As you may know, I have this dog. This really cute dog. Her name is Elphie.
This adorable dog is also a somewhat anxious dog. Bichons are known for separation anxiety and when she was around two years old, it hit her pretty bad. Like, neighbor telling us that she was barking for an hour at a time, multiple times a day, and that he was concerned that she missed us. Yes, we felt like terrible puppy parents. She went to daycare one day a week, and that sometimes seemed to help. Once we found out about the daytime barking, we sought other solutions. The thundershirt seemed to help a little more. And so did dosing her with rescue remedy.
Also in ways we failed as dog parents, we never really finished her crate training. “Never going in the bedroom” quickly went to “Okay, she can go in the bedroom, but not on the bed” down the slippery slope to “Yeah, she sleeps on our bed almost every night.” It happens. We got her an adorable travel bag when she was little, but she avoided that thing like the plague. She likes her space, whatever. When the move became a Thing That Is Really Happening For Real, we realized that we might have a problem on our hands. How do we get this adorable anxious dog who doesn’t like confined spaces across the country?
A drive cross-country was in the plans for a while, but now I realize that, seriously, five days in a car would stressed her out like no one’s business. I started researching the options for flying. At sixteen pounds, she technically fit within most airline’s in-cabin animal weight limits. But she would be super-cramped in the proper size carrier. I had to choose between two non-ideal options: Put her in a larger, hardsided carrier (that she had taken to hanging out in at home while packing was happening) and check her in temperature-controlled pressurized cargo or cram her into a carrier and take her on board with me. With option one, she’d have more space, but she’d be without me to comfort her and I was afraid she’d whine the whole flight (let alone me being a wreck worrying about her). With option two, she’d be crammed, but with me. But what if she whined and freaked out? What would I do?
I got a couple of kinds of bags from a local store: The Sherpa Delta Branded Medium carrier and the Bergen Large carrier. The Bergen was closer to the airline’s dimensions (still a tad over, but squishable), but was the same design that made Elphie claustrophobic before. The Sherpa was bigger, and not squishable, but Elphie took to it very easily. Unfortunately, after reading some information on DogJaunt I realized that the Sherpa may not fly. And since I was traveling Virgin America to have a non-stop flight, I didn’t want to take the chance she’d be kicked off (they don’t take pets in cargo at all). So I had to make the Bergen work. I put treats in it, put toys in it, left it out and open around the place… everything to make her comfortable with it. I don’t think she ever liked it, but she definitely tolerated it for small periods of time.
When the day came to fly, I hadn’t had her in it as much as I’d wanted to, so I was a little worried. My parents took me to the airport and I had her in the back with me. About an hour away from the airport, I got her into the carrier in the car, with surprising ease, and she just chilled in there for the rest of the ride. I was so relieved. My parents helped me with my bags as I brought Elphie to the counter. One of the counter agents joked that her co-worker was having a bad day and needed a hug and I said “Well, I’ve got a puppy; will petting a dog do?” I opened up the little head part of the carrier and three counter-agents ooh’d and aah’d as I was checked in. I couldn’t get her head back in, so I held onto her, head poking out, as my parents gave me goodbye hugs and I got myself somewhere quieter. I got some food and then took her outside to the Pet Relief Area to try to get her to pee before we passed the point of no return (security). We stopped a couple of times on the way down, but all the newness was too distracting and the same proved true in the animal relief area. And I’d forgotten to bring any pee pads. Oops. After twenty minutes in the heat and no progress, I gave up and fought her back in her case to get to security.
At security, I had to take her out again. All passengers traveling with pets have to have their hands swabbed, but this was all the extra screening I had to have, which was nice. As I gathered up my stuff, one of the TSA officers said that since I had a leash for her, I didn’t have to put her back in until the plane; I could let her walk to the gate. This was the best thing that had happened all day. Elphie was so much more at ease getting to walk around and look at everything happening around her. And she definitely attracted attention, which she was surprisingly chill about. She even let one woman pet her.
I tried to get her to pee one last time (in the bathroom, using paper towels in lieu of pee pads), but it was a lost cause. I just hoped she could hold it until San Francisco. I struggled to get her back in the carrier, but eventually won the fight and we boarded.
She was amazingly good as I placed her under the seat, and after some adjustment, she settled and didn’t make a peep through the flight. The middle seat was free and the man on the aisle seat was a dog owner himself, so he didn’t mind me putting her up on the seat during flight. I took the opportunity to open up the head part and she just laid down and dozed for most of the flight while I occasionally gave her treats or some ice. I placed her head back in and put her back under during some choppy bits, but let her head out when she got a little fussy later. She wouldn’t let me get it back in for landing, but she was fine otherwise. I waited to deplane last and once I was in the terminal asked if I could let her out, which the gate agent said was fine. We walked along the terminal in San Francisco airport to meet my husband, who was a little shocked to see her out and walking. After a pit stop at the Pet Relief Area (and another ten minutes before she FINALLY went), we were on our way to a comfy bed for the night.
Overall, flying with Elphie was a great experience and much better than I thought it would be. The ticket and gate agents with Virgin America were great, as was the flight crew. One attendant did notice Elphie on the seat and reminded me that, technically, she was supposed to be under the seat, but if the other passenger didn’t mind, it was okay. I don’t think any other passengers even realized that I had a pet with me, as I got a few surprised looks when they were deplaning.
Next time, I would definitely remember pee pads, although fortunately, I didn’t need them. Everything else went pretty smoothly. Flying with a pet caused extra stress, but after seeing how well she took to it, I definitely wouldn’t count her out of future trips.