Tuesday, April 17, 2018

That damn paperwork

Trooper and partner at Cabo San Lucas, where they knew his name.

Preparing to cruise with a service dog in the Caribbean and off Central America can be a right pain in the ass.

You have to obtain, and carry, a thick pile of documentation attesting to the state of your dog’s health. Different countries require different certificates, different tests and different immunizations, and that makes the paperwork infinitely more complex. Some require import permits. Mexico requires not only that everything be computer-printed, not filled in by hand, and that everything be spelled out on the documentation—no abbreviations—and will reject those that say the animal is “3 yrs. 4 mos. old.” 

This is partly because in the Western Hemisphere, only the United States and Canada recognize special legal privileges for service dogs. All other countries treat them as ordinary pets and therefore prime targets for bureaucratic minutiae.

And so for our recent cruise with Trooper through the Panama Canal, we had to go to our veterinarian to get various health certificates filled out for the Bahamas (which also required a pet import permit), Colombia, Costa Rica and Mexico, where we were going ashore. (We decided not to go ashore at the Nicaraguan and Guatemalan ports, because we’d been there before and wanted to lighten the documentation load a little, so we didn’t get papers for those countries.) Then we had to drive  to the local U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service office to get some—not all—of the documents countersigned by a government veterinarian.

The rub: On previous cruises with Trooper, nobody wanted to see his papers—except the cruise line, of course. But you never know what’s going to happen.

Came embarkation day at Fort Lauderdale. When we stepped through the metal detector at the cruise terminal, a uniformed guard called us over and asked to see Trooper’s papers. At his desk he riffled through them until he came to the import permit for the Bahamas—and put his finger on the official Bahamas animal and plant department stamp.

“That’s what I was looking for,” he said.

Even if you don’t plan to take the dog off the ship while it’s docked or anchored in the Bahamas, you must have an import permit if the dog enters Bahamian waters. The ship won’t allow you aboard without one. If you haven't done your due diligence, your vacation could be ruined.

On this voyage we had to present Trooper for examination three times. The first, which we hadn’t expected, was at Cartagena, Colombia, where two officials—one from the government and one from an import-export company—came aboard when the ship docked. They examined Trooper’s papers and politely ruffled through his ears and fur to make sure no parasites jumped out. 

The exam was decidedly perfunctory and the fee was US$25. Colombian laws say an incoming animal has to be officially received by a government-approved import-export company. The $25 went to the representative of the latter, who simply glanced at Trooper and gravely handed us a receipt for the fee.

The ship’s port paper officer assured us that the procedure was standard at Cartagena and the fee was not a shakedown.

The night before we arrived in Puntarenas, Costa Rica, the port officials there said they wanted to examine Trooper. A few hours later they said they didn’t. We went ashore without incident.

The next episode was at Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala. The night before our ship called there, the port paper officer told us that the Guatemalans had asked for Trooper to be present for inspection even though we had no health documentation for that country for him and planned to stay on the ship instead of going ashore. That made us a little nervous. Should we have obtained paperwork for Trooper specifically for that country? What would happen?

A pleasant surprise, that’s what. Two amiable officials from the Guatemalan Ministry of Agriculture sat down with us in a ship’s lounge, cooed at Trooper, warmly ruffled his ears, remarked approvingly about his calm demeanor, and examined all the documentation we had brought for other countries. Satisfied that he had had all his required immunizations, the officials invited us to bring him ashore and issued us a permit to do so. And so we did. 

Next was Puerto Chiapas, our first port call (of two) in Mexico. “We never know what’s going to happen there,” said the port paper officer. “Sometimes they want to see the dog, sometimes not.”

This time they wanted to. A dour agricultural officer came aboard, took a quick peek into one of Trooper’s ears, and OKd his presence ashore. No baksheesh involved, however.

Two sailing days up the coast, we arrived at Cabo San Lucas on the tip of Baja California. We were not told that an official wanted to meet us ashore. We figured the approval at Puerto Chiapas would be good for the rest of Mexico.

When Debby and I tendered ashore with Trooper at Cabo, a customs agent stopped us at the pier and said, “Papers for the dog, por favor.”  I started to fish them out of a shirt pocket.

“Is that Trooper?” called another agent, from a nearby desk.

“Yes,” Debby said, astonished. How could they . . . ?

“Let him in,” the second agent quickly told the first. “He’s OK.”

Later we speculated that the Cabo authorities had studied the documents—which carried not only Trooper’s breed mix but also his name—that had been faxed to them by the port paper officer the day before. Presumably the Puerto Chiapas people had added their OK to the pile. At any rate, somebody on shore decided that Trooper was good to go. 

Whew. Cruising to Alaska and Canada with a service dog is easier. All you need is a rabies  certificate and (just for the ship) a veterinarian-issued international health certificate that doesn’t have to be endorsed by a government vet.  A lot easier.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Refused entry

Yesterday Trooper and I were refused entry to a north suburban park district gym facility where we had gone to watch my grandson play age group baskeball.

 "No dogs," said the park district cop. We tried to explain the Americans with Disabilities service dog laws to him, but he was adamant.

 So we went home and I immediately composed and sent the following letter to the park district boss and commissioners:


 "At 2:20 p.m. today, February 24, I was refused entry with my service dog at the [redacted] Center, where I had gone to watch my grandson play basketball in the park district’s local age-group league.

 "I am totally deaf and use a trained hearing service dog. He wears a bright orange vest with the patches of his trainer, Dogs for Better Lives in Central Point, Oregon. The patches declare his status as a 'Certified Hearing Dog.' His vest also carries a patch from the State of Michigan Division of Civil Rights attesting to his status as a registered service dog in that state.

 "A park patrol officer who gave his name as [redacted] refused us entry, saying that 'children might be allergic to dogs.'

"My wife and I explained that the Americans with Disabilities Act gave service dog teams full access to all public venues, but Officer [redacted] would not accept that statement. He cited a 'No Pets' sign on the front door of the [redacted] Center (attached) as justification for his act. We told him, to no avail, that a working service dog is legally not a pet.

"We asked to speak to an administrator in charge, and Officer [redacted] said he was in charge of the facility for the day.

 "I felt embarrassed and humiliated by Officer [redacted]'s actions. In my two years as a service dog handler, I have never been refused entry to a public venue.

"Witnessing the event was [redacted], a staff member at [redacted] Center, and Conan Kisor, my son.

"Just half an hour before, we had watched my granddaughter play basketball in a Park District league at [redacted] Recreation Center, where my dog and I were accepted and welcomed.

"Inasmuch as I believe education when possible is preferable to litigation, I am asking you to review the Americans with Disabilities Act regulations concerning service animals and to inform Officer [redacted] as well as all Park District staff of their legal obligations toward people with disabilities who use service animals.

"A useful source of information is https://www.ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.html

"I look forward to your speedy response."

 And it indeed was speedy. Within half an hour one of the park district commissioners personally arrived on our doorstep with an apology and the explanation that the reason for our refusal was honest ignorance.

Shortly later the following email arrived from the executive director of the park district:

 "I first want to personally apologize for [your] being refused entry to the [redacted] Center. We never want our customers to be embarrassed when coming to one of our facilities. I have talked to all of the supervisors that schedule employees at our facilities and have notified them of American Disabilities Act regarding service animals. They are now aware that service animals will be allowed in all Park District facilities. What happened today is not consistent with our standards and policies and your experience was clearly not what we would have wanted for you. Again, I’m sorry this happened, if there’s anything else I can help address, please do let me know."

And there, so far as I am concerned, the matter ends.

I have redacted the names because the park district's response was so swift, civil and satisfactory there is no point in public shaming.

 Now Trooper and I are looking forward to visiting the same facility next week to watch that basketball game.

Thursday, February 1, 2018


Don't worry, I haven't stopped blogging. It's just that lately I've been feeling much like the dog at right in the classic New Yorker cartoon below:

I'll be back sooner . . . or later.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

My latest Uber-dog adventure

Who could refuse a face like Trooper's?
A couple of weeks ago, while riding the rails through Canada on our latest research trip for Places We Have Peed: Traveling with Service Dogs in North America, Trooper and I had an interesting adventure in Toronto.

We had just emerged from the Royal Ontario Museum and called an Uber to return to our hotel.

When he spotted the service dog, the first driver sped up and hightailed it out of there.

So did the second driver.

And the third.

The fourth finally picked us up.

I will not mention the ethnicity of the drivers who refused to carry a dog in their cars (Uber apps show their names, the makes of their cars, and their license numbers) except to say that some in that group have religious scruples about dogs, and some don’t. (The fourth driver was a Sikh.)

Earlier this year Trooper and I had been stiffed on a ride in Washington, D.C., and I had told Uber customer service that if the company re-educated the driver on his legal obligations to carry passengers with service dogs, the matter would go no further.  Uber did, or so it said.

Canada has similar laws. So I sent an acerbic e-shot across Uber’s bows again, telling the company that since I was an American citizen in a foreign country, I wasn’t going to get embroiled in a legal mess. I hadn't been able to record the names and license plates of the drivers, anyway.

But do something, I said. Educate your Toronto drivers! (Uber’s customer service Web page, by the way, actually has a box to check if one has a service dog issue. That’s how big the problem is.)

Uber headquarters sent me the usual boilerplate about how sorry it was and how it was going to make sure its drivers obeyed the law.

A few days later I learned that Uber had sent out a new and tougher service dog policy to all its Canadian drivers. Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe my complaint was just the last of many straws.

Unlike the United States’ American with Disabilities Act, which hands all the cards to service dog teams, Canada’s Human Rights Act recognizes competing rights in situations like mine. An Uber or taxi driver can refuse to pick up a service dog team if he believes that doing so would violate his religious beliefs or endanger his health. But a compromise must be made.

Uber’s new Canadian policy: If a driver believes a service dog team impinges on religion or health, he can refuse to carry the team—but he must stop on the spot and arrange for another driver to provide the ride.

That would have worked for me.

Hmm. Canada’s law sounds sensible and even-handed to me, and so does Uber’s new policy. If that evangelical Christian baker in Colorado had arranged for another boulangerie to create a wedding cake for a gay couple, maybe that contretemps—soon to be heard in the U.S. Supreme Court—could have been avoided.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

To Halifax by air, thence Vancouver by train

Off tomorrow with Trooper on our final trip to find new places to pee for Places We Have Peed.

By air to Halifax, thence by train to Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. A two-week trip with two changes of quick-dry clothes, some travel soap, and a backpack loaded with kibble and treats. 

I will try to report whenever I can get a cell signal in the vast outback of the Great White North.

Monday, October 23, 2017

To St. Paul by Megabus

The "all-weather" (actually completely open-air) Megabus "terminal" in Chicago.
Last weekend Trooper and I took a bus trip. From Chicago to St. Paul. Via Megabus.

I wasn’t looking forward to it, but it was necessary if Places We Have Peed: Traveling in North America with Service Dogs is to have any hands-on authority. Too many unpleasant memories of intercity bus travel as an impoverished student. But the book covers all modes of travel—air, road, train, cruise ship. In-person research is a must.

The beginning was inauspicious. Four times I asked Megabus’ customer service for the itinerary of intermediate stops and if I’d be able to take Trooper off the bus at one of them for a pee. Each time I received a different response.

One rep said, “Unfortunately, we do not have such itinary [sic]. “We’re sorry but we do not have authorization to let anyone off at locations other than our designated bus stops which are for drop-offs and pickups only.”

The second said, “Drivers are permitted to make stops when the bus ride is 8 hours or more. If the route you’re traveling is less than that, the driver is not allowed to stop.”

The third said, “Just ask the driver to stop when the dog must go out.”

I asked for a supervisor, who responded:

Trooper had his own ticketed seat on the Megabus.
“I do apologize for the incorrect information being sent prior. Breaks are usually on trips five hours or more but the location and when is to the discretion of the driver. On your trip you are able to ask your driver if they would be able to make a rest stop soon.”

With some asperity, I emailed the company’s Americans with Disabilities Act compliance department, asking where the intermediate stops were.

Milwaukee and Madison, she said. Or elsewhere on the route if needed, for I would be a passenger with special needs, and all I would have to do is ask the driver. And sorry, she added, for the confusion.

(I am not dumping on Megabus' customer service in particular. Customer service is like that everywhere. These people have no idea how to respond to questions, such as those about service dog relief, that aren't in their carefully assembled scripts.)

When I made that trip last weekend, the Milwaukee stop wasn’t so hot, because there’s no grass in the brand-new intermodal station area—just concrete and gravel. Trooper will pee on hard surfaces if he absolutely has to, but like most dogs he prefers natural plumbing such as trees, bushes and grass.

Madison was fine, because the stop is in the middle of downtown with lawns and brush close by.

I was astonished, however, that the ADA person did not tell me (nor did the Megabus web site say) that the bus called at a big service plaza with a fast food restaurant on the interstate just outside Mauston, two-thirds of the way to St. Paul. There is lots and lots of grass at that 25-minute stop.

As for the ride itself, buses are buses and their quarters are cramped, but it was OK. The bathroom aboard the bus did have plenty of room for both Trooper and me. He slept atop a baby blanket on the seat next to me. All bus companies by law allow service dogs to ride free under the legs of the handler, but I bought another adult ticket for Trooper so he could have his own space—on the floor if need be. The driver didn’t care.

Trooper had his own seat on the train, too.
The only real negative I carried away from the trip is the Megabus “terminal” in Chicago, a lonely curbside stop at Polk and Clinton in the middle of a deserted, mostly industrial area. There are no benches and no shelters. I would have hated to wait for that St. Paul bus in driving rain or sleet. Low-income travelers get no respect.

I’m glad I made the trip. And gladder that I don’t have to do it again.

P.S. We came home on Amtrak’s Empire Builder. More expensive than the bus—but much more comfortable, with lots of room to get up and shake a leg. Plenty of pee stops, too.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Fear of Fido leads to a contretemps

“The doctor would like to see you without the dog,” said the retina specialist’s technician in the waiting room in a suburban Chicago hospital. I had arrived for an examination and a procedure that may or may not save the failing sight in my right eye. My service dog had accompanied me.

When, a month before that appointment, age-related macular degeneration (AMD) in my right eye was diagnosed by an ophthalmologist in Upper Michigan, I was naturally upset. I have been totally deaf for 74 of my 77 years. Becoming blind as well would send me paddleless up a dark branch of shit creek.

The Michigan specialist injected a drug into the eye to slow down the disease and handed me off to a new ophthalmologist in Illinois, where we spend our winters, with a recommendation for a second injection in a few weeks. Now my wife Debby, my dog Trooper—a fuzzy little schnoodle—and I were back home, and it was time for the second jab.

The Chicago technician’s words shocked Debby, who had accompanied me with Trooper to the appointment.

“That is illegal,” she said. “The ADA says that a service dog cannot be separated from the person he serves.”

She spoke the truth. The rules of the Americans with Disabilities Act give me the right to take Trooper just about everywhere, including doctor’s offices as well as restaurants, movie theaters, buses and trains. By law a service dog is an item of medical equipment, not a pet. Trooper, who alerts me to sounds, is an extension of myself, just as a prosthesis would be for a legless person. Over the almost two years we have been together, we have visited many doctors without incident.

The tech disappeared.

After a few minutes he returned and said, “The doctor is afraid of dogs.”

“Fear of dogs,” I said, “does not trump a service dog handler’s legal right to medical services.”

I knew the doctor spoke a Southwest Asian language as well as English, and speculated that she might be an immigrant—and possibly have a religious rather than psychological aversion to dogs. But that wasn’t for me to judge.

The tech disappeared again.

After ten or fifteen minutes we were ushered into an examining room, followed by a hospital administrator who spoke with a foreign accent that was difficult to lipread.

“The doctor is very afraid of dogs,” she said.

“Henry is a deaf man losing his vision,” Debby said. “This office has to step up!”

The administrator tried to broker a compromise. What If Debby took Trooper out of the room while the retina specialist examined me?

“I communicate by reading lips,” I said. “I have never met this doctor and have no idea if I would be able to lipread her easily.”

“I’ll interpret for you,” the administrator said.

“I can barely understand you,” I said. (She also had a hard time with my breathy deaf speech.) “I need my wife with me to help me understand what’s going on. And the dog must be with either of us.”

This administrator, despite projecting a calm and reasonable mien, clearly knew little about deaf people. She didn’t offer the services of a sign language interpreter—which would have been useless, since I don’t know sign. She also just could not grasp that being blind and deaf was a potential calamity, let alone that I needed to be fully informed of every detail of the examination and the ensuing procedure.

Much to-and-froing ensued.

I quickly realized that digging my heels in and demanding that the doctor swallow her fears to give me that vital injection would probably be counterproductive. If she really had a fear of dogs, her hand likely would be shaky, and that is not an ideal condition for a jab in the eyeball.

But I saw a way out, even though the clueless administrator couldn’t. I knew that there was another retina specialist—let’s call her Dr. X—in the same practice, at another location. If an appointment could be arranged that week with her, I told the administrator, that would solve the problem with the eye, if not with the dog.

“I’ll have to see if she’s afraid of dogs,” the administrator said.

I stifled a sharp retort, and she left the room.

When she returned, she was smiling. “It will be okay,” she said. “Dr. X is not afraid of dogs and will be able to see you Friday.”

That subsequent visit with Dr. X went very well indeed. She is extraordinarily lipreadable. She thought Trooper was adorable and Trooper thought she was adorable. He lay calmly next to Debby in a corner of the examining room while the medical providers went about their business.

In fact, the entire reception we received at this branch of the medical practice was so lovely that I thought advance word had come down from an apprehensive hospital management to treat the deaf guy and his service dog with kid gloves. I was offered the services of a sign interpreter, but I declined with thanks. Sometimes a little infamy helps.

What’s more, Dr. X thought the condition of my right eye’s macula, the center of the retina, was so good that I did not need an injection this time. She thinks it is possible that I may not have AMD in that eye at all. It could be a random event, she said, in which tiny blood vessels in the retina burst and caused an opaque smudge in my vision. That’s because the affected area is not dead center in my sight, as is usual with AMD, but slightly below and off to the right. My vision in that eye is still 20/20 (with glasses).

So there is hope. My next evaluation is in a month. We’ll be keeping an eye, so to speak, on the condition. Also, I’ll continue with a diet heavy on spinach (which I fortunately like) and other veggies reputedly beneficial to eye health. I’ll also keep taking a daily capsule of vitamins that some studies say help the eye and some studies say make no difference. Better to err on the side of caution, said Dr. X. I have no problem with that.

A subsequent consultation with a daughter-in-law who is a trained medical ethicist persuaded me that the doctor with a fear of dogs—if that is what it was—has rights, too. In some situations, canine aversion can be a debilitating psychological condition—indeed, a disability.

It’s not necessary to declare that one person’s rights under the law are more important than those of the other. It’s better, morally and ethically, to try to find an alternative solution. That is what I had unwittingly happened upon when I thought of Dr. X.

These events taught me another important lesson: When making an appointment with a new medical provider, I should always announce that I will be accompanied by a service dog. That is not legally required. It’s just good practical sense.