By Scott Paul Rains, Travel and Disability Editor
In a previous article,”Multi-Sensory Travel Specialists – Outta Sight Travel,” Jackie Hull recounted the history of Outta Sight Travel.Here she focuses on travel with a guide dog.
Outta Sight Travel is unique as the only travel agency whose owner is blind and specializes is serving blind travelers.You have an opportunity to do some pioneering work.What are some of the “firsts” or breakthrough projects you have done?
During the inaugural celebration of the Holland America ship,the MS Zuiderdam,we were invited to a reception and ship inspection while it was in Port Everglades.The ship took pride in its accessibility. Every public area and door featured Braille signage.Gary felt his way around the ship -this is the Windjammer,this is the theatre, this is the “WHAT!?”
Travelling with a seeing-eye dog
The Braille sign on the public restroom just happened to be installed upside down.
We checked other signs,and it occurred several times.We brought it to the attention of our sales manager,Angie West,who relayed the message to the appropriate HAL department.We were asked to go on board the Zuiderdam and sail with her to evaluate the ship and make commentaries.Gary jokes that he worked his fingers to the bone as he read every Braille sign on the ship and we made notations of which ones were inverted.We also worked hand in hand with the Maitre’d and proof read and compared the Braille menus to the print versions.
What do you look for in a cruise ship?
We are very fortunate to be based in Florida where we are within hours of four major cruise ports.We have the opportunity to inspect many ships and assess them for their accessibility.We look for things that many people wouldn’t even consider.Many blind or visually impaired people like to sit in the front of the theatres.Some ships only have accessible seating at the rear of the venue.There are brand new,mega liners,owned by major companies that cannot be accessed.
When going on an elevator,we listen for dings for directionality. We check for Braille on the buttons and on the landings.Are there audible messages stating what deck the elevator is at?
Your travel agency has three employees,you,your husband Gary Metzler,and his guide dog,Dr.John (Doc).No offense to the humans on the team,but tell us about Doc.He seems like quite the character!
The OUTTASIGHT Travel team is currently comprised of three members, Gary Metzler,Jackie Hull and Dr.John.Wherever our travels take us,we are almost immediately identified because of the “tell-tail” dog.Doc has quite the personality and is an absolutely beautiful and well-trained service animal.When Doc is in “harness” and is working,we don’t allow others to pet him.When Doc is not actively working,he is a happy,lovable and fun loving “puppy.”
One of the greatest joys of traveling is meeting new people.Dr. John is definitely a people magnet.The crews on cruise ships have contracts that keep them away from home for extended periods of time.Not only do they leave their families behind but also their pets.When Dr.John isn’t actively working with Gary,he will take him out of harness and allow people to visit with him.Not only do the humans feel a peace,the animal gets to be loved and rewarded for his hard work.It is very important though for people to ask if they can approach the dog.Some guide dog users do not allow anyone at all to pet their companion because of distraction,while others like,Gary encourage it when appropriate.
Guide dogs are an important part of many people’s lives yet can be problematic when traveling.What tips do you have for travelers with a guide dog?
When planning for a vacation with a guide dog,make sure that you keep in mind the animal’s needs and limitations.We have a whole doggie ditty bag that we take with us.This includes but is not limited to the following:
Dr.John has a favorite toy that we keep in a suitcase.The only time he plays with this special toy is when we’re away.
Medication and supplies that may be necessary while away.
Portion control food and put in large plastic bags (we have purchased produce bags from the local grocery store) One bag per meal – Doc gets 2 bags a day.Using the same brand that the dog is used to at home is very important to keep him regular and working.The plastic bags when empty are now saved and used for responsible litter control.
Bring a compact or portable dog dish.Do not use the ice buckets provided for in almost every hotel or ship cabin.
What are some of the issues you have encountered involving guide dogs and travel?
The most amazing “tails” we have are centered around cruise stories.
A normal guide dog has a working vocabulary of approximately 42 commands.Doc’s also include phrases such as “find the cabin,” “cruise,” and “mind the gap.” Dr.John loves cruising as much as we do.During a ship inspection,he went through security and was ecstatic.His tail was wagging and he had a look of pure glee.At the conclusion of the tour of the vessel,we sat in the terminal to rest for a moment and his face had the saddest puppy dog eyes you could ever imagine.This is his reaction during every ship inspection.
On a seven night cruise on the Royal Caribbean super liner,the Mariner of the Seas,we embarked and like every other passenger not sure where their next meal may be coming from,dropped our carryon bags off at the cabin and went directly to the buffet.After eating, we got back to the elevators and pressed the button for our deck. We got off the elevator.I stood at the doorway and was trying to get my bearings – which way do I go?,as I was looking around,I noticed that Gary and Dr.John disappeared.Here we are,not even on the ship for an hour and I’ve already lost my husband.I found the cabin and there they were – Doc led Gary back to the cabin.
That’s a happy ending.Is it always that easy?
Not all of our travel stories have happy endings.There are many people that need to be educated as to the purpose of service animals. Many people are frightened of dogs.This is very prejudiced.An animal will not be a certified as a service animal if they were not gentle and docile.Just because someone may be afraid to get bit,they shouldn’t allow their fear to cloud their judgment.That would be like saying that all Italians are in the Mafia,all men are rapists and all politicians are crooks.There have been many occasions when someone will see Doc and let out blood-curdling screams. This is very distracting and can cause a true threat to the handler if the dog is spooked.
Recently we were visiting one of the Orlando area theme parks – Dr.John is quite the theme park junkie.After a long day,we were waiting for the bus to take us back to the hotel.The bus driver wouldn’t allow Gary and Doc on board.We had to tell him that they were allowed to be there and we proceeded to board the bus.The driver called dispatcher stating that we were on the bus with a dog – never mentioning that the handler was blind.
Finally,the dispatcher heard me in the background saying that it was a guide dog and told the driver that he was to allow us on board.
Residents and travelers within the United States are so fortunate that we can travel throughout this wonderful land of ours and have the ability to take service animals with us.This has been a right provided to us with the Americans with Disabilities Act.With this right comes responsibility.
This includes proper hygiene practices.It is important to keep the animal healthy and clean.When an animal does their “business” it is important to use proper litter control.Just as we expect respect,we should also give it.Whenever a reservation is made for a hotel,advise them that a service animal will be part of the party.
Have you been able to contribute to the development of policy regarding travel and travelers using dogs as service animals?
Throughout our travels with Dr.John – also known throughout the industry as Dr.Travel we have been asked numerous questions.In an attempt to answer these questions,we have worked on a Power Point program with a narrative.The number one question that people ask of us on a cruise is “Where does the dog go to the bathroom?” We have taken a picture of “Doc” going to the bathroom and the narration is “here I am using my litter box – imagine that – and I’m not even a cat!”
We were asked to give some feedback to the Access Board and came up with the following suggestions:
Location in an open,well ventilated area
The area needs to be accessible at all times – no locks or barriers
The area needs to be in an area that can be well flushed or cleaned
The area needs to be large enough to use
The area needs to be used exclusively by an animal and not as a waste receptacle for trash
Is there any special advice you have for blind or visually impaired travelers who may be hesitant to take a chance on travel?
Each adventure becomes a new experience.We learn and we teach. We care and we share.As industry advocates we try to provide assistance the best way we can.As seasoned travelers,we still run into situations that need to be addressed.There may be that hotel clerk that tries to assess a “pet deposit.” There may be that bus driver that refuses to allow you to board.It is important to know your rights and responsibilities.
One of the major cruise lines has an advertising campaign,”Get out there!” There is a wonderful world waiting for us.
Take time to sell the flowers,be they the flowers in a tropical rain forest or the roses in Hershey Garden.Eat yourself around the world – enjoy fresh seafood at fisherman’s wharf,an authentic Big Apple Pizza – or how about Southern fried chicken? Relax and enjoy a concert at Madison Square Garden or laugh or socks off at a Las Vegas comedy club.You know you’re in New England when your driver “pahks thah cah in Hahvahe Yahd.” and it must be London if the voice on the tube tells you to “mind the gap.” When was the last time you got a massage on the Lido deck while breathing in the fresh ocean breeze?
Be one of the many people who say “Been there,done that!”