Wednesday, November 23, 2016


Trooper abed just after we brought him home from the animal hospital.
The big shepherd mix flashed into view under the street lights in front of our condo building, charging at us full speed, its teeth bared. Trooper, never one to back down from a threat even if it was three times his size, forged ahead against his leash.

I stepped forward to block the 50-pound shepherd and promptly fell off the curb into the street, unable to separate the two dogs. Seemingly in slow motion I rolled over, regained my footing and lunged forward, shouting at the top of my lungs, “Get outta here!”

Somehow I found myself again flat on my back, but recovered again. How many times I fell on the concrete I don’t know. Maybe three. 

I remember being back on my feet screaming as the big dog finally retreated, and looking down at Trooper, limping. I picked him up. His left hind leg flopped loosely. 

A woman in her thirties loomed in the street, gripping the big dog by the collar. I could not understand what she said, but shouted, “Get that dog the fuck out of here!” She did. 

The next thing I remember is lying on my side, up on an elbow, outside the foyer to our building, gasping for breath as a woman beckoned from a car stopped in the street. The woman with the dog had returned, presumably having put it in a safe place, and squatted by the door. She was concerned, as was the woman in the car. Both spoke to me.

I could not understand either of them, nor, I suspect, could they me. I was stunned, in a stupor, not thinking clearly, puffing like a sick locomotive. Had I had my wits about me I would have asked the dog’s handler for her name and address.

But I did not. All I could think of was getting medical help for Trooper. “I’m OK, I’m OK,” I kept saying. “I’ve got to get my dog to the vet. His leg’s broken.” The women spoke and I could not understand them. I shook my head and said, “I’m deaf.”

I fished my iPhone from my shirt pocket and texted Debby, upstairs in our apartment. “Come down. Attacked by dog.” (She did not get the message until much later.)

Somehow I found the strength to stand and scoop up Trooper, who was by now crying in pain. The two women were still there, but I said “Thanks,” and waved them away.

What happened after that I barely can remember. Somehow I got upstairs to tell Debby and we immediately drove to an emergency vet in Skokie ten minutes away.

"We’ll set the leg," said the vet, "but he’ll probably need surgical care tomorrow.”

While she was doing the job we went to the Evanston police station and were interviewed by a young cop. It was only pro forma. Filing a report wouldn’t do much good because I hadn’t obtained the name and address of the dog owner.

We returned to the emergency vet. She showed us the X-rays. Clean break of the tibia right above the joint. There was a small puncture wound in the skin of the leg at the break from the other dog’s bite. She hadn’t been able to reset the limb properly and made an appointment in the morning for a surgical vet in Northfield not far away. 

Trooper was splinted and woozy from the sedative, and we took him home, taking turns lying on the floor all night next to the pillows where we had laid him. By midmorning the veterinary surgeon had seen him and was ready to do the job. “It’s fixable,” he said.

Before noon it had been done, with a metal plate and five screws holding together Trooper’s tibia. We visited him in the animal hospital’s ICU early in the afternoon. To our astonishment he was awake and alert, struggling to stand and lick my face. The prognosis, the vet said, was good.

He’s now home, lying on pillows on the floor in my small office, its door closed so he doesn’t wander around the apartment. When we carried him outside to the parkway, he peed readily. He seems to understand that that’s his job now. Not the others.

The tasks he had been trained for as a hearing service dog are on hold. We’ve taped up a sign on our apartment door asking people not to knock. We’ve muted the telephone ringers. In short, we’ve tried to minimize all the sounds he’s trained to work. We don’t want him jumping up on me to alert me, jeopardizing his injured leg.

Recovery will take about four months. For the next two weeks we’ll have to carry him outside to do his business. For now, the distance to the grassy parkway is too long for him to walk. 

We’ve resigned ourselves to paying some $3,700 in vet bills. (The emergency vet and surgeon did give Trooper a 20 per cent discount because he’s a working dog.) Worth every penny, for Trooper is a valuable piece of medical equipment as well as a beloved companion.

As for me, I was uninjured by the tumbles in the street. My jacket and pants were scuffed a bit, but that was all.

We’re staying home for Thanksgiving instead of spending it with Conan and his family in nearby Edison Park. It’s doubtful that Trooper and I will go to to Washington to be with Colin and his crew for Christmas. Late December will just be too early for him to travel.

One irony is that I had worried about stray dogs assaulting Trooper during shore visits on Caribbean islands during our recent cruise. The actual attack came right in front of our own home. Go figure.

Trooper on his feet an hour after coming home.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Trooper's shakedown cruise

Trooper and the Nieuw Amsterdam at San Juan, Puerto Rico, last Nov. 9.
Last Nov. 6, as Trooper and I approached the turf-filled wooden box on the Nieuw Amsterdam’s promenade deck, right under the ship’s forecastle, my heart clambered into my mouth. Would he or wouldn’t he? My fuzzy little black service dog took a tentative step into the box and . . .

Let me backtrack a bit. Debby and I long have been planning a luxury cruise for our 50th anniversary next June—possibly a month’s voyage down the South American coast and up the Amazon River.

But when Trooper came to me last December, we worried how he would fit into our plans. Would he adjust quickly to shipboard life? Could he get used to being underfoot in close quarters among a couple of thousand passengers? Would they accept his presence as a working dog even in the dining rooms while they had to leave their own pets at home? 

Most of all, would he take to the 4-foot-by-4-foot relief box, filled with mulch or grass, that cruise lines provide for service dogs? There isn’t anywhere else for a dog to transact business aboard ship. Trooper was highly trained in service-dog tasks as well as housebroken in normal fashion, and had qualified in stringent tests in order to accompany his handler to all sorts of public venues. But not this one. 

Trooper on not the ship's putting green.
I would have to train him myself to use a shipboard potty. And so, last June I constructed a 16-square-foot pine box and placed it his enclosed pen in the back yard of our cabin on the shore of Lake Superior, filling it with garden mulch and old leaves raked from the driveway. I intended to lead Trooper to it on leash and say “Go potty!” while holding a treat out of sight. Sooner or later, he’d get the idea, wouldn’t he? Wouldn’t he?

There was one glaring flaw in that plan. Scores of chipmunks abound in the yard, both inside the fenced enclosure and out. As a miniature schnauzer mix, Trooper is a terrier, and terriers have extraordinarily high prey drives. They were bred to keep rats out of the barn. You guessed it: every time I took him out, he wanted to nail a chippie, not learn a task.

Weeks went by. Trooper deigned to use the box a few times, but way too few to be considered trained. When we came home to Evanston in early October, he hadn’t progressed much since June.

All that time I worried and worried about Trooper’s toilet habits to the point of obsession. I started to dream about being put ashore on a desert island because he peed on the ship’s expensive carpet. (Other service dog handlers confess to the same fixation. Our dogs must behave.)

In August we had decided that I’d take him on a short seven-day Caribbean voyage in early November, an experiment to see if my efforts would somehow bear fruit. If they didn’t, well, then Debby and I would just do something else for our 50th anniversary.

Still, I hoped we’d meet success. I am in my mid-seventies, and cruising is a good way for a gimpy old guy to travel when hiking even short distances on guided tours has become painful. Cruise ships stop almost daily at ports in various countries where senior citizens can travel inland aboard tour buses. Holland-America ships in particular cater to us; it’s fondly known as the Geezer Line. Cruising isn’t as satisfying as the independent travel we enjoyed when young, but it’s better than staying home.

One onerous task was obtaining permits to import animals from every country we visited. Such permits are required even for a six- or eight-hour visit, and getting them is a lot of work and expense. Trooper needed a U.S. Department of Agriculture Form 7001, the international health certificate most countries require in addition to proof of rabies vaccination. That has to be filled out by a veterinarian and endorsed at a USDA office.

Trooper on the beach at Half Moon Cay.
Then there are local requirements. Sint Maarten, one of the Nieuw Amsterdam’s port calls, requires its own version of the health certificate, with vaccinations and tests not often needed in the United States. So does Turks & Caicos, which also wants the dog to undergo expensive blood tests for rabies. Both countries must issue import permits as well, and for a fee. The Bahamas will accept the 7001 and the rabies documents, but, like the others, wants an import permit before the dog is allowed even a short visit.

Doesn’t matter if the animal is a service dog. A dog is a dog is a dog. No exceptions.

All that took several days of frantic emailing and running back and forth between our vet in Evanston and the USDA office in Des Plaines. In the end I decided not to go ashore at either Sint Maarten or Grand Turk. Just too complicated and expensive. We’d visit only Half Moon Cay, the Holland-America captive island in the Bahamas, and San Juan on Puerto Rico, a U.S. entity that doesn’t require jumping through documentary hoops.

The Nieuw Amsterdam was to sail out of Fort Lauderdale on Nov. 6. I decided Trooper and I would take the train rather than fly from Chicago to Florida. Both of us are veteran train travelers and know every good pee stop between Chicago and Washington, and we quickly learned the best places between Washington and Fort Lauderdale.

When we arrived at the cruise terminal, Trooper and I were quickly ushered through the formalities and placed aboard at the head of the line. After stowing our luggage in our roomy verandah cabin—a nice upgrade from the smaller one I had booked—Trooper and I set out to find the relief box. Forward on the promenade deck, the front desk said. So there we went.

And then came the moment of truth, the instant that would determine our future.

Trooper stepped into the box and quickly lifted a leg. Good boy!

From then on, every time we paid a call, he immediately repeated the feat. Even better boy!

In fact, he batted 1.000 for the entire voyage. From both sides of the plate.

As for the rest of the cruise, things went swimmingly. Trooper behaved as a service dog should, dozing on a towel beside my deck chair and lying at my feet in the dining room, only occasionally attempting to sneak under the next table for a dropped tidbit. He slept on a doggy blankie atop the pillow fort I made for him next to the bed. The slight rocking of the ship didn’t faze him.

Trooper and cabin attendant Pita.
Our fellow passengers, except for a few sour old grouches, smiled every time we ambled by. With few exceptions they asked before petting him. So did the Indonesian crew, dog lovers almost to a fault. Every time she came in, our cabin attendant would fall to the floor and gather Trooper into her arms. She greatly missed her own dog back in Jakarta.

I benefited from Trooper’s presence in other ways. I am a shy wallflower in most social situations, but the sight of the shaggy little terrier invited strangers to comment, and this often led to interesting conversations I’d never had while traveling.

The sole moment of difficulty occurred at Fort Lauderdale airport after the cruise. For reasons known only to itself, TSA decided that I must be thoroughly patted down head to toe and guggle to zatch, and my bags rifled rather than my steel knees simply wanded and the luggage X-rayed. Twice, first in the morning when we arrived, and second in the afternoon after Trooper and I went outside for a relief walk.

Both times Trooper, who is a protective sort of dog, objected vocally to the uniformed stranger’s hands intimately exploring my person, and it was a chore to hold a lunging terrier at arm’s length with the leash. Fortunately the TSA agents were pleasant guys with a sense of humor.

Despite taking pains with my corpus, they did not touch Trooper at all, nor examine his vest pockets. Maybe they didn't think plastique could be shaped into poo bags.

We flew home first class because it was our first flight together and I thought Trooper needed a little more room than cattle class could offer. He sat in my lap on takeoff and landing, but slept on the floor the whole way.

And now Debby and I are looking forward to our anniversary cruise in June. But not that Amazon River voyage, which would involve stops in nine countries and that many permits to bring Trooper ashore. We’re taking a two-week cruise out of Seattle to Alaska instead. Much less paperwork. Much less worry.