Stories from a 'Gypsy' service dog team
By Tara MacDonald
Service Dogs are NOT pets.
A service dog is a dog that helps a person with a disability. Dawson is not a pet, but a very hard working hearing and mobility dog. I am disabled, but with Dawson's help I lead a fairly normal life (I mean, if kayaking and traveling with a three-legged dog is normal- we think it is). Yet if it was not for Dawson and the past service dog partners I have had over the years, I might not be writing about our adventures, or penning a book about traveling with service dogs. So this is our story, and Dawson has included his own doggie tips to all his fellow canine friends and their owners.
Dawson and I are Kayaking Gypsies. We are spending the summer traveling and looking for new friends and adventures. We are both fairly new to the world of kayaking, but we are having the time of our life learning. Sometimes we must look hilarious. I do all the work and Dawson sleeps or tries to catch fish by pawing at them over the side.
So what does Dawson do? He is my ears, he alerts me to the phone ringing, people at the door; he is my first aid kit, ballast, and a crutch (when I trip he balances me). Having him along is also he only way I get to travel wherever and whenever we like. I have epilepsy, but I have been seizure-free for over two years now. I have Ehlos Danlos Syndrome; it means the cartilage in my joints is breaking down, so sometimes I have to use crutches to walk. The medicine that I have to take makes me very sleepy. When my head hits the pillow, I'm out like a light. A bomb could go off and I wouldn't hear it, but Dawson would.
Dawson was four months old when he first alerted me to something I couldn't hear. We were staying in The Forks, and at around midnight some last minute rafters checked into the lodge where we were staying, but it was locked up for the night. I was so sound a sleep that I did not hear them banging on the door, but Dawson did. He bounced on the bed, my head, my friend's head, and Dawson finally woke us. What it sounded like was someone trying to break in. I was still groggy and not sure where I was; I told my friend go see what Dawson was wigging out about. Of course we couldn't find the leash, and anyone who has had a puppy knows that at some point all that excitement could burst some puppy plumbing. I just opened the door to our room and told Dawson, "Show me." Dawson took off down the stairs with my friend close on his heels. When I finally did get myself together and downstairs I met our three new overnight guests.
There are times though, when folks are not so friendly to Dawson or me. There have been times when we have been denied entrance to places to eat or shop. I sure do get tired of saying, "Federal law states that a service dog is any type of dog that helps a disabled person and are allowed anywhere the public goes including but not limited to restaurants, hotels, buses, cabs, trains, planes, hospitals, churches, etc." Dawson goes to the hospital with me when I get sick, he attends the theater in Bangor regularly, goes to church, and he has his own train and bus tickets when we travel. But we still get harassed. I know there are not many three-legged service dogs around, and we have yet to meet any other kayaking duos like us, but we stay hopeful that one day Dawson and I won't be such an oddity.
Dawson and I have been a working team for eight months now. He turned a year old on Valentine's Day, 2006. He is taking over for my last service dog that has just retired, and although Jazz loved to travel, I think she is happy to be a glorified couch potato. Dawson truly loves his life, and I will be forever thankful to the Kennebec Valley Humane Society in Augusta, Maine for making me come and adopt him. He is my shadow and makes me complete.
When packing our kayak and gear for a trip, Dawson is more than happy to help. I have his waterproof bag, and then there is my pack, Dawson's lifejacket, mine, etc. If I should happen to forget his toys, which include his floating squirrel and bag of tennis balls, he will find them and drop them in the kayak or on my bed so when I crawl in for the night I end up lying on them. He also has his own packs for the truck ride, which include a cellular phone my medicine, and our passports. Just like a person's passport, Dawson has one with his picture, a copy of the Federal Americans with Disabilities Act pertaining to service dogs, his vaccination record, and microchip number. On the day of departure, he will pace back and forth until I put on his packs. If it's sunny out and I forget to put on my sunglasses, he'll lick my ears. Yes folks, it is possible to sunburn your eyes, and it is even easier on the water because of the reflection.
Dawson is pawing my foot as I write this, so I will let the fellow Gypsy take over.
Dawson Dog's travel tips
Don't leave presents
After being let out to do our business, I realize that marking on a tree is OK, but leaving a present that can be stepped on is not good doggie etiquette. Carry small paper bags (lunch bags are best), and have your human use it like a glove to pick up the mess. Turn the bag inside out and dispose of it in a garbage can - or bury it. Plastic takes years to break down compared to paper. If you don't have anything, but there is a mess and someone could step in it, leaves make a good pooper-scooper - then you can toss it out of the way.
Dogs need PFDs too
Everyone getting into any boat should wear a personal floatation device (PFD or life jacket). Dogs, no matter the breed, can only swim one mile or less before they drown. I feel much safer in my life jacket, and I'm happy to jump into my girl's boat. Most sporting stores sell canine lifejackets in all sizes and colors.
Start with Short Trips
When I first started kayaking with my girl, we took short trips so I would not be afraid, being a pup and all. I also had to know what "stay" meant, and not to move except to get comfortable. It has been tempting to jump out when I see kids jumping off docks.
I like booties
I wear booties on my feet if my girl thinks our landing might be rough. A dog's feet are very sensitive to heat and cold. Imagine people walking bear foot on hot tar or icy sidewalks with calcium chloride; these things can burn a dog's pads and cripple a dog. If you don't have booties, sunscreen can help. Be careful of rocky landing areas too, if you think you can't climb to shore safely, then wait for your human.
Have a new leash on life
Always carry a spare leash - then I can't get lost. I mean, I'm a dog and the world is really big.
Be nice to your Dog
Make sure I am up to date on my shots, and have a nice new collar with all my tags on them. DO NOT put my first name on the tag. Dogs are stolen every year; the first name like," Jack" on the tag just makes it easier for us to be taken because we come when called. Have the last name and phone number instead. It's the 21stst century and the world is a microchip world. Get your canine buddy a microchip. I am, and can be scanned, just like a bag of dog food. My name comes up on the computer with all my information like my address and whom I belong to.
Tara MacDonald is 31 years old and her mom calls her a water baby. She also says having a service dog makes her sleep easier knowing that they are safe together. Dawson is a lab/shepherd cross that was hit by a car when some kids called to him. Although he walks on three legs, it hasn't slowed him down a bit. Together Tara and Dawson are working on a travel book for service dog teams, and will be spotlighting many businesses and places to go that are service dog/handicap friendly places in their upcoming book.
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