Wednesday, February 20, 2013

I've Got Those Puppy Raiser Airline Blues

On Feb 4, I posted "Off We Go, Into the Wild, Blue Yonder!" about the positive experiences a pup in training receives visiting an airport and flying. However, there is another side to the story. Unfortunately, some airlines refuse access to service dogs in training. To name a few:  Southwestern, Delta Airlines and American. In a nutshell, since the dog's handler does not have a special need, access is denied. No special need - no access. It's enough to make a puppy raiser sing the blues.

Talking with a Delta Air rep at the airport, I mentioned that denying access denies a service dog in training! Those early experiences flying could greatly benefit this dog and its future partner when they fly as a working team for the first time. She stopped short. Never before had this notion crossed her mind. Her expression said, "Hey, that kinda makes sense!"

Flying with Sandy, a Southeastern Guide Dog in training, May 2010. The Atlanta Airport is a huge, bustling hub but Sandy loved every minute of the trip and behaved beautifully. Later that summer Sandy accompanied me to Chicago. Now she works as a guide dog.

Last fall, I started dialoguing with Delta Airlines over their denial of access. Personally, I have a strong interest in Delta changing their policy because: 1) they fly out of the terminal nearest us, 2) they fly to Alaska where our family periodically visits and works, 3) we have a Delta Skymiles credit card and, 4) flying with our service pups is important to us.
My annotated letter of 9-24-2012 to Delta Airlines customer care/complaint/other:

Case Number 7161582

1. It is important for service dogs in training to get the exposure of working in an airport and flying, since someday their owner with his/her particular disability may need to fly with him. The animal cannot get this valuable training if denied access. Flying as a pet in a carrier in the hold of the plane is no replacement for accompanying a person in the cabin, sitting quietly at the person's feet.

2. Several airlines do allow service dogs in training the same rights/privileges as a service dog. Continental/United changed their policy about 1 year ago. Maybe it is time for Delta to change theirs?

3. Service animals are becoming more necessary and widespread in our society, used to assist people with many types of special needs. Many of these people travel extensively. These people need service animals experienced with traveling on all modes of transportation, whether bus, train or plane, which means training them as young dogs to be familiar with the associated sights, sounds and smells. 

4. As a raiser, I've flown approx. 25 times with 9 different pups in training. Their behavior has never created a disruption or incident in the airport or on the plane. My job as a conscientious puppy raiser is to make sure this experience is positive for the animal as well as for the airline and the public. Most raisers of service dogs are equally conscientious and determined to show the best possible face to the public.

In conclusion, I ask that Delta Airlines reconsider their service animal policy to include service animals in training, granting them the same rights and privileges. It would reflect well on your company and their consideration of people who need service dogs. It would be an action you would not regret! Thank you for your attention!

Response from Delta Airlines. The final outcome dated Nov. 8 reads:   
Dear Ms. Cole:
We appreciate receiving your suggestion to change Delta's policy on prohibiting service animals in training from flying in the cabin. Many customers share their feedback with us, and these observations oftentimes form the basis for improvements in our service.  At this time, no changes are planned for this policy.  Be assured I will be sharing your suggestion with the responsible leadership team.
Ms. East Cole, I want to thank you, again, for writing with your request to permit service animals in training to travel in the cabin.  We value your business, as a SkyMiles member and appreciate your feedback on our current service animal policy.

Molly Walton
Coordinator, Corporate Customer Care
Delta Air Lines Case Number 7161582

Was that a brush-off?....Oh well, at least I tried. Happily, several airlines do allow access, and grant dogs in training the same rights and privileges as service dogs. I applaud their vision. These airlines include:  Continental/United Air, US Airways, Alaska Air and Northwestern Air.

For the future, the pups and I will stick with flying on "service pup-friendly" airlines like United Air. My Delta Skymiles credit card? Guess it's time to cancel it, because I'm tired of singing those Puppy Raiser Airline Blues.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Sorry Kid, He's Already Taken

Wrangell at 9 weeks.
 On February 28, our Lab Wrangell will turn 8 years old. Time marches ever on. With his roots in Guide Dogs of the Desert, Wrangell was our very first guide dog puppy, raised as a 4-H project by daughter Lena when she was 15 and 16. Our first glimpse of him was at 9 weeks of age as he toddled out of his shipping crate. He was shipped courtesy of Alaska Airlines from Palm Springs, California to Fairbanks, Alaska. 


Resisting temptation from a biscuit by learning "Leave It".  4 months old.

Lena and Wrangell in Valdez in summer, 2006 with Columbia Glacier in the background.

Wrangell's daddy was an English champion, a school breeding experiment. Unfortunately, neither Wrangell nor any of his siblings ever became a guide dog. And so he became a permanent member of the Cole family. 

Alaskan puppy raiser meeting, winter 2005/6. This photo was taken about 2 pm. Yes, it's dusk outside! Wrangell and Lena are in the middle. His brother KV is on the right. The PR on the left is a colonel from Fort Wainwright, Alaska.

Wherever Wrangell goes he turns heads. He has the classic boxy head, deep chest and solid football player build of the English Lab. With liquid brown eyes framed by distinctive eyebrows, looking into his eyes is like a window into his soul. Charisma.

Lena and Wrangell check out an Alaskan grizzly at Univ. of Alaska Museum. Good, now he's had his bear exposure. That is on the checklist, right?

Wrangell is a living testimony that a dog's life is anything but over when he gets career-changed. Instead Wrangell has been somewhat of a canine jack-of-all-trades. After his career change he turned to Search and Rescue training for over a year, finding subjects and rappelling from ropes. But that was not his true calling. 

Wrangell hangs from a harness 4-5' off the ground, while I walk/rappel down a steep slope next to him. This is valuable training for SAR K-9's who may be asked to search in extremely rugged country.

Next was the stage. As Annie's dog Sandy, Wrangell starred in 2 productions of the play "Annie," basking in the applause. But an actor's life is a fickle one, and soon he was "back on the streets" living the life of a pet. 

The Hooverville Scene. We rubbed ashes on Wrangell so he would look like a street dog.
Curtain call! Wrangell totally loved the stage. He didn't want it to end.

Yet of all the jobs on Wrangell's list, his most important has been his daily service helping our family raise six guide dog puppies. Since he knows the rules and is a canine to boot, Wrangell's solid presence sets the bar for the pups in our household. As a guide puppy crosses our threshold for the first time, Wrangell looks at me as if to say, "Well boss, here we go again!"          

Almost every day for 6 years Wrangell has faithfully mentored guide dog puppies. Here he and little Allen curl up in a tent on a backpacking trip in Alaska, summer 2007. Wrangell makes my job so much easier.

With surrogate uncle Wrangell the puppies adapt more easily to our home. And his snoring is a bonus, better than a ticking clock.

Recently Wrangell was certified as a therapy dog, so that periodically he serves in coat at nursing homes and the Chatham Public Library. It is a known fact that reluctant readers can excel given a program where they read to a dog. In the presence of a therapy dog, many children learn a love of books and reading who wouldn't otherwise. Stretched out with his massive Lab head leaning against a child's leg, Wrangell looks like a cross between Simba the Lion King and a Teddy Bear floor pillow. Children stroke his tawny sides and marvel at his big paws. He exudes calm, gentle strength. Many of these children have no dog at home; for some this is their first positive dog experience.

Wrangell listens to this reader who is a regular at the library. She stated that Wrangell is her new best friend.

Two sisters come into the library reading room, a little afraid, yet curious. I let them know they're welcome and soon they are cuddled on the floor between Dorian and Wrangell. While the bigger sister reads "Green Eggs and Ham" the little one reverently touches the hide of Wrangell the Lion-Dog. Suddenly she interrupts her sister's reading with a Great Idea. "Can you give me this dog? I will walk him every day. He can sleep by my bed!" I smile and keep listening to her sister read. But what I really want to say is, 
"I'm sorry Kid, but he's already taken."

Monday, February 4, 2013

Off We Go, Into the Wild Blue Yonder!

Making airplane reservations is always a daunting task, but especially when you factor in flying with a guide dog in training! Nevertheless, this week Dorian (pup in training) and I managed to secure our reservations. In March we will fly from Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina to Los Angeles for a 10-day visit with my Dad, sisters and brother. For me as a puppy raiser, this now makes about 25 air commutes where I am accompanied by coated canines. The majority of the flights were long coast-to-coast trips:  Alaska - North Carolina, or North Carolina - California. A few were shorter - to Chicago or Tampa, Florida.

Ready to begin his journey to Alaska, 6-1/2 month Dorian (Southeastern Guide Dogs) is on a down / stay outside a Raleigh-Durham Airport terminal. This picture was taken last July.

What a great education air travel is for both puppy and raiser! For the puppy it is a non-stop day of training. Airport sights, sounds and smells abound, from the clack-clack-clack of suitcase wheels in the terminals to the crush of entering and riding on trams and elevators, to the sensory experience of "busying" in designated airport pet relief areas.

In the security lines, the pup gets another lesson in waiting patiently. The line moves slowly but suddenly it's time and the raiser is depositing shoes, backpack and laptop, emptying pockets, etc. into the bins and onto the carousel. Because the leash and collar contain metal, they come off too. Then it's time to go thru the x-ray scan:  first the pup is put on a down/stay while the handler goes thru, then the handler calls the pup thru. Sometimes the puppy is given a once-over examination by security (dog reads:  petting), an experience they love!

Husband Frank with Dave, our Southeastern Guide Dog pup in training, 2008. We have just flown into Chicago O'Hare Airport. Now that his plane flight is over Dave gets his food and water, which explains why his coat is off.

You might think this would all be sensory overload to a young service dog in training, but I've found the opposite to be true. As long as you are calm and matter-of-fact, the pup takes his cue from you. All eight service dogs we've flown with have taken the experience in stride, and many have thoroughly enjoyed it! As we quickly walk through the terminal, I glance down to check the pup's reaction to all the comings and goings. His body language tells you all is OK:  the shine in his eyes, the proud carriage of his tail and the smart trot all say to me, "Hey, this is cool! What an adventure we're having!"

By the time you board the plane your dog is ready to curl up and take a long snooze while the low rumble of the jet engines sings him to sleep.
"Sleep tight, Davey, we'll wake you on touchdown!"