And the Dog Came Too: Travelling with Expat Pets

Max - 'Starbuck Glow"The often forgotten passengers in a life of global gallivanting are the unsung heroes who are dragged hither and thither, without discussion or consideration of climate; our family pets.

Now I know there are people who have cats and idolize them, I am not one of them. I have dear friends who adore cats; their cats love me, sticking like a magnet, purring,  wrapping themselves around my legs whenever I move. I know they have ulterior motives, I just can’t figure out what they are, but know they’re not good. Their loyalty is questionable and in our family loyalty is all.

Dogs however are a whole other universe. What you see is what you get. Loyalty. love, rapt attention with enough stupidity to entertain and endear.

On our first international move we were the owners of Max, a rather superior and long-suffering English Springer Spaniel, who was unaware he was a canine. In his head he was as human as the rest of us. He was also a bit of a diva and terrified of enclosed spaces.

We knew he would be coming with us, despite our misgivings of taking him from the cold of northern europe to the heat and humidity of the American South, in a plastic sky-kennel as they were known back then. We knew because my best friend Trish, although loving our dog as we did and prepared to keep him herself, decided he had to come with us.

“You’ll so regret it if you don’t. He’s part of the family and a few months from now when things have settled down you’ll wish he was there.” Wise woman.

The dog was our biggest stress of the move. After consulting the vet who knew him well, it was decided to drug Max; enough to make him relaxed without being unconscious. The vet understood Max’s fear of small spaces, having failed spectacularly on one rather lively occasion when he tried to get our normally placid dog into a kennel.

I’d like to point out this was back in the day when it was recommended and encouraged to sedate a pet for travelling. I know thinking on this has changed over the years as we discovered moving back to europe.

I was given a large supply of drugs and told to go and practice on the dog until we got the dosage right and it would also give us chance to monitor any possible side effects in advance. This wasn’t an option I was entirely happy with.

The Captain was away on the high seas and with three children to supervise and a house to pack up, the last thing I needed was to mollycoddle a neurotic dog.

I’d set up the sky-kennel, equipped it with Max’s bed and a few choice personal items, but he wouldn’t go anywhere near it. Not even to investigate, it was as if an invisibility cloak had been draped over it. He wouldn’t look at it or acknowledge it existed. My plan to get him used to the kennel, building up his tolerance to it by five minutes a day, eventually sleeping in it, treating it as his own personal space, was failing fast.

Despite misgivings I decided to go the drug route.

Max -'Starbuck Glow' 1992-2006The first two attempts to ‘relax’ the dog failed miserably, despite doubling the dose on the second try. Getting the tablets down him was a Herculean task. Putting them in his food, wrapped in meat or similar resulted in him not eating at all or me finding little pills dropped on the floor sometime after he’d ‘eaten’.

The only reliable way to get medication down him involved the dog laying on his back mouth firmly clenched with me sitting astride him prising his jaws apart. Once the tablets were in his mouth his jaws had to be held together for a good five minutes to ensure he swallowed them. It was rather like alligator wrestling.

By the third attempt I was getting frantic, time was passing and I still hadn’t managed to get the dog in the kennel. I decided to take control, stop messing around and get the darn dog in that kennel.

Oh boy.

He sat facing the open mesh door of the kennel, erect, alert and refusing to cooperate in any way. Normal, quiet, encouraging entreaties were met with contempt. Ernest, firm commands were dismissed with a scornful sneer. There was no way the dog was going to win this one.

Standing behind him and grabbing his scruff with both hands, I planted both feet firmly against his rear, trying to push him along. He resolutely dug his front paws in. Lifting him by his scruff and scooting his rear with my feet we moved a couple of inches forward. Slowly, with much huffing and puffing on my part and a complete lack of response on his, the kennel door came closer.

At the point we were close enough for me to engage in one last push and hurl him bodily into the cage, the dog roared into life with a gnashing and snarling usually associated with a trapped predator, and adopted the starfish position across the front of the cage.

His modus operandi was to startle me into letting go of his scruff. We’d been here before and I knew it was a bluff, although the snarling, bared teeth, dripping drool and seeing the whites of his eyes did make me hesitate.

He was positioned with paws gripping the four corners of the cage, his chin on the top turned slightly so he could have direct eye contact with me, even his little stump of a tail was a solid rod of refusal against the bottom rim of the kennel.

Back off now and all was lost.

Using every last ounce of energy I pulled his head gently back and flipped him into the cage. Still holding his scruff I now found myself looking at the dog, his face inches from mine, his bared teeth against my wrist and inches from my face. I let go, telling him he was a bad boy and how disappointed I was with his behaviour. He was still growling like like a lion but made no attempt to move so I closed the door and left him for the requisite five minute. Oh Lord, could that dog howl.

Back to the drugs and the drawing board.

Next day followed with intense calculations taking into account the dosage I’d given him previously, the instructions from the vet and his increased anxiety levels now he knew the new object in the house was meant for him. I thought I’d got it right. After the ritual of getting the tablets into him we waited for them to take effect.

Boy did they take effect. Within an hour he was laid out and  snoring like a banshee. Even young Harry crawling up to him and ‘stroking’ his ears didn’t make him flinch. I was frantic.

By dinner time the snoring had ceased and I was checking for breathing every ten minutes. The phone rang, it was the Captain via satellite to ask how it was going with his beloved dog.

“Oh my god I think I’ve killed him!” I wailed, “he’s been asleep all day!” The Captain remained calm and talked me out of my hysteria.

Max -'Starbuck Glow' 1992-2006Before going to bed  I roused Max and got him to have a drink, relieve himself (outside, after half carrying him) and he fell sleepily onto his bed in the kennel with the door open.

The next day found him stretched out comatose on the floor beside the kennel, eyes open and totally spaced out. He was curled up with 18-month-old Harry in total heaven at being near the dog, who would normally go to any lengths to avoid being in the same room as the human pup.

Max’s eyes remained open all day, unfocused maybe but he was obviously content, relaxed, very happy and as high as a kite.  At least he wasn’t dead. And I’d finally figured out the correct dose to get him safely to America to share our family’s big adventure.

We never regretted the decision to take him with us and he remained part of our family for nine more eventful years.

★  Max traveled to the USA, unstressed and happy in his kennel. He adjusted to his new life in the heat and humidity of New Orleans. He spent joy filled years with his companion Sable, a Louisiana pup left on our doorstep, who showed him the ropes and protected and cared for him in his final days. The effects of Hurricane Katrina took their toll on his health, never fully recovering from a stroke followed by dementia and cancer. The time came to take our loyal and loving companion to the vet.

Max (‘Starbuck Glow’) died on 4 January 2006, peacefully in my arms.

About wordgeyser

Our anglo/american family live in four countries (USA, Canada, UK and The Netherlands) on two continents, separated by distance, time zones, circumstance and cultures. It’s a scary, enriching, challenging place to be. The only things guaranteed to get you through are a sense of humour and the amazing people you meet along the way. . .
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7 Responses to And the Dog Came Too: Travelling with Expat Pets

  1. Jane says:

    “Starfish”… brilliant!

  2. There isn’t anything to add to the Captain’s assessment except to say I actually snorted in laughter at ‘adopted the starfish position’. Seriously wonderful. Seriously.

  3. Poonam says:

    As a fellow dog lover this rung home. Very funny Jane.

  4. The Captain in question says:

    Open with nostalgia, move on to humor then hilarity (starfish position!) An “aaaah” moment with a young child, add in a bit of a travelogue and then finish with a KNIFE TO THE HEART! It was like the last scene in the Stephen King movie “Carrie”

    How can I drive home when I can’t see for tears.

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