SDIT Meets the Last Frontier

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Many people who follow us know that I work as an emergency veterinary technician. Usually this job doesn’t include traveling, but in January I received an email from my clinic manager that included a unique opportunity. They were looking for volunteers to travel up to Anchorage Alaska to help out an emergency clinic there that was short staffed and looking for additional assistance during their computer software transition. Alaska has always been a place that I have wanted to see and visit so I jumped on the chance to go, even if I was going to be working during the visit.

The response from all my coworkers was huge, so many people wanted to go and I feel extremely lucky that I was one of the two employees selected to go. The dates for the trip were picked out that worked for everyone involved and all the arrangements were made. I then had a decision to make. Do I take my service dog in training (SDIT) named Pixie with me? Or do I leave her home with Matt?

If you read my last blog I announced that Pixie would be staying with me and training to help me will my new changes in my health. So most would say, absolutely she should go with me, and I do agree, but there are a lot of factors that I have to consider in my decisions when I take her.

My first concern was that I would be working three days in a row; ten hour shifts. I have been working 8 hour shifts and the extra 2 hours can somedays be really hard on me without a break. I had no idea how busy this clinic was or how long I would be on my feet without a break. Also would there be areas for me to sit? Opportunities for me to sit? I can make adjustments at the clinic I work at if needed depending on my level of fatigue most days. I can do work at the microscope, I can do phone updates, monitor anesthetic procedures, and other things at my work on days that I am struggling to be on my feet for long periods. My coworkers also understand and a few do recognize when I’m not up to certain tasks and jump in now without me even asking to switch tasks with them. So going into a new clinic environment was going to be a little stressful… and for Pixie too. Pixie knows the clinic I work in and the flow, she grew up there. She has a spot under the desk at one of the computer stations where she is comfortable and she can stay there for eight hours without a problem. She requires just one or two potty breaks during the shift and she needs to be fed her dinner. She can keep an eye on me and is very happy there. She wouldn’t have the same privileges at the clinic in Alaska and therefore I considered it might be a stressful experience for her.

First step was to message the clinic manager at the clinic in Alaska to see if it was even an option to bring her with me. The response was yes, but all employee dogs were to be kept in an area where there were dog runs. Pixie does have some kennel stress when put into kennels anywhere other than our house. This is what started her being placed under the desk at my work when she was a puppy. I would take her to work with me and she would have basically an anxiety attack when I put her in a kennel there. She was fine if another dog was with her, but panicked when she was by herself. She would cry, bite at the kennel door, pant, pace and even vomit occasionally. It was easier on her to be under the desk and she was perfectly calm and behaved there. We slowly worked on her getting more comfortable being in a kennel and now I can put her in a kennel if I need to.  She isn’t thrilled about it, but she is now calm in the kennel. The only other experience she has had being in a kennel somewhere else was at her scent class training sessions. The dogs were required to be in a kennel between runs. It was a 6 week course and by the end she was way more comfortable about being in the kennel there, but again it took a few weeks and I was sitting right next to her.

I weighed the pros and cons about bringing Pixie on the trip. On past trips Pixie has shown some stress signs, but does work through them as the trip goes. She doesn’t always eat well, or poop normally. She has had some barking at noises outside our hotel rooms because they are unfamiliar sounds. 

The pros were that this would be a great experience for her, she already has some experience traveling, but more would be great. She could experience snow for the first time, she would be a great help to me traveling through the airports and help me conserve energy for working. 

The cons were if she stressed out in the kennel at the clinic I might be forced to sedate her if needed. Another concern was whether she would potty in the snow (she is very picky where she will poop). I also had to think about if I was tired after my shift If I would have energy to take care of her. Without Matt around I would be responsible for getting up out of bed to potty her and make sure she got enough exercise before my shift. Pixie knows my coworker that came with us, but she is very attached to me. I was pretty certain that she would possibly outright refuse to go potty for anyone other than myself, another thing we are working on.   

I decided that bringing Pixie was worth all the potential cons. If we are going to be a working team I had to see how she was progressing with dealing with a change in her routine and environment. Service dogs need to be adaptable and if she couldn’t adapt on this trip, then I would need to reevaluate her future with me. This in some ways was a test for us as a team. I could see what things were solid for her and what things still needed work. I am 100% happy with my decision to bring her, she stepped up to the challenge and proved that she has made huge strides since her last trip in June.

I think Pixie knew that this was a test for her and went into work mode as soon as we stepped out of the car at the airport. I also think that she wanted to show off her skills to my coworker who was traveling with us. We checked in ourselves and our luggage first. She waited patiently at the counter as the airline representative asked the two questions, is she a service dog? And what is she trained to do? Pixie still wears her “In Training” cape and will continue to do so until she is super solid on all of her behaviors in public. Next we went outside for a last chance to potty before we went through security. She went very quickly and was eager to go back in and head to security. At security she was absolutely perfect in her behavior. She waited patiently in line, sat and waited for me to pass through the metal detector before calling her through and accepting of her pat down. Once we gathered our things we were off to our gate. She was excited but also very focused not only on me, but making sure my coworker was sticking close by to us. She kept looking for her and as soon as she knew she was still with us, she focused on where we were going.

We got to preboard. I do enjoy this option to get everything I think I will need for the fight without feeling rushed with a line of people behind me. Having a dog at my feet means no room for a bag under the seat. Once I sit down in my seat I am there for the duration on the flight. I don’t want to risk disturbing my dog and having to get her resettled mid flight if I want or  need to get something out of my bag in the overhead compartment. I had the window seat and my coworker was next to us in the middle seat. Pixie quickly settled in her spot and seemed ready for the adventure to begin. Once boarding began a nice woman in a flight attendant uniform sat in the aisle seat. She was flying to Seattle to catch a different flight that she would be working. But one of the first things she said as she sat was “now that is a real service dog” and pointed at Pixie. That is one of the best compliments I could have received on this trip. As a flight attendant, I’m sure she has seen her fair share of dogs that should not have been on a flight. 

Take off was no problem, but a few minutes into the flight Pixie did shift and moved to my coworkers foot space and stayed there for the entire 2 hour flight. Not sure if she was feeling uneasy herself or picking up on something from my coworker. This was the first time Pixie sat at the rear of the plane. In all her other fights Pixie sat in the bulkhead area so maybe the noises and vibrations were different for her behind the planes engines. At the same time my coworker suffers from anxiety and perhaps Pixie was one step ahead of her. Pixie multiple times checked in and even gave her a few nudges during the trip. I asked how she was feeling when this happened and she said that she felt her anxiety levels were increasing each time Pixie checked in. Pixie was definitely picking up on something and helping not only me, but my coworker as well. This was a bit of a surprise for me. Pixie was willing to notify someone else of a change in their body.

Pixie remained settled on the flight but alert, which was a little odd, because normally she would sleep.  Once we landed in Seattle we had just under an hour to catch our connecting flight in a completely different terminal. We got off the plan and Pixie remained in work mode. She had just the right amount of pull for me and navigated the people and environment like a pro. We had to get on a tram to go to the next terminal and again, no problem for Pixie. When we exited the tram there was an indoor relief area for dogs. It was a piece of artificial turf on a raised platform and a plastic fire hydrant. This was Pixie’s only opportunity to pee before boarding our next flight that would be about 4 hours. I walked her over and gave her the cue to potty and she quickly hopped up and peed and hoped off. She had this look of “ewe, that was gross” on her face. It was probably the equivalent of how I feel of using a porta potty at events that don’t have an actual bathroom. You gotta go you use it, but as quickly as possible. I was surprised but very happy that she went, since she is very particular about where she will potty. Relieving habits are one of the biggest reasons some dogs don’t go on to be service dogs. Some dogs will potty where and whenever they want freely which is a problem; others will only relieve at home or familiar places which is also a problem. A service dog has to be comfortable relieving where and when an opportunity is given. It is a huge and important part of puppy raising and service dog life.

When we got to the gate for the next flight they were already boarding, so no pre board option for us. It is more challenging to navigate boarding a plane with a dog when people are already sitting in their seats and people standing in the aisle in front and behind you. A dog can feel crowded and uncomfortable. You need to be mindful that your dog isn’t trying to sniff or say hi to people. And you have to make sure people are not trying to pet your dog as you are standing still or moving down the aisle. All of this while trying to move to your seat in a tiny space that isn’t large enough for your dog to walk in the position it is used to which is right next to you. You have to choose, does the dog walk in front or behind you. Once we got settled in our seat and everyone was boarded, we were asked to move by the flight staff. It wasn’t a full flight but the row we were in was full. They said that they wanted to give Pixie more space and sat her and I in the last row of the plane in the window seat. There was someone in the aisle seat but not the middle. So we had to get up, gather our things and leave my coworker behind and get resettled. Pixie took it all in stride, but I was a little annoyed by it all. But what are you going to do, you are supposed to follow the direction of the flight staff. Pixie did settle quickly though in the middle seat foot section and finally fell asleep after an already long day for her and slept the duration of the flight.

Once we landed and happily reunited with my coworker we headed off to get our rental car. In the Anchorage airport there are lots of large native wild animal replicas everywhere. Pixie wasn’t too sure about these things but did oblige when I asked her to pose for a photo… but definitely didn’t trust the strange things behind the glass. When we got to the rental car area I took her outside to see if she needed to potty again and she had her first exposure to really cold weather and snow on the ground. I couldn’t convince her to go and we moved on to get our car and find a place to eat dinner.

I always get a little anxiety when traveling with a dog, especially out of state because you never know what the culture about service dogs will be like. Are businesses educated about them? Will they accept them? Are the general public accepting of them. Our first test would be while going out to dinner. Would we be denied access? Would other diners give us dirty looks for having a dog in the restaurant? Hard to believe that in this day in age this still happens to service dog users, but it does. To my relief, I had absolutely no issues the entire trip. Everywhere we went we were welcomed and the people in Alaska were great.

After dinner it was time to get settled into our hotel. All three of us were exhausted. On past trips Pixie was a little unsettled in hotel rooms. This trip she was amazing. The only time she barked was once when a maid knocked on our door the 3rd day. She was happy to unpack her toys and play in the room and even ate most of her dinner which was also a big change for her. Past trips she would pick at her food or not eat the first day. I was able to finally get her to pee in the snow at the hotel before we turned in for the night.

The next day we got up and found a great enclosed empty dog park for Pixie to blow off the stress of traveling the day before. She immediately took off running and doing puppy zoomies. She was very comfortable playing and running in the snow and finally pooped as well. Once she had a good run session we went off to do a little sightseeing and shopping. Pixie is an excellent shopper, but the cute country souvenir store we found had some challenges for her. Life sized bear replicas and large stuffed animals. These are things that she has previously barked at. Not this time, no barking, but slight hesitation to approach a large stuffed dog. I did pick out a few stuffed toys for her, she absolutely adores stuffed animals. We do however need to work on her waiting for me to pay for them first before playing with them. Everytime I put down my hand basket to look at something closer she would reach in and pull them out. Yes it was very cute, but patience my dear Pixie.

Time quickly passed and we needed to get ready for our shift at the clinic. I packed Pixie some yummy chew bones and treats and her favorite pink stuffed poodle that she has when we go to work. We got to the clinic and they showed me where to get her set up. There were a few other dogs in the runs, but it was a little drafty and had loud humming noises. I got her a cozy blanket and got her in a kennel and told her that I would be back in a little bit. She did pretty well. As far as I could tell she wasn’t crying every time I went to peak in on her. Halfway through the shift I took her for a potty break and after a little coaxing she went. I offered her dinner, but it was still in the bowl when my shift was over and she happily ate it once we were back at the hotel for the evening. The shift went fairly quickly for me, I’m not sure how time passed for Pixie, but every time anyone went back to the kennel area they reported that she was doing well. I was afraid to check on her too many times myself because I thought it would make her more anxious. When the shift was over she was eager to leave and happy to be back in the hotel room and played with her toys as my coworker and I settled in for the night. 

The next day we decided to go back to the park to let Pixie run, but we got distracted as we drove through the downtown area and saw a dog sled race happening. We got very excited by this opportunity to get a glimpse of a race. We were in Anchorage the week before the start of the Ididarod and I was really bummed that we were going to miss such an iconic event. We detoured our plans of going to the park and found a place to park to go watch the race. We found ourselves only a block away from the start and had a chance to watch a few teams take off from the start line. This was a HUGE challenge for Pixie…excited barking dogs! This is an area that we are still working on and she did have some barking and excitement in response to the environment at the starting line. I did my best to give her some distance to help her and not disturb the teams at the start line. Overall she did pretty well with the environment I put her in. Once the last musher took off we were able to walk around the downtown area and Pixie was much calmer; even with a few of the sled dogs out and about that were left behind with caretakers.

When it was time to head into the clinic for our shift Pixie already knew where she needed to go. I set her up in a different kennel, but still in the same area. She didn’t want me to leave her, but was cooperative. She was good and quiet for the first half of the shift. But when the other employee dogs left for the evening and she was in the kennel area by herself, she started to cry a little bit. Then at one point one of the techs who arrived for a later shift came from the kennel area and asked “umm, is the poodle supposed to be loose in the back?” I was so embarrassed, Pixie had figured out how to open the kennel door. She did this 2 more times before we had to put a lock on it. Once the lock was in place she did settle down and was quiet for the rest of the shift. Again, after the shift was over she was happy to leave and get back to the hotel. She ate dinner and was already in a fantastic before bed relieving routine.

On our third full day in Alaska we decided to go for a hike. Pixie has been on a few hikes and loves the outdoors. This is another area where we are working on things. Pixie is a little too eager to go in outdoor areas and pulls a bit too much. So the hike was a challenge for us. We were planning on being in the snow for a good hour or so. I planned accordingly for both of us. I had warm clothing and gloves. Pixie had a jacket and her Ruffwear Boots to keep her feet protected. I had noticed that during our short play sessions at the park she would get snow stuck to her fur between her toes. I knew this would irritate her feet if we were there long term, so boots for the hike it was. Luckily she has practiced wearing her boots many times before at home and had no problem wearing them. She wasn’t perfect on the hike, but she did learn that she had to be careful going downhill with the slippery compacted snow. We all had a great time on a very beautiful adventure and even though Pixie wasn’t perfect, it was a great learning experience for her.

When we arrived at the clinic for our final shift Pixie was pretty much ready to take herself to the kennel area. However we were stopped by the doctor on shift and she said that Pixie can stay up front in the treatment area if I want. Well, she pretty much insisted. The day shift was a rough one with a lot of sad cases and they wanted a healthy animal to love on. I set her up on the floor in front of the doctors station. The clinic had some tie down hooks in the floor which was really nice. She quickly settled on her blanket and seemed super happy with this arrangement. At one point I looked over and the doctor was sitting on the floor with Pixie hugging her. Pixie was just what the doctor had ordered. Pixie remained perfectly content in her spot for the entire 10 hour shift. Patients and staff walked by her all night long and she didn’t make a single peep. When the night shift came in they asked if she escaped too many times and had to be put on the tie down. I laughed and said no, that she was there by request from the earlier shift. Every shift that saw her that day complimented me on her behavior and how quiet and good she was for still being a young dog. These are always great compliments to hear, it makes me feel like I am doing something right with her.

The last night we were there it snowed and Pixie got to experience fresh powder. We took her back to the park the next morning for a romp before needing to head to the airport to start our journey home. She loved the fresh snow and I loved watching her truly enjoying her time there. It is so important to balance work and play for service dogs. Pixie loves to work, but she also loves to play. She needs both to be complete. 

Shortly after the park we got notified that our flight was delayed. This was a little bit of a problem as this delay would cause us to miss our connecting flight in Seattle. Our flight in Seattle was the last flight out for the night, meaning we were going to be stuck in Seattle for the evening. This is a big fear of mine, getting stuck when traveling with a dog. That was going to be really hard on Pixie if we got stuck in the airport overnight. We were able to rebook the flight out of Seattle for the following day and were informed that we would get a hotel voucher for the evening. We headed to the airport to return the car and check in for the flight to Seattle. 

Once at the airport check in was a little chaotic. The people in front of us had a cat in a carrier, which Pixie was curious about, but she managed to keep herself composed. But we were right next to the counter for large check ins. Two husky dogs came in barking in crates to be checked in. They were so loud and echoing throughout the airport. This was a little unsettling for Pixie and she let out a few quiet oofs under her breath, almost to say “boy are they annoying”. Then as soon as those dogs were off a gentleman got in line a few people behind us with a well behaved labrador. Pixie was fine with that dog, just a little distracted. We were finally checked in and given vouchers so we didn’t have to pay to check our bags a second time for the next flight the next day. We were also told that because some people rebooked due to the delay we were given a row of seats to ourselves. I joked with Pixie that she was going to get her own seat. I should not have told her that, because once we went through security, found our gate and boarded the plane she hopped up and sat on the middle seat! Every other flight she has ever been on she has boarded the plane and settled on the floor not even looking at the seat. I quickly got her off, ok maybe I grabbed a quick photo to prove to Matt that she did this, and got her settled on the floor. This flight was a little different for Pixie. For the first time she showed a little anxiety and was nervous on the flight. I don’t know if she was picking up on something, but she had some minor body trembles and just wasn’t relaxed. She stayed in her spot the entire flight, but I could feel the uneasiness from her.

When we landed in Seattle we visited the same potty station that we used days before; she once again quickly did her business. We then went to collect our voucher for the hotel. This took about 45 minutes of standing in line. Pixie handled this part well after a long flight. You could tell she was ready to leave the airport and didn’t understand why we were standing in line again. Once we got our voucher we went to claim our luggage and find a shuttle to the hotel. By the time we got to the hotel it was almost midnight and we were all exhausted. This was a lot for Pixie. Yet another new room, different potty routine (this time down an elevator), and of course different smells and weather outside. 

Pixie took this detour in stride, it was just another day at work for her. She settled into the new hotel room no problem, ate her dinner and snuggled in bed with me. I did wake up in the morning and found her curled up in the next bed with my coworker. I thought it was very sweet of her to share her cuddles.

It was a very fast turn around for us, we had a flight at 9am after getting into the hotel so late. Pixie was great about getting up and she even pooped for me at the hotel. Which meant that she would be comfortable in that sense for the flight home. We were all tired going through the airport for our flight home. Pixie was doing a really good job navigating and giving a little extra energy. For the first time it was very noticeable how much she helps when i’m dragging energy wise. With Pixie doing momentum pull I was walking almost twice as fast as my coworker through the terminal. I actually had to tell her to slow down. Not because she was pulling too hard for me, but because we were leaving my coworker behind. 

I was a little nervous for Pixie. The last flight she had a little anxiety the day before. Pixie showed absolutely no hesitation boarding the plane or getting settled in on the floor. No jumping on the seat this time. She did have some minor trembles shortly after take off, but she stayed settled otherwise. This is something I will have to keep an eye on and maybe next time we fly try getting seats in front of the engines and see if there is a difference in her comfort level. When we landed in Oakland she was her happy perky self. She was ready to lead me out of the airport.

She was so excited when Matt came to pick all of us up. He had the other dogs with him and Pixie went nuts when she saw Penny. She absolutely loves the other dogs in our family and I know that she misses them when she is away. She was more than happy to be back at the house and in her usual routine.

I am beyond proud of Pixie and how she did on this trip to Alaska. She is still a very young dog. We have some things that need work. We have things that need some fine tuning. But this is the best she has done on any trip she has taken by far. She ate better than she has ever eaten away from the house. Her relieving routine came quickly and was reliable. She was more focused going through the airports. She was way more comfortable and quiet in the hotels. She even got complimented by people almost everywhere we went. She is really starting to show a higher maturity level. She is way more comfortable in new environments and proving to me that she wants this partnership that we are building. 

I am so glad I brought her! Not only for everything that she gained by going on this trip, but what I gained as well. I’m gaining more knowledge on where she can help me and how she can help me. I am learning to trust her more to do so. This trip was important for us to grow as a team. I often find traveling with a dog can add to the stress of a trip. It is such an important part of training that it overrides the stress it adds because the dogs always grow on these trips. But this trip Pixie didn’t add to the stress at all. It felt very natural and everything flowed really well. It felt right. Getting away from our normal routine allowed us to become more aware of what our roles are as a team. Yes we still have a lot more work to do, but this was a great glimpse of our potential together. 

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