'Conceptualized' Flight Training for Guide Dogs and Owners

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

guide dogs air travel

Story at-a-glance -

  • Many people with disabilities, including those who are blind or hearing impaired, individuals in wheelchairs and those needing emotional support, find aspects of modern life, including air travel, a daunting experience
  • Alaska Airlines partnered with Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB), to hold a free annual event to aid service dogs and their owners in adjusting to everything involving air travel
  • Both guide dogs and owners have an opportunity to sit in the seats of mock airplanes, wear oxygen masks and life vests and exit planes down emergency slides to gain expertise in safety measures
  • Dogs trained in specific areas are important for a number of the disabilities that people may be affected by, but some entities still have misconceptions regarding their importance
  • There are organizations that focus on advocating for people with disabilities, in part by encouraging contractors to keep people with disabilities and their support dogs in mind when allocating space in airplanes

There are many aspects of modern life that may seem a little daunting, and undoubtedly even more so for many people with disabilities. But even in the air, there’s no reason their service dogs should bear the brunt of the pressure.

While other airlines may be embroiled in disputes about emotional support animals, Alaska Airlines1 has partnered with Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB),2 a free, non-profit “industry-leading guide dog school,” to help guide dogs and their owners adjust to everything involving air travel, by holding the event in the airline’s Flight Operations Building.

Simulated Air Travel Event for Service Dogs and Their Owners

The two entities co-organized the annual event geared toward helping service dogs and their owners gain confidence and expertise in safety measures needed when traveling on an aircraft. The week-long program resumed its sixth year for the specialized group, according to SeattlePI, which described the event as helpful because it “make(s) flying a less daunting experience for travelers and their guide dogs.” Additionally:

“Guide dogs, puppies-in-training and people with disabilities, including visually impaired, hearing impaired and those reliant on wheelchairs, were able to explore mock airplanes and learn various safety measures in a controlled environment.”3

Part of the experience for those attending included sitting in the seats of mock airplanes and allowing their service dogs to explore and familiarize themselves with the cabin. Pilots as well as volunteer flight attendants from Alaska Airlines answered attendees’ questions and discussed routine procedures such as how to exit the plane by row. They also covered safety measures and walked through potential scenarios and actions needed should there be an emergency landing.

Both dogs and their people were able to try on oxygen masks and try out the emergency exit door and slide during the training event. Additionally, “Dog and human attendees wear uninflated life vests and practice sitting in an inflatable airplane raft that would be used in an emergency situation.”4

Jake Koch, community outreach specialist for GDB, who himself has limited vision, attended the event with his guide dog, Fourly, a 5-year-old black lab. Koch says people who can’t see often have trouble “conceptualizing” what flying will be like, especially with a support animal:

“Something like this where you can actually feel everything increases safety and helps make it less mystical. It helps people feel more comfortable with flying … I choose to have a guide dog because of the type of travel I do, it allows me to easily transition between environments.”5

Why ‘Help’ Dogs Are So Important — Especially on an Airplane

Dogs trained in specific areas are important and even vital for a number of the disabilities that people may be affected by, including service, therapy and the emotional support that animals can give. 

There are service dogs for people with diabetes that can detect when someone’s blood sugar is dipping too low due to a chemical called isoprene6 that is expelled in the individual’s breath. In hypoglycemia, which denotes dangerously low blood sugar, isoprene levels can double, so having a dog trained in what to do can be lifesaving.

Emotional Service dogs can be essential for people suffering from distress (which on an airplane can be exponential), including children with autism.7 Trained service dogs have been known to reduce PTSD symptoms among trauma survivors by as much as 82%.8

Sadly, there are many, including decision makers in official capacities in the airline industry, who still have misconceptions regarding the function and importance of service dogs. However, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act 1990 (ADA), a service animal is described as:

“Any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition.”9

Flight Training Equips Disabled People and Their Support Animals

Since 2015, other entities working alongside GDB and Alaska Airlines include the Washington State Department of Services for the Blind (DSB)10 and Vision Loss Connections11 from the Puget Sound area of Washington State.

Koch, who also happens to be on the Alaska Airlines Disability Advisory Board, says an important role he can take is that of an advocator for people with disabilities, particularly those with vision impairment. His role can also serve to help shape the policies airlines put in place regarding accessibility for these individuals.

One example is that as airplane manufacturers have recently gone back to the drawing board, so to speak, to expand existing cabin space, under-the-seat legroom space in airplanes has been minimized, and unfortunately, that’s the space a guide or service dog requires to lie down during flights.

Koch says he and other advocates are able to encourage contractors to keep people with disabilities and their support dogs in mind when they allocate space in airplanes; they can tell individual airlines that space at their feet for their dogs is not just helpful, but critical.

Chris Yoon, another attendee of the event, told SeattlePI he’s had his guide dog, Sadie, for a year, and traveled by air with her for the first time on their recent move from California to Seattle. Not knowing how Sadie would handle the flight, he booked first class and asked for a front row seat for space to accommodate her. Following the training the pair experienced, he deemed himself, “Very much prepared for anything now on a plane.”12

GDB maintains that as an organization, everyone involved is all about serving people throughout the U.S. and Canada who are blind or have minimal vision. According to the website, “All of the services for our clients are provided free of charge, including personalized training and extensive post-graduation support, plus financial assistance for veterinary care, if needed.”13 As PetMD observes:

“Airports and flying are stressful enough, so it’s nice to hear that this airline and these organizations are working to make it less overwhelming for the visually impaired and their service animals.”14

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