In July 2009 I was asked to give a talk to the flight attendants at SAA on how to handle a dog on a plane. This came about due to recent changes to the Air Carriers Access Act, which impacts on all foreign carriers travelling to and from the United States. This includes SAA, which means that they could at any given time have to accommodate several dogs. These dogs include not only guide dogs but also assistance dogs (e.g. seizure dogs) required by passengers which would need to travel onboard in the cabin with their handlers.
As the cabin crew had no knowledge of how to deal with dogs in an emergency situation during a flight, I was asked to go through some of the basics of dog handling with them. The workshop took place in one of SAA’s flight simulators.
One of the first things that was stressed, was safety – both for the dog and for the humans involved. Dogs should be muzzled so that in the event of a catastrophe and the dog or handler is injured, they can be evacuated without anyone getting bitten. A lot of the attendees had never seen a dog with a muzzle on, and were quite intimidated by the sight of this “ferocious” dog moving up and down the aisles.
For this workshop, I used one of my own dogs, a neutered Malinois named Dasko who was 10 years old.
I then went on to demonstrate how to muzzle a dog with a lead. This in case the muzzle somehow got torn off the dogs face during a forced landing. One brave participant volunteered to try this procedure with Dasko. It appeared that because many of these people were not used to handling dogs, they were very timid in their approach, which in turn made the dog unsure and much more difficult to control.
Of course, Dasko got lots of treats during this whole performance, and so thoroughly enjoyed himself. I’m a firm believer that unless you’re having fun, there’s not much point in trying to teach, as people learn much faster if they can relate to the topic at hand and enjoy themselves a bit. So there was quite a lot of laughter during the training session.
We then went on to talk about emergency evacuations – how to get the dog off the plane in the event of a crash. First Dasko and I had to take our seats as we would have done on a normal flight. This presented a problem. The dog has to sit in front of its handler, and the area between my knees and the seat in front was too small for Dasko to squash in to. He is not a large dog, weighing only 34 kgs with a height of 61cms at the shoulder. A lot of Labradors, for instance, would have greater bulk, and therefore more difficulty in fitting in to the space available. And of course, because the dogs’ handler is compromised, they are not allowed to sit in front of the emergency exit, which has much more leg room.
Anyway – once we were seated, the cabin crew began a mock emergency landing. They stood in their positions and repeatedly shouted out commands to move to the back and evacuate the plane. The rest of the participants pushed and shoved and shouted at each other as they rushed to the exits. During this time, the simulator started shaking and rocking about, whilst making an unpleasantly dangerous noise. This of course upset the dog, demonstrating to the participants that a nervous dog could become unmanageable if not correctly handled.
People have to be evacuated first, which means that the dog needed to be secured in some way to the seat so that he can’t move around and impede progress off the plane. Once all the human passengers are off, the cabin crew have to go back and collect the dog/s and move them to the chute. I suggested that the quickest and most effective way of getting the dog down the chute would be to hog tie it, (i.e. tie the dogs’ front and back feet together) and if possible hold it on your lap whilst sliding down the ramp. Although very unpleasant, hog tying the dog would prevent it from thrashing about and causing injury to itself and others whilst falling down the chute. As all cabin crew have access to scarves, it was suggested that that would be the kindest and easiest equipment to use to restrict the dogs’ movements.
All in all I believe the attendees gained some insight in how best to handle a dog under very difficult circumstances. Dasko appeared to enjoy his day out, apart from the actual simulated disaster, which he found a bit nerve wracking! But as soon as the simulator stopped bumping about he settled down again. And when we got home, he enjoyed a good long afternoon nap after a hard days’ work.