Dog travel: planes, trains and automobiles

travel with pets

If you’re like most Canadians, you love to travel. And it’s only natural that you want your four-legged family members tagging along when you explore new destinations or visit loved ones.

Before packing up the dog cookies and squeaky toys, though, ensure that both you and your dog are prepared for the journey. Whether you are travelling by plane, train, or automobile, be proactive in seeking out rules and regulations – and be sure to have a travel plan for both you and your pup.

Formulating a travel plan

During the planning stages of your vacation, it is essential that you contact any and all transportation service providers that you may use for pet transport – even if it is just the public transit of the area you will be visiting. Rules vary in different countries, provinces and cities – and they are subject to change.

It is equally important to make sure both you and your pooch are well trained for your adventure. Travel can be stressful for pets – even in your own car. A bit of planning can help turn your dog into a confident voyage-mate and make your travels that much more rewarding.

Ideally, the first steps to making your dog a comfortable traveller will happen when she is a still a puppy, though you can definitely teach an old dog new travel tricks. A major part of travel training is getting your dog comfortable with her kennel or crate. Chances are good that she will be in her crate for at least part of the journey – particularly if you are taking public transportation.


Getting your dog acclimatized to automobile travel is the first step to getting her ready for more complicated types of transport. Start by having your dog get in and out of the car, and make sure she’s comfortable sitting in the driveway before you head off on any car trips. Keep initial journeys short and pleasant; an outing to the park, for instance, will be more pleasantly remembered than a trip to the vet. Though it’s tempting to let your dog hang her head out the window, experts don’t recommend it.

“Keep windows closed sufficiently to keep dogs out of the wind, for their ears’ and eyes’ sake, and to avoid the pet jumping out, or people reaching in,” advises Dr. Troye McPherson, Nova Scotia’s representative with the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA).

Dr. Troye also warns against exposing your dog to heat or cold stress and reminds us that, as with human beings, safety precautions for dogs are a must. In fact, the CVMA recommends that all pets be protected during transport by the use of secured and sturdy enclosures or with tethering devices such as seatbelts.

“Most carriers are suitable for travelling in cars,” explains Dr. McPherson. “It’s best to secure them with a seatbelt to avoid any sudden carrier movement. Dog seatbelts can be purchased for dogs of all sizes and can be attached to your own backseat seatbelt clips.”

Since an unsecured dog can be a hazard to himself as well as a danger to the driver, many owners are now using these restraining devices. It pays to start training early.

“We did a great job training Cedar to either sit or lie down when in the car,” says pet owner Krista Campbell. “She knew we wouldn’t go anywhere until her bum was on the seat. We’ve recently started clipping Cedar in with a seatbelt, and it’s been a whole lot easier with her already being backseat trained.”

With pet seatbelt laws becoming mandatory in parts of the United States, there is a growing list of options for restraining devices. The most popular are simple harnesses or belt systems that hug your dog’s body and clip into existing seatbelt buckles. These will range in materials from reinforced nylon strapping to faux lambskin or cotton-lined vests.

Other backseat options include doggie car beds. Designed to help a dog feel more comfortable, the slightly raised mattresses also allow smaller dogs to see out the window.

Finally, many travellers have invested in seat extenders. These products cover the gap between the edge of the back seat and the back of the front seat, preventing active dogs from falling between the two.

“Poor Cedar took one too many tumbles for our liking,” admits Krista. “Your dog’s feet should be underneath them in the car, not facing skywards. Between her harness and seat extender, she now has plenty of room to stretch out.”

Planes, trains and…buses?

Once your dog is used to the car, it’s time to consider the complexities of air or train travel.

Now, before you get too excited about bringing your pup on your trip, check to make sure your mode of transportation is pet-friendly. When it comes to air travel, most Canadian flights will allow only small, crated dogs in the cabin. The kennel must be able to fit beneath the seats – on WestJet, for instance, maximum kennel size is 40 cm x 44 cm x 21.5 cm. Bigger breeds fly as checked baggage, though you should check for size limitations. WestJet allows a maximum of 45kg for crate and dog combined. The crate must be smaller than 91 cm x 61 cm x 66 cm. There are specific regulations for the types of carrier accepted. It is imperative that you contact your travel service provider, or visit the airline’s website before booking.

As for rail travel, Via Rail allows small dogs on passenger cars – they should be kept in rigid cages large enough for them to stand in. It is important to note that you must provide a padlock to keep your cage shut. Larger dogs will be transported in baggage cars – at least during parts of the year. From June 1 to August 31, baggage cars cannot transport animals due to lack of proper ventilation. The exception is Via’s “Ocean Line” (between Montreal and Halifax), which has air conditioned cargo areas, and allows larger dogs year round.

Looking at municipal transit, things get more complicated. Regional buses (and associated subways, streetcars and light rail) all have their own rules and regulations regarding pets. The policies range from the strict (Halifax states that “pets are not allowed on Metro Transit vehicles unless properly restrained in a closed cage”) to the fancy-free (Calgary welcomes any leashed dog). In Toronto, the TTC has different rules for different times of day: “Leashed pets or pets secured in an enclosed container are welcome to travel on the TTC during weekday off-peak periods — that is, before 6:30 am; 10:00 am to 3:30 pm; after 7:00 pm. The driver can refuse to allow the pet on board if there are any concerns about the safety or comfort of the other riders.” Your best bet is to call ahead or look online.

What about coach lines? With the exception of service dogs, national coach lines such as Greyhound or Coach Canada maintain a strict no-dogs policy.

On the road again

In order to make your pet’s trip a safe and enjoyable one, precautions should be taken for readying cages for transport.

Dale Cannon, Ontario Sales Manager for WestJet Cargo, suggests that food, water, and toys not be put into a travelling crate.

“Food and water can cause issues for dogs that experience nausea,” she advises. “And even dogs that you think are impervious to sickness can experience this. Toys can easily become choking hazards.” A familiar bed or small piece of clothing – particularly one with your scent on it – is always a good idea.

A dog’s health should also be taken into consideration. “It’s a good idea to have your pet examined by your veterinarian prior to your departure to ensure she is in good health and able to endure the rigours of air or rail travel,” suggests Dr. McPherson. Puppies under the age of eight weeks are unfit for extended travel.

To those who may be tempted to try and calm nauseous or stressed dogs with medication, Dr. McPherson suggests exercising caution. “Tranquillizers and sedatives are not usually recommended for pets, except on the advice of your veterinarian. This is because sedation can result in serious complications. For example, it can inhibit your pet’s ability to regulate her body temperature or cause breathing problems.”

While there is much to consider when prepping animals for travel, it is important to note that the stress on animals is often short-lived. In some cases, it is not present at all. There is a world of wonders waiting for Canadian travellers. And this is equally true for the dogs that accompany them. With a bit of foresight, these adventures can be shared by all.