Thursday, January 10, 2013

A Tale of Three Cities

Once upon a time there was a service dog and a girl who needed to go on a trip.  Their family was getting together in Texas for the holidays and they had to get on two different airplanes to go to Texas and one to go home.  They needed to go through security each time they got on an airplane (three different days, don't ask them why, they didn't book the flights), and each time security did something different.

In Spokane the TSA knew exactly what to do.  They let this girl and her service dog go right through the metal detector (which is legally required) with no arguing.  The girl went first and did not beep, and then she called her rockstar of a service dog through (this is the smartest way to do this you see, if they go through together and one of them beeps, they both get pat down - yuck).  She told her service dog to lay down and "stay" as she walked through the metal detector and then called "here!".  Her dog trotted through the metal detector and it went "beep beep beep".  The TSA pat her dog down (he was still wearing his harness, collar and leash as the law says he has to be on lead all the time and the TSA can't require the girl to take off his harness because she needs it).  After this girl's dog got lots of pets from the TSA agent, they took the girl and the dog to swab her hands.  Once this was done the girl and the dog had to wait for a long time to get their luggage.

You see, this service dog is a very special service dog who eats very special things.  One of the things he eats is probiotics so that he does not have any... gastrointestinal problems out in public.  Apparently, they turned a funny color on the x-ray, so the girl and the service dog had to wait and wait and wait as the TSA got a special chemistry kit to test the probiotics.  From now on the girl remembers to pack them in a suitcase that will be going under the plane.

After collecting their bags, the girl and the service dog were on their way!  (A very different experience than when the agents in Spokane decided the girl was a security threat despite her claims of "I have a disability" and "I have severe Tourette Syndrome" and humiliated her by going through every one of her things and frisking her while she was ticcing and on display for everyone to see).

In San Francisco, the security agents acted like they had never seen a service dog before.  And they were not nice.  The girl had to tell them she needed to go through the metal detector and before she did, Agent #1 tried to make her take off her service dog's mobility harness and leash.  "No," the girl explained nicely, "he is a service dog and I am not required to remove his gear."  Agent #1 acquiesced, the girl put her dog in a down stay, and walked through the metal detector.

This is where this story takes a turn for the worse.  The girl called her dog through the metal detector; beep beep beep!  The agents all paused and turned towards the beeping sound.  "You will need to take off his harness," they said.  "You need to send his leash through the x-ray machine," they called.  "No," they argued, "you have to take the things off!"

The girl was very upset at this point, she knew the rules but nobody around her seemed to know how to do their job.  She explained again and again, "This is my service dog.  You cannot require me to remove his gear, you can pat him down and we will be on our way."  Again, the agents all cried, "No, no, no!  Take off his gear!"  (The girl did not mention to them that they would be breaking their own rules anyway by requiring her to take off his collar and leash leaving her nothing to hold onto him with.)  One agent even tried suggesting, "Take off his collar and leash.  Can't you just hold onto his harness?"

All this arguing drew the attention of the supervisor who rushed over to see what the commotion was about.  Mortified, she told all the agents, "This is a service dog!  You cannot make her take off his gear!"  The supervisor demonstrated how to pat down a service dog (this service dog's favorite part of traveling) and then asked the girl if she needed to swab her hands.  Don't you know the rules? this girl thought as she explained that yes, her hands needed to be swabbed.  The girl and her service dog walked over to get her hands swabbed and again, the supervisor apologized for them not knowing the rules.  As the girl and her service dog walked away they heard the supervisor explaining the rules to all of the agents at the checkpoint.

In Houston, the TSA agent pretended not to see us.  There was a cry of "oh no!" as we approached the metal detector, and the girl and her service dog had to wait and wait to go through.  But nobody waved them through.  So they waited some more, there was a family with a baby going through the metal detector as well, but they were still unloading their stroller.  Surely, the girl thought, I could go through before them?  So she scooted closer.  Still, the agent pretended not to see us.

Finally, another TSA agent appeared, looking quite exacerbated.  She waved the girl and her service dog through (again: down stay, here, beep beep beep) and lo and behold, on the other side of the metal detector, poor TSA agent #1 was pressed in the corner hiding from the girl's service dog!  "He's very friendly," the girl assured the agent who was hiding, but to no avail.  The agent managed to escape through the metal detector into the body scanner and proclaimed, "I'm not coming out until the dog leaves!"  Oy vei, the girl thought.

The girl and her dog had to wait while the agent cried again and again "Animal check please!"  (Why she couldn't do it, the girl did not know).  Finally, another agent came to the girl's rescue, patted down the service dog, and away they went.  (Notice, no hand swabbing here!)

As the girl and the service dog successfully made it through their third security checkpoint of the trip, she thought to herself, Isn't it funny how nobody knows the rules and she wondered why it was that a national organization can't be consistent with their training and protocol.

* * * * *

Katherine & Owen's suggestions for traveling with a service dog:

*The TSA cannot require you to remove your dog's gear (which includes mobility harness, vest, collar, leash, etc.).  I think there is a rule about bags attatched to their gear; for example, I have ordered a bag that will attach to the back of Owen's new harness with velcro.  In it, I anticipate carrying keys, credit cards, my phone, and a few other things.  This I would be required to remove and send through the x-ray machine because it comes off easily and is more of a "bag" than required gear.  Whether you remove the gear is up to you - some people do because they feel it will be quicker to send it through the x-ray machine instead of waiting for a pat down (if you do this though, make sure you have a slip lead instead of the usual collar/leash combo as the metal will set off the detector anyway, which requires a pat down, negating the removal of the gear in the first place).  I choose to keep O's gear on because it is easier for me.  I can use his harness all the way up until I walk through the metal detector and he is there and ready to work as soon as I call him through.  Taking it off and then putting it back on through security would be very high stress for me and would leave me without my balance aid until we managed to get through the TSA.  At least this way I can hold onto the harness while we wait for Owen's pat down and while I get my hands wiped down.

*Go through the metal detector separately from your dog.  The rules are, whoever sets off the metal detector gets a pat down.  So if I go through and set it off, I get pat down.  If Owen goes through and sets it off (which he does), he gets a pat down (and let me just say, his pat down is no where near as invasive as the human pat down - Owen loves this part of traveling because he gets "pets").  If though, I am holding his leash and go through the metal detector and either of us set it off, we both get pat down.  What I do - which is what Darcie and I practiced during team training - is tell Owen to "down" right in front of the metal detector and then tell him to "stay".  I go through first (I have no idea how people "send their dogs through" ahead of them) and then call Owen through with "here".  To make life easier for both of us (so I don't have to go searching on the floor for his leash because the stinker won't hand it back to me) is tie his leash in a loose knot to the handle on his harness.  Once through, Owen and I wait for his pat down together.

*Your hands should be swabbed down.  If they aren't (like in Houston), it is a lapse in security.  The new regulations stipulate that while service dog handlers are not subject to a pat down - unless, of course, they set off the metal detector - they do get their hands swabbed for explosives (or whatever else they're looking for).  It is good practice to wash your hands before going through security *just in case*, but honestly I've forgotten to do so all three times we have been through security and have had no problems.

*Go potty right before security!  That is, take your service dog potty...  For me, once I get through security, I am not doing it again (unless it is a long travel day and we have a layover that gives us enough time).  Owen and I check in (and check our luggage) and then find a potty spot for him.  Don't trust that the gate agents (or anyone else for that matter) will know where it is, I have an app (Service Animal where to go) that gives a list of airports in the US and tells where their animal relief stations are.  For someone who is directionally challenged (like me) it is somewhat useful, but at the one airport where we didn't already know where it was, we just wandered around outside until we found some grass.  (Not to be weird or anything, but the animal relief spots are normally not clean and even if they are relatively clean, they have a lot of "good" smells and Owen doesn't want to focus anyway.)

*Ice is a-okay in Owen's book.  The first two flights we took were evening flights so Owen slept the whole time.  The third flight was a morning flight though and while he slept, he was definitely napping more than sound asleep.  He sat up and visited with me and my dad a few times and tried to follow me out into the aisle when I went to go to the bathroom (I thought he was sleeping!).  The flight attendants were superb and kept asking if we needed anything; we got some ice for O about halfway through the flight and he was happy to munch on the ice.  It helps the dogs feel less dehydrated but (as long as you don't give a lot) it won't fill up their bladder too much.  This was on a four-hour flight though where I knew he hadn't had much water in the morning and I hadn't had a chance to offer it in the airport before our flight.  On the shorter trips, I wouldn't offer anything until we landed.

*Paperwork.  Owen and I encountered no paperwork issues (except in the United lounge where we got chased down and asked for his "paperwork, ID, or vest" when they learned he wasn't a guide dog...).  The airlines are not allowed to ask me for anything if he is clearly marked (mobility harness) and if he is acting appropriately and my word is "credible".  If he wasn't marked or they felt like his behavior wasn't appropriate, they could ask me for proof that he is a service dog (I have a doctor's note and his paperwork from Heeling Allies).  However, current regulations say that if you are traveling with a Psychiatric Service Dog (PSD), you will need to provide a doctor's note.  To this I say, just don't tell them it is a PSD.  Seriously...  The rule makes no sense and I've heard of other people having their doctor's contacted by airlines looking for information (anybody ever heard of HIPPA?).  It's obviously up to the handler, but we just called the airlines and said I would be traveling with a service dog, they added him to the reservation, and that was it.  Nobody related to the airlines or security asked for anything else.  (But I had stuff just in case.  No, I shouldn't have to present it.  But I would rather present it and make my flight and file complaints later, than miss my flight because they were stubborn.)  I haven't encountered it yet, but if you have a problem, apparently the magic words are: "I want to speak with the Conflict Resolution Officer (CRO)".

*Be confident.  Square your shoulders and hold your head up high.  And act like you know what you're doing.  Even if you've never flown once.  In SFO I (smoothly) told the agent, "Well, they have swabbed my hands every time we have flown..."  Even though we had only flown once at this point.  Say things in a calm, yet firm manner (i.e.: "This is a service dog.  You cannot make me remove his gear."), even if you have to say it ten times.  Act like you know you belong even if you have never done it before.  This gives people less time to think about you and whether or not you are a legitimate team, leading to less conflict on your part.

*Practice elevators!  Ha!  I almost forgot this one.  Owen does not like elevators.  He decided they were "okay" during training when he practiced them with a dog who knew they were okay.  However, he still is not a fan.  He will try and balk sometimes at the gap between the elevator and the floor, and he braces himself when the movement starts.  Apparently, in Owen's world, elevators and plane doors are quite similar.  There is a gap in the floor and you are walking from one place where you have lots of room into (what appears to be) a very small, enclosed space.  The first plane ride, Owen balked big time and I was not expecting it.  I made a fool out of myself going "Let's go Owen, good boy, let's go, Owen here!" in this super high-pitched, up-beat voice.  And once he got on we partied it up.  The second time, I was prepared with food, and while he hesitated, with the treats he went over the gap without too much drama.  Then, we were in Texas for a while.  One day, about halfway through our trip, we went to get on an elevator and Owen hesitated.  I got him on and it started clicking in my head.  Every chance we got after that, we rode elevators (which was a lot of chances as we were at the airport dropping people off and at malls).  The third time we went to go on the plane, Owen walked on.  No problem.  We will be practicing elevators at school to make sure he remembers that they aren't a scary place.  I'm not saying every dog who has never flown needs to do this, but it seems to be my ticket to making sure Owen is happy to go on airplanes.

UPDATED TO ADD (tips from our fourth flight):

Somethings about the actual flight I forgot to mention.

*Owen and I use a mat on the planes.  Darcie recommended (and we got) an orthopedic bath mat from Costco.  It's made of memory foam and (because it's a bathmat) it is water repellant on the bottom - so if we were somewhere and there was something spilled on the floor, using the mat Owen wouldn't get wet - and has grips on the bottom to help Owen keep from sliding.  It isn't good for a service dog to be in one place unmoving for a long time (like a plane ride or movie), but the orthopedic bath mat helps a lot.  Owen loves it, he tries to beat me to it everytime I unroll it.  I have to make him "wait" (and say it like I mean it) until I get it unrolled where I want it.  Because trust me, once he's on top of it, I can't move it one inch!  This also helps Owen know where he is supposed to stay on the plane; on this last flight we took by ourselves (ie. no family members in the seat next to us in case Owen wanted to sprawl out), he tucked in the space right in front of me, barely creeping into the seat next to us.  If Owen - my big, blocky, 80-pound Labrador - can fit, most other dogs could too.

*Where you sit is a personal choice; here's what Owen and I do.  We sit in bulkhead; this is highly debated amongst the service dog community.  About half of the people will tell you that bulkhead is the best, and about half will say that it's the worst.  The argument being that if you don't sit in bulkhead, your dog has the space underneath the seat in front of you and the little bit of room under your seat.  I like bulkhead though; I fly on pretty little planes and I'm very dubious that Owen could fit in a regular seat.  In bulkhead, I can fit Owen where my feet would go and then put my feet up against the flat wall in front of us.   Before we sit down, I throw Owen's mat and whatever I want to do on the flight into the seats (usually a book and my phone).  I put everything else up into the area above the seats (as there is nothing else that will fit with Owen and me) and then I unroll his mat.  I tell Owen to "go to his place" and then arrange myself around him, afterwards moving all of my things into my seat.  We sit in the window seat - it gives us a little bit more room, and I know once we are situated there is no reason we will need to move until the flight is over.

*Preboard.  This one is short and sweet.  Make sure your service dog is on your reservation (call ahead - we forgot on this last flight and they added Owen for us when I checked my bags) and then after you get through security, go straight to the gate agent and ask for a "preboard slip".  On Southwest, it is a little blue plastic sleeve.  We didn't actually get one when we flew United because we were flying first class (so we could board first anyway), and when they called for preboarders, we just walked on anyway.  On one of the United flights the gate agent came to check with me before the flight to see if we needed assistance getting on the plane.  Which leads to our next suggestion.

*Take your time to get situated and do whatever it takes to get that.  You are a passenger with a disability who is traveling with a service dog.  I refuse to let myself get rushed by other passengers (basically as soon as the preboarders have gone through to go to the plane they will "release the masses").  If I'm travelling with somebody else I enlist their help to stand in the aisle and block people from crowding me (they can also help with putting luggage up which removes one thing I have to worry about).  When we travelled by ourselves, I purposefully put Owen in the aisleway so that nobody could get by.  We were working to get him situated and the stinker jumped onto his mat, wrinkling it up so that he wasn't actually laying on it at all, nor was he where I wanted him to sit.  I started to get him up to move him and the flight attendant asked if we were ready.  Lo and behold I turned around to see her blocking any other passengers from getting on the plane.  I was so excited.  She waited until Owen and I were ready to let everyone else on the plane; it made everything so much easier.  Don't let somebody pressure you into rushing your dog into his place; it's more important to me to make sure that Owen is situated and comfortable, than that everyone get on the flight two minutes faster.

*What to do with gear.  We've done everything; on our first flight I swapped Owen's harness out for his vest so that he was "marked".  It was a waste of time.  On the second and third flights, which were about 4-hours each, I removed Owen's harness and we put it up with our other carry-ons.  Because we were traveling with family, once the pilot gave the signal that we were "beginning our descent" my dad would get up and retrieve the harness.  I dressed Owen, putting the harness on as loosely as I could make it, and then put him back in his seat.  This worked well with somebody else there so we could maneuver around.  On our fourth flight though, I was by myself and it was a small plane.  Because it was a short flight and I knew that Owen had worn his harness much longer (like at the movies), I chose to loosen it as much as I could, and leave it on.  If the flight were any longer than it was (right under 2 hours), I would not do this.  I would likely remove it as we are getting situated, and then ask a flight attendant to retrieve it for us before we land.  I would hold onto it until the other people in my row left, then I would stand Owen up and get him dressed.

And just a word of caution; don't expect anybody to know where the service animal relief center is.  I take Owen out to potty after checking our bags but before we go through security.  I've never found an employee who knew where the grass was, so I "scout out" the situation before we head into the airport, and I make sure I have enough time to find a potty spot for Owen.  Sometimes (Houston) it can take a while.

Any questions we didn't answer about traveling?  Ask us!  Owen and I will be happy to share our travel experiences; after all, we are seasoned travelers already. :)


  1. Hi!
    I am a puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence. I just found your blog, and am so glad. As a raiser it is so neat to see a glimpse into the lives of a "graduated" dog. Thanks for sharing!

    I am also so glad you made this post. I will most likely be flying to return my puppy to CCI this summer, and it will be my first time flying with a dog. So helpful! Even as a puppy raiser, I can so relate to feeling rushed by people. I am so glad you said what you did, because I often feel bad taking a few extra minutes, or more space, and I need the reminder that it is OK, and I need to do what's best for my puppy no matter what others may think.


    1. Hi Hannah! I'm so glad you found your way over to our little corner of the internet. :)

      I'm glad my post about our travel experiences helps you out; that was my intention with writing it. I struggled to find all the information I wanted in one place when I was looking at traveling with Owen, and I wanted to put everything we went through into one place so that other teams (and puppy raisers!) could have a picture of what traveling with a service dog looks like.

      My family used to puppy raise for CCI (about 10 years ago); I'm sure you've heard it before, but what you are doing is an amazing thing. Dante looks like a great dog - I popped over to your blog and checked it out - and I'm sure he will make his forever person very happy. With Owen by my side I actually look forward to going places and doing things, he gives me the confidence I need to live a "normal" life.

      I can also attest, as somebody without a puppy raiser to have documented Owen's puppy days, that Dante's forever person will *love* getting to read your blog and see all of your photographs.

      Good luck with Dante, I'm looking forward to following your blog and seeing how he turns out!