Written by Katie Cuppy
When going on vacation, there is a lot to plan for. You have to book a hotel, arrange transportation, research nearby attractions, pack all of your necessities, and plan, plan, plan. This certainly doesn’t change when you are traveling with a service dog. But now, not only do you have to keep yourself and those accompanying you in mind, but you also have to make sure to plan for your service dog as well, to make traveling as seamless, efficient, and enjoyable as possible for both you and your dog.
I recently traveled to Orlando, Florida, to a convention with my work.
I teach Braille to high school students who have visual impairments in a summer-transition program that teaches them the ins and outs of independent living. Over the course of six weeks, students learn skills such as how to use assistive technology, cook, clean, travel, use public transportation, prepare for college and careers, etc.
Every year, we also take the students across the country to attend the National Federation of the Blind convention. It is definitely one of the highlights of my summer, because I get to see the students learn and grow as they become more confident in themselves and their skills that they have learned throughout camp. This year was my fourth convention that I have attended, so I definitely knew what to expect. However, it was my first time going to convention with my guide dog, Gabrielle.
What to Pack
“I can definitely tell you that having a service dog has made me much more conscious about what truly is a necessity for myself!”
Traveling with a service dog adds a whole new element of preparation when going on a trip.
The first thing that came to my mind was packing. What do I bring? What if I forget something? Naturally, I am an over-packer as it is, so how am I going to fit all of my and Gabrielle’s things in my suitcase, without it going over the 50-pound weight limit? I can definitely tell you that having a service dog has made me much more conscious about what truly is a necessity for myself! Do I need three different hair brushes if I’m going away for a week? Probably not. Should I bring a hair dryer, even though I know there will be one in my hotel room? Not entirely necessary. For me, packing is all about strategy—what will I put in my checked luggage, and what will go on my carry-on.
Packing for me was easy, but packing for Gabrielle was a different story.
I was so worried about leaving something behind (even though there was a PetSmart less than 3 miles away from the hotel!). Naturally, I started planning days in advance, writing down everything I could think of that Gabrielle could possibly need during our eight days away from home. My list looked something like this:
- Daily equipment (harness, leash, collar, I.D. tags, Gentle Leader head collar, bait bag, clicker, etc.)
- Extra food and collapsible bowl (just in case a flight gets cancelled or we get stuck somewhere)
- Gabrielle’s paperwork (vet/medical information, ADA laws, and other various documents)
- Boots for escalators or hot cement
- Pick up bags
- Blanket (so my spoiled girl is extra comfy during our flight)
- Eight days worth of food (plus two days extra, just in case)
- Eight daily soft-chew supplements Gabrielle takes
- Grooming kit (including brushes, ear wash, toothbrush, toothpaste, grooming wipes, deodorizing spray, etc.)
- Pick up bags
- Gabrielle’s favorite toys (at least 3 Nylabones, a Kong, and a tug)
- 2+ collapsible bowls for food and water, plus reusable water bottle
- Gabrielle’s travel dog bed and extra blanket
- Extra collar and leash
- Raincoat and cooling vest
- Extra accessories
Of course, my list may look different from other service dog handlers (like I said, I tend to over pack), and would vary depending upon a dog’s needs, and duration of the trip.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
Now that I had my packing done, it was time to head to Orlando, which for us, meant traveling by airplane! When traveling by plane, my biggest concern for Gabrielle is always relieving, especially if my flight exceeds three hours. The day of our flight, I always limit Gabrielle’s food and water intake, and relieve her at the last possible moment before going through security.
I had traveled on a plane with Gabrielle before, but this time around, we had a connecting flight with about an hour of waiting time before we reached our final destination, which added another challenge when it came to relieving. If I chose not to relieve Gabrielle while waiting for our connecting flight, I would risk her discomfort during the next flight, and it would have meant that she would have to go almost 7 hours without relieving herself. However, if I chose to relieve her, I would have to go all the way back through security and risk missing my plane. After much debate, I chose to relieve her. Thankfully, an attentive staff member led me to the relieving area and back through security with plenty of time to spare!
Even through all of these tough decisions, and being responsible for 25 teenagers, I couldn’t help but notice how seamlessly Gabrielle and I walked through those airports. Airports were always a source of anxiety for me because they were crowded, busy, and stressful. But, with Gabrielle guiding me, I was more calm and worry-free than I had ever been traveling to convention!
We arrived in Orlando at around 10 PM, so it was a full day of travel. As soon as I got there, I relieved Gabrielle right away at the airport. Then, when we arrived at the hotel, I asked the staff and scoped the property for an adequate and appropriate relieving area. As soon as we got all checked in, I gave Gabrielle water and fed her dinner, as well as the portion she had skipped earlier that morning. After a busy day, Gabrielle and I went to bed before waking up to another action packed, fun-filled day.
Convention and Universal Studios
During our trip, I had an incredible time watching my students learn and learned a lot myself! We attended seminars, sessions, and a banquet, and Gabrielle did flawlessly through it all. Not only did she have to navigate through a crowded convention center, but she had to do it while ignoring hundreds of other guide dogs. I was truly impressed with how well she behaved, and as always she didn’t cease to amaze me.
“These amenities made my Universal Studios experience enjoyable, and eased all of my worries so that I could focus on having fun with my students.”
On the final day of our trip, we took our students to Universal Studios. I was used to going to theme parks with 25 high-schoolers, but it was the first time I had been to a theme park with my guide dog, so I was a bit nervous. I researched Universal Studios, and their accommodations regarding service animals, and was pleasantly surprised. When I arrived at Universal, my experience was just like they described online, if not better! I was pleased to discover that all major rides were equipped with kennels that Gabrielle could stay in while I rode the ride with my students. In addition, Gabrielle was allowed to accompany me on the mild, slow rides. These amenities made my Universal Studios experience enjoyable, and eased all of my worries so that I could focus on having fun with my students.
“It is extremely important as a service dog handler to give your dog recovery time after a long trip. Just as humans need a little bit of recovery time, the same goes for dogs.”
The next day, we traveled back home to Arizona. I returned home with pride in my students, Gabrielle, and myself. I was so happy that our trip ran so smoothly, and I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better experience. With that being said, Gabrielle and I were both exhausted after 8 days of nonstop events.
I think it is extremely important as a service dog handler to give your dog recovery time after a long trip. Just as humans need a little bit of recovery time, the same goes for dogs, in my opinion. Traveling is exhausting for everyone, but it is especially tiring on your dog. Allowing a day or so of down time, if possible, is always ideal in order to help your dog get back into his or her regular home routine. Of course, giving Gabrielle a weekend of rest was no problem for me, because I was right there with her! By Monday, we were both back to work and ready to take on the world.
Making your trip or vacation with a service dog successful takes a lot of planning and preparation. You have to make sure you pack accordingly, plan for travel days and hotels, and give your dog appropriate recovery time after you come home. Ultimately though, I find traveling so much more rewarding and worry-free when Gabrielle is with me, along for the ride.