A Test of Public Access
Updated: Nov 30, 2020
Recently I flew to Tennessee. The original plan had been to drive and take all three Azawakh. I still wish that had been practical, but I didn't want to miss two weeks of work and it was simpler to fly with Anubi in cabin who is my tasked trained, medical alert Service Dog. I wanted to document that process, because it was a bit nerve-wrecking for me as well and in the hopes that this helps other Service Dog handlers who need to fly with their dogs.
When I first trained Anubi for service work I needed allergen detection in limited applications. I felt confident that we would be able to handle public access (taking a service dog places pet dogs aren't allowed) but needed a very limited amount of it - mostly certain restaurants and food festivals. However, recently my migraines have become very frequent and debilitating (increased stress during COVID and huge weather changes). I am very prone to getting every side effects from drugs, so I try to take migraine medication sparingly and typically rely mostly on Excedrin when I can, but I can't always catch the migraine early enough to do so. Thus, when Anubi developed a natural migraine alert that could alert me up to 7 hours before a migraine hit, my quality of life went way up.
Over the past few months, I've realized that I need to have Anubi with me more frequently than I have before. More than once now I've missed things (work, etc) because Anubi wasn't with me to alert to a migraine. I'm working on finding medications that don't give me terrible side effects, but I'm not sure if we'll be able to find them. And I can tell you, I felt so much safer on the plane with my dog there to alert me to both allergens and migraines.
It was super helpful that one of my friends who has flown regularly with her Service Dogs talked me through the entire process, especially because I had a ton of anxiety about flying with Anubi. Back in December going to Orlando, I'd flown Anubi cargo, though he'd been a fully trained Service Dog. I worried that my training wouldn't be good enough, that I didn't actually need a Service Dog, that I didn't actually have a disability (both of mine- migraines (crippling and difficult to medicate) and allergens (potentially lethal) definitely count).
With my friend's encouragement, I booked my flights (Seattle > Chicago > Knoxville and Knoxville > Dallas > Seattle) with American Airlines. I was a little wary of flying with them since I know people who have had bad experiences, but they were honestly great and they were basically my only choice for my destination. I then put in a request to add a Service Dog to my ticket by calling Special Assistance. They called me back and confirmed that I had a task trained, medical alert Service Dog. If I'd had an Emotional Support Animal or a psychiatric Service Dog I would have needed additional paperwork/prescription from a doctor. This is relatively standard between airlines. It seems much more common for ESAs and psychiatric SDs to be subject to faking. I also requested that I be seated in Bulkhead since my SD is on the taller side, which they accommodated no problem for all four flights.
We arrived at the airport two hours before my flight. I put on Anubi's vest over a fleece sweater (yes even in summer) to stave off any questions about him being starving. I checked in at the airport just to ensure nothing was wrong with my ticket. I was glad I did because my ticket said Emotional Support Animal instead of Service Dog. The woman checking us in happily changed it, I presented Anubi's rabies certificate, and then we were on our way.
At security we went through the line quickly; thanks to COVID the airport was largely empty. Instead of going through the Backscatter after putting my things (including Anubi's harness and any metal equipment) through the XRay belt, we stepped off to the side and waited to go through the metal detector. I put Anubi in a Wait and then walked through and called him through after me. The airport security and people in line where astonished and literally taking pictures. Anubi never even wavered in his Wait. I definitely felt some pity for the airport security if a simple Wait/Stay behavior was completely novel.
I didn't take enough of Anubi's gear off the first time through security so it set off the metal detector. Security asked me for permission to touch my dog which I granted and I again put him in a Wait while they patted him down. Afterwards they swabbed my hands for gun and explosive powders.
I didn't check any bags and as always (7 times out of 8), the dog food in my carry-on caused questions. Security went through my carry-on, determined that it was just dog food and then we were on our way. I attached Anubi to a hands-free leash, something we hadn't practice much with, but he heeled very nicely and it meant I had a hand free plus one managing my luggage. We passed a couple other Service Dogs, all nicely ignoring us and attentive to their handlers. I found an out of the way seat, placed Anubi's mat down and hung out for about thirty minutes before boarding.
Boarding itself was simple. They called my name for pre-boarding (the only time on the trip that happened) and I found my seat. I placed Anubi's mat down and he tried to find a way to lie down comfortably. That was the only flight where we had someone next to us and it took about thirty minutes before Anubi figured out how to sit facing me and then slide into a tucked down. Tucking in a tight down is something we've practiced before, but not often. It's a skill he has down perfectly now. I took off his vest, which was a bit stiff (we need a new one) so he could curl up extra tight. At the end of the flight a large number of people remarked that they'd had no idea there had been a dog on the plane, to which I replied with a smile, "Good, then he did his job."
We made our connecting flight easily and I was very grateful that we didn't have anyone sitting next to us. Anubi would have managed by the plane was a little puddle-jumper, and even in bulkhead window seats, there wasn't much room. On the second flight, Anu alerted me emphatically to a migraine that came on quite suddenly and I cannot tell you how grateful I was that he kept me functional and alerted despite all the crazy changes. It helped confirm for me how truly embedded his tasks are. By the time we got off the flight in Knoxville, Anu was well and truly tired of being a tiny ball.
The only hiccup to traveling was on the smaller planes (into and out of Knoxville), Anubi's ears struggled with the pressure changes. He whined and came to me to rub his ears to help with the pressure adjustments. Interestingly, those same flights were the same ones I got migraines on (which are often caused by pressure changes).
We were met by friends at the airport and Anubi was ready after almost twelve hours of work, to take his jacket off and relax. We stayed at a hotel that wasn't pet friendly that night, the first time I'd ever done so. In the parking lot, a Wirehiare Dachshund barked at Anubi who was once again in his vest and in working mode. Even if he hadn't been, he wouldn't have responded, but Anu squarely ignored the barking "Service Dog" and we checked in. In the parking lot, my friend warned the woman with the Dachshund that she did not in fact need to say hi to us and that all she needed to do was control her dog and my dog would ignore them. Directly following that speech, the woman, now carrying her Dachshund, came in and looked squarely at Anubi and said "Hi baby." Anubi doesn't care about people in the first place, but that's particularly true when he's working. He ignored her while I finished checking in. It was straight forward, though it had an additional Service Dog conduct piece of paper I needed to sign.
I walked over to the elevator where they waited and waited our turn. When the elevator arrived the woman asked if we'd mind waiting, because her dog wouldn't be okay with another dog on board. I, of course, said that I didn't mind waiting and I wasn't in a hurry. As the elevator closed, the front desk staff turned to me and thanked me for having such a well behaved dog. I smiled and told her of course, I was happy to just have an unobtrusive Service Dog. Naturally, Anubi, a hotel veteran, was perfect in the hotel room.
The rest of the weekend, he was off duty. He met all sorts of new friends and pretty well charmed everyone he met and was very good about hanging out even in the new environments. When it was time to go home I vested him back up at the airport and we went through the whole process (very much the same as the first time) all over again. For whatever
the reason, in Tennessee we got a lot more open comments and questions in the airport. Lots of people noting they'd never seen a Greyhound SD before. Lots of people asking if he was a rescue. I proudly said he was from a good breeder and for once no one recoiled in disgust. I don't mind answering these questions. I work a rare breed and I know there's going to be questions. However, I cannot imagine being someone with a psychiatric SD who just wants to be left alone constantly being bombarded by these questions in public. It must be a huge mental burden to bear, and it's one of the big reasons that many people who might benefit from a psych SD choose not to utilize one. For this reason, when I see a SD team, I tend to ignore them.
One the flights home, Anubi's professional, seemingly seasoned (no one guess that it was his first trip in cabin) behavior won him the hearts of the flight attendants who smiled at him every time we went past. In Dallas-Fortworth, we almost missed our connection because of tight turn around and the Sky Train taking forever. It was Anubi's first time on a train and he handled it like it was nothing, despite being incredibly bumpy. However, the trip home was easy all in all and flying with my SD no longer seemed like quite such an insurmountable task (which is a large reason of why I'm writing this, to potentially help other SD handlers who are anxious about flying with their dogs).
My big take aways from this trip are:
Anubi has a truly phenomenal bomb-proof temperament. I knew that intellectually, but this trip was incontrovertible proof for me. Also, he was so unflappable meeting many new people and dogs. He charmed so many people on the trip.
Anubi's training is to the point where he generalizes incredibly well. Oh, giant building with people and noises everywhere? No big deal, that just like many other large, busy buildings he's been to. Lying down at home is the same as lying down at the airport is the same as lying down on the plane is the same as lying down on a train. Despite the location changes, Anubi's behavior never changed, which means he has generalized his training super well.
I cannot for the life of me understand why people want to bring untrained or minimally trained pets with them in the cabin. The first flight was somewhat stressful on Anubi. I could see minor signs such as yawning and lip licking throughout the beginning of the plane ride. This is a dog that has hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours of training who was a bit stressed. Most pet dogs are just going to fold under the pressure of people and luggage and machinery and elevators and plane vibrations and pressure changes and reasonably close quarters and and and.
I don't think a much larger (or less flexible) SD would fit on a plane. I would have to buy a second ticket for a larger dog.
Air travel is one of the highest levels of Public Access that you can train your dog too. There are so many moving parts involved.
Please don't speak to SDs. Don't distract them. Don't touch them. I've never had to deal with this nearly as much as I did this weekend. In some cases, there are handlers that don't want to be spoken to about their dogs. They just want to live their lives. I don't mind, but please try to not be offended if another handler doesn't want to be spoken to.
I think Anubi would have taken escalators just fine, but I worry about toes and claws being caught, so I take the stairs or elevator if that's at all possible.
I never take this many pictures of Anubi while he's working but I wanted to document this trip.