CANINE FREQUENT FLYER
(1995 DWA Maxwell Medallion Winner)
by Jean Levitt
(article reprinted from Collie Connection March 1996)
As an Assistance Dog team, our work together includes a great deal of travel, including flying. We have completed twenty two in-cabin airplane flights in the two years we have worked together, visiting 18 states. We have flown so many miles, we have free frequent flyer tickets for flights this winter and spring.
Recently while waiting in an airport lounge during a change of planes, Cole and I were the objects of much discussion by a very distressed older woman. She was clearly very upset to see a dog in the airport lounge. Her worst fears were confirmed when she and the gentleman travelling with her inquired of the ground personnel whether or not the offending dog was actually going to board the plane.
As usual, Cole rested quietly at my feet, interested in the sights, sounds and especially smells of the airport. On a recent trip changing planes in Detroit, traveling with my son, Barry, Cole and I visited some bushes outside the airport terminal while Barry waited in the gate lounge for our flight. A last minute gate change was announced, so Barry went to the new gate, assuming I would check the information screen when I didn't see anyone at our gate. Upon arriving in the lounge, I said, "Where's Barry?" aloud. Lifting his nose to scent the air where Barry had been waiting, Cole picked up the fresh track, fouled by at least a hundred passengers, and purposefully led me out in the main hall and down a completely different corridor to a lounge where Barry was waiting! On this particular trip, Cole as usual remained politely aloof when enthusiastic travelers who did not know they should not pet or feed an Assistance Dog in harness, fondled him and offered him food. When a pair of restless children began crawling on him and in general creating a disturbance, he tolerated the inconvenience until I was able to explain the hands off guidelines to the harassed parent and all of the people gathered around us, softening my request by offering Cole's brochure to each interested person.
From time to time as I politely accepted compliments and chatted with fellow travelers about Cole's appearance, manners and professionalism, (thanks to his breeders and trainers, Eva and Leslie Rappaport of Kings Valley Collies in Oregon; Peggy Beattie of Welwyn Collies in Millbrook, NY, who grooms him and Rene Bayha, DVM of Pound Ridge, NY Veterinary Clinic, his veterinarian), I caught a glimpse of the unhappy woman who by now was worked up into such a state the gentleman tried to calm her by walking her to an empty lounge nearby. They were joined by an airline supervisor, and I observed much gesturing, arguing, pleading and finally, tears. Normally we board first, but I decided to board last in order to allow her to get settled on the plane.
As sometimes happens when I'm very tired - I had been travelling since 5:00 AM and it was now nearly 6:00 PM - my left side was completely numb. Cole senses when I need extra support, and he braced himself so I could balance against him to get out of my chair. He carefully walked me to the boarding ramp, leaning into me to provide balance. His backpack was bulging with essentials for me, and Nutro Max, and a bottle of water for him. (Although it's never happened, I'm always prepared for our luggage to be lost by packing at least two days' food for him in his backpack.)
Cole patiently stopped and braced me when I needed to rest, and automatically slowed his pace as we went down a slight slope on the boarding ramp.
I was concentrating so hard on walking that I didn't notice the man standing in the elbow of the boarding ramp was the same man accompanying the distraught woman. As we approached, the man stepped forward. I saw he was shielding the woman with his body. She edged behind him and away from Cole.
The gentleman, speaking in a foreign accent, looked somewhat embarrassed as he explained that his wife, at the age of twelve, had witnessed her mother and father torn to pieces by attack dogs in Nazi Germany during World War II.
As the cockpit crew and the cabin crew of our plane patiently observed us from a few feet away in the waiting plane, he further explained that she had boarded the plane, but panicked when she was strapped into her seat. She couldn't face flying in a plane with a big dog in the cabin. The ground personnel had explained Cole's job to them, and the Americans With Disabilities Act, Title 111, which permits Assistance Dogs in any place open to the public when assisting their person. The couple had decided to leave the plane and forfeit over a thousand dollars in ticket fees ... until she saw Cole so carefully, so professionally, assisting me into the plane.
The waiting cabin crew escorted the couple back into the-plane, and seated them in tail section again. Cole and I sat forward in the bulkhead seats. He scrunched down on the floor at my feet with his nose pointing toward the aisle so he could watch comings and goings. Once his backpack was removed he took a little nap. Several times during the flight, the woman chose to visit the forward bathroom rather than the one nearest her seat in the rear of the plane.
Each time, her husband accompanied her past Cole and waited the few seconds she was inside to escort her past us again. When we landed, I decided to get off last rather than hold everyone up. The couple chose to get off last also. When I got up to leave, assisted by Cole, they approached from the rear. In tears, the woman sat on the arm of the seat across the aisle and told me how Cole had changed her life. She explained the terror she had felt every time she saw a big dog, how she relived the thing that happened to her parents every night as she slept. Now she was going to be alright. She was sure of it.
I invited her to touch Cole. Very cautiously, she half extended her arm, and elevating her fingers just above the tips of the hair of his frill, she slowly lowered her fingers into his fur. Leaving her hand resting on Cole's neck, she looked toward her husband who had crouched down in the aisle beside Cole, and she put her head on his coat lapel, sobbing out aloud. She hid her face with her other hand. He comforted her as Cole stood perfectly still in place, tolerating the hand on his neck, understanding the significance of the moment.
The sympathetic cabin crew, watching our little group from first class, detained maintenance staff that had boarded to clean the plane.
The woman got off her seat, and crouched down on the floor beside her husband. She whispered something to Cole in a foreign language, thanked me in English, and got up to leave the plane. The gentleman stroked Cole under the chin. In return Cole gave him a little lick on the face, and the man stood up to join his wife.
As Cole assisted me up the aisle and off the plane, the cabin crew walked with us on the boarding ramp, then into the airport. As we said our good-byes, one of the pilots who had watched us talk with the couple earlier on the ramp, came to attention and saluted Cole as we passed by.
(Note: Gentleman Cole died in Feb.,1995 of lymphosarcoma.)
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