I am on a train to Montreal, with D’fer my service dog. At ten, Deef is getting to be an old man. Late last night when I was preparing to leave, John asked if I had D’fer’s rabies certificate. I checked his pack and we were three days overdue. Immunologically not a problem, but Via Rail specifically requested that he have his rabies certificate available. Not an unreasonable request, although it did throw a bit of a glitch into our morning plans. This morning we stopped into the Woodlawn Vet Clinic and they thankfully were able to squeeze him in right away. Thanks!
Unfortunately when the vet was listening to his heart she noticed that he has a fairly significant heart murmur. Blarg. At ten we have noticed him slowing down, and now we have a better clue as to why. The murmur is a big whistle between beats. Very worrisome. We booked another appointment for mid month to check into this, but this probably means that this is D’fer’s last big trip.
When you have a service dog you often confront a series of firsts and a series of lasts. I still remember our first train trip; to New York City, travelling west out of Guelph and crossing the border where the Via Staff sat down and the Amtrack stepped up. We had several opportunities to stop and let Deef out to pee. What a great trip. Going through customs on the train can be a long and sometimes arduous process as the customs officers board the train and you have to fill out paperwork. Going into the states Deef didn’t get a second look. Coming back, the Canadian customs agents had a million questions. Everyone was really helpful and D’fer was just about perfect. In my memory, he was completely perfect, but I am betting that the first train trip was pretty stressful for both of us. The hands of time really do ease off the pressure I felt at the time.
Travelling with D’fer is successful for a number of reasons. First and foremost, he has the genetics to support the acceptance of the unusual. He is not reactive at all and although he is interested in things, he doesn’t startle easily. We chose a great kennel to get him from, and he is the result of a breeding program that produces stable, well tempered dogs with excellent resilience. The few times I have seen Deef startled, he has come back down very easily. He is relaxed and calm in most situations, and new things don’t phase him.
The second thing that makes D’fer a joy to travel with is puppy class. At the time that D’fer was a puppy we didn’t offer puppy classes at Dogs in the Park; I was primarily offering behaviour consulting with one obedience class to meet the needs of the students whose dogs had completed our behaviour program. We took D’fer to Montessaurus Puppy School and he was one of the last puppies who was in the founder, Jenn Messer’s classes. What a great experience that was. I credit what we learned in Jenn’s class with two things; it helped us to create the perfect candidate to be my service dog, and it gave John the bug for teaching puppy classes. John is an awesome puppy class teacher and it is in part because of the passion he developed in that class.
With genetics and a great socialization program on our side, we prepared D’fer for almost anything by providing the right training to prepare him for the situations we would face. D’fer will toilet on grass, gravel, asphalt, and most especially sewer grates. Once, I flew into Fredericton New Brunswick to speak for the Canadian Association of Professional Pet Dog Trainers. We got off the plane and I didn’t know when I would be able to get D’fer to a toilet, so I asked him to toilet on a sewer crate on the tarmac. I turned towards the terminal to see all the ground crew, the other passengers and the terminal staff staring at my dog-peeing on a grate has been the source of many accolades as a trainer; people seem to be extremely impressed by that. We also taught him things like leash walking skills, a super duper automatic leave it, how to get under tables and chairs and how to pick things up for me. About two years went into getting D’fer ready for our first train trip, our first plane ride and our first grocery store, pharmacy and doctor visits.
|D'fer where he has been for almost eight years. This is his final trip. I just wish it was his first, even though first are not my favourite either.|
Most of D’fer’s firsts are long gone in our past, and now we are facing a lot of lasts. This is likely his last big trip with me. It is also likely his last train trip. I am pretty sure we have already had his last airplane ride. Likely we have also taken the bus for the last time. We have a few more grocery stores in us, and doctor’s appointments, and I am sure he has some more picnics and trips for ice cream, but yes, I think this is his last big trip.
I have trained over twenty service dogs now. I hate the firsts. The first time the dog sees construction, or hears the air conditioning start and stop on trains and planes can be very tough for young service dogs. Here we sit on the Via Train, and the lights and fans have all turned off. I can hear the diesel engines revving up. How will my next dog deal with this? Friday, the dog who was destined to be my service dog is rock solid in her ability to cope, but she doesn’t love working with me. She much prefers working with John and where possible, we allow our dogs to choose the work that suits them best. Likely I will make several trips with Friday before all is said and done and she and I will have these firsts and lasts too.
My computer died on the train today; my fan failed, and this interrupted my writing. Deef slept most of the day on the train. That heart murmur sits on my shoulder now. Is it fair to have asked D’fer to come to Montreal this time? He looks pretty comfortable. We met our host in Dorval, and went to dinner and did a few errands. All day, this heart murmur has been coming back to ask me questions. Is this my last night in a hotel together? Probably.
After a nap in the hotel room, Deef asked to go out and I followed his lead; something that I often do when we travel. Where ever he wants to go I follow. But now I know he has a heart murmur. Should I do this with him? We tracked someone through the field adjacent to the hotel. We walked around a big industrial complex. D’fer found a set of open steel stairs and asked to go up. Socialization again; he loved the challenge of new surfaces as a puppy and as an old man, he still loves the physical challenge of new footings. We had a great walk; over gravel and turf and overgrown grass, across asphalt, and to a loading dock, his stairs and as we walked, I noticed glimmers of young D’fer; he pranced and he bounced and he explored and he showed me all the funny things to see in the land around our hotel. I remember the firsts, and recognize that these may be the last, but the in between is what is what matters the most to me right now. I think I made the right choice to bring him this time, and I know that even if I didn’t that walk around the industrial area that surrounds the hotel was important for him, and for us. I am worried about this, but I also appreciate that he is doing work he has loved for his whole life, and the gifts that we give one another in our rituals when we travel.
Good genes provided a solid foundation. Great socialization provided a great framework. Everything else from our firsts to now, our lasts and our close to last is the magic that makes D’fer and me something special. That foundation and framework allowed us to get on a train when he had never done that before and be successful our very first time out. The foundation and framework allowed us to board a huge variety of airplanes and travel as far north as Edmonton, as far west as California, as far east as Fredericton, and as far south as Raleigh, North Carolina and be able to depend on one another every step of the way. This heart murmur in a way is a first. It is the first concrete indication that 10 is getting old for a Chesapeake. This is a first I really don’t like.
Friday is supposed to step into D’fer’s shoes. I could have brought her this time. I thought about it. I wonder if I should have. These lasts are hard, but the firsts are harder in a way. I chickened out, and now that I am in a hotel with a podcast playing and Deef asleep on the floor beside me, I can reflect that no matter how selfish it is, I appreciate this opportunity to have another trip together. This is not a physically difficult trip, and as a last trip, it is pretty good. I just wish we had a few more trips in us, and I hope that we will have good news when we next see the vet.