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Furry First Mates: Cruise Travel With Guide Dogs

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Marie Laporte-Stark is a freelance writer living in Ottawa, Ontario. The following article is re-printed from Abilities Magazine, issue 42, Spring 2000.

A call from a friend asking if we would go cruising with her and her husband got us moving one dreary fall day. Now we had something to look forward to during the cold months of winter!

We received a stern warning from an acquaintance in the industry: People board a cruise ship as passengers and, after all the wining and dining, they leave the vessel as cargo. The warning was conveniently ignored.

However, we could not ignore the formalities and legalities. We were all paying what was, for us, big bucks. We needed to protect our investment and enjoy the service. We had to plan carefully and pay attention to details, if this was to be an enjoyable experience.

The work got underway in secret. Finding a cruise line that would welcome four passengers who are blind, with four guide dogs and provide dialysis service for one of us was the first task. Fortunately, our friend found a great travel agent at Cruise Holidays in Halifax. She was supportive, and encouraged us every step of the way. Together, we tackled the fine print. Although two of us had cruised before, this was the first cruise for all of us with our guide dogs, Quincey, Zena, Linton and Acorn.

Our travel agent sent us material via the Internet so that we could access the information with our talking computers. Our reader, Maxine, also joined the adventure by finding cruising information on the Internet, scanning print material about ports of call and working with us to make word maps in Braille to help us travel about the 10-storey ship with independence and confidence.

As we worked with the travel agent to arrange this trip, we received some strange inquiries. Will the guide dogs find your luggage for you? How do you treat canine sea sickness? Do the guide dogs go to the bathroom in the shower? In fact, the relieving arrangements for the animals while at sea was our biggest concern.

The first contact with the cruise company was from the Risk Management Department, demanding proof that our animals were really guide dogs. The cruise company would not make arrangements for us to take the dogs off of the ship in the ports of call. So, on our own, we researched the laws in our four ports of call: San Juan, St. Thomas, St. Martens, and Nassau, in the Bahamas. To visit the Bahamas, even just for an afternoon, it was necessary to apply directly to its Department of Agriculture to obtain entry permits for the guide dogs. Normally, an entry fee of $10 per animal is charged. However, we discovered that the fee was supposed to be waived for guide dogs. We were able to avoid a $40 (U.S.) levy on our guide dogs to get off the boat in Nassau.

We kept hearing that the dogs had to be muzzled while working in such places like St. Thomas. These rumors caused concern. A hot, hardworking guide dog does not need the extra aggravation of wearing a muzzle for the first time in its life. It was not something we would have agreed to, because in our professional judgment these well-trained animals do not need muzzles. It is always a judgment call as to whether or not to make an issue of something by bringing it up in advance. An examination of the Virgin Island's guide dog laws did not mention muzzles, so we decided to take a chance. As it turned out, no one ever mentioned muzzles to us during the entire trip.

One of our travel companions also had to find a way to get dialysis while on the cruise ship. She found a company called Dialysis at Sea that makes these arrangements.

Finally, it was time to go. We flew into Fort Lauderdale on Super Bowl weekend. It had been difficult to find an overnight room. Weeks in advance, none of the major chains were taking any more reservations. However, we did not have to spend the night on a park bench. The travel agent eventually found us rooms at a hotel near the ocean. Two of us flew from Ottawa and arrived in time to watch the sunset on the beach, and our travelling companions arrived late in the evening from Halifax.

The next morning, we drove to the ship through the busy city of Fort Lauderdale. We went through the boarding procedures before other passengers. This enabled the crew to give us a tour of the ship so that we could learn our way around this huge floating palace independently. Later that afternoon, it was with pleasure and a sense of accomplishment that we stood at the railing sipping the drink of the day, a Bon Voyage, as The Century slipped her moorings and glided down the channel to the open sea, to the sounds of the lively steel band playing island music at the deck party.

When we returned to our cabins, we found a chilled bottle of champagne awaiting us as a present from our travel agent. We drank a toast to the successful team effort that had set us adrift in the Caribbean Sea aboard a floating city.

Shortly after the life boat drill and the departure, the purser dropped by to obtain documents for the guide dogs. On many other occasions in the past we had gone to a lot of trouble to get the documents and then no one wanted to see them. It was with glee that we turned over international health certificates, records of vaccination, copies of applicable guide dog legislation, a St. Martens Tourist Board guide dog introductory letter on government letterhead and the official Bahamian entry permit documents for four guide dogs. The purser was overwhelmed with the deluge of paper.

Apparently he had more paper than he needed, since the ship cleared the port formalities at five ports and we never once heard about doggy prohibitions.

The Century was a floating pleasure palace, but it lacked animal amenities.

It was time to sort out the relieving issue. Four two-foot-square litter boxes had been constructed for the use of the guide dogs and placed under a shelf. Our guide dogs ranged in weight from 50 to 90 pounds. They could not get into these little boxes.

The biggest concern of the crew, as expressed to us several times, was inconveniencing other passengers. There was a belief that people who saw the dogs in the natural act of relieving themselves would be offended. In fact, the opposite was the reality. Passengers continually asked about where the dogs did ?their business on the ship. Some even made a special trip to see the relieving area tucked away in a discreet corner of deck six. There was even talk among our new shipboard acquaintances of organizing passenger tours and charging a fee to recover the cost of the cruise.

Sonia, the cruise director, worked with us to solve the problem of the relieving area, as it would be two days before the dogs had dry land under their paws again. We moved the boxes into the open air on deck, placed them together and then heaped sod on the top, making one much larger square. It worked and soon the dogs were settling into their routine of shipboard life like all the other passengers.

At supper, we met Mary and Dave from Pennsylvania, our dinner table companions for the voyage. Each evening, we would meet and discuss the day's adventures over wine and fine dining like escargot, quail and extravagant desserts. We all went to the evening show together in the theatre, followed by a nightcap or two in the Rendezvous Lounge.

It was not long before the guide dogs mastered the routes and we were all travelling independently throughout the ship. The many activities like port talks or wine tasting were temptations that sometimes lured one or more of us. However, the pool deck provided the greatest amount of pleasure. Just relaxing on a lounge chair, talking with friends or crew, was pleasant. An occasional dip in one of the two shipboard saltwater pools was refreshing.

Visiting one of the outdoor Jacuzzis was a soothing finale to the swim.

Life on board the ship was idyllic but hectic. There was no way we could do everything, so we didn't work very hard at trying to but we managed to hit the high spots.

Being at sea is one of the most pleasurable parts of cruising. A day at sea is ideal for spending a relaxing morning in the health club, taking a sauna or enjoying the pleasure of a deep, soothing massage, reading a good book, trying out a dance class, or stopping by the duty-free shops. It's wonderful to be able to enjoy a tropical drink in the sun as the ship sails over the Caribbean Sea. In the late afternoon, there might be an art auction, a great movie, a wine tasting or a jackpot bingo. Or you can sip tea with fancy sandwiches and pastries.

Tarra, Lancelot, Newton, Grenvil and the other members of the cosmopolitan crew would deliver drinks and bring lunch for us. It was nice to eat breakfast or lunch at a table by the railing as the waves lapped by. Many passengers would drop by to chat .

It is not appropriate to pet a guide dog when it is working or while in harness. But so many people missed their animals and wanted to pet the dogs that we had to meet the need. So, we opened the "petting zoo" at the pool each day. As the dogs laid out on the deck, warming their bones, passengers would drop by. Upon request, we would let them pet the dogs. Everyone had a ball. The dogs really enjoyed meeting new friends, too.

The comments that gave us perhaps the greatest pleasure were from people who said that they were not dog lovers but just had to drop by to say how professional the dogs were going about their work, and how well behaved and well groomed they were. In fact, the competence of the dogs was admired by everyone, not the least us four persons who are blind. We could move around with confidence and independence, thanks to the partnership with our guide dogs. And the dogs needed some relaxation, too, letting them meet new people and be petted at the right time was a great reward for a job well done.

We were happy that the crew took the time to get to know us as well. Fermin, the pool deck manager from Puerta Plata, would drop by several times a day to swap dog stories. He missed his dog, who loves car drives in the front seat of the family car. Maria, who worked in guest relations, loved the dogs, and it was a real treat to let her pet them for a minute as we posed questions about the evening's events, like Rock ?n? Roll Trivia in the Crystal Lounge, before setting out for another night enjoying the ship's entertainment.

We learned that the crew worked extremely hard. They were on the ship for seven-month contracts and worked as many as 15 hours a day. They all looked forward to getting home for their two-month breaks. Cabin fever was a reality of their lives.

Sabine, from the excursion department, walked with us in San Juan. We were all glad to get off of the boat and stretch our legs for an hour or two. In Nassau, she took our travelling companions for a walk along the streets to feel firsthand the vibrant life of a Caribbean capital. In St. Thomas, Sonia, the cruise director, took a half hour of her own time to shop with us at A. H. Rise Gifts and Liqueurs. We dragged back on board booty like liqueurs, cigars, Caribbean spices and banana ketchup.

Angela, the social director representing the captain, was a very resourceful lady. Soon after arriving in St. Thomas we received the shattering news that our beach excursion to Megan's Bay had been cancelled due to high waves. An hour later, Angela saw us on the dock and learned of our disappointment. Sun in paradise, and no beach!? She told us of Morning Star Beach, where she goes, and that it was always quite calm

She arranged for a van. Four people and four guide dogs piled in, and off we went to a nice day at the beach. There were waves, but they were fun, and the people at the beach welcomed us. We soon had lounge chairs and settled in for three hours of relaxation. The water sports operator dropped by for a chat. He went for water at the bar for the guide dogs and fixed a stiff leash in his workshop. He was a retired motorcycle race driver and soon he had the ladies feeling the braces and pins in his legs, the legacies of his racing career. We trooped back to the ship, contented with our day at the beach

The next day, our tour to Marigold in St. Martens left the ship by tender in rainy weather. We went anyway, and Angela joined us for the trip. It was her day off. We enjoyed her company as we scavenged in the shops of French Saint Martens for hats, wallets, shirts and other tourist souvenirs

Soon it was off to an island in the salt lagoon for a swim. Excitement reigned when a fish was caught by my husband Chris. A rubber shark was found on the sandy bottom. This trophy went home as the ultimate fishing story!

One last afternoon at Blue Sea Lagoon Island, and it was time to say goodbye at the captain's farewell dinner. We bought some pictures taken by the ship's photographers (known as the cruise paparazzi). One, which shows the four of us on the stairs in the main foyer with the four dogs, will be a lifelong conversation piece

The day after we returned home we could still feel the gentle rise and fall of the ship as we walked around the house. It was a gentle reminder of pleasures, now memories, to be enjoyed for years to come. However, being seasick in one's own home is difficult to explain when calling in sick to work the first day back from a vacation!

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