As I have previously shared, one of the best parts of guide dog mobility for me is the sense of freedom, confidence and independence it brings. When this extends to brand new destinations, it is something special. I love seeing Cora flourish in totally new places. Having her stop perfectly at a kerb on an unfamiliar street, target a never-seen-before bus stop or find our way back to our hotel is liberating. In this post, I am going to share the ins and outs of travelling with a guide dog.
As you are probably aware, guide dogs are permitted by law in most public spaces apart from some small (and understandable) exceptions. These exceptions are operating theatres, some parts of the zoo and commercial kitchens. They are allowed onboard aeroplanes and travel with their handler in the cabin.
Most airlines require you to book your flight over the phone when travelling with a guide dog. This is so the customer service agent can assign you an extra seat free of charge. This seat is not for the dog to sit on (although it is usually a window seat so I am sure they would enjoy the view), it is to make sure they have plenty of room on the floor in front of the seat. Some airlines will seat you behind the bulkhead, but the extra seat becomes especially important when sitting in a row where space is a premium. Each airline that I have travelled with manages the booking slightly differently. Some will send you a booking confirmation for the dog, others will not. One airline in particular asks you to provide the dog’s weight and body length when booking (lucky they don’t ask for such personal information about me too)! If travelling overseas, there are a bunch of other steps you need to take before you travel. I have not done this yet, so I can’t comment on that myself.
When booking accommodation, it is important to make sure there is a suitable place to toilet your dog nearby. Do your best to make sure the grass is easy to get to safely and independently and make sure there are bins nearby! In the past, I have had someone explore the area on Google Street View to check these things for me. While guide dogs are also allowed in accommodation, I choose to let them know that Cora will be coming with me beforehand. This is to avoid any awkwardness on our arrival. I often take the same approach when booking taxis and rideshares too. Personally, I would rather be upfront with this information so I can avoid a guide dog refusal. Being refused is awkward and uncomfortable and means that you then have to wait for a second car to arrive. This is absolutely a personal preference though.
Like many pets do, Cora always knows that something is up when I pull the suitcase out of the cupboard. She will start following me around the apartment and will never let me out of sight.
When packing for Cora, there are several things I need to remember. Firstly (and most importantly) is her food and collapsible bowl. I tend to portion out each meal and put them in individual Ziplock bags. I have reusable Ziplock bags, so I don’t need to worry about disposing of lots of single-use plastic when we travel. I will often pack a couple of extra meals for her too just in case something goes awry (such as our flight being cancelled or something like that). If that were to happen though, some brown rice and boiled chicken will always pass the Cora test too.
If you are travelling for a long time, you may choose to buy a small bag of kibble upon arrival. But that is not always practical. Be prepared to have your suitcase smelling like dog food. I try to double bag it or put the meals in an airtight container to prevent this from happening as much as possible.
I also pack her travel mat (a lambswool mat that folds up fairly small and has built-in handles) and her toilet harness and poo bags of course. I always like to take a toy for her too, usually her deer antler. She loves chewing on her antler after a meal and it is a great way for her to destress and unwind after a long day.
Okay, I can feel those of you who don’t know what a toilet harness is looking at me weirdly. Let me explain the wonders of a toilet harness. I am grateful that I live in Victoria because Guide Dogs Victoria issue toilet harnesses for most of their dogs. Many other guide dog schools don’t, and I can’t understand why! This harness sits just in front of their back legs. You attach one handle of the bag to a clip on the underside of the harness and the tail goes through the other handle. I won’t get too much further into the nitty gritty, but then you can simply remove the bag from the harness, tie it up and get rid of it quick-smart. I know how to pick up after Cora too, so I will never get caught out. But the toilet harness is a total game-changer.
When making your way through security at the airport, you will almost certainly set off the metal detector. This means that they will need to give you a pat down. They will also need to check the dog, including looking under their harness. I have heard reports of the dogs being asked to go through by themselves and the handler attaching an extra long lead to them, but this has never happened to me. Cora thinks this attention is great and has been known to give the security staff member a lick to assure them that she’s not a dodgy dog.
When boarding the plane, the airline will give you an absorbent mat for the dog to sit on. I guess this is to help with any accidents. I have never heard of a guide dog having an accident on the plane though, and to be honest Cora ends up scrunching the mat up in the corner and ignoring it anyway. You will be asked to tether your dog to the spare seat beside you. When flying, I also take some extra snacks to give Cora during the flight. Dogs don’t know how to pop their ears when the pressure changes. So giving her something to eat during take-off and landing helps with this. Sometimes I will just take some extra kibble, but chunks of carrot are my preference. Carrots don’t make my bag or fingers smell like kibble does. And she can take the chunks from my fingers without making my hands slobbery. She usually has a carrot every day anyway, so they are probably less calorific than so much extra kibble. Getting my hands on a carrot to cut up is not always practical when travelling though, so I will always have some extra kibble on hand just in case.
So far, I have only taken Cora on two trips. But I assure you that she has already learnt that aeroplanes are great places to be because of the extra treats you get. She sleeps during the flight itself, but she makes me laugh because of how excited she is when we are boarding because she knows what comes next. One day I might try and just let her sleep through take-off and landing as I think that I might be making more of a deal out of it than needed. But this is something I will chat to my guide dog instructor about. The only time during the flight that Cora has shown any concern is when we first touch down and the plane makes that loud rumbling noise as we speed along the runway. My strategy for the last flight we took together was to save the last chunk of carrot for that moment. That worked perfectly and she couldn’t care less about the noise.
As mentioned, I have only flown domestically with Cora so far (although a trip overseas with her is certainly on my bucket list). If travelling on a long-haul flight, I believe that the recommendation is to limit their food and water intake before the flight to avoid any accidents or discomfort. Some airports have dog toileting areas inside the terminal which is a bonus.
There are times when I choose to leave Cora with my family while I go away without her. As mentioned, there are some beautiful perks of travelling with a guide dog, but truth be told, in some situations it can be easier without. It can be difficult finding a hotel that is in a good location and also nearby a grassy area for the dog to toilet. Depending on what you have in store for the trip, the dog might cause an issue. It’s probably not advisable to climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge or Zorb in New Zealand with a guide dog for example.
Cora truly loves exploring new places so travelling is the perfect time for her to show off her initiative and problem-solving skills in a new area. But like me, she always loves returning to her own bed and her basket of toys at the end of a fun and successful trip.
Photo description: Cora is sprawled on her side on the floor between two rows of seats in an aeroplane. She is awake and looking directly at the camera. Photo by Alejandra Angeles.