According to Plan

Wouldn’t it be nice if everything just went according to plan.  My husband’s grandmother used to always say “Plan your work and work your plan.”  It sounds simple enough, a nice sound bite.  In reality “working” the plan usually includes updating, and sometimes discarding the plan for a new approach, based on the situations that arise.  Planning for the unexpected should always be part of the equation.

Our Doberman, Roenan, would have been 16 years old this September but she began having serious health problems again in July.  As much as we wanted to have her still with us, she went downhill very quickly and we knew that her pain level was far too great.  She would not make to her “birthday” and we reluctantly decided to euthanize her sooner than we had hoped.  Our 16 year goalpost was revealed to be an arbitrary one, meaning nothing to our companion, which would only prolong her suffering.

We had planned to have the mobile vet come to our home for the procedure, as we did for our Myra last summer, to keep Roenan calm and secure during her last moments.  Unfortunately the mobile vet happened to be on vacation when everything came to a head.  We found ourselves scheduling her final visit at our regular vet’s office… despite our original plan.  Roenan was in so much pain she didn’t even seem to notice she was back at the vet’s office and showed no nervousness or fear during this last visit.

As difficult as it was, we understood that our plans had to change to fit new circumstances.  Ignoring her pain would do nothing for Roenan and would have been selfish of us.  She was a wonderful companion who had a long and happy life and she is missed.  Changing our path wasn’t easy, and I’m not the most patient person, but change is necessary.

My goal to have Benson certified by now was another plan where I have been overly optimistic.  While he is picking up on advanced commands (and interacting with those we visit extremely well) Benson is still young and a bundle of energy that needs to mellow some before he can pass certification testing.  His gentle nature and eagerness to follow direction help, but he becomes impatient at long doctor visits and sometimes whines quietly toward the end of those meetings rather than staying relaxed and quiet.

Benson and I must both practice patience during this process.  We follow Pet Partners relationship building technique called P.E.T.S. which stands for Presence (Proximity), Eye contact, Touch, and Speech & tone.  Benson has trained long enough to become more confident and comfortable around medical equipment, elevators, vending machines, carts, etc.  However, he still becomes nervous when in cramped spaces trying to maneuver around people or objects.  With encouragement he gets through it but his anxiety is still noticeable.

All in all the plan is working out, just slowly.  It takes time to develop these skills, particularly as Benson’s handler.  Along the way we’ve made slight adjustments in our exercise routine and training to benefit both Benson and myself.  Small course corrections that help us work together as a unit and force me to progress as his coach and partner.  With persistence we will meet our goal when the time is right.

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Speaking of Trouble: Trouble Gifting Pets vs. Pets Gifting Trouble

Winter & early spring offer round after round of holidays for gifting pets.  Every year shelters become overrun with those unfortunate souls who don’t ‘make the grade’ in their new homes & are abandoned or returned.  Many holiday gifts of animals are deemed “too much trouble” or “not the right fit for our family.”  Far too many end up on the streets or in shelters that don’t have resources to care for the influx.  As another of these holidays is upon us it’s important to keep all of this in mind.

Individuals & families try to find the ‘perfect’ companions, but often don’t take enough time with the process to find the right fit.  Sometimes the cost associated with caring for these pets is underestimated, as well as the time needed to train & housebreak them.  Too many are returned as families realize the commitment needed is beyond their capacity to provide.

Let’s face it, not every finned, furred, or feathered friend is right for your family or situation.  It’s good to recognize limitations & needs of all parties involved going into the pet adoption process.  It’s okay to foster until you find the right companion, or volunteer a day or two at the shelter to get to know a few candidates better.  [Also, using the term fostering with young children helps them to understand the process.  Explain the need to be sure everyone (including fido) is happy & things will work out in adoption.]

Like holidays, our newest adoptee Miss Toots brings more than her share of excitement & irritation.  Remember though, seemingly never-ending chores & obligations are usually tempered with generous portions of dessert (again like during the holidays with our families & friends).  Toots was trouble from the start [she is a ‘bird-dog’ with a strong chase instinct] & simply “puppy full of it” because of her young age.  Someone said more trouble than she was worth as both Benson & Tootsy had been adopted & later brought back to shelter where we found them.  Although our chosen path with Benson consists of quite a bit of trouble (with training, certification, gearing up & traveling for visitations, etc.) we believe it is always worth the time & expense.

Since embarking on our path, our family has been through many significant changes.  Despite down-time (during illness & busy holidays) Benson & I have completed about 50 training visitations in the last 6 months including (but not limited to): worship & drop-in sessions at Edgewood, Orchard Park & Pierce House assisted living & nursing centers; after-school program, worship & office hours at a local church; shopping at area stores & play-dates with friends; doctor’s visits, elevators, & snack bar at the VA & other locations.  Every minute of trouble is worth it for us & those we meet.

So, this holiday help a shelter & take-on some ‘Trouble’ during these hard times.  Consider providing a foster or forever-home for a lucky critter, or make a donation to a local shelter at the least.  Go, take the time & find each other!

 

Parade of Delightful Trouble: Toots!

Dawn greeted with smiles, kisses, and happy hellos on the way to day’s first potty break.  Following dad’s feet to the door & out the gate, they’re off—seeming to cheer “new day, happy day, follow me!”  Tearing across the field to the back lawn & tumbling over top one another, both take turns chasing each other back & forth.  After a few minutes, a quick stop to sniff about & do their business before continuing back inside.  A few sips of water, ‘first breakfast’ biscuit treats & it’s time to snuggle back down again.  Everybody finds their spots, settling in to enjoy the last moments of calm & cuddle before parade day gets in gear!

[Important: PLEASE DO NOT venture out to train in public environments like those described herein unless you & your companion have done the foundational basic training & practiced working together using those commands successfully. Taking a walk around the neighborhood with a companion, with occasional sirens or groups of people, is much different than being surrounded by crowds & startling noises for long periods of time.  Your companions should feel comfortable and secure with you before venturing into more active and distracting surroundings.]

Parades!  Every first Saturday in August, the Town of Wilton Annual Blueberry Festival Parade begins in the parking lot directly across the street.  By early morning everyone is getting vehicles & themselves into place, finishing last-minute touches & warming up for the march toward downtown.  The noise continues to build until about 10 minutes or so before start time, then everyone quiets down to almost silence waiting for the signal to begin.  9 AM & our family was ready—with its newest member, a new ‘baby sister’ for Benson, six-month-old Tootsy (aka Toots)—watching all the activity & enthusiastically greeting all other dogs in the crowd!

‘Front-row seats’ to a parade, complete with horses, sirens and Shriners speed-demons, provide a variety of stimuli that can startle or overwhelm a companion pet.  Similar venues, such as outdoor sporting events or fundraising walks, can prove valuable training experiences when planned & managed carefully.  Learning to navigate varied environments & situations, with varying degrees of activity and distraction, is a pivotal ability for any assistance or working companion.  We added one additional challenge this year: Toots!  This would be her first experience with large groups of people since days at shelter, and we knew there was potential Toots could spell trouble.

We were blessed with the Greater Androscoggin Humane Shelter [ http://www.gahumane.org/ or on FaceBook at https://www.facebook.com/gahumane ], whose staff & volunteers begin laying the groundwork with basic commands while sheltering & fostering all their rescues.  Benson & Toots were ‘best buddies’ from the moment we all laid eyes on her at Androscoggin, where she was known as Toodles.  Our home is alive with noises of fun and hope again, even if we could have done without the other aspects of puppy: occasional disemboweled shoes; late nights & early mornings of house-training; misappropriated items deemed toys by a cute wayward chewer, and so on. (We transitioned Toodles to Tootsy because a name meaning ‘goodbye’ is not ideal; it may confuse her when others use it in context during visitations.  It most certainly creates an ironic situation for those who are trying to teach their new forever-friend to come!  PetParents can more easily transition a companion to a new name if it is similar to its current one.)

Parades (and similar events as those staged from the facility across our street, like cycling tours/fundraisers and benefit runs/walks) offer an additional benefit when training: I can shift back & forth in the crowd throughout the parade to come or go as we please.  This is not the case at more formal settings or ticketed events where our movement is limited out of respect to participants & other audience members.   They also happen to provide prime opportunity to keep advancing Benson’s training while bringing Toots up-to-speed.   As with small children, we need the ability to duck-out with an over-stimulated and difficult young one.

Try to set up the sessions for success—limiting the high-stress crowd/drill time (we do 15 or 20 minutes at most to begin, working up to 30+min) followed by breaks of free play or relaxed walk (a minimum of at least 5 to 10 minutes) for frequent but unpredictable lengths of time.  We alternate between levels of high activity & concentration, at the front of the crowd (within 5-10 feet of the parade), to the fringes of the activity in the back or even further off.  Hubby & I also use several techniques to create a dynamic training experience for each of them: planning entrances & exits with each companion; pair-time mixed with family-group time; exchanging leads (our pairings); using gear (packs, Halti-collars, vests/safety-wear) at random points in the session, and so on.   These practices enable us to easily trade-off or separate or work with one individually at any point, or to deal with problems—both companions prepared to work with either of us regardless of who began their training session or walk that day.  Benson & Toots are a wonderful match, and their friendly competitiveness has actually improved attention span & skill training with both.

Benson needs ‘down time’ to process what he’s learned, observing the group from a secure, non-threatening distance periodically.  Whenever possible, take the time initially to assess the crowd & potential obstacles when training with your companion, before moving into the action, and then periodically at various moments during the process.  Benson is able to concentrate on our relationship, following direction from me during the close-quarters action, when he’s already observed the crowd.  He needs to take his queues from me, as he studies, trusting me to evaluate & ‘pilot’ until he develops enough skill & confidence to take the lead.

The parade was festive, the crowd raucous as ever, with Toots & Benson making it through together.  The only difficult moments were when the full-size horses trotted out.  Toots gave an ‘alert’ bark—they were the first horses she had ever seen!  Both she & Benson stood to go meet & play with them, struggling against their leads for a few moments.  Everyone settled down once the horses repositioned themselves & stood still, waiting for the queue to continue down the street.  Come nightfall, the whole family ventured outside & enjoyed some fireworks—a pleasant surprise since they scare many dogs.  We had prepared to be comforting & calming, possibly retreating home with distressed pups, rather than actually watching fireworks! 

Because we took the time to prepare & everyone had a pleasant experience, Hubby & I are really looking forward to the next parade or major outing.  Benson & I are now preparing for our training visitations beginning this fall: children’s reading sessions at the local library; the after-school program at the church; assisted living centers in the area.  Toots is a quick learner, eager to please, and has a great disposition.  I expect she may be far enough along by next spring to consider getting her certified when Benson tests (dogs must be at least a year old to certify through Pet Partners).  Tootsy’s enthusiastic, but sometimes troublesome, intellect may be the key to her future success as a companion.

Hubby & I are happy with how things are working out with our newly blended family so far, even if the timing wasn’t what we expected.  Occasionally you have to listen to your instinct and take a chance on integrating someone new into your life.  We saw an online listing for Toots, considered her attributes a potential match for our family, and took the time to research it further by visiting the shelter with Benson.  Take an educated risk and open your heart and home to a rescue you’ve carefully & lovingly considered.  We took a chance, and were willing to deal with the ‘trouble’ that went with that.  Now, we are all enjoying this fresh path & grand adventure together; we can’t wait to share our next steps with you!

Summer Solstice & Solitude

Myra

Dark, heavy clouds erupt in a series of thunderous cracks & turn mid-day to twilight.  Slowly, the rain can be heard moving in; somewhere out near the lake, then the edge of our yard & finally overhead.  Under the shelter of birches & maples, three of us surround her, waiting with her to the last breath as droplets slowly begin finding their way through the canopy.  A nod of confirmation before a hushed goodbye respectfully leaves the two of us to grieve beside her.  The lock of hair, final hug & wrap of pink blanket—details etched into memory as waves wash over us.  The swell of the storm rises fierce, unrelenting, matching the emotion of the moment, rushing over the expanse, pouring out with our tears. 

Summer’s a time for long days, graduations, vacations, reunions & weddings.  We often use summer as an adjective to describe life & love in all their glory: vigorous, dynamic, in full-bloom.  We associate spring & summer seasons with growth & development, both offer promise & a sense of anticipation; whereas, aging & death seem paired with fall & winter.  Somehow dying during spring or summer appears premature, untimely, even when it’s expected.  Truth is, anyone who has been a caretaker will tell you, death has its own schedule & itinerary.

Experiencing life means confronting death, our shared & certain fate at some point.  Just as we die, our pet companions will die.  Although most avoid talking about it, end-of-life discussions help families confront & determine their own desires for care & treatment.  Working this out in advance can make things easier for those we love to handle things once we pass on.  Advance directives & wills indicate a person’s wishes when incapacitated or dead.  They also often provide guardianship for those who might be orphaned.  However, most people don’t consider issues regarding a pets impending death, nor do many discuss or include adoption arrangements in their own directives should their companion be orphaned.

Myra was our second adopted pawed-daughter & was between 2 & 4 years old when caught & taken to a humane shelter a friend managed.  Horribly underweight, abused & exposed to the elements, Myra was a difficult foster.  Our friend had too large a pet-family to take her on—primarily because they were fostering & adopting over a dozen furry-orphans from a next-door groomer & boarding kennel at the time!  Sadly, numerous dogs were left at the business when their elderly owners died because very few people ever took responsibility for their deceased relative’s companions.

Hubby & I visited Myra in “lockup” & quickly decided we would rise to the challenge.  Without children & with fewer pet-kin, our home was a calmer, safer environment for rehabilitation.  This allowed us to focus our attention on integrating her into our household.  She adored hubby, bonded with him immediately, & reveled in us having two other “dawg-ters”—she had sisters!  Myra became part of our pack, healing & eventually gaining confidence interacting with people & other animals socially.  It wasn’t long before she became the alpha-leader of the group!

As the years passed by, our family, like all others, experienced a lot of changes including relocations & illness.  Family dynamics shift & change all the time, yet few of us acknowledge our own aging & our growing list of limitations or those of others.  We take moments to step back & assess the family situation from time to time.  Identifying changing needs & abilities of the family allows us to adjust behaviors & expectations—to better deal with obstacles & life transitions.

Hubby & I have gained & lost many companions over time.  When our family relocated two years ago we had four canines, all over the age of ten, with complicated medical conditions.  Our new vet & his staff were a godsend, gently reminding us that our “children” were now geriatrics!  Hubby & I began discussing the fact that all four of our dog companions were in the final stages of their lives.  We shared our feelings on their continuing care & impending deaths.

Euthanasia is a difficult subject for many people, but provides a compassionate way for our companions to pass away when we know illness or age prevents them from continuing to live comfortably.  They love us unconditionally & their lives are centered on our happiness.  Like small children, domesticated pets have limited capacity to understand or care for themselves; they depend on you to make important decisions regarding their care in life & in death.

About two months after relocating, our oldest adoptee Jasmine (17+yr Chihuahua) died of a heart attack & our youngest Lily (10+yr beagle-husky mix) was diagnosed with inoperable bladder cancer.  Jasmine actually experienced a series of heart attacks over a Saturday & died that evening at home.  The vet was closed for the weekend, and emergency animal clinics aren’t common here as they are in urban areas.  Hubby & I regretted not making arrangements earlier to prevent the pain of the attacks over the last hours of her life.  So when Lily developed further bladder & bowel obstruction from the aggressive cancer in just a few months, we recognized her discomfort was becoming too great.  We couldn’t justify keeping her with us any longer, and made arrangements for the three of us to visit the vet.

After the experience with Lily, we decided future “last hours” with our companions should be at home.  For obvious reasons, companions don’t always enjoy vet visits & can become anxious.  We did not want ours stressed with the ordeal of travel or setting.  A friend shared the number of a veterinary service that made house/farm calls for care, knowing our wishes & that we could use for future emergency care if needed.

There we were, left with Myra & Roenan, both over 14yrs old—ALL of us depressed, having lost both Lily & Jasmine within 6 months.  Adopting Benson shortly after that brought new life to the ‘ol gals!  Recently, though, Myra’s troubles with her back, hips & knees had worsened.  She was losing mobility, and remaining laying down to eat some days.  Weighing over 100lbs, it was hard for either of us to lift & assist her to the yard up & down the front steps.  Sometimes it took a second person.  Ear disease had caused hearing loss & difficulties with eyesight were becoming more troublesome.

Myra began to separate herself from the family at times these last few weeks.  She’d lie down in the bedroom rather than stay with everyone in the living room, preferring to be by herself (& sleeping) most of the day.  She stopped walking the hills or wild areas in the back yard, sitting off in the grass near the house watching everyone else play & run instead.  Desire for solitude & rest were some of the signals we had waited to see.  It was time; our grief tempered only by the knowledge we did all we could to make her life with us a happy & healthy one.

Myra was a great companion for so many reasons & had every bit as individual a personality as you or I have.  She loved kids, was so gentle around small toddlers & babies, was an awesome listener & took direction well.  She had always been independent but friendly.  Myra was protective but not aggressive—you knew someone had your back if she was there.  Her influence and demeanor made an impression on Benson, and he’s modeled after her.  Myra helped shape him into a gentle & playful alpha leader, loyal & loving, who has comforted us in this grief.

Soon, we will repeat this ritual yet again.  Before that though, we will enlist Roenan & Benson in the task of inviting a new sibling into their pack and beginning its training.  The crossover will allow Benson a playmate to ease the burden on Roe, as she’s losing mobility also.  When Roe passes, Benson will have bonded with his newest dog-buddy; having each other to work, train & pal around with should ease their sadness.  Roe has been Benson’s best friend since day one here.  We empathize with the grief and loss he will feel losing the last members of his “first pack.”

As summer-solstice passed, and days began growing shorter once more, our Myra left us.  She is not alone though.  She’s left for “Summerland” to join Jazz & Lily.  They are still running & playing… chasing squirrels & feline family right alongside each other… if only in our hearts.

Myra, you will be sorely missed.

Blessed Be baby girl, we love you always.

Setting off into Summer…

Maneuvering new surroundings: strange smells, unfamiliar sights, obstacles, loud noises, new people—it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.  Fluid environments, never silent or still, make even the most centered individuals feel off-balance at times.  Conditions can change suddenly, anticipation or eagerness shifting to fear and nervousness in the blink of an eye.  Preparedness, communication, and a sense of adventure help hedge the bet that what will emerge from these experiences will be positive—for you and all involved.  Self-confidence, being open to new experiences & ‘flavors,’ repeatedly immersing self in the experience of living in the moment, and empathy for fellow travelers of this journey in life can impart the perspective necessary to succeed & thrive in the harshest of climates.

Daddy & Benson in the chair hugging! :)

Daddy & Benson in the chair hugging! 🙂

One of the most rewarding aspects of training & bonding with Benson is his eagerness in approaching the world.  For a puppy that started out friendly but nervous & edgy in the frightening, crazy environment of the humane shelter, Benson has developed a remarkably calm and laid-back manner.  He now has a special kind of quiet & cautious confidence.  As Benson works, plays & bonds with me & hubby, he learns he can trust and rely on our judgment when meeting new people & places; when he ‘reads’ that we are calm and relaxed, Benson responds in like manner.  Now, short outings and longer trips are exciting—and full of opportunity to broaden training.  We cultivate social manners, assistance abilities, and strengthen the connections in both our family & with the people and communities we visit.

So it’s Memorial Day weekend& summer’s on its way, most of us are looking forward to vacations & weekends with our loved ones.

Bensons Halti

Bensons Halti 

Benson is beat, whew!
Benson gets tired after his walks & training!

Traveling though, can be harrying & tiring.  Between planning, packing, loading and everything in between…it’s exhausting just thinking about ‘holiday.’  In honor of the occasion, we’re going to get right down to it with a handful of travel tip links & that can help you make travel less stressful for everyone involved!

Benson & his tug toy

Benson enjoys hanging in the sun with his tug toy while Mom works in the garden…

WindowWithDAD

Daddy & Benson checking out the scenes…

There are many reputable sites that can serve as guides for your travel prep, regardless of the mode you are choosing, and for everything from international travelto vaccine requirements, etc.  I have standard items to include in my first-aid kit and travel packs… and sometimes I take additional items depending on the type of trip & where we plan to go, and whether or not we’ll be staying over anywhere away from home.

Benson loves rose-colored glass!

Benson loves rose-colored glass!

Now for some great resource & product links—here are just a few organizations, site & companies I like…

#1 link for today’s topic:  There’s nothing like a reliable source of tips & critical information, and the American Veterinary Medical Association site is just that.  Check them out at http://www.avma.org/animal_health/travelingwithpet-faq.asp  as they have everything under the sun, and will have answers to many questions you may have, as well as tons of links that can aid you in planning and once you arrive at your destination!

Pet friendly hotel links and tips are provided from the hotel.com link with travel expert Nicole Hockin (travelsmartblog/hotels.com)  http://www.travelsmartblog.com/2011/08/tips-for-traveling-with-pets/

Want to make sure you remember everything?  Here’s a list (and they have links to other pet travel sites & blogs): http://www.dogjaunt.com/guides/travel-check-list-and-packing-list/

Halti lead head gear

Halti collar for our outings…

 

FirstAid & Necessities

Be sure to pack a few staple items & be careful of chemicals/etc.
natural bug spray, paw creme, antiseptic, collapsible food & water dish, flashlight, etc.

 

There are TONS of suppliers to consider when purchasing travel items, wear, or safety devices… Benson & I have tried a few—some new & even used items found at yard sales& dime stores!  Look around at local thrift shops & yard sales & also check out some manufacturers and retailers online.

durability & control

Strong dog lead vs. wimpy lead… Lupine Wins http://lupinepet.com/

Benson and I have tried many, but we like the portable water/food bowls by http://www.bowldog.biz/

Bensons Portable Bowls

bowldog.biz has the most awesome collapsible food & water bowls…check Bensons pair!

 

For travel toys & gear/etc—and packs like the one Benson is wearing in the photos on our page, you can try http://shop.kyjen.com/  and http://www.kyjen.com/products/category/kyjen-brands/outward-hound/  Water, waste bags & first-aid kits fit nicely and you can be sure necessities like those can be carried by your companion!  Don’t forget important things like medical alert bracelets, extra medication in a waterproof pill ‘box,’ natural bug repellants, sunscreen, and a whole bunch of odds & ends.

Brushes Benson uses

Benson uses a few brushes & accessories

Photos have example items to include in your pack, along with examples of leads, other gear, and specialty dog-wear ‘suited’ to your trip like Benson & I use.

Retractable lead--not always the best option

Retractable leads are not always strong enough, or don’t allow firm control of the lead… this is a heavy-duty version

Always take hunter orange (vests) when visiting known hunting areas & going hiking/etc.  and wear reflector vests when out at night.  You can see designs at http://www.lonewolfdogwear.com/ —they have many specialty items available, including hunter/blaze orange, camouflage, rain jackets, halters, reflectors, booties & and much more!

Bensons Blaze-Orange Reflective vest

Benson loves his Blaze-Orange Reflective vest, and it is highly visible even in the dark!

Bensons Clothes

Clothing items Benson wears on his outings…

We picked up a fleece jacket/squall jacket (made by the Lands’ End) at a yard sale!

Blue Jacket (lightweight)

a lightweight blue jacket, great for everyday…

http://www.landsend.com/ix/outerwear/Outerwear/Pet/index.html?tab=7&store=le&catNumbers=1028~1302&visible=1~2~1

We also found a My Good Dog Polartec Thermal Pro Winter Dog Jacket

Bensons Warm Coat

Bensons snuggle-warm coat for the fall and into winter, or on chilly nights…

see it here: http://www.buzzillions.com/image.dox?R=5494760#ixzz1w0wRzQJGG you can find a review of it here (that I agree with):  http://www.buzzillions.com/reviews/my-good-dog-a30069-polartec-thermal-pro-winter-jacket-reviews#review-15590324  cute, easy to get into, snuggly warm, and clear of areas for urinating/etc so the coat doesn’t get soiled.

NOW GO! GO! Go put your travel know-how to work, and pack—GO ENJOY YOUR TIME TOGETHER WITH YOUR PET COMPANIONS THIS SUMMER!  ❤

Challenges & Opportunities

Challenges lie ahead, no matter where we begin our journey.  Obstacles of every kind seem to materialize, blocking the path; until we adjust our ‘framework’ and begin perceiving those obstacles as opportunities.  Suddenly a positive paradigm emerges, a rebirth of thought in constructive active tense—even when experiencing not-so-pleasant circumstances.  Our challenges become our ‘spring’boards into new being: catalysts of growth and change; a cycle of chrysalis, transformation and renewal; foundations for strength and perseverance throughout the rest of our journey. 

We’ve gotten to know the Foreign Service dog Firu, and resolved his family’s travel dilemma, while also highlighting some travel and documentation tips for ALL pet companions—service companions, therapy buddies, and typical pets alike.

[To catch up on the discussion visit our previous post, https://bensonsbuddies.wordpress.com/2012/03/31/traveling-buddies/
and http://mom2nomads.wordpress.com/2012/03/29/111/ ; for more on traveling with service pets (& notes on international travel) visit http://www.deltasociety.org/page.aspx?pid=492 and to meet other Foreign Service companions be sure to visit https://www.facebook.com/FabulousForeignServicePets ]

Having touched on the issues of medical privacy and legal documentation regarding assistance animals, I’d like to provide some background of my personal story and familiarity with service animals & therapy pets.  (I’ll link some additional useful resources a bit later in this story.)

Personal need and responsibility go hand in hand when working with service animals.  Just as we have the rights to an assistance companion to help meet our daily needs, others have the right to expect safe and positive interactions with those service animals and their handlers.  Having a service or therapy animal takes dedication and discipline, and demands regard not just for one’s own needs but those of the service animal, and the interactions the team has with the public, as well. 

A number of factors led to Benson & I training as a therapy team—primarily, my husband of almost 16 years being diagnosed with MS about 12 years ago.  We were already familiar with working dogs of many sorts (police K9; search & rescue; etc.) in addition to physical/mental service animals, but suddenly we were in the position of needing one.  We knew my husband’s MS was advancing and he would benefit from having a service dog to help with a few common tasks and depression resulting from MS over time.

Even as he recognized the need, my husband resisted the idea of a service dog at first.  He feared the expense, but accepting a service companion was also a statement to the seriousness of his illness.  Fortunately, a friend involved our church during the fundraising and training process of her second service companion which kept the idea fresh in our minds, and wanting to learn more.

With experience in ADA and compliance requirements for non-profits, I began researching human-animal welfare & health organizations.  I looked for groups empowering individuals and encouraging personal responsibility with human training as the primary component—the core—of service/ therapy teams.  I discovered Delta Society/Pet Partners.  Benson & I are working to certify through Delta Society, so at risk of sounding a bit ‘commercial’ I’d like to say that Delta Society provides a great amount of information and the following links I provide are through DS/PP.

Many people have questions regarding not just documentation of service pets—but also what is required: what basic standards are expected of assistance dogs in particular.  For an excellent overview check out http://www.deltasociety.org/page.aspx?pid=183  Basic training standards can be found in one of their free publications, “Minimum Standards for Service Dogs,” Delta Society http://www.deltasociety.org/document.doc?id=373 .  From legal information, to outreach materials, to sources for further study—Delta Society/Pet Partners is dedicated to “improving human health through therapy, service, and companion animals”—and is an absolute resource treasure.  With the information DS/PP provided, I began the process of developing & certifying our team.

Would it surprise you to know that handlers of service companions are not required to identify your or otherwise differentiate it from a pet?  Or that the dog does not have to wear any vests or tags to identify it as a service dog?  Did you know that they aren’t obligated to answer any questions regarding the nature or extent of a disability?  In fact, did you know others are prohibited, by law, from asking anything of the handler except “is this a service dog?”  Some of these facts made it easier for my husband to consider including a service companion pet in his daily life.  It helps to know your rights & how ADA & other laws can assist.

Once Benson & I embarked on this adventure, hubby decided to come along!  Suddenly, he was excited—his attitude toward training & having his own assistance dog became positive.  Hubby even discovered related interests (play therapy, animal-assisted activities & therapies, etc.) in his graduate studies of sociology & counseling!  As my husband’s physical limitations increase, we will focus Benson’s tasks to include more helpful interaction between them and create more specific service duties.

Benson & I value all the buddies we have in our lives, and so we continue to educate ourselves & others to the health benefits of our pet partnerships.  Benson has been a positive influence on my partnership with my husband, and is helping us transition through the daily difficulties of chronic illness.  Service companions require a lot of all parties involved, but the benefits are astounding and make every moment worth the effort—we know so!

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Check out some FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) regarding service animals: http://www.deltasociety.org/page.aspx?pid=304

For those who need assistance with aid for acquiring or training a service dog, Delta Society recommends contacting Assistance Dog United Campaign (ADUC) ,which “provides financial assistance to individuals who have the need for an assistance dog but have difficulty in raising the necessary funds,” and to people/programs “whose purpose is to provide assistance dogs to people with disabilities.”  Check them out at: http://www.assistancedogunitedcampaign.org/

A simple brochure like this one from the Delta Society, can help others to understand the role your service dog fulfills and help you learn your rights as a service dog handler: http://www.deltasociety.org/document.doc?id=239  Delta Society recommends keeping a wallet-sized “law information card” of the ADA & other laws protecting service animals with their handlers on you to share with others when needed: http://www.deltasociety.org/document.doc?id=346

Be sure to check out our FaceBook page: https://www.facebook.com/BensonsBuddies

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