Kayaking with your dog

Despite the fact that Deirdre was career-changed for being, well, a scaredy-cat, that hasn’t stopped her from being the best “Adventure Time Dog” when it comes to anything that doesn’t involve scary buildings and vehicles. Swimming and playing fetch at the beach and kayaking are some of her favorite activities, right up there alongside hiking and mountain biking (or mountain running, for Dierdre). Of course, kayaking took some training to achieve, especially as Deirdre learned about the beach and swimming first, then here I was telling her “No, you CAN’T just jump off the kayak and take a swim whenever you want! You’ll get run over by a boat, NOW SIT DOWN.” But here’s how she learned it.

Before kayaking with her, we needed her to learn the basics. She already had a good command of basic obedience, both on and off-leash, and a very reliable ‘come.’ Next we wanted to introduce her to the water. We were lucky enough to live not far from one of the few remaining dog beaches out there. The 2.5 mile stretch of Jupiter Beach, just north of West Palm Beach, is home to one of the best off-leash dog beaches in the state. On any given day dozens of dogs are playing, walking, and having a field day on this stretch of beach, and non-dog people are warned to go find a different spot somewhere on Florida’s 1350 miles of beach. These 2.5 miles belong to the dogs!

Going to the beach can be fun, but safety precautions should always be taken at the beach and around water. I will allow the ‘search and rescue/swift water rescue’ part of my brain to give you a bulleted list of things to consider!

  • Check the water hazards at the guard station- be aware of ‘dangerous marine life’ such as the presence of jellyfish, sea lice, and sharks, or to be made aware if there are any known rip currents out there at the moment. Never leave your dog unattended (duh).
  • Know your dog’s (and your own!) swimming level and don’t overdo it. Swimming for dogs and people is strenuous exercise, and a dog could easily pull or tear something. Running through sand is also hard work, make sure you don’t let a novice dog overdo it. They can tire easy, and the last thing you want is for your dog to get too tired to swim back and get overtaken by a crashing wave. Many dogs will play until they drop, so be mindful!
  • The sand can be HOT, so be aware if your dog is hopping from foot to foot or showing signs of discomfort.
  • If you have a light colored or shorthaired dog, take precautions to put sunscreen on areas that will be directly touched by the sun. Take it from this glow-in-the-dark Irish girl- sunburns are no fun, and can happen inside of 10 minutes (the worst sunburn of my life happened with just 20 minutes of exposure while kayaking. I ended up in the ER 5 days later because my skin was so swollen the blood couldn’t pass through the layers properly)!
  • Never throw your dog in the water. Let them make the choice to go in, if they want to.
  • Check for water hazards! Oh, I mentioned this already? Well, do it again! I would always check Ocearch’s shark tracker before going out- Katharine the Great White Shark likes to pay coastal Florida a visit now and then and she comes in awfully close to the beach when she visits.
  • Salt and ocean water minerals can damage dog coats, so make sure to visit the shower station and rise your dog after some time in the water.
  • For dogs that really like to get out there and swim, get a life jacket. It will help keep them upright when they’ve been pounded by a wave, will keep them from becoming too tired, too quickly, and can be the difference between life or death if they’re pulled out by a rip current.

Dierdre’s first trip to the beach we thought we would just walk up and down and let her play in the surf a bit, get used to the noise and the water and the fact that it will come up and touch your feet and flow back out. I didn’t want to push her fearful sensibilities. Deirdre had other ideas.

"This is GREAT guys, why haven't we done this before?!"

“This is GREAT guys, why haven’t we done this before?!”

Learning to swim was second nature, but being in the ocean is a bit more than just regular swimming, so we took at least 10 trips to the beach first to get Deirdre used to the idea and to really get her some water practice and conditioning. She was nervous of the big crashing waves at first, but it only took her about 3 minutes for her to realize she was a water dog on a genetic level, and there was no turning back after that. We had to reign her in a bit, especially as she didn’t yet have a life vest. She played with Tiki for a bit, then quickly ditched her for the water, since Tiki will not go in water any deeper than her elbows. We thought we’d get one person in the water and entice her out, allowing her to venture as far toward us as she felt comfortable while the other person stayed on the beach. It only took two attempts before she was launching herself out toward the person in the water.


Finding a coconut to play fetch with just sealed the deal. We could have thrown that coconut out into shark and crocodile infested waters- Deirdre would have found a way to fetch it.

Look guys, a coconut!!!

Look guys, a coconut!!!

At that point she was so gung-ho about the water I decided to call it a day and come back when she had a proper life vest, before she drowned herself. Along with the Ruffwear life vest, I ordered her a chuck-it retriever bumper, and armed with these things, we returned to the beach for several sessions of swimming lessons. The first few times we wanted her to get a feel for the water, the waves, the currents, and to build some swimming endurance and confidence. Deirdre was 100% on board with that plan. The beach and the water quickly became her favorite places. We practiced recalls from the water, and even directed send-outs into the water.


Deirdre would retrieve the bumper from further and further out, and we started throwing it up current, against the waves, waiting until a big wave crashed so she’d have to jump up and over the wave- I wanted her to be completely comfortable and confident with the water before ever asking her to sit in a kayak. This was a two-person training event, and we’d always have one person on the beach and one person in the water with her, just in case. (The person in the water’s main job ended up being swimming out to get the bumper when Deirdre would loose it in the waves and it would float away from where she was searching).

No matter how far out, Deirdre will fetch!

No matter how far out, Deirdre will fetch!

A few months after starting the beach trips, we decided it was time to take her kayaking. Normally I go out with my husband in two single kayaks, but for the purpose of starting Deirdre out, we decided to rent one large tandem kayak for the day. While I personally prefer a sit-in kayak, those are exponentially more difficult for dogs, and sit-on-tops are far more common in Florida, so we rented one of those. We decided to head into the intercostal, to avoid the waves that open ocean kayaking would bounce on and possibly unseat Deirdre. Since I don’t own a tandem or a sit-on-top kayak, we weren’t able to do a lot of kayak training until that morning. First we practiced getting in and out, which was more difficult on land than in the water, as the kayak’s angled bottom makes it rock from side to side. But quickly Deirdre was hopping in and out on command, and we progressed to teaching her where her spot to sit was.


One of us had to hold the kayak steady and Deirdre never did get completely comfortable with sitting on it before we launched.

Uh guys? I'mont sure about this...

Uh guys? I’m not sure about this…

Never the less, we forged ahead with our plans. We launched the kayak into the water just until it was barely floating, then hopped in and called Deirdre to jump on. Since it was sitting in the water, she was more willing, and after realizing it was more stable, she quickly became comfortable with the idea. The plan was to kayak out to Peanut Island and let Deirdre play in the water, but it was a holiday weekend (labor day) and the channel was jam packed with boats. In addition, the moon jellies were spawning and they were everywhereI’ll take this moment to add- I’m terrified of jellyfish. I’ll get in a body of water with a shark before I’ll get in one with jellies. I hate them. I nearly called it a day at that point. The water was so infested I could’t dip my oar in without whacking jellies everywhere.

We paddled out across the intercostal, having to stop occasionally and teach Deirdre where to stay and how to sit on the rigid plastic hull. Pulling up alongside Peanut Island, I became thankful for Deirdre’s rock-solid stay. There were tons of boats anchored up against the island, with at least a half dozen dogs playing in the surf. Deirdre was ready to jump overboard and swim to meet her brethren, across the jellyfish infested channel, but thankfully she headed my command to sit her butt down and keep it there.


As we got going, Deirdre relaxed and enjoyed the trip. She didn’t startle at the large boats and yachts in the intercostal, which was a win. We paddled through the wake of some boats, to get Deirdre a feel for staying seated while the kayak bounced about. After paddling into the lagoons on Peanut Island we let Deirdre hop out and play in the water for awhile. We practiced her jumping in and out of the kayak a few more times before heading back out to sea.

IMG_0343 IMG_0348

On the way back I sat in the back for picture taking opportunities and to better reward Dierdre from the treat bag since I wasn’t satisfied with the treating ratio my husband was supplying ;)


Deirdre even managed to stay properly seated while we beached the kayak back where we launched from, although she wasn’t too happy about it becoming wobbly again. Deirdre was officially a kayaking adventure dog!

What does a pirate dog say? BAAAAARRRRRK!

What does a pirate dog say? BAAAAARRRRRK!

Wordless Wednesday PLUS: a contest!

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And now: a contest! TU had a looooooong winter and spent a lot of time waiting for spring.  Now that it’s finally (finally!) warming up again, we wanted to celebrate with all of you guys by hosting one of our annual occasional whenever-we-happen-to-think-of-it-and-have-something-cool-to-give-away photo contests! The theme for this contest is “Spring Has Sprung”: we want to see pictures of your dogs springing, leaping, jumping and otherwise getting big air in the great outdoors. Need inspiration? Check out the photos of River, Owen, Julio and Frankie above.  We’re giving you one week to take an awesome picture of your jumping dog/s: you can either submit them on the Team Unruly Facebook page (we’ll put up an official contest submission thread) or you can email them to us at teamunrulyblog@gmail.com.

Is there a prize? You bet there’s a prize! This time, we’re giving away a Flat Out Leash by Ruffwear. These leashes are light, sturdy and really well designed: you can use the handle as a regular handle or you can extend it to wear it around your waist, plus the handle comes apart so you can use it as a tether (if you’ve got to leave your dog for a second and run in for a coffee or something).  It’s got a nice hidden accessory loop for hanging poop bags or your keys, there’s a traffic handle right near the clip, and the clip itself is this great, springy, hard-core thing, very different from your average swivel snap.  Plus, they are really strong and can handle a lot of nonsense: Kelsey’s dogs are constantly dragging their Ruffwear leashes around through the water and the sand, using them for tug-of-war matches with each other, getting them wrapped around trees, etc. and not only are they still going strong, they all look brand new.  The one we have to give away is black with a handsome gray stripe: it’s suave, gender-neutral, goes with everything and will help you and your buddy enjoy the great outdoors this spring.

Ruffwear leash

Stock photo from Ruffwear.com, but this is what the winner’s leash will look like!

You have SIX DAYS from the time of this post to submit your photo to us: all photos need to be in by 5 PM MST on Tuesday, April 21st to qualify for the contest.  We’ll decide the winner and will announce it in next week’s Wordless Wednesday post, where we’ll also feature the winner’s photo. So get out there and SPRING!

Product Review: The Harness Lead

In my non-professional opinion, the single hardest thing about having a three-legged dog is finding a workable harness.  My sweet girl Nellie has some trachea damage from the same crummy early life that rendered her a tripod, which means that if she puts even a little pressure on her neck, she starts to huff.  However, she is also a pretty impressive puller and and, bless her crazy little heart, is rarely dissuaded by the fact that if she pulls, she can’t, you know, breathe. I am not proud of this, but I am as lazy as hell about teaching loose leash walking (or, I should say, about being consistent with it), and as such, I’ve been looking for a good harness solution for Nellie pretty much since I got her.

And oh, have we tried a lot of harnesses. Note that Nellie absolutely doesn’t tolerate head halters (Gentle Leader/Halti style: I promise, I have tried), so we’ve been investigating body harnesses exclusively. My favorite of all of the ones we’ve tried has been the ComfortFlex, a harness that a lot of flyball people use. The front strap on the ComfortFlex is set a little lower than most harnesses, which means it tends to sit on Nellie’s chest instead of sliding up to the neck or down to the legs.

nellie in nantucket #2

However, because the design really relies on the dog having two front legs to keep it in place, the Comfortflex tended to slide around and get all cattywhampus when she ran. See how it’s kind of drifting down the side of her body in this picture?

she's such a swimmer now!

We also tried a mesh Puppia harness, which was comfortable for her and dried quickly when she got it wet, but slid around way worse than the Comfortflex, sometimes to the point where it would slip up around her neck and made her get chokey when she pulled.  Again, this is nothing against the product itself; I think it’s a good one, but it’s just not made for tripod dogs.  I included this picture primarily because it’s adorable, but see how it’s starting to drift up her back and over the place where her front leg is supposed to be?

Nellie in the flowersI love Easy Walk and Sense-ation harnesses for most dogs–we use them with a lot of my dogs at work–but they are even less appropriate than the other harnesses on this list for tripods, because they really rely on the front clip staying positioned between the dog’s front legs on the chest. If there’s no leg to hold the front clip in place, the harness completely ceases to function. In this picture, Lucy’s wearing an Easy Walk that has shifted around a little bit but still works; Nellie’s….does not.


And finally, there’s Ruffwear’s WebMaster harness, which is designed to be adaptable for tripods. I like this harness a lot, but it hasn’t been perfect for us; Nellie kind of falls between Ruffwear’s sizes, so ours is a touch big, and I also feel like it kind of restricts the natural movement in her one remaining shoulder (in fairness, this may be because we have an older version: it looks like the newer ones have been slimmed up a bit).



However, I don’t want to speak too soon, but I think it’s possible I have solved our harness woes!  Behold, the Harness Lead!  This is not actually meant specifically for three legged dogs, but the amazing thing about it is that it works the same, regardless of how many front legs your dog has.

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No winter lasts forever: Spring is coming!

I don’t know about you, TU readers, but I have had a long, hard winter. We recently moved from Michigan to Massachusetts just in time for a record-breaking snowfall in the Boston area – and by “record-breaking,” I mean breaking the record: this was Boston’s snowiest winter since recording began in 1872!

Cerberus sitting in the path we dug out from the driveway to our front door.

Cerberus sitting in the path we dug out from the driveway to our front door.

Needless to say, we have been absolutely buried in snow. The dogs made some channels in the backyard and have stuck to them, refusing to wade much deeper into the 3′+ of accumulated snow covering our backyard. We all have a pretty severe case of cabin fever, so it feels amazing to have had a few days of above-freezing temperatures. Water has been pouring from our roof as all the snow and ice melts, we can finally see the driveway again, and there’s even a few patches of grass to be seen!

I am excited for spring, so I thought I would share my excitement with our other TU authors and all of our readers and start a list of what we’re excited to do once the snow is gone for good! (Well, until next year — no, don’t even think about it!)

Cerberus and Fly are excited to play in their backyard again – without having to barrel through shoulder-high snow. They’re also excited for new toys, because Cerb wrecked his favorite frisbee back in January and all of their indoor toys have been thoroughly annihilated. I (Rebecca) am excited to sit out on the deck and watch the dogs play. I’m excited to find a place to take them swimming, too!

Pongu and Crookytail are mainly looking forward to getting half-decent walks again, I suspect. I (Jennifer) am an absolute ninja at walking dogs on ice — no, seriously; the last time I slipped and nearly fell, I leaped into an action-movie-perfect one-legged crouch landing; it was probably the one cool comic-book move I’ll ever pull in my life — but even so, winter turns my neighborhood into a death trap that is lethal to ninjas and normal people alike.

Plus my dogs don’t care for the salt on the sidewalks, which hurts their paws and makes them go all sad and limpy-footed. So once that’s all gone and the weather allows for long, rambly walks around the historical neighborhoods once again, we’ll all be much happier.

Ein, Molly and Perri are definitely looking forwards to swimming again!  A dirty, wet dog is a happy dog in my opinion, and my three are definitely in that category. I am a proud hater of winter from the first nip in the air to the last and I enjoy the luxury of taking my three dogs on hiking adventures or out to the local river or reservoir or lake…you name it!  For a good swim.  Winter totally robs us of that joy for months on end, so we are beyond excited for our first swim of the season.  Hurry up, Spring!

Lucy, Nellie, and Widget have no idea how much better their lives are going to get now that the days are getting longer.  For much of the winter, I headed off to work when it was still dark (which meant AM walks were short, blustery potty walks in the dark and cold: no fun for everyone) and got home after the sun had gone down (which meant PM walks were the same, with the added bonus of me being exhausted from my day.)  Apart from my (glorious) weekends, for several months, the only time I saw my dogs in the daylight was for a few minutes over my lunch break, when I had to hustle everyone out so I could get back to work.   I am lucky that my job lets me bring my dogs to work and that it provides some good fenced and protected outdoor space where staff dogs can hang out; however, this perk kind of disappears in the winter, since it’s no fun at all for my dogs to shiver in the snowdrifts outside while I do my job.  So: winter in the high desert equals some bored dogs. At night, we played indoor fetch, we did nosework, we shaped little tricks and we did food puzzles, but pretty quickly, my dudes were over it, and they were underexercised, and none of us were fans of that.  All that changed with Daylight Savings, though! Now when I get home, I’ve got a solid hour and a half of sunlight and am back to taking my doggers on post-work adventures once again. And as it warms up, I’m starting to bring them to work for half days, and pretty soon, they’ll get to spend all day running around, snoozing in the sun and lounging in their kiddie pool while I’m at work.


You just wait, kid.


Also, let us not forget TU’s newest and youngest member, Nimbus: Nimmy was a winter baby (born at the end of September), so he has never experienced a world that isn’t chilly, rivers that aren’t half-frozen, life without a sweater or the joy of  blissing out in a sunbeam on a nice warm day. I am really excited to watch him discover all that!




Being Florida residents until mid-January, we can’t claim to have survived a real harsh winter, even if we did have a few good snow days once we arrived in Germany. But even so, Raiden is excited to get out and sniff up a storm here in Germany. Hopefully we can even find a local schutzhund/IPO club to join. Dierdre & Tiki are most definitely looking forward to summer swimming, hiking in the Palatinate Forest, riding the train all over Europe, and seeing the sights. On their list of planned countries to see over the summer (where dogs are welcome!) include France, Sweden, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic. Dierdre is especially looking forward to finding a good beach- maybe in Spain, Monaco, or somewhere along the Mediterranean, to relive her Florida beach-dog days and catch some sand and surf!

Surf's Up, Pups!

Surf’s Up, Pups!


Let us know what your and your dogs are looking most forward to in the comments!

Moving internationally with pets

For those of you working dog rescue, you’ll know one of the number one reasons for surrendering your dog (probably right before or behind ‘we had a baby’) is: “We’re moving.” There could be any number of reasons the person actually wants to surrender the dog, from ‘can’t find a place that takes pets’ to ‘it’s too much work/money/time’ but a lot of the time it boils down to “I don’t want to make sacrifices to bring my pet along.” For us ‘dog people,’ we’ll do whatever it takes to ensure our pets stay with us during a move, be it across town or across the country. So when I was offered a job not just a few states away or in another part of the country, but in an entirely new country altogether on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean- right in heart of the European Union, my first priority was not only my 3 dogs, but also my 2 guinea pigs (both rescue-piggies). They were mentioned during my initial interview, and I made sure it was abundantly clear to the company offering me the position that I wouldn’t be coming if it meant leaving my pets. Moving to Germany with 3 dogs and 2 guinea pigs would be a challenge, but we were a package deal- either we all went, or we stayed in the United States.The only exception to the rule was my current guide dog puppy, Francie. Because Germany was definitely not within the puppy raising territory for Southeastern Guide Dogs, and Francie was not my own personal dog, she would have to be transferred to another puppy raiser to finish being raised. As soon as I knew for sure that I was accepting the job (a mere 4 weeks before I was expected to be there), I had to jump into action to start preparing the dogs. My first call was to the German Consulate in Miami, Florida, to find out the shipping and import requirements. We began to research flights and import fees, trying to find an airline that would ship the dogs as checked baggage, who would also allow the guinea pigs, with a climate controlled cargo hold, and no layovers in places like Russia, Turkey, or Africa, or the UK, where their incredibly strict import requirements extended even to animals that never leave their carriers on a layover. A non-stop flight couldn’t be booked for the time frame I needed, so I settled on a flight from Miami to Frankfurt, with a short stop in Berlin, both legs operated by AirBerlin. AirBerlin had a climate controlled cargo hold for animals, separate from the main baggage compartment, and they were one of the few airlines willing to fly my guinea pigs (a.k.a. Meerschweinchen. I had to make sure to always use the German word for guinea pig when talking to the consulate or the airlines, as the ‘pig’ part of guinea pig seemed to stand out to every non-native English speaker and they instantly thought I was trying to import large, pink, farm pigs used for pork chops and bacon. This led to quite a few amusing conversations at first). Our first step for the three dogs was a trip to our vet armed with a credit card. Because we were cutting it so close before leaving, I scheduled my vet visit for the day after I accepted the job; If I’d received the offer or taken even one extra day to decide, there would not have been enough time to prepare the dogs for export. The European Union requires a 15-digit EU complaint microchip on every dog that is imported into the country. More recently, the microchip companies have been making complaint microchips here in the US more standard, but the chips in my two German Shepherds, Raiden and Tiki, were 8 and 9 years old and not the right kind. Raiden had accidentally been double-chipped 2 years before when he was neutered, but it was, unluckily, with a non EU compliant chip. So Tiki received a second microchip, and Raiden got himself a third. Deirdre, our career-changed yellow lab from Southeastern Guide Dogs, was the only lucky dog whose chip was in compliance. Once the new chips were inserted our vet gave them all brand new rabies shots, which had to be given after they were inserted and/or scanned for their microchips. This rabies had to be given a minimum of 30 days prior to leaving US soil, so we were cutting it very close. The vet had to write and sign a letter for each of the dogs, on veterinary letterhead with his USDA certification number and the dog’s EU chip number, that he had inserted and/or scanned the microchips of each dog prior to injecting the rabies. For good measure we got a fresh round of vaccines, heartworm tests, and bloodwork done.

Deirdre says, "Don't forget to pack me!"

Deirdre says, “Don’t forget to pack me!”

The next 4 weeks were a whirlwind of packing, moving our things into a large storage locker, buying airline approved crates, deciding what to take and what had to stay (we ended up packing along 6 suitcases, 2 backpacks, one snowboard bag, and one pelican case in addition to the animals). The guinea pig’s C&C cage was dismantled, the coroplast carefully cut and the entire cage, along with their fleece cage liners, some dog toys, extra leashes, Deirdre’s life vest, and a few ruffwear doggy jackets for the Florida born-and-raised short haired lab, was all crammed into one suitcase. The rest of my training, search and rescue, and various dog sport accoutrements went into storage. Because the pigs are considered rodents to the airlines, AirBerlin would not allow them to be flown in a plastic airline-style carrier. It had to be waterproof and metal. The only solution we came up with was to buy a metal toolbox and drill ventilation holes all over it with the largest drill bit we could find at Home Depot. With a bunch of live animal stickers on it, and a few towels in the bottom, the pigs were ready to fly. After triple-checking with the German government, I finally believed them that the guinea pigs required no documentation to come into the country (they needed even less than me!). They would be the easiest to get into the country, all we had to do was walk in with them!

No pigs left behind. The entire cage assembly went with us, too.

No pigs left behind. The entire cage assembly went with us, too. We had a designated “animal” suitcase for all the dog things.

9 days before we flew out, we took my trusty credit card to a vet that specialized in international travel and export. All 3 dogs got health exams and airline health certificates. The vet double checked their microchips, and one of the techs spent several hours filling out Annex II APHIS bilingual import forms for each dog. The forms were about as confusing as you’d expect from a government agency, and they had been updated with a new version, literally, 7 days before our second vet appointment. Go figure. After putting down all our info, current US address, future German address, US and German phone numbers, description of dogs, microchip numbers, ages, rabies vax info, my credit score, my blood type, and promising them my first born child, the forms were completed. All three forms were then sent by overnight courier up to the USDA office in Gainesville, Florida. There, the USDA vet reviewed the paperwork, and, stamped with the USDA seal, they were overnighted back. I picked them up from the vet’s office just a few days before we left, made extra copies, and placed each set into plastic document holders. These I zip-tied onto the doors of the crates of the respective dogs, marking them in English and German as “customs forms.” We covered the crates in “Live Animals” stickers, as well as arrows and contact info stickers, duct taped a large ziplock bag of kibble on top of each crate, and zip tied all the corners. I wrote “My name is ______” on each crate in both English and German in case any of the baggage handlers wanted to talk to the dogs and call them by name. 10246247_534299763733_8020674155776221377_n 10487329_534299748763_6463920117264176691_n They day we flew out we rented a van to get everything down to the Miami airport. The bags, dogs, guinea pigs, backpacks and the lone pelican box holding my computer were all dropped at the curb while my husband ran to return the van. Once he returned we had to find two porters to bring a small army of carts to ferry everything inside, while one of us stood with the animals on the outside curb and the other stood at the check-in counter. We made quite the scene. I was amazed at the number of people that let their small children run right up to the door of Raiden’s massive crate, and was equally amused each time he waited until they were less than a foot from his crate door before letting out a massive bark, inevitably scaring the pants off of whatever child ventured up to stick their face next to his crate door. After checking in our baggage we left the crates at the baggage counter and took each dog for a walk outside, one last chance to relieve after their 90 minute drive to Miami. 90 minutes before the flight’s departure, the FAA came to inspect the crates, making us remove everything while they looked over it with a careful eye. Once they were done we were able to put each dog back in, I zip tied off the doors, zip tied leashes to the doors and added Raiden’s basket muzzle to his crate, just in case someone had to get him out for an emergency. We said our last goodbyes, assuring the dogs and pigs we’d see them on the other side in Frankfurt. Another army of carts, FAA, and AirBerlin officials carted off the dogs. The flight to Berlin was uneventful. We arrived, made it through their passport check points and proceeded to our connecting gate. When a baggage handler appeared in the boarding area, we were quick to catch her attention and ask about the dogs. She assured us she had personally seen that all the animals were loaded onto the plane, letting me know “the big one wasn’t happy.” I wasn’t surprised to hear that Raiden was barking at people, probably demanding that someone offer him the food taped to his crate. The baggage handler was curious what was in the toolbox and said there had been a lot of guessing going on among those loading the plane. We boarded the second plane and shortly we were in Frankfurt. We were able to retrieve our numerous bags in short order, and thankfully, they all rolled. The pelican box and snowboards came off the oversize conveyor and after a wait that felt like eternity, the dogs finally came up the baggage elevator. I used a dog leash and ran it through all the handles of all the suitcases and tied them to Raiden’s crate, dragging all the suitcases behind us as we, very slowly, made our way to customs. We were definitely quite the sight, and the customs officers were happy to have something interesting to do. They barely skimmed all the paperwork, briefly checking for the USDA seal and the rabies certificate, and with far less fanfare than I was expecting, told us we were good to go. They chatted with us for a few minutes about the two shepherds- Deutsche Schäferhunds- the pride of Germany! It took all of 3 minutes. They didn’t even scan the dog’s microchips. Very anti-climatic after all the preparations we had done. They asked us to open the tool box holding the piggies, but only because they were curious to look at them. Apparently it’s not common to bring your guinea pigs along by plane when vacationing or moving!

Our baggage trail. Making our way between customs and the rental car counters.

Our baggage trail. Making our way between customs and the rental car counters.

We very slowly made our way to the rental car counter, mostly by standing some 100 meters apart at a time and forcibly rolling suitcases across the space one at a time, then dragging along the dog crate with the snowboards laying atop them. I highly recommend the suitcases with 4 wheels on the bottom, or this process would have taken us hours otherwise! We garnered a lot more attention with dog crates, guinea pigs and an ungodly amount of luggage. It took over an hour and a half to get the rental van then to cram what we could on two smart karts. What couldn’t fit on the smart karts was either pushed or dragged behind us and, after requiring two elevators to get everything down to the parking garage level, we resumed our slow crawl toward the van. Arriving at the van we found out that there were seats in it, and only the last row folded down, and they didn’t fold flat (and like everything in Europe, it was smaller than its american counterpart). As we played tetris, dismantling crates and trying to cram everything into the van, we ended up having several Germans stop and watch the festivities, offering their suggestions that we would need to rent a second van, or just enjoying the madness. But we persevered and after dismantling Raiden’s crate, placing Tiki’s crate inside of it, putting Raiden inside Tiki’s crate, Tiki laying on the floorboard of the van at my feet and Diedre in my lap, we finally got everything into the van. We made it out of Frankfurt and found a place to pull over with some green space to let the dogs have their first pee since we left Miami. It had been over 12 hours, but the crates were clean and dry, so the dogs were grateful to be able to go. Since the humans were running on 4 hours of sleep that we had received over 24 hours prior, the dogs got nothing more than a quick walk once we reached the hotel, some kibble and water to fill their empty bellies, and then we all took a blissful few hours to sleep. Finding an apartment with 3 dogs proved to be less of a challenge than it would be in the US, but still a challenge. Germans love dogs- Germany is a dog country through and through. Dogs can come into shops, restaurants, on the train and subway, and are seen in public more often than children (no joke- bring your dog everywhere and he’ll be welcomed, but bring a small child into a restaurant before the age of 5 and you’ll get a lot of dirty looks). They’re also all impeccably trained. The German laws are strict about dogs living outside or being kept in the yard, on a chain, or in small kennels and dog runs. There are lot of rules, and dogs must have 2 hours of contact a day with their owners. I have yet to see an outdoor dog here.

Deirdre visits the Deutsche Telekom store with me

Deirdre visits the Deutsche Telekom store with me

And since over half of the German population choose to rent rather than own property, they have no problems renting to people with dogs. However, as soon as you tell them you are American, they no longer are willing to rent to your dogs. In their experience, too many Americans come to Germany, acquire a dog, leave their dogs outside to bark all day while gone at work, do not train them to the German’s standard, and then dump them in a shelter when it’s time to move home. Germans require microchips in all dogs, not to help a lost dog find their way home (although that’s a perk) but to being able to identify the animal’s owner and prosecute them if the dog is ever abandoned. The Germans are serious about caring and training for the dogs in your family. Tie your dog up outside and you can expect a visit by the Polizei. It’s a different culture altogether. I was not military, but being in a military-heavy area, we were quickly lumped into the general ‘american military’ category.  Landlords were happy to rent to dogs, until they found out we weren’t German. The ones that were willing to rent to us, wanted us- a family of 3 dogs and two adults, to rent out 6 bedrooms homes (one property manager told us a two bedroom apartment would be ‘far too small’ for 3 dogs. I asked why she felt each dog needed their own bedroom, considering I couldn’t convince them not to hog my own bed, let alone sleep in their own). After weeks of searching we finally found a townhouse, albeit a 4 bedroom one, with a landlord who had once had three large dogs herself and figured if we’d spent a small fortune to bring the dogs all the way from the US, the chances of us abandoning them were small. She was concerned that we did not have a yard, but I promised her I actually walked my dogs, and, knowing the forest and the farm fields were only a block away (and that German leash laws only extend to community areas- dogs are free to be walked off leash in farm fields, forests and open areas), agreed to rent to us.

The village we settled in: Neunkirchen am Potzberg

The village we settled in: Neunkirchen am Potzberg. Lot of dog walking fields and just about a kilometer to the forest.

After getting settled, we weren’t done with the import paperwork yet, so back to the vet we went. The EU requires dogs to have a ‘pet passport,’ an adorable royal blue passport adorned with the European Union stars across the cover. Each dogs gets a passport, and inside contains the dog’s shot records, microchip numbers, contact info, description and a picture of the dog. When at manned border crossings, the dogs passports are handed over along with the human’s passports. Despite just having had a rabies shot a month before we left the US, in order for their pet passports to be valid for travel within the EU, each dog needed a brand new rabies shot. Because of government regulations, they were not allowed to ‘transfer’ the US rabies shot, so for the second time in 3 months, each dog got another rabies shot.

Tiki and Dierdre's passports

Tiki and Dierdre’s passports

Dierdre's passport, complete with photo of her at the beach back in sunny South Florida.

Dierdre’s passport, complete with photo of her at the beach back in sunny South Florida.

The passport contains the owner’s contact info, microchip number, description of the dog, the issuing vet’s information plus all the vet records- shots, deworming, any titer tests (required for entry into the United Kingdom), physical exams and any other pertinent vet information. IMG_2151 IMG_2150 We are now free to travel about the European Union!

They're a little larger than my own passport

They’re a little larger than my own passport

Twilight walk through the farmer's fields!

Twilight walk through the farmer’s fields!

Photographing the Black Dog

d2Whenever I post pictures of Dahlia someplace, the first thing someone says is “What a pretty dog!” (And I admit, I eat that one right up.) But often followed close on the heels of admiring my dog’s beauty, is something that goes like this: “How on earth do you get photos of a black dog to come out like that? All of my mine look like black blobs!”

There’s no doubt about it. Photographing black dogs is one of the more challenging aspects of canine photography. They tend to blend into darker backgrounds. Their eyes tend to blend in with their fur. Inside the house they appear as black blobs or alternately, if you choose to use a flash they end up looking harshly lit with strange shadows and highlights.

So exactly how are you going to take photos of that precious black puppy you just got? Allow me to offer up a few tips that have worked for myself.

Outdoor photography
When it comes to dogs, and especially black dogs, outdoor photography trumps indoor all the time. If you scroll through all of my Flickr sets of Dahlia (and there are over 350 photo sets…so far), you’ll see that the vast majority of my photos have been taken in the great outdoors. Natural light is really best for most dog photos, but it is even more important for black dog photography. So leash up your dog (or take him to a safe off leash place) and get the camera out.

Sunny vs. cloudy: Which is best? You might think that taking your black dog out on a beautiful sunny day will net you the best photos, but that’s rarely true. I’m going to say something that might surprise you: cloudy days are best. They offer a naturally filtered light that is soft and incredibly kind to black dogs. Compare the following two photos. The first one was taken during bright sunlight. The second one was taken on a cloudy day.

dahlia-sunNotice the bright highlights and deep shadows on the first photo. Compare that to the second photo, which is softly lit. Which one do you like better? Which one do you think shows the dog best? I know which one I like better!

A special note on cloudy days: You should still be aware of where the sun is even on cloudy days. If you shoot into the sun even if it’s hidden behind clouds you can still end up with a photo with blown-out highlights and deep shadows. It will not be as pronounced as on sunny days, but it’s something to still be aware of!

Time of day: It matters! If you absolutely must take your black dog out on a brightly lit day to take photos, be careful of the time of day. Many people think that photos taken during the bright light of the midday sun will come out best. But that is absolutely not true. Bright sunlight that is directly overhead creates terrible shadows and highlights that can make a black dog harder to see. This photo was taken around 3:00pm on a bright sunny day. Notice that the side of her body that is away from the sun (especially her face) is so dark you can’t really make out the details. (And if you’re wondering why it looks like she’s missing fur, it’s because she was – she had recently had surgery).

d-brightlightSo if midday is not a good time, when is the best time to take photos? Try for taking photographs earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon. The best time is when the sun is lower in the sky, which stops harsh shadows and can even have a sort of magical effect if it’s a late afternoon/early evening shot. This photo was taken just about an hour before sunset, my favorite time of day to take photos. Photographers often call this the golden hour (or the magical hour) for a reason!

golden lightBut I need to go outside and take photos in the middle of the day! It is possible to take photos during the hours of harshest light, but you have to be careful of how you go about it. Here are some tips for midday photos.

1. Look for shade! This photo was taken on a bright sunlit afternoon, but Dahlia was laying in the shade taking a nap.

shade2. Be aware of the sun. You never want to shoot directly into the sun (unless you’re looking for a silhouette effect). The best thing to do is keep the sun at your back or off to your side. I tend to prefer keeping the sun off to the side and slightly behind me, but everyone’s preferences may differ.

3. Try using a fill flash. You can dial the flash down a bit so it’s not terribly bright (check your camera manual on how to do this as it’s different on every camera) and shoot using that. It will help to bring out those shadowed parts, which stops the highlights from looking quite so harsh.

4. Be creative! Shoot into the sun to create an interesting silhouette. Shoot with bright sunlight on your dog so it highlights her hair. Shoot in such a way that one half of your dog’s face is totally dark while the other is light. You can set up all sorts of interesting shots using the sun. Here’s one I took of my dog on a bright April day. I like the way the sun lightens up the edges of her fur so she looks like she’s almost glowing.


Indoor photography

I take only a handful of pictures of Dahlia inside. There are two major issues with indoor photography in relation to black dogs: (1) Having enough light for the camera to focus on the dog and (2) What to do about that nasty flash?

Here are some of my favorite tips on indoor photography of black dogs.

1. Make the best use of natural light you can. Throw open all of the curtains and position your dog somewhere near the window, so the natural light coming in falls on her. Now, our apartment has almost no natural light so this tip rarely works for us. But here’s one where it worked nicely on a trip to Vermont.

SONY DSC2. Make the best use of artificial light that you can. If you live in an apartment like mine, where natural light is rather difficult to come by, you can make use of artificial light by positioning lamps to shine on your dog. Carefully assess your arrangement of lamps to make sure you’re not producing any weird shadows! Consider getting full spectrum light bulbs or checking that your white balance works with your existing light bulbs, otherwise you may end up with a yellowish tinge to your photos. Here’s a photo I took of Dahlia on the recliner in our living room. Notice it’s black and white. I didn’t have full spectrum light bulbs and opted to get around the white balance issue by shooting some black and white portraits. bw

3. Use the widest aperture you can. This means taking the camera down to the lowest f-stop possible for the lens you wish to use. The wider the aperture, the more light that is being let in to the sensor. When you don’t have much light to start with, letting in as much as possible is very important! To that end, I’ve bought lenses that allow me to get down to f/2.8 and even f/1.7. The above two photos were both taken on my 50mm f/1.7 lens.

4. Bump up the ISO on your camera. This may only be a good idea on those cameras that allow higher ISOs with little graininess, but even on cameras that don’t, bumping it up to ISO 400 or 800 as a minimum can make the sensor much more sensitive to incoming light. This photo was taken at ISO 1600. This allowed me to make use of the indoor lighting (properly white balanced this time) and the lens I had on my camera at the time (the kit lens). I could only get down to f/3.5 on this lens and so bumping up the ISO allowed for a quick enough shutter speed to capture this photo.

headtiltNo, the lighting is not perfect here. One side of her face is dark (any guesses as to which direction all the light was coming from?). Had I taken the time to do a proper set up, the moment would have been gone. Sometimes you have to sacrifice perfect lighting for the right moment! And besides, I like the photo.

(Also, the black and white photo above? That was taken at an insanely high ISO 12,800, an experimental photo from when I first got my new camera.)

What about flash photography? I will admit that I’m not a big fan of flash photography, especially of dogs. And especially not of black dogs. It often comes out looking like this. And this photo has been edited multiple times to reduce pet eye and to try to bring down the highlights. Yikes!


So how do you fix the flash photography issue? Outside of completely avoiding flash all together, here are a couple things you can do:

1. Back off! Use a bit of a zoom to get further away from the dog so that the flash that falls on them isn’t quite so strong. In the above picture I was standing right over her with the camera just a couple feet away from her face. The flash was far too strong at this close of a distance.

2. Dial down the flash. If you need to be close to your dog to take the photo, you can dial down the flash so it’s weaker. Again, check your camera’s manual to see how you might be able to do this!

3. Use a flash diffuser. You can make your own (which is especially useful if you have a point and shoot!) or you can buy one. For those using DSLR cameras, I highly recommend Gary Fong’s Puffer (be aware that if you have a Sony or Minolta camera, you will have to buy this one, which has a different mount on it).

4. Use a bounce flash. A bounce flash is an external flash that attaches to the hot shoe mount on the top of your DSLR camera. You point the flash at the ceiling and it bounces off the ceiling to create a nice light that lands on your dog from up above rather than from the camera’s built-in flash. Be aware that if your ceilings are some color other than white you’ll end up with strange colors being bounced back at your dog. You’ll need to compensate for that. Here’s a photo I took with a cheap ($40) bounce flash that I picked up. See how natural the light looks? SONY DSCSo that’s it for now folks! If you have any questions or other things that have worked with you, share them in the comment section!