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Clive responds to some recent questions on travelling as a service dog in the US .....

Posted Aug 19 2010 6:25am
Since coming home from our vacation in the US we have had many questions, comments and emails in the last few weeks about various aspects of our trip so today Clive replies to some of those questions ...

1. How did Clive travel over to the US - was he in the hold of the plane, how did he cope with 7.5 hours flight from Dublin to New York, how did the airline react, did he need to 'spend', did he get special airline food, drinks ... does he have to pay for his seat, does he sit on a seat?

Clive was able to travel beside us on the airplane as he is a 'service dog' and he travels free of charge. He is not given a seat - he is much more comfortable lying on the floor beside us. He just curls up and takes up very little space, however airlines are usually very good about allocating an extra seat (if available) to service dogs so the service user doesn't have their legs hanging over the dog's head or gives the service dog user the bulkhead seats or seats with extra space. Clive is very happy to fly and sleeps for most the trip.
We have travelled many times now with Clive on our national carrier Aer Lingus, who have been outstanding in their level of care, attention and friendliness to us. Murray, like many autistic children, does not travel well - he may be calmer and more relaxed having Clive with him but he is still always sick. The Aer Lingus crew are always incredibly helpful and understanding and we cannot thank Aer Lingus enough for their assistance every time we fly with them.

Coming in to land Clive sits up to see where we are?
On arrival in the US, we had to transfer from JFK airport to La Guardia airport and the Aer Lingus ground staff who had met us off the plane, brought us to a 'relief' area for Clive, then stayed with us until our transport had arrived. Although we had organised private car transfers and specifically mentioned we were travelling with a service dog - the driver was not going to take us. However, with the intervention of the Aer Lingus staff and Murray's Mom - we got our transfer to La Guardia.

Delta in La Guardia was another story altogether and travelling through La Guardia airport with a service dog and special needs child was not easy. Security was incredibly rude to us and patted down Murray - to pat down an autistic child (who has a huge aversion to touch) just because his service dog's collar 'beeped' was very confusing for Murray and caused him great upset.

Trying to explain to airport security that they were dealing with an autistic child was pointless. At the boarding gate, we asked if it was possible to get the bulkhead seat so Clive would have a little more room - our request was denied and not because an elderly or disabled person was using it. This plane from New York to Savannah was a small plane so poor Clive was really squashed under our seat!

To be fair to Delta they were much friendlier to us in Hilton Head Airport when we were returning two weeks later and at the boarding gate we did have our seats changed to the bulkhead seats so Clive had more room. However, we are used to Aer Lingus knowing about service dogs requirements and automatically allocating the most service user friendly seat possible when we fly with Clive. We had spoken to Delta several times before we flew so they were well aware that we had a service dog with us however that fact didn't seem to be on their systems at either La Guardia or Hilton Head and lots of explanations were needed.

We are rating Clive's travels on a ' four paw' rating so Aer Lingus and Dublin Airport get a resounding 'four paws'. La Guardia get a 'one paw' and Hilton Head get a 'three paw' - check-in here was good, but security again insisted on patting down Murray and removing Clive's jacket, lead and collar. This disorientates a 'working dog' suddenly they have no working equipment on them and are being told to walk through a scanner. When Clive looked around helplessly at us, questioning what to do because he hadn't his lead on him, it was only because he is such an obedient dog that he took the command to walk on, and walked through the scanner on his own to the security guard.

Clive does not eat on flights - and no he doesn't get special airline food. He was just given some small sips of water and a few ice cubes. Aer Lingus again provided Clive with his own bottled water, blanket and checked up on him as often as they did their 'human' customers. We were most impressed.

Clive is trained to 'spend' on command so just before we boarded - we took him for a last walk outside the terminal (great that this option was available to us in Dublin) and allowed him to spend. He had been for a long walk before we left the house that morning so we were happy that he had been given plenty of opportunity to spend before the flight. Knowing your dog's routine is very important and we know Clive's routine very well!

Taking Clive on a transatlantic flight is not something we rushed into - we thought long and hard about how he would cope and spoke to several colleagues in Irish Guide Dogs and also some other service dog users from Dublin who had taken their dogs to the US. Clive coped really well with everything and in fact really seems to enjoy all his travels. He is invaluable to Murray and that is why he travels with us.

2. Access for service dogs in the US ... how we found it in general ... is it easier than in Ireland?

Well we were only in two States, South Carolina and New York and we had checked out on the internet all the relevant legislation in both States regarding service dogs so we were happy that Clive would be allowed the 'same access as a member of the general public' as per the ADA - American Disability Act provisions. In practise however, it was not always as simple as that ....

We have to say though that South Carolina came out on top as the friendlier service dog State! Most restaurants were fine and immediately allowed us in - those who questioned us were fine after we explained. We had one Thai restaurant who really didn't want to allow Clive in but after a little stand-off they relented! However, we would have the same problem with ethnic restaurants here in Dublin.

Supermarkets and shops in South Carolina were excellent - never a problem there and Barnes & Noble were particularly friendly which was great as visiting bookshops is very important to Murray.
Beach access in Hilton Head was allowed after 7pm in the evening for dogs - and off leash too! This was wonderful for Clive. Hilton Head get an overall 'three paws' for service dog access. Strangely enough the one place that really had an issue with Clive was the Tourism Office in Savannah and in particular their Museum. However, after more explanations we were allowed in.

New York was interesting in regard to access - we had thought it would be easy here but we got a mixed reaction.

However, we'll begin with the best - Central Park Zoo allows service dogs so Murray was really thrilled here.

Fitzpatrick's Manhattan Hotel were fantastic! We got such a warm welcome on arrival and when we explained we had forgotten Clive's feeding bowl - a ice-bucket was immediately provided for him. The staff in the hotel were great and always made us feel welcome and comfortable. The concierge was particularly great at trying to get 'yellow cabs' for us because this was where access was really difficult ....

By law, cabs have to allow service dogs but obviously a lot of cab drivers just chose to ignore that fact. Our concierge would explain, cajole and finally argue our case and sometimes the cab drivers accepted us (and Clive!). How a visually impaired person and guide dog manages to travel around New York - we just don't know.

We used the subway for most of our travelling around New York because arguing with cab drivers was proving too tiring and so unsuccessful. Clive can't use escalators though - no service dog can - their paws would get hurt so where there was no stairs we had to use the elevators. Not our favourite experience, underground in the subway and in a very small elevator! You don't want to think about the consequences of an emergency! Clive however was fine - it was the humans who were having the panic attacks!

"Murray, how do I exit the subway?"

Clive quickly learnt - under the bars and out!

Restaurants in New York were certainly mixed over access and a bit like Dublin - the better the restaurant the less the problem. Casual restaurants and bars just don't seem to like the idea of a 'service dog'. TGI Friday's on Lexington Ave and Trinity Place on Wall Street were particularly difficult - only that Murray's Mom knows her regulations and sticks to her 'guns' did we get access here. Murray likes the place so that's why we persisted!

Obviously main attractions like the Museum of Natural History, Chelsea Market, the High Line were fine but for day to day access for a service dog for autism - we were glad that we don't mind and are used to giving explanations about why we have Clive and what an assistance dog for autism does!

Overall though, we're giving New York 'three paws' for service dog access! Central Park Zoo gets a very special 'four paws'! We've have been on to Dublin Zoo here again about access and thank you also to some of our friends on FB who have also contacted Dublin Zoo on behalf of assistance dogs for autism.

3. Respect for a 'working dog' - were people better at letting Clive do his job in the US?

Finally we have to say that we were very impressed with all the people (the general public) in the US who saw Clive's jacket, realised he was working and left him to do his job! Parents in particular with young children were so respectful of the fact that Clive was working and could be heard explaining to their children about 'why not to touch or interfere with a working dog'.
It is one of the things that we find difficult here in Ireland that members of the public continually stop Clive and pet him or call to him or even the other day, pull his leg and then complain he wouldn't give 'the paw' while we were standing in a queue. It confuses and upsets Murray when people without asking just start petting or pulling at Clive. In the US, we never had that problem with the general public - there was huge respect for the fact that Clive was a service dog.

This has probably been the longest post we have written to date but we wanted to answer all the questions/comments/emails that have been sent to us over the past month. Thank you very much for the interest in assistance dogs for autism and in how Clive does his job and in particular how we got on when travelling this summer.

Clive is an exceptional service dog who has provided Murray with opportunities to experience and achieve things that previously were not open to him. The opportunity to travel now is one of those things we're really thankful for ....

- Clive & Co

For further information on service dog etiquette - see our post of 21 January 2010 .
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