by Lauren Oxner

It's hard to overstate the importance of a good waterfowl dog. Let's face it: he's your most trusted hunting partner, the friend you spend months training, a key component in your hunting success. Hunts without him just aren't the same.

So for any hunter planning to go to the trouble of flying some distance for a hunt this season, it's important to be prepared for the procedures regarding airline travel with waterfowl dogs. Knowing the rules and regulations ahead of time will make the process smoother and will ensure that your hunting partner will be right beside you on the hunt.

What TSA has to say

The Transportation Security Administration, the federal agency solely responsible for carrying out screenings of passengers and their baggage (both checked and carry-on), has only one rule about traveling with pets of any kind: you must present your dog to the security officers at the security checkpoint after checking the dog as freight. TSA allows you to walk your dog through the metal detector with you, though if for some reason this is not possible, your dog must undergo a secondary screening, including a visual and physical inspection by TSA officers. TSA assures passengers that animals are never placed through the x-ray machine, though their carriers might be.

It depends on the airline

Sounds pretty straightforward and simple, right? However, as TSA recommends, it is absolutely necessary that you contact your airline or travel agent before arriving at the airport, to determine your airline's policy on traveling with pets. Each airline-including Delta, American, United, Air Tran, Southwest-has its own policies regarding how to handle your retriever on the flight, proper health documentation, etc. The easiest way to find these policies is to visit the portion of the airline's website that outlines animal travel procedures (see below).

However, there are some general rules of thumb you should always follow, according to Mike Stewart, renowned dog trainer and owner of Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Miss. After years of experience traveling with his dogs, Stewart shared his tips for making the process as smooth as possible:

Before you leave for the airport

  • Check with your airline for its specific rules and let them know ahead of time that you will be bringing your dog.
  • Within 10 days of your flight, take your dog to the vet and get a statement of acclimation (proving he has had his shots and is fit to fly).
  • Check the weather forecast for your departure destination as close to flight time as possible; your dog cannot fly if the temperature is above 85 degrees or below 25 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Write down the dimensions of your dog's crate.
  • Place your dog in the crate and weigh it.
  • Tape a zip-top bag of dog food to the top of the crate.
  • Place a label on the outside of the crate with your dog's name and your contact information.
  • Put a collar on your dog-one he can't slip off-that has your contact information on it.
  • Place shredded newspaper inside the crate for your dog to rest on.
  • Attach two cups to the inside of the front door to the crate, one with food and one with water (these can be found at major pet-supply retailers).
  • Be sure to have a lead in your pocket before you leave.

Once you arrive at the airport

  • Plan to arrive at the airport at least two hours early; you must take your dog to the service counter to check him as freight.
  • After TSA officials have passed your dog through security and placed his crate on the plane, be sure a stewardess gives you a receipt stating that your dog made it on board; this receipt matches a sticker on the dog's crate.

"First and foremost, check with your airline to find out about their specific policies," said Stewart. "I've also found that if you're traveling north, say into Canada, you have to be very mindful of the weather. Depending on the temperature at your connecting flight destination [if you have one], it might be too cold for your dog to travel the rest of the way. Lots of people ask me why Drake [retired DU mascot] doesn't show up on more episodes of DU-TV, and honestly, it's because it's too cold for him to fly."

Use the links below to view the specific policies of the major airlines: