog on a flight is because hopefully they won’t get as skittish if they need to pee. It also reduces your stress in having to deal with toilet emergencies during the flight.

Handy Hint: If you’ve ever wondered where dogs pee and how they go to the bathroom on an airplane, then read this guide with doggy inflight toilet tips.

Again, you need to weigh it up depending on how long the flight is and how long the check-in procedures take.

Right before your flight, take them for a pee stop before popping them into the pet carrier along with their favorite blanket. Regardless of how nice you think you’re being, don’t open the pet carrier as if they bolt, it won’t be nice for anyone.

When on the flight, feed them one piece of kibble at a time or have a puzzle chew toy with food inside to keep them occupied.

Of course, your dog will need to drink so get a water-drip bottle and see if you can get your dog to drink from one which will make your flight much easier.

7. Aim for a window seat

Again, not unlike flying with a kid, you need to think about exactly where in the cabin that you sit with your dog. Often, you are given the middle seat, but I recommend a window seat if you can as this offers fewer disturbances.

A lot of airlines will only allow a set number of dogs per flight, so you want to be sure that you have priority and choose your seat wisely.

8. Don’t remove your dog from carrier during the flight

You aren’t really allowed to take your dog out of the carrier during a commercial flight, and actually, this rules probably helps to keep them calm.

My view is, if you want to keep your dog calm on the plane, leave them in the carrier. If you take them out, it exposes them to all the craziness of different faces, cabin crew, and such like, and could provoke an anxious reaction and barking.

9. Use a calming low voice and place your hand into the carrier

Instead you can help to keep your dog calm by putting your head down towards the carrier and using a calm and soft voice to reassure them everything will be ok.

Using a calm voice is essential during noisy times, such as take-off and landings, or when the cabin crew bring the refreshments cart down the aisle.

Place your hand into the carrier too, as your touch and strokes will calm your dog down, especially if you have a doggy treat to placate them with.

10. If you’re relaxed, your dog will be calmer during a flight

If you are calm, then your dog will likely be calmer on the plane. Dogs will pick up on your anxiety, as they are experts at reading body language and picking up on visual and verbal signals.

For me, this means having checklists so that I don’t forget anything, and I’m relaxed in the knowledge that I have everything that is needed before we fly.

Get to the airport with plenty of time so that you aren’t stressed. I guarantee you that if you are running late, your dog is going to puke or have raging diarrhea.

11. Weigh up your budget and the impact of stress

And lastly, consider whether you really need to put your dog through the stress of a flight, because it will possibly make them anxious as first time flyers.

Consider if it is going to be cheaper, and less stressful, to have your dog be puppy-sat by friends or go into a local kennel for a few nights.

Handy Hint: Some dogs will get boarding kennel stress so you might want to ask a trusted friend or relation to look after your dog instead.

 There are also budgetary considerations to buying your dog a plane ticket. For example, flying domestically with your dog can cost $125 to $250, but the price will vary dramatically depending on your route, the airline, and the size of your dog.

Although often people will go to any expense to enable their dog to be with them as much as possible, for people like me, the budget is a very real concern.

If you are willing to pay the additional money to take your dog on a flight, then pay the additional cost of a direct flight. This will help to keep your dog calmer as it will limit the amount of travel time and the likelihood of delays in transit.

Regardless of the price, book a flight at a time of day that is generally quieter, and when the temperature will not be extreme at your departure or arrival destination. Think about when your dog naturally sleeps and keep in mind that you ideally shouldn’t feed them for at least 8 hours before take-off.

Additional tips for flying with a dog

I hope those tips helped you to better understand how to keep your dog calm on a flight. That’s just one aspect of flying with a dog, you might also want to consider the following.

Bathroom tips

Now here is one of my very top tips if you plan to travel with your dog a lot. Puppy pee pads are amazing. You can buy them on Amazon and train your dog to use them when they need to relieve themselves. This will make your journey so much easier.

Most airports won’t let you get your dog out of the pet carrier except at security points, and though they are required to have a pet relief station for therapy and service dogs, this isn’t always easy to find.

I’ve been known to go into the washroom and put down a puppy training pad on the locked stall floor and have my dog relieve themselves at the same time as I do. Thankfully, unlike a toddler, they can’t open the door themselves and show the world what you are doing.

Regardless of this being allowed, sometimes it’s easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission.

Paperwork tips

It might not be overly obvious on an airline’s website that you need to carry your dog’s health record, but trust me, do it. Murphy’s law states that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, and never is this truer than when flying and forgetting paperwork.

Whether you are flying locally, interstate or internationally, you are going to need to pass through numerous security checkpoints and each might be entitled to ask for documentation for your pet.

Speak to your local veterinarian about ensuring that all vaccinations are up to date and that rabies is on the list.

It is best to have your paperwork ready and available including proof that your dog is microchipped. Microchipping will also give you peace of mind that, should your pet get lost wherever your final destination is, they have a much higher likelihood of getting back to you safe and sound.

Carry on tips

Remember that your pet carrier will now be considered as your carry-on luggage, so make sure that you don’t have additional baggage that you wanted to bring into the cabin. Many pet carriers have extra pockets where you can conveniently keep your Kindle, paperwork, and other necessities.

Similar to traveling with a toddler, you might need Spiderman reflexes when it comes to whipping out snacks at the slightest twinge of a fit, so keep them handy.

Pack enough essentials for both you and your dog so that if your luggage doesn’t show up, at least you can you through until the following afternoon when you could get to a shop.

I would recommend that you pack in your carry on a leash, treats, toy, a bag of dry food, plastic bags and, travel-size hand sanitizer.

Conclusion

The lines at the airport seem to get longer every year, and the pleasantly gracious security folks (I’m rolling my eyes if you can’t tell) always seem to find new ways to make you have a meltdown in public view.

All of this can lead to scientifically proven stress, both for you and your dog. If you do want to keep your dog calmer on your next plane flight consider bookmarking this page, as you’ll want to reference these steps for peace of mind regardless of how often your travel.

It is possible to travel with any sized canine both domestically and internationally; however, smaller dogs or puppies can oftentimes be in the cabin with you. Larger dogs, or unaccompanied dogs will need to go in the cargo hold which, though safe, isn’t ideal.

If you have a brachycephalic dog like a Pug, then air travel shouldn’t be considered unless necessary.

And finally, remember about planning for every eventuality?

Make sure put your name and contact details on your dog’s collar and in the pet carrier in case they make a run for it. Then sit back and relax, comfortable in the knowledge that you are both going on a fabulous adventure together.

And hopefully, both you and your dog will be calm, happy, and stress-free by the time you reach your flight’s destination!

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Marc Aaron

I write about the things I've learned about owning a dog, the adventures we have, and any advice and tips I've picked up along the way.

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