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.

1 comment:

  1. Just wait until Trooper attends the annual Service Dog Conference...the stories he will tell the others about his adventures. He'll be the envy of the pack. Carl Morrison