My German shepherd guide dog has been to the ACB convention five times, to Mexico twice, to Kauai, Maui, Martinique, Haiti, Saint Martin, Saint Bart and Guadalupe. We have made numerous trips around the country by car, bus, train and plane. Although Griffin and I were matched as a team in 1998, I have been a guide dog handler for 36 years and have always loved to travel.
Here are a few of my tried-and-true travel tips. If you are leaving the country, don't assume that your dog will automatically be granted the same access rights as you are guaranteed at home. Carefully research the health regulations, access laws and prepare all necessary travel documents well in advance. Start this document-gathering about six months before your departure date. There might be medical procedures that need to be performed at spaced intervals, such as the rabies titre tests required to enter Hawaii. Schedule your final vet visit to acquire a health certificate as close as possible to your departure date. Make copies of a statement of the fact that your dog is a guide dog written in the language of the country you plan to visit. Practice a simple phrase in the appropriate language to explain your dog's status as a trained guide dog.
Check to see if you will be permitted to bring dry dog food into the country you plan to visit. If not, find out what brands of food are available and begin transitioning your dog to the new diet to avoid upsetting his system. If you are allowed to bring in your preferred canine cuisine, purchase an adequate supply plus extra treats. The stress of travel and the extra exercise you are likely to get will insure that your dog isn't in any danger of gaining weight during a trip. The treats will make long flights and delays in feeding schedules easier for your dog to handle.
Check to see that you have what you will need to cope with stress- related diarrhea or stomach upset. I would suggest a supply of Imodium, medications for hot spots, some Benadryl, vet-wrap, hydrogen peroxide and gauze pads as basics in building a first-aid kit. Include a stack of Swiffer cloths in your bag of grooming tools. If you groom your dog in a hotel bathroom, a quick sweep of the floor with one of these soft cloths will collect loose dog hair for easy disposal. In your purse or fanny pack, fold a few sheets of paper towel, a travel pack of baby wipes or moistened towlettes, plastic pickup bags, and hand sanitizer to clean up any accidents. Accidents can happen to anyone in the hurry and confusion of travel; having the right things handy to deal with them will make them less embarrassing or frustrating.
I once made the mistake of allowing Griffin to run loose unsupervised just before an early morning flight. We were delayed on the ground because of ice on the wings and were in danger of missing a tight connection. So we dashed through the concourse at a run trailing the meet-and-assist person panting in our wake calling out the changes in directions we needed. At 30,000 feet, my normally calm dog suddenly erupted from under the seat in front of me and crawled into my lap. He panted and whined frantically. I went to the front of the plane with an airsick bag in hand. Griffin jumped and scratched at the exit door. I stood there trying to convince him that he could pee into the bag. Unfortunately, he had ingested something that didn't agree with him and had a severe attack of diarrhea.
At most airports, you need to leave the concourse area to go outside to relieve your dog. This means coming back through security before boarding your next flight. Try to schedule longer delays between flights to make this extra trip outside possible. If the worst happens, don't let it ruin your trip. All any of us can do is be as prepared as we can be and deal with it as calmly as we can. After all, anyone can get sick while traveling. Now if airports would only supply indoor facilities for canine travelers, life would be a lot simpler for the dog on the go!
Carry a few meals for your dog in your hand luggage. If a bag goes astray, you won't arrive at your destination tired with a hungry dog and no place to purchase supplies late at night. In fact, counting out individual meals in Ziploc bags is a convenient way to pack your dog food. It makes it easier to distribute the bulk and weight in your luggage. You can purchase heavy-duty disposable plastic dog dishes that fold flat for water in most pet stores. The bags of food can be easily converted into serving dishes by folding the stiff top edges back on themselves. If you are concerned about the quality of the water and its adverse effects on your dog, you might consider using only bottled water or carrying tablets to purify the water he drinks.
Pack at least one toy for burning off steam after a hard day of guiding. I know it doesn't seem logical, but dogs do enjoy a vigorous romp to unwind after having to remain focused guiding all day. A towel, mat or rug serves well as a travel bed and gives your dog a sense of place in a strange room. A tie-down or bed chain comes in handy if you are planning to share living space with another dog handler. It also shows your dog where his place is in an unfamiliar setting. You will both be happier if he isn't wandering around getting into things or tripping you as you attempt to make your way to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
If you don't normally relieve your dog on leash, start doing this about two weeks before your trip. This will permit you and your dog enough time to develop a routine. You will avoid those struggles to get your dog to relieve in unfamiliar places if you don't have to add the strangeness of being asked to relieve on leash, when he is accustomed to running free in his own backyard. You will also have a chance to practice picking up after him if you don't ordinarily do that. Picking up dog waste makes you a more welcome guest wherever you go. This practice has the added benefit of allowing you to monitor your dog's health. When stools are soft, unshaped and begin to have a strong odor, you might want to slow down your sightseeing for awhile or administer an anti-diarrhea medication before things really get out of hand.
The day before your trip, cut back on your dog's food by about half. If you feed in the evening, substitute a couple of dog biscuits. Limit his intake of water by measuring a cupful into his dish the morning of your departure. During the day, you can give a small biscuit or a few pieces of kibble at spaced intervals to avoid empty-stomach vomiting. You can also give him an ice cube or two to keep him hydrated but not in need of a frantic dash to find a relief area. If you are flying, your dog will mostly spend the journey sleeping, so limiting his intake won't put much of a strain on him.
Sometimes, it is easy to forget that when you don't know the area yourself, you may need to give more praise and attention to reassure your dog that you know he is trying to do his job. If you need to correct Juno because he is showing an unprofessional interest in chasing that iguana, have him perform a simple task like "come" or "sit." This will return his focus to his job and allow you to praise honestly. During stressful times, it helps to give your dog more positive feedback like a stroke on the head, a scratch behind the ears or other quiet attention. Such little gestures of affection keep his mind on pleasing you and give him reassurance he may desperately need when your routines and environments are undergoing radical changes. Have fun, but remember to keep a reasonable routine that also meets your dog's needs.
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