by Maria Kristic and Gabriel Lopez Kafati
You're excitedly imagining your upcoming trip. Maybe it’s walking around that city you’ve always wanted to visit. Perhaps it’s time relaxing on the beach or skiing down a hill. Or maybe it’s a cruise to several places you’ve wanted to visit for a long time. Best of all, your guide dog will be there! But wait! Before you and your trusty canine partner board that plane or ship, you’ll have to do some planning. Here are some tips to make that planning go more smoothly, based on information we have gathered over the years from various sources and our own international travel experiences. We focus here on international considerations; resources mentioned at the end can help you to learn about the fundamentals of travel with your guide dog.
1. Think about whether your guide dog should travel with you. We know it may seem antithetical to talk in a guide dog-related travel article about your dog not traveling with you, but hear us out. Just as you were probably told during guide dog training that there are domestic situations where you may wish to leave your dog at home, the same can be said for certain travel scenarios. Will you be able to walk in reasonably developed infrastructure, or are sidewalks non-existent, streets filled with potholes, and traffic rules culturally only suggestions? Is the public generally fond of dogs, or are there so many strays that disgruntled individuals may put rat poison in the streets to try to cull them? Is the country you will be visiting classified by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as high risk for rabies or some other illness for which your dog would need a negative test when returning to the U.S.? Will the flying experience be so long or complex as to cause your dog undue stress? Is your activity such that your dog will have to be alone in an unfamiliar house or hotel for long stretches of time? Your furry friend may prefer their own vacation with a trusted friend or family member while you’re away.
2. Thoroughly research entry and return requirements. This even applies to international cruises if you leave the ship at ports of call, as you are subject to the entry requirements of each country you enter. Visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Pet Travel landing page at https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/pet-travel. Click on and read both the links for “Taking a pet from the U.S. to another country (Export)” for requirements for entering your travel destination and “Bringing a pet into the U.S. from another country (Import)” for returning to the United States. Pay attention to any alerts on these pages. Once you click on the Export link, you can specify the country(s) to which you will be traveling, select Dogs as the pet, and usually receive detailed requirements on the steps you must complete for entry into your chosen country.
Generally, the process involves obtaining a health certificate and ensuring that your dog’s microchip and rabies vaccination have been administered in the proper sequence and timeframe. A health certificate must be completed by a USDA-accredited veterinarian, who will then send the certificate to APHIS for official endorsement. Countries deemed free of rabies or other parasites may require a negative test for these conditions within a certain timeframe.
To find a USDA-accredited veterinarian, contact your vet. If APHIS does not have specific information for your country, contact that country’s embassy. Read the requirements carefully, as they are very specific in terms of timing of each component. Some countries, particularly in Asia, may require you to register your dog with the local police, obtain a quarantine exemption certificate, and/or present a photo of your dog upon entry. On the Import page, select Dogs, and you will receive information on requirements, which include presenting a copy of your dog’s rabies vaccination certificate which has been signed by your veterinarian, but may also include other requirements based on the country from which you are returning. Many of these processes have associated fees.
3. Research the specific requirements of your airline or cruise line. They often have their own requirements in addition to the country’s entry requirements. For example, you may be required to complete U.S. Department of Transportation forms, or your airline may require its own forms and an official letter from your guide dog school certifying that your guide is a working dog and indicating when you graduated from their program. Some airlines may require that you muzzle your dog while traveling, although a Gentle Leader or similar head collar may be considered sufficient. Airlines and cruise lines generally require advanced notice of your dog if you book sufficiently ahead of time of your trip.
4. Be mindful of international considerations when packing for your dog. If flying, be aware that some countries prohibit the import of bedding, so you may wish to bring something like microfiber towels to serve as bedding. Be certain to bring sufficient doses of any medication or supplements your dog is taking. Your vet may also suggest and provide additional medications as a precaution, such as medication to prevent possible seasickness on a cruise ship. On long-haul flights, where you will be required to sign a form attesting that your dog will not relieve on the plane or will do so in a sanitary manner, Maria likes to pack a couple of training/potty pads just in case. If you can pack a separate bag with your dog’s supplies, you may be able to bring it as an extra carry-on; check with your airline.
5. If flying, prepare for the possibility that any dog food you bring may be confiscated, as some countries have strict prohibitions on importing feed. Carry a note from your veterinarian stating that it is necessary for your dog to have the food which you will be bringing. Also, if possible, bring unopened, smaller-sized packages of the food. If your dog’s food is only packaged in large bags, this may mean temporarily and gradually transitioning them to a similar food which is available in a smaller size before you leave and then transitioning them back gradually to their regular food when you return. If you are temporarily transitioning to a new food, you may wish to use something which is available in your destination country so as to minimize the amount you must bring, and purchase what you need upon arrival. This may seem like overkill, but as one who has had her dog’s food confiscated on a domestic U.S. flight and who was specifically told by a European airport animal control officer to bring sealed bags, Maria says, better safe than sorry! Packing a few meals in Ziploc bags and placing them in your carry-on is also a good idea. You never know when you will face flight delays or cancelations.
Of course, you should not have such issues on a cruise, where the food will be kept on the ship.
Water is another important consideration. Do some research on the quality of the tap water at your destination. When in doubt, it’s better to share your bottled water with your guide dog. While this may increase your travel expenses, it’s much better than having a pup with an upset tummy, or even worse, having to look for a vet abroad. A few extra bottles of water can go a long way toward making sure both you and your guide have a fun and healthy travel experience.
6. Keep in mind that your dog will measure time-zone changes in food terms. Consider feeding your pup a half portion at their normal time, and saving the other half to be served at the local equivalent of your regular schedule. This will also depend on the duration of your trip and on the number of hours’ worth of time-zone difference. If you are planning a short visit or if the time change is just a few hours, perhaps it’s best to make the appropriate time-zone conversion and feed your pup at the time they would normally eat at home. If your travel plans are longer or if the time-zone difference is wider, then you may want to transition your pup from one time zone to the other by splitting meals between the normal feeding hour and the local time while they get used to the new schedule.
Remember that successful entry does not necessarily mean smooth sailing within the country. You may be required to notify hotels, Airbnb’s, or restaurants which you will be visiting that you have a guide dog. If you don’t speak the local language, write a short explanation of what a guide dog does using your favorite translation app, and save it for quick retrieval or print it out to keep with you. You may also wish to have translations of common advocacy phrases on hand, such as please do not pet my working dog, to handle curious strangers. GDUI sells a harness sign which communicates this message using a graphic. Visit https://www.gdui.org for more information.
7. Check your dog’s microchip location at your vet’s office and confirm its type before you go. Airport personnel or a vet in your destination country may wish to scan it. Ensure that your dog’s microchip is one with a 15-digit number; if not, you will either need to have it implanted with a second microchip that meets international standards or carry your own microchip scanner.
8. Plan your flying journey with your dog in mind. While the 15-hour direct flight might be more appealing to you, your dog may not agree! It might be better to schedule flights with stops to give your dog opportunities to relieve. Ensure that your layover is long enough to exit the airport to an outdoor relief area, go back through security, and arrive at your connecting gate. Give your dog less food and water than usual on the day of travel, and give it an opportunity to relieve itself before you enter the airport. You may wish to request a bulkhead seat to give your dog more room. You may also wish to bring a towel for your dog to lay on for extra comfort during a long flight.
Airport security procedures in other countries may be different from what you are used to in the U.S. Be kind yet assertive and solution-oriented. For example, while TSA personnel cannot separate you from your dog in the U.S., Maria learned that it was the opposite in Croatia, where airport personnel informed her that procedures required her and her dog to be examined separately, although they could stay near each other. Maria reiterated the importance of staying in her dog’s visual field. She and her dog were examined simultaneously by two members of security staff within a few feet of each other, and her dog was brought back to her upon completion.
9. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! You can join communities like the GDUI Chat email list or Friends of GDUI Facebook group via links on the GDUI web site, or your guide dog school’s Facebook or email list community, to connect with others and get your questions answered. Books such as “Sites Unseen” by Wendy S. David, available on both Bookshare and NLS BARD, provide a wealth of useful information.
If you decide that your trip would be suitable for your furry friend, there’s nothing like exploring new locations with your dog by your side. Safe travels, and enjoy the adventure!