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Reader’s report: Tips for preparing for, and surviving, a long international flight with your in-cabin dog

Reader Rafael posted this content on Dog Jaunt’s Facebook page, and I immediately asked if I could turn it into a blog post, so it wouldn’t just scroll away into oblivion. I thought there would be many of you who would appreciate hearing how he prepared his pup Chuck Norris to spend extended periods of time in an in-cabin carrier, and how they handled a long international flight together.

Some background: Chuck Norris is a kaninchen Dachshund (slightly smaller than a miniature Dachshund), “not crate-trained per se” (“He slept in his crate but during the day he was always free to wander around”), and with “anxiety issues when left alone. He was also a bit of a barker, especially when it comes to people approaching an area that he considers ‘his.'” Rafael and his wife wanted to visit family in Raleigh, NC (they live in Oslo), and they wanted to take Chuck Norris with them. They flew on United.

Chuck Norris in the snow

Chuck Norris in the snow

Preparing Chuck Norris to spend time in his carrier

Make that “a heck of a lot of time in his carrier” — the outbound trip was 14 hours, and the return trip was 16 hours. I love everything about what Rafael did, so I’ll just let him take over.

“Our process began about 2 months before the trip. I began putting him in his crate for small periods using positive reinforcement (clicker) and slowly increasing the time. Once he was able to be there for about 15 mins, I kept him crated every time we ate (breakfast, lunch and dinner), placing him at my feet like he would be on the plane, and continuously reinforcing him. After about 1 month of daily training, he was able to be inside his crate for about 3 hours without any issues.

We got a large SturdiBag as recommended by several of Dog Jaunt’s readers. The bag is awesome but very uncomfortable to carry over the shoulder for a long time. I was a bit worried because the size was a couple of inches wider than the ‘official’ size on United’s website and I was scared it would not fit under the seat. However, following the recommendation of trimming the one inch off from each side of the base worked like a charm.

During the last month of training, Chuck was making great progress. He was able to be inside the SturdiBag for 4 hours and was quite relaxed (sleeping mostly, no whining). HE WAS ALWAYS AT MY FEET DURING HIS TRAINING, I had him with me while sitting on the computer mostly. I never left him alone while he was on his bag because I did not want him to associate being alone and anxious with being in it.

We enforced the command ‘Go to your house,’ so he would go in by himself and enjoy it. Two weeks before our departure, we took small trips (around 1 hr) on trains and placed him under the seat for training. The first couple of times he was whining and growling at the people walking through the aisles, but by the second trip he was all better.”

Tips for long international flights with an in-cabin dog

Here too, there’s a ton of useful advice. I’ve highlighted Rafael’s many great tips. The only one I don’t/won’t follow is sitting in the way-back of the plane: It was a good choice for Rafael and his family, but I think the extra engine noise rattles Chloe, so we choose to sit near the front (in front of the engines and the wheels). After a flight or two, you’ll decide what’s best for you and your pup.

“The day arrived and I was incredibly anxious. Our total travel time would be around 14 hours, from the time we put him in the crate until we actually let him out. I should add, I was also traveling with my 26-week pregnant wife! I woke up at 4 am and took Chuck for a walk for about one hour and tried that he would not fall asleep until we were on the plane.

I had bought an airline-approved bag from United when I made my reservation, just in case they said that my SturdiBag was too big. They never checked the size of Chuck’s bag, and also, they did not have my bag. So, important advice here: IF YOU BUY A BAG FROM THE AIRLINE, DOUBLE, TRIPLE CHECK THAT THEY WILL HAVE IT FOR YOU. Apparently there are only some airports where they offer them.

I should add that I do not think it is a good idea anyway, as it is very important that the dog is used to HIS crate.

We put shirts we had worn inside the bag so he would have a familiar smell with him all the time. We also packed his favorite snacks and toys.

After check-in, we took him for a small walk outside so he would pee one last time and put him inside. Show time.

At the gate he was still accepting my treats, which for me meant that he was still calm. Boarding time came and here I made my first mistake: I left the front shade open, so he would be able to see what was going on…eventually, a flight attendant peeked into the bag to say hi and Chuck started barking like crazy. I felt all my training was going down the drain and that he would be like that the whole trip…. [If you know your pup is likely to dislike attention, however kindly-meant, from strangers, get a carrier with privacy panels and use them.]

During take-off I had my hand inside the bag (over the top window) and offered him his favorite treats…. He did not accept them as he seemed pretty worked-up. Chuck eventually calmed down, but did not accept my treats anymore.

We chose two seats all the way in the back for 2 reasons:

1. My pregnant wife and her need to pee every 5 secs. 🙂
2. Engine noise is louder in the back, so less chance for people to hear him if he whined and for him to hear the people.

That was a smart choice…Chuck was softly whining for about 5 hours. Nobody could hear him, but it was heartbreaking for me as I thought he was miserable in there. He was also scratching the shade and at one point managed to push it hard enough to almost escape!! That would have been bad, which brings me to another tip: ALWAYS, ALWAYS, PUT BOTH [of the SturdiBag] ZIPPERS ALL THE WAY TO EITHER SIDE. IF YOU MAKE THEM MEET IN THE MIDDLE, THE DOG CAN PUSH THE SHADE UNTIL ONE OF THE ZIPPERS GETS LOOSE AND SLIDES DOWN.

Chuck stopped crying and accepting food when I took off my shoes and pushed my feet against the door, so he knew I was there. But mostly, he stopped crying when I directed some air into where he was. I think the poor guy had little air during all that time and that is why he was crying! So another piece of advice: TRY DIRECTING THE A/C TO YOUR LEGS SO HE GETS SOME FRESH AIR CONSTANTLY.

I put my hand into the bag with an ice cube from time to time so he could have a bit of water (but not so much that he would need to pee).

We eventually made it to the US and Chuck was still whining from time to time. We had to stand in line for like an extra hour, so this time I had all the screens closed in his bag but put my hand under one of them so he could still know I was close. Rocking the bag also seemed to calm him down.

We took him out to the pet relief area in Newark, and played with him until it was time to take the flight to Raleigh. At this point, all my training paid off: He voluntarily went into the bag again and seemed pretty happy to do so. He had been in there for the past 10 hours, and still…

While we were at the gate waiting for our Raleigh flight, we fed him his favorite food and he ate it in no time. The second plane was smaller (United Express), but the bag fit perfectly.

In this second flight he was amazing…no whining, no scratching, nothing…

On our way back to Oslo, Chuck was incredible, even though we had to be stuck on the plane for 2 more extra hours making it a total of 16 hours trip. I think this was due to 2 things:

1. The flight was at nighttime, so he basically slept the whole flight. The one from Oslo to Newark happened in the middle of the day. So my advice is that if you are making really long trips, try to take one at the times that the dog is used to sleep.

2. We took a 2 hour walk before leaving for the airport. He was really tired!!

My final advice would be to be patient with your dog and try not to stress so much as I did…I am sure he felt that I was super stressed and that made it worse. Finally, knowing your dog, and how he reacts to similar situations can take some of the pressure off. Our train rides really helped, and they gave us an excuse to get out of the city for a couple of days :).

Rafael concluded by saying that they “had an incredible time in the US with our family and the rest of the dogs,” and that while “it was incredibly stressful for me, I cannot imagine a better outcome. I would not do it again though, unless it is absolutely necessary. But if I have to, I know how to handle him.” He said they “were super lucky that [Chuck] was so good,” and of course they were — but they also made their own luck by working really hard to make the experience as comfortable as possible for their pup. I am just overcome with admiration for Rafael, and for his generosity in sharing this information with other Dog Jaunt readers.


  • Jennifer

    Thank you for this post. My dog and I fly on a regular basis and have one international flight to our credit. We are flying again internationally and I hope he has not forgotten; Additionally, he is quite old so I am afraid that he will have potty issues. He is not incontinent yet, but is on a diuretic. I was thinking of putting a belly band or diaper on him for the 12 hours flight. Any thoughts or suggestions for traveling with an older pet on an international flight.

  • Gery O.

    Wow, what a great story – am so so glad that all went well, and thank you so much for posting it… I think that the point about the dog “reading” your stress level and responding in kind is a valid one… I am curious about how much trouble was it to have the dog enter the U.S., and did the authorities attempt to confiscate his food, as almost happened to another reader, who head the misfortune of clearing U.S. Customs in Europe…

  • Rafael

    Hi Gery,

    Getting the dog into the U.S was not a problem at all, but probably because we came from Norway and this is a rabies free country. As long as you have all the vaccines in place and the rabies vaccine given with anticipation (it is usually 90 days) there shouldn’t be any problems. However, I strongly encourage people traveling with their pets to check the official websites in the country they are traveling to.

    An interesting fact though, for us it was more troublesome to get back into Norway (he needed more papers) than to go to the US. So make sure to check the regulations on bringing your pet back home!!

    We only had a cup or so of dog food with us, which was not confiscated. But, we were not aware that bringing dog food was not allowed, so we were not checked. We also brought apples (only fruit not the heart) to feed him in the plane (they are his favorite).

  • Jennifer, I am so sorry for my tardiness in responding! I don’t have a good answer for you, and that’s probably why I delayed so long. I think a diaper is a great idea, and you can certainly take him into the plane’s bathroom stall en route (at a time when it is not in demand, and spread pee pads everywhere, to make sure things stay tidy). I’d talk to your vet and see what she recommends.

  • Patricia

    Thanks for posting this. I will be travelling with Blue to Zurich from Boston this June and so far she’s not very happy in her Sturdibag. She starts whining whenever the car stops (I take her in her bag for our 15 min. drive to where we have a large off leash area). So far I have her in there twice a week for 15 min. and she gets all her meals in the bag (it stays open then).

    My plan was to give her half a Benadryl and go to the airport this weekend and keep her in for about an hour – 20 min. to get there, sitting somewhere at the airport for 20 min. to find out if she gets sleepy on the meds or agitated. If all goes well, I plan on going to the airport once or twice a week and stay there for a little bit (without meds). I also want to weigh her with the carrier and walk around. The reason for the meds is that she is an anxious little dog and I am too afraid to try for the first time and have her possibly whine for the whole 7.5 hours or so it takes to get there.

    I am afraid that if I keep her in the bag at home by my feet, she’d cry for the whole time and that this would only reinforce the whining. So I plan on only placing her in there when we are out and about.

    Does anybody have experience with Benadryl or Melatonin. I don’t want to use prescription meds at all.

  • Hi, Patricia! It sounds like you are on the right track with your gentle, ongoing approach to getting Blue used to her new bag. Re the Benadryl or Melatonin — I would not use either without talking to your vet. She will know what dosage to use on your particular dog — it’s not merely a matter of weight, but also a variety of factors that we laypeople are likely not to think about.

  • erin

    I know this is about dog traveling but I have a question. My husband and I are traveling with my little mix dog which I believe won’t have any trouble fitting under the seat. However, my concern is that we have to travel with a newborn and a cat also. Any suggestions on how to get all animals through and our newborn without causing a huge back up in the security line? We are starting to get concerned about our move.

  • Hi, Rebecca! We have only traveled with 2 pets at once (a cat and a dog), not also the newborn (congratulations, by the way!). The fact is, it will take more time than other travelers will take, but that’s perfectly okay. Arrive a little earlier than usual, warn folks behind you at security you’ll take awhile, and soldier along with what you have to do. Do not feel overly apologetic and don’t rush unduly — just be as efficient as you can, and the only people who matter — decent, reasonable people — will understand what you’re dealing with and support you.

  • tricia

    hi i know that this was posted a while ago but how big is your dachshund and can he comfortably sleep in the large sturdibag i have a dachshund thats 21in long and about 13in tall that does not like to be too confined and i would like to get him a sturdibag for flying but was not sure about the length or to go with the large or xl? also how did you deal with barking or whining on the plane in case mine does bark i would love some tips.

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