Friday, August 11, 2017

Bringing things up to date

Trooper ashore at Anchorage.
It has been a few months since my last post, primarily for reasons of sloth. This morning, however, I am experiencing an unaccustomed burst of ambition. And so here I be.

In June Debby, Trooper and I took a two-week round-trip Alaskan cruise from Seattle to Seattle aboard the Holland-America ship Amsterdam, in service of our 50th wedding anniversary celebration. It was one of those trips that went exceedingly well, with no unpleasant adventures.

Trooper in our stateroom. He would have slept on that bed—if we let him.

We had chosen Alaska because there was no need to obtain annoying veterinary paperwork to take Trooper ashore at foreign ports for a few hours' visit. Many countries, especially Caribbean island nations, require not only rubber stamps but also special immunizations, some of which are quite expensive. All we needed for Alaskan ports was a valid rabies certificate, and that is a state requirement—not a national one.

We did get a Form 7001, the classic International Animal Health Certificate, signed by our veterinarian—just in case U.S. customs and immigration decided to be difficult during re-entry to the mainland at Seattle. It didn't.

We took a constitutional around the promenade deck several times a day.

There was just one brief awkward moment when an Alaskan venue refused entry to Trooper. A young woman said "No dogs! No dogs!" at the door of the Baranov Museum on Kodiak Island.

"He's coming in!" said our tour guide.

"No dogs!"

Trooper's customized relief box on the stern of the ship.
At which the tour guide quickly proceeded to educate the young woman, who spoke with a Russian accent, about U.S. service dog laws. We suspect she may have been an exchange student doing an internship at the museum, named for the governor when Alaska was a Russian colony.

And that was that.

Baranov Museum, Kodiak Island.
There was one small incident in the ship's buffet restaurant that was slightly painful.

It was the height of lunchtime, and crowds were milling from serving station to serving station. I was trying to thread Trooper through the forest of legs to safety when I momentarily took my attention off him to apologize to a woman whose elbow I had jostled.

Just then a waiter pushed a multilevel cart of desserts past us. The bottom shelf, laden with pies and tarts, lay right at the level of Trooper's head, and . . .

There were witnesses, both passengers and crew. But the captain never did summon us before the mast for a tongue-lashing.

The lesson: Even highly trained service dogs are still dogs, and dogs will always go for the main chance if they think they can get away with it.




Friday, May 26, 2017

Sugar gliders? Reptiles?

I'm at work on the section about airline travel for Places We Have Peed: Traveling with Service Dogs in North America, and have spent the last few hours checking individual airlines' service dog policies. They're all basically similar, although a few have some odd rules.

JetBlue, for instance, won’t allow service animals in training in airliner cabins, nor will it permit as service or emotional /psychiatric support animals “hedgehogs, ferrets, insects, rodents, snakes, spiders, sugar gliders, reptiles, non-household birds (farm poultry, waterfowl, game bird & birds of prey), animals improperly cleaned and/or with a foul odor, animals with tusks.”

Sounds as if I'll have to leave my assistance cockroach at home. Sorry, Archy.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Bureaucracy

Be patient. Grit your teeth and hope for a supervisor.

That’s the lesson I’ve taken from making restaurant, hotel and train bookings for my service dog Trooper and me, both in the United States and Canada, over the last few weeks.

“What does the dog do for you on the train?” asked an Amtrak ticket agent when we called to ask that he be added to the manifest for a recent overnight train trip. “Does he weigh less than 20 pounds and do you have a traveling crate for him?” (Those are the rules for transporting pets.)

“Show me his license,” said the waiter at a little restaurant on Chicago’s North Shore.

“Please sign this ADA service dog agreement,” said a New Orleans hotel clerk.

All of which, of course, were either irrelevant or illegal. Trooper and I stood our ground, and the Jacks-in-office caved after we pointed out the law, usually to their superiors. Justice Department rules are clear: all a venue can ask are two questions: 1. Is that a service dog? And 2. What task does the dog perform for you? No identification of any kind is required. Not even a colorful vest on the dog.

U.S. disability law is clear, and when its details are explained to clerks and agents, things tend to go all right. 

Canadian law, however, is murky, but getting better. For the last three years the powers that be in Ottawa have been fashioning a nationwide law about service dogs, but it’s a slow and plodding process. Each of the ten provinces has its own law about service dogs, and while the details are mostly the same, they are not identical—and important items differ considerably from U.S. law.

The biggest difference: In the U.S., credentials are never required of service dogs or their handlers, not even colorful vests identifying them as service animals. In Canada, they are.

Most provinces mandate that a service dog carry documentation that it was trained at a government-approved facility. They also mandate that the human member of a service dog team hold an ID membership card in a government-approved disability organization. Such rules are illegal in the United States.

I suspect, however, that they result in far fewer fake service dog incidents in Canada.

There is just one rule regarding bringing an ordinary pet over the U.S. border into Canada: The dog must have a current rabies certificate. Same with a service dog.

But getting a service dog onto an airplane or a train in Canada is much more involved than that. Both Canadian airlines and trains allow service dogs to fly for free, as they do in the U.S. But “the animal must be harnessed [with an identifying vest] and certified as having been trained to assist a person with a disability by a professional service animal institution,” as Air Canada's rules say.

Fair enough. So I emailed VIA Rail to establish Trooper’s bona fides for a planned transcontinental train journey this fall in the service of Places We Have Peed, the book-in-progress about traveling with service dogs in North America. I said Trooper and I normally travel with a rabies certificate and a copy of Form 7001, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s International Animal Health Certificate, signed by my veterinarian. Would that be sufficient?

Someone in Customer Service replied: “When travelling with a service animal, you will need to travel with the dog's vaccination records. The documents you mention (rabies certificate and a USDA Form 7001 would be required. Prior to travel, you must also provide us with a doctor's letter stating that you must travel with the service animal. If you are a member of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), you can also send us a copy of this documentation. The service animal must wear a vest (displaying that it is a service animal).”

Huh? The ADA is not something one can be a member of; it is a law, not an organization. I decided to let that pass, and wrote back:

“You requested that I provide you with a doctor’s letter stating that I must travel with the service animal. I cannot do this.

“It is not true that I cannot survive without a service dog, and I doubt that any other service dog partner would make such a claim. A service dog is trained to make life easier for a person with a disability, not to keep that person alive. My service dog Trooper, a professionally trained “hearing dog,” alerts me to sounds such as a fire alarm, a doorbell, a telephone (I have a captioned phone), an alarm clock, an oven timer, people approaching behind me, the call of my name, and the like.
Trooper and I are a working unit. I am never without him, and he is never away from me.

“I am totally deaf. Although I cannot provide you with the doctor’s letter you wish, I can provide you with a recent audiogram that proves I have absolutely no hearing.

“If I do this, as well as provide you with ID cards from Dogs for the Deaf (Trooper’s trainer) and the State of Michigan service dog registration, as well as an USDA Form 7001 signed by my veterinarian that includes a complete immunization record, will you accept me as a bona fide traveler with a disability who uses a service dog?”

I suspect the original Customer Service respondent was a low-level, inexperienced agent—and that the agent who responded to my second message was a veteran who had dealt many times with service dog handlers. She wrote:

“The ID cards from Dogs for the Deaf and the USDA Form 7001 are acceptable. This information should be provided to us in advance [of booking]. The service animal must wear a vest (displaying that it is a service animal).”

The agent also suggested that I enroll in the “VIA Préférence program” similar to schemes everywhere that contain all a passenger’s personal information to speed issuance of tickets. They’ll add Trooper’s data to mine so that I don’t have to jump through hoops in the future.

All this huggermugger has a further happy result: When I travel on VIA’s Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver in November, Trooper and I will luxuriate in a spacious double bedroom for the price of a one-person roomette, a prize VIA offers to service dog teams. That’ll save me a thousand dollars Canadian (about $750 US at this writing).

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Our latest adventures

Trooper on the train. This photo reminds me of Chessie the Cat (below), the mascot of the old Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, used in advertising the railroad's comfortable sleeping cars.

Trooper, Debby and are just back from a successful week’s visit by train to the East Coast. In it we connected with our family in Arlington (Va.) and performed some more hands-on research for the book-in-progress, an “adventuring handbook.” Its title: Places We Have Peed: Traveling with a Service Dog in North America.

I’m writing it with Chris Goodier, another service dog handler, who lives in Sarasota, Fla. She’s doing the sections on cruising and RVing, I’m writing about riding the train, and we’re sharing the reporting on other modes of travel, such as flying and local transportation.

Naturally our individual adventures are going into the book, and on this most recent trip I collected a couple that are worth mentioning.

In Washington, D.C., I used my iPhone’s Uber app to summon rides hither and yon, and that mostly worked very well. Trooper’s presence was never challenged. It’s illegal to refuse a ride to a passenger with a service dog, and doing so also violates Uber’s policies. I kept Trooper on my lap and off the seat, pleasing the drivers.

Except once. When the arriving driver spotted Trooper, he immediately put the pedal to the metal and sped off for parts unknown. The Uber app told me, as it always does, the make of car, the license number, and the driver’s photograph and name: Mohammad.

Mohammad may have had an unpleasant experience with a service animal, real or fake, and didn’t want a repetition. Or he may have been allergic. Or he may have had religious scruples about having a dog in his car. Many Muslims consider dogs unclean. I don’t know the truth, although I have a suspicion. But he did violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

I canceled the ride and called another Uber. It came in less than five minutes.

I’m still debating with myself whether to inform Uber headquarters about Mohammad’s refusal to pick me up.

Whatever the reason, my deaf attorney friends tell me, illegal refusals to transport service animals should always be reported and a lawsuit filed if relief is not forthcoming.

But what about a driver’s right to practice his religion (if that is what it was)? It seems to me that two competing rights may be colliding here, and one of them has to give.

Practically speaking, the incident happened during midday when people were out and about, not in the dark of night when other Uber cars might have been scarce. I was not in the least bit endangered. I had been only mildly inconvenienced.

Should I, however, stand on principle? The courts did in siding against an evangelical Christian baker who refused to produce a wedding cake for a gay marriage. In American commerce, religious beliefs never  trump the civil rights of the customers.

Mohammad, I understand. But you need to understand, too. If ever I encounter you again, I will try to educate, not litigate. We can come to a compromise: Trooper will sit in my lap and not touch your car in any way. Okay?

APRIL 10. I managed to get through to Uber's help line, which actually has a listing for "service dog issues," and reported the incident, asking Uber to inform the driver of his obligations. Later Uber replied: "At the conclusion of our investigation, the partner you reported on 4/8/2017 has been provided with additional information regarding legal obligations and their Uber account has been reactivated. They have confirmed that they understand their legal obligations. Should we receive a second report of this nature, their account may be subject to permanent deactivation."

That's good enough for me.


By the way, to my question about service dogs too big to hold on one's lap, Uber said: "Partners are encouraged to carry a towel or a blanket with them in their vehicle for transporting animals. Because they may have an allergy, as well as other riders who may have allergies, they may choose to place a blanket over the seats. This is at their own discretion."


The second event involved a well-known national chain hotel in New Orleans. Upon checking in, I was presented with a document titled “ADA Service Dog Agreement” to sign.

I've seen this before. Such documents have nothing to do with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Based on pet-friendly hotel agreements, they make the signer promise not to leave the animal alone in the room, to keep the dog from barking, to pick up and dispose of waste, etc., and obey half a dozen other rules. And to agree to reimburse the hotel for any damage the dog might cause.

The hour was late and I did not think I could find space at any other hotel. A big music festival was going on in the French Quarter, and the city was hopping. So I reluctantly signed.

The next morning I sent an email to the hotel’s general manager. It said in part:

“I believe this document is gratuitous and discriminatory, and would like to suggest that the [hotel] refrain from using it going forward.

“A service animal trained to assist a person with a disability is legally an item of medical equipment—not a pet. You would, for instance, not ask someone with a breathing disability to sign an agreement to reimburse the hotel for any damage his CPAP equipment causes.  Such liability is already covered in the normal hotel/guest tariff laws. The same principle applies to service animals.

“I believe that the ‘service dog agreement’ instructions to pick up after my dog, etc., carries an implicit suggestion that I am not a responsible person and need to be reminded of obligations that every service dog handler knows by heart. Such a suggestion is, in my view, insulting and sets me apart from other hotel guests as a person with a disability.

“I understand that the hotel needs to distinguish between genuine service animals and fraudulent ones. But such a document puts the onus on the wrong party, and causes us distress.

“Thank you for reading this and understanding the issue.”

The manager responded quickly. He wrote:

“I have looked into the nuances of the 'Service Animal Agreement' that you signed upon registration. I can truly appreciate your concern and I cannot apologize enough that you were asked to sign this outmoded and unnecessary document.  To be fully forthcoming with you, this document has no purpose nor application as it relates to Service Animals and the [hotel].  Much to your insightful suggestion that the ‘[hotel] refrain from using it going forward,’ the template has been deleted from our database and all copies of this document have been destroyed.” 

Sometimes the squeaky-wheel approach does work.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Railroad relief stop


The other evening, when our Empire Builder stopped at Minneapolis/St. Paul Union Depot, we found the nation's only railroad-station service-dog relief facility—several trays of artificial turf slotted between protective railings at one end of the long platform. Naturally Trooper anointed the faux fireplug immediately.

It would be nice if every major railroad passenger terminal had such a facility. We're not holding our breath, however. Although federal law provides that every airport with more than 10,000 passenger loadings a year must have a relief station located inside the TSA security area, it's taking an unconscionably long time for compliance.

But it's the right thing to do.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

What you don't know is behind you could kill you

I'll be 77 this summer, and not a day goes by that there isn't a reminder of the perils of aging. Most of them, of course, are the normal ailments one suffers when one gets older.
But lately I've become more conscious of external dangers. A few days ago I was nearly run over from behind at the local park by a couple of small-child cyclists pumping the pedals as if the Devil was after them. They called "On your left!" but of course I couldn't hear them. Trooper reacted, but not in time for me to step aside on the path. The kids swept by uncomfortably close aboard, and Debby said, "You've got to do something."
So I did.
I now walk clockwise around the park path against most of the traffic, which normally follows a counterclockwise course. That way I can see my nemesis before it strikes me down.
I've also put a cyclist's rear-view mirror on my sunglasses so I can watch for unseen dangers behind me. Looks dorky, but it works.
In Catch-22 Yossarian constantly jotted down in a notebook all the horrible things that could kill him. By the end of the novel he had filled every page.
I'm getting there, too.

Friday, February 10, 2017

'Hang Fire' now out in paperback

The fourth Steve Martinez novel, Hang Fire, is now available as a $12.95 CreateSpace print-on-demand paperback on Amazon.com and will be on Barnesandnoble.com soon.

I finally found a usable public-domain photograph of the Brown Bess musket of Revolutionary War fame to replace the Kentucky rifle on the earlier attempt at a cover. A Brown Bess plays an important role in the novel about modern historical re-enactors of the age of Lewis and Clark (roughly 1800-1840).

FEB. 22: Hang Fire is also now available as a $16.95 Large Print paperback.