TRAVELING BUDDIES . . .

Sometimes we reach an impasse and need a fresh perspective; sometimes, we lose sight of possible solutions when we are denied one avenue of action; sometimes we are helping and serving in ways we don’t realize.   Acknowledging responsibilities, abilities & achievements are a huge part of assessing ourselves and our relations with our companions –human & animal alike.  Upon occasion we discover that someone fulfills an important job that we didn’t even consider, or haven’t acknowledged & celebrated yet. 

A friend, mom2nomads (M2N), shared on her blog a dilemma involving her human children’s ‘littermate’ and ‘pup-sibling’ Firu traveling with his family.  http://mom2nomads.wordpress.com/2012/03/29/111/  

This is a complicated issue and will comprise of a series of blogs regarding different aspects of traveling with pets. FIRST, we will begin with information on the special categories of pet travel companions and explaining Firu’s special designation and begin covering how to document basic requirements.  We will cover how you can handle ALL of these categories of pet companions with companies transporting you, and detail the general package of documentation needed; eventually this topic thread on BensonsBuddies can serve as a parent guide or checklist outlining how-to prepare & train ALL pet companions for travel, and a few tips for your trips!  I hope these blogs help your family journey with your pet-kin!

PART 1—QUALIFY…

M2N’s family is in the Foreign Service—-and serves “to promote peace, support prosperity, and protect American citizens while advancing the interests of the U.S. abroad” according to the US Department of State (USDS).  They act as diplomatic and civil emissaries (that are representative of our families in the U.S.) to areas around the world to live for periods of time.  Foreign Service  are similar to our active military in serving in sometimes “difficult and even dangerous environments” says the USDS.

M2N clearly expressed that her children rely on their furry sibling for stability–emotional and psychological, mental support.  The children have spent large amounts of time without their father while he has served in special capacities separate from the rest of the family.  The entire household is relocated to new places regularly and they must be prepared to be evacuated or reassigned when our government deems it necessary—at a moment’s notice.  They live in dangerous environments and risk their lives to assist in regions of conflict and difficulties serving their country actively.

Because of these stresses, Firu, their rescued ‘dog-ling’ was adopted as a puppy when they arrived in Costa Rica their newest home. Firu has helped the family bond in their new home after multiple traumatic relocations—regular relocations are both a blessing and a curse so to speak. For children of active military and civilians serving overseas, moving can be difficult, and stable companionship of a family pet can provide a key linchpin in helping ease the emotional trauma of moving.  When such children are saying goodbye (permanently or temporarily) to their family, friends or home, their personal or family pet can serve as a therapeutic pet companion that stays alongside them throughout their journeys.

M2N was at an impasse with United Airlines regarding travel with their fur-family.  The company admits they do not equate our Foreign Service with our active military troops—even when sending them to the same places, and under the same conditions as defined by the US Dept. of State.  The company does not equate the furry-friends as companions the same way they do those of active military & assistance dogsInstead of reclassifying their own policies to deal with the reality of families in this situation to make things easier, the current company restrictions put barriers up for our Foreign Service members & families—including outrageous fees.

However, there are special categories of companions that are exceptions to the more well-known rules of service dogs—ways that allow pets like Firu to serve beside their companion while traveling.  YES, they are legal! (These should not be taken advantage of by people whose companions don’t qualify.)   There are many categories of helper-companions—yes, the recognized seeing-eye and other physical assistance animals—but also mental/emotional assistance pets & therapy pets.  Whereas therapy pets may or may not be permitted in certain public locations depending on their duty at the time, true assistance animals—both physical and mental assisting companions—are permitted.  Firu is not simply a family pet, nor is he a therapy pet in the sense that Benson is training to become a therapy pet partner, but is a member of this special category of family pets that serve as EMOTIONAL SUPPORT AND PSYCHIATRIC ASSIST ANIMALS. **I’ve linked United’s own policy regarding pet companions in each of these categories, which aren’t exactly like all companies but are very helpful because they reflect general guidelines, see link below. 

M2N states in a section: “…And we endure separation; since we joined the FS nearly eight years ago our oldest has been separated from his father for a total of one year and six months, our two youngest just shy of two years due to medical evacuation, post evacuation and my husband volunteering to go to Iraq.”  Traumatic events, and hardship such as relocating two times in seven months at the will of our government, take a toll on everyone, especially children.

So for the Firus of the world, this is how to document the need and travel safely & legally.
You should qualify given the conditions you’ve described, here’s some info that will help you correct this situation!

PART 2—DOCUMENT, DOCUMENT, DOCUMENT!

First, speak with an embassy official regarding a statement of need from qualified individuals.  Statements from BOTH the Dept. of State and a medical doctor would be best, but the medical doctor statement should be sufficient.  Mental health OR Family-health General Practitioners legally qualify, regardless of the doctors listed as desired from the company.

Next, doctor must agree with your assessment of your pet’s critical role in your family’s life—specifically, the children’s—and be willing to make a short signed statement to that effect.  You can contact them by appointment, letter, or phone to discuss the pet-companions relationship to the family & your children’s emotional health in particular.  The doctor might want to schedule an appointment or observe the interactions of your family with the pet; they may require periodic updates as to how you all are doing.

At this point I’d like to make a couple of important points regarding discipline and certification that apply regardless of any classification.  It’s always good to train & get a Good Citizen certificate with your family pet.  It shows ability and sociability, and when paired with Veterinary immunization, fecal & blood test records, it gives you proof that your fur-family has earned consideration as a companion.

You and your ‘Firu’ will have to show discipline & follow specific guidelines regarding seating arrangements and any ‘2nd carry-on fee for something like a small crate when permissible.  Travel accommodations can be made [crate-by-side or staying seated beside the companion(s)] —esp if you all are grouped in seating anyway.  The sticking-point always seems to be when extra seat space is taken, and service animals must be floor or lap trained regardless.  Your companion cannot block access to emergency exits, and the family should take direction from stewards in charge of your seating (you’ll have documented & requested approval be put on-file for when it is needed).

Proper grooming and discipline prevents any ‘gripes’ with others is required, and be sure to keep your companion under control at all times.  Be accommodating when working with the company & crew to iron-out details.  It does take effort on the company’s staff to be receptive, so respect their effort, know your rights & work with them.  (Diplomatically, as you always do!)

You will need to contact ‘Firu’s’ vet and ensure you have records of rabies & other standard immunizations. a statement from the vet on your fur-kin’s temperament, hygiene & suitability for travel.  Take this opportunity to check with the vet on any necessary travel-aids or medicines your pet may need.  Though they aren’t always necessary, fecal tests are helpful. Be aware that some states/countries have quarantine laws & more strict regulation with pets including guide/assistance pets—so do your homework and contact the proper agencies with all your documentation.  (note: some people have hamsters, reptiles, bunnies, cats, and other types of emotional support animals!)

IN SUMMARY… M2N: I’d suggest you create a few easy-forms (like V.A. forms, bleh) for others in the Foreign Service who obviously also serve & need this help.  Create two or three simple “Statement of Need” documents that cover what we’ve discussed above—one the doctor to follow as a guide or just fill out & sign; the other for an embassy official to follow or just fill out and sign/stamp, one for the vet, etc.  Include the professionals’ contact info so your request can be verified by the travel company when necessary.  If you are able, make a legal sworn statement BY YOU in front of a qualified notary after forms & letters are completed & returned to you.  Make copies & keep originals.  In fact, keep originals on you, along with confirmation arrangements with that company all in your carry-on, while you travel!

[Physical or mental support] assistance animals should be permitted & FREE OF CHARGE—but again, you may pay a baggage fee if they allow you to bring a small crate.  During medical emergencies or evacuations your information can be on-file with the proper agencies to allow your pet to go with you.  However, they do require documentation verification and THAT TAKES TIME & PATIENCE and LOTS of advance planning.  Again, start now & DO RESEARCH because places like the UK & Hawaii (for example) have very strict laws regarding ANY animals—be patient & press on!

One last note, REGARDING YOUR MEDICAL PRIVACY: although forms often state that companies have the right to know your condition & contact your doctor to verify, you only have to provide the information needed to verify patient status and need for therapy pet.  YOUR MEDICAL CONDITION(s) OR ANY DETAILS THEREOF ARE YOUR OWN—they remain private according to HIPPA law unless it is pertinent to quarantine or other health-emergencies in the regions you are traveling to/from.  YOU ARE NOT REQUIRED TO TELL ANY AGENT THE SPECIFICS of your condition, BEYOND YOUR DOCUMENTED PROFESSIONALS statement of need.

Stay tuned for the next BensonsBuddies post on this topic –Travel Volume Two!

link to to United Airline’s Service Animals policy:  http://pss.united.com/web/en-US/content/travel/specialneeds/disabilities/assistance_animals.aspx?Mobile=1

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