A Man and His Dog Take On the World

By Chuck Ayers
Special to the Chicago Tribune
Published February 8, 2004

A helpful American Airlines employee escorts the two of us down the jetway for pre-boarding. Finding our seat, I quickly stow my bag and buckle in for the flight from San Francisco to Dallas.

Soon after we board, a river of passengers streams onto the jet with laptops and rolling carry-ons--and at least one parent with a child in tow. "Look, mom!" she exclaims as she passes, no doubt noticing Rickles sitting at my feet.

Rickles, of course, is a dog. But not just any old dog or kid magnet. This blondish looking, 70-pound, 2 1/2-year-old male yellow Labrador retriever with his own picture I.D. is a professionally trained guide dog--my walking, hiking and flying partner.

Even for a blind person, who is allowed by law to bring a guide dog aboard a scheduled flight at no extra charge, flying with a dog is not something one just willy-nilly decides to do. In 12 years of flying with guide dogs (Rickles is my third), I have refined my flying techniques. But there will always be a few hoops a dog and partner must first jump through.

It starts when calling for plane reservations. Besides informing the airline I am blind (I have retinitis pigmentosa--commonly known as RP) and may require some special assistance, I tell the airline I am flying with a "service dog" and request a bulkhead seat.

Sometimes, of course, there are no such seats available (or they are in an emergency-exit row, where by law I and anyone else who can't assist in an emergency are prohibited from sitting), in which case I'll just have to take my chances when I get to the airport.

I also check what kind of plane is used for a flight and, when possible, will change my schedule to avoid flying on small "regional" jets or turboprops, which may be too cramped for a guide dog.

Then, for the flight itself, I limit Rickles' food and water intake about 12 to 18 hours before departure time. This is to reduce the possibility of an embarrassing "doggie accident" either onboard the flight or while at the airport. But, just in case, I carry paper towels and plastic bags.

When I arrive at the security area I alert the attendant that I am blind and this dog assisting me is a professionally trained service animal.

From that point we walk to a station so I can remove my shoes and then hand over our carry-ons, in which I place my belt and any metal items from my pockets.

Since the metal on Rickles' harness is likely to trigger the alarm, we do not go through the metal detector together. I send him through first.

Almost every time, in the recent past, the security person wants to pat-down Rickles, despite my puppy's innocent looking face. Sometimes the security people crouch down on their knees and get so close to him that they receive a surprise wet lick across the face. Oooo, yuk! Doggie terrorism!

Now let's consider where a blind person and his puppy sit on an aircraft. The reason I request a bulkhead seat when making a reservation is because bulkheads--the seats behind the partitions dividing seating sections on an aircraft--offer a guide dog and partner more leg-room and comfort. I also prefer a window seat, so Rickles has less chance of being stepped on.

When bulkhead seats aren't available in advance or at the gate, the flight crews usually go out of their way to find suitable seating.

So far, even when I haven't been able to get a bulkhead seat, I've always gotten at least a window or an aisle seat. (Here I must give an unsolicited plug: Legroom in Coach is better on American Airlines' full-size jets than on most other carriers--though the airline is now cutting back space on some planes.)

Sometimes I have to fly through an airport "hub," with a change of planes and/or a layover. If time allows, I will ask for an escort to the outside to locate a convenient "potty" area for my pup.

But that isn't always possible. One time, Axle, my first guide dog, and I were flying on a famous discount airline from Los Angeles to my home in Tulsa, and I didn't realize how short the layovers would be. We quickly flew to Phoenix, where there was only time to disgorge our Phoenix-bound passengers and then take on new boarding passengers. The same thing happened in San Antonio. And Houston. And Dallas.

We were on the plane for well over five hours, but Axle's bladder control was quite heroic, and we made it home without incident. This despite the fact that two grade-school boys, sitting across the aisle from us and flying alone, threw up every time we took off or landed.

During a flight, I monitor my dog closely. I do have some peripheral vision, but no central vision. I see no color. I see some light coming from bright windows and some shapeless forms while looking sideways out of the corner of my eye. In the close quarters of the seating area, any sudden movement of my dog's torso or head is certainly noticed by me.

But my primary means of knowing how my dog is behaving is through direct contact. When other people are boarding or getting off the aircraft, I usually have my hand through a leather harness strap that goes around his back and chest. If my dog is in a "sit" position I always have my hand on him or have him on a "close" leash.

I most certainly have to check my dog's every move to keep him out of licking or sniffing situations. The harness my dog wears is very stiff, so even when holding the harness handle I can often tell if his head is turned right or left.

A wagging tail is also a dead giveaway. When my dog's tail is banging the bulkhead, he is obviously being observed by a solicitous person.

I also get verbal cues from my fellow passengers. When I hear "Dad, he's looking at me!" or "His face is so adorable!" I can assure you they are not talking about me.

Each of my three guide dogs has had a different traveling style, ranging from "don't wake me until we get there, please," to high anxiety, including body shakes.

Axle was the "cool guy," with his laid-back style. Once onboard, he wasted no time claiming his territory, quickly curling up into a snoring fur ball and remaining that way until the wheels hit the runway.

Darber, my second guide, reminded me of a self-admiring little boy. He seldom remained "seated," but spent most of the flight standing or sitting up, looking around to see who was looking at him. He also liked to look out the cabin window, perhaps to check for ice forming on the wings or to look for any passing UFOs. At times, if he could, he would edge out to inspect the aisle.

Rickles is the nervous one, but he, too, is discovering it's okay to fly. Early into a recent trip to the West Coast, Rickles was a little shaky. To help suppress his jitters, I whispered over and over in his ear his most favorite word, "FOOD." A little back massage helped as well.

As for me, guide dogs provide their own kind of in-flight entertainment. What can be most amusing is the attention my dog receives from adoring flight attendants. If I had a hundred miles for every time an attendant knelt down on all "fours" and stared in my dog's sweet face, I would have enough miles to fly to the moon. With, of course, Rickles at my feet.