How to Prep Your Dog for Travel in a Car or Plane

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  • Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.

Recently, I was given a very important task: get a bouncy six-month-old Miniature Pinscher-mix named Chloe and her family ready for their first high-altitude adventure together.

On a plane several years ago, when the family’s previous pup began whining and barking loudly 10,000 feet in the air, a flight attendant threatened to place him in the cargo hold if he couldn’t quiet down. The experience understandably spooked Chloe’s mama. This time, she wanted to make sure that her fur baby would be comfortable and worry-free.

A bit of preparation before taking a trip with your dog—whether you’re driving or flying to your destination—can go a long way towards making the journey less stressful.

Here’s what I worked on with Chloe, and what will help with your own dog.

Pico and Marz wait in the back of a car.

Pico (German shepherd) and Marz (papillon) wait for their humans to load up for our camping road trip to the Oregon coast.

A dog trainer shares tools for stress-free dog travel

Stress-free travel requires two things: ways to calm your dog when they become anxious and ways to distract them when they become bored. Besides purchasing a handful of items in advance, there is no additional training required for these solutions. They simply help you make your dog’s journey as pleasant as possible.

Tools for keeping your dog calm

  • DAP—Dog Appeasing Pheromones—help to decrease anxiety by mimicking the same scent a mama dog gives off when she is nursing. Spray the bedding of a crate or carrier with a DAP product like Adaptil’s Calming Travel Spray and/or purchase a DAP collar for your dog to wear around their neck.
  • A Thundershirt, which is a tightly wrapped jacket, works on the principles of acupressure to make a dog feel more secure.
  • Nutraceuticals like L-Theanine and Lactium have calming properties and both have been approved for use in dogs. Look for treats like VetriScience Composure that contain one or both of these ingredients or purchase them in a human vitamin store or online. But be careful: never give a dog anything containing the ingredient xylitol, which is found in some human-grade vitamins.
  • Covers. If your dog is sensitive to objects speeding by the window, try covering their crate or using a calming cap to minimize their view.

Tools for distracting your dog

  • Puzzle toys like the Kong Classic provide your dog with mental stimulation while you drive or fly. I recommend having several ready to go for long journey. If your dog is flying in the cargo hold, try hiding several smaller puzzle toys and loose treats in their bedding.
  • Chewies like bully sticks, pig’s ears, and marrow bones will take time to eat, providing longer distractions.

To crate or not to crate?

If you are flying, a crate of some kind will be necessary.

If your dog is small like Chloe, a TSA-approved soft-sided carrier will fit under the seat in front of you. Look for a style that has some mesh for your pup to see out of but not so much that they’ll feel over-exposed. The back of the carrier should be nice and dark for your pup to huddle up to if they’re feeling frightened.

If your dog is over 20 lbs, they will have to fly in a plastic crate in the cargo hold. Choose one that is large enough for your pup to comfortably stand, turn around and lie down with plenty of holes for ventilation.

In the cabin, and especially in the cargo hold, it can get cold! In addition to a soft mat or other bedding on the floor of the carrier or crate, place a warm, snuggly blanket or two for your pup to burrow into.

Although crates and carriers are the safest way to travel in the car, too, they aren’t a necessity. If your trip is looming and you haven’t crate trained your dog, consider using a dog harness and doggy seatbelt instead.

Look for a harness that is crash tested or, at the very least, that has a loop for connecting to a seat belt to keep your pup secure. For safety’s sake, your dog should always ride in the back seat or rear of the car.

Boston terrier - where do small dogs come from?

How to crate train your dog for an upcoming trip

If you’ve never crated your dog before, you’ll need to do some training before your trip to prevent your pup from having a meltdown at 10,000 feet. Some dogs take to the crate quickly and easily. Others require desensitization to accept that the space is safe.

Introduce the crate or carrier

  • Place the crate (or carrier) in your kitchen, living room, or other area of the home in which the family regularly hangs out. Make it snuggly inside with a soft mat and blankets.
  • Feed your dog their meals inside the crate. Start with the door open. When they’ve started going in and out of the crate easily, try closing the crate door for the duration of the meal.
  • Offer your puppy tasty, long-lasting treats inside the crate such as bully sticks, pig’s ears, marrow bones or puzzle toys filled with treats. Let them enjoy the chewie or toy with the door open at first, then try closing the crate door as they munch happily away.
  • Gradually increase the time your pup is inside the crate. Dogs should be given a break from the crate every three hours, unless they are on a flight.

Desensitize

If you’ve introduced your dog to the crate properly and they still refuse to enter willingly or remain inside for even short periods of time, add desensitization to your training. Try the following steps, moving forward slowly so that you don’t overly stress or frighten your dog.

  1. Throw a treat into the crate and encourage your pup to follow it inside. Close the door for a second then let them back out. Repeat five times.
  2. Begin to slowly increase time inside the crate. Throw a treat and closing the door for 5-10 seconds before letting them out. Repeat at least five times. Next, try the same thing but for 10-20 seconds, and so on. Only add more time if your dog is able to complete the previous attempt without vocalizing, digging or otherwise panicking.
  3. Work your way up to several minutes and beyond, picking up the speed little-by-little as your pup progresses.

If you try pushing a dog who can only be inside of the crate for 10 seconds to one minute, you are asking a lot. But if you try pushing a dog who can be inside of a crate for 10 minutes to 11 minutes, it won’t feel like an enormous jump. In other words, the speed you move forward is relative to the time your dog has already achieved inside the crate.

With these tips, you should be well on your way to a stress-free trip for both you and your dog.

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