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Moving with the dog: a how-to guide

So you’ve decided you want to bring the dog-friend with you when you relocate to S.E. Asia, eh? I approve. It’s a long, arduous process that will sap a very large percentage of your energy, taking attention away from selling off all your random crap, saying goodbye to friends, and finding work to sustain you when you’re abroad. In fact, it also cost slightly more to get Ethel to Vietnam than it did for ME to get to Vietnam – so that’s cool. But in the end? Worth it. Watching her sleep on our balcony, bark at our neighborhood chickens, and eat scraps from the sidewalk – all a pleasure. She’s on this adventure with us. Ethel’s also a CHAMPION motorbike rider, sitting between Andrew and I and leaning out as far as possible to get the most possible wind directly into her silly little dachshund face. But I digress…

Dogs in the cabin: On an international flight this is quite unlikely, most airlines have a weight restriction of 10kilo (COMBINED weight of the dog and crate). And no puppies. This is quite different than on domestic flights in the US, where our 15lb dog can go under the seat in front of us in her soft bag and while away the time chewing on the corner of my sock. Some international airlines don’t take dogs at all. Get used to the idea of your dog being under the plane in a temperature controlled, pressurized room, all by themselves, for almost 30 hours (when all is said and done, including transfers).

your dog will not look this happy.

your dog will not look this happy.

Choose a travel crate. Petsmart, Petco, wherever you go…they all have the thing you’ll need. It needs to have ventilation holes, needs a metal gate thing, needs to be assemble-able without tools. Airlines each have particular regulations, so you can look up these details, but most pet stores mark their crates as “airplane travel capable” and these will work. The dog needs to be able to turn around and lay down. I opted to get a size bigger than I needed, reasoning that if Ethel was going to be stuck in this thing for 27 hours, something big enough for her to move around a bit couldn’t hurt.

Go ahead and buy the other random stuff you’ll need. They make water bottles and dishes that will clip on to the inside of the door. Buy these too. No one will add food, but your dog will likely be too scared to eat the food right away (airports are not the most fun for dogs) and will get over that fear somewhere over the Pacific. Buy pee pads. I lined her crate with these (and then taped them down with packing tape) so when she inevitably peed it wouldn’t just slosh around in there with her. While you’re at it, start training dog to drink water like a hamster out of the water bottle. Get used to that noise – Ethel LOVED the water bottle – probably because she loves annoying noises.

Importing a pet to VN: the form can be found on the Vietnamese embassy website to the US. It’s pretty basic. Use it to start the pile of dog-related paperwork you’re about to begin accumulating.

Before you buy your own plane tickets: Airlines have only a certain amount of space in the section of the cargo hold where animals go, and each airline has a different number of dogs allowed. Figure out what flight you plan to book on, and then give them a call to check that there’s space. They’ll want all sorts of information, like the dimensions of your crate, and the combined weight of the crate/dog/blankets. I added the two weights together, and then added another 10 lbs, figuring with water/food/blankets the weight would increase. They’ll want all of this in kilos, gringo.

More importantly, maybe, is the selection of a flight. You need minimal transfer time (after all, Ethel’s sitting in the box for every additional hour) BUT need enough time to move the dog from one plane to another, which takes more time than the luggage.

mmmm bean curd bear cakes

mmmm bean curd bear cakes

Nothing less than 1.5 hours will do, and more than 3 is…not the best. So…good luck with that. You’ll spend whatever length of time you have transferring imagining the horrible things that could have befallen your pet. Get a drink in Seoul, eat some weird Asian food. It’ll serve as a small distraction.

In addition to caring what the airline policies are, and how much time you have on transfer, where you transfer also matters. Cheap flights through Taiwan? Don’t think so. They insist on a quarantine. Certain countries will count transferring flights as importing the dog to that country, meaning you have to care about two countries import rules, instead of one. This only increases your chance of not ending up in your destination country with your pet, so…ask a lot of clarifying questions when you call the airlines. We went through Seoul, and it was problem-free.

After they say “oh yeah sure, we have room” book your plane ticket. They’ll probably want you to call back to confirm that you have a ticket, and THEN they’ll add your mongrel to the ticket. Most airlines will go through the list of forms you’ll need, write these things down. Cross-check it with their online list, sometimes customer service people add things or miss things, which is not at all stressful. Better to be over-prepared than to get to the airport and be missing a form.  A number of airlines have their own forms. Make sure you have these downloaded and filled out, as sometimes they also need to be signed by the vet.

Lastly, if you book on one of the discount airline sites, you’re quite likely transferring airlines as well. We transferred from Korean Air to Vietnam Airlines in Seoul, and this presents an additional hurdle. KA would not give us the formal “OK your dog is confirmed on our plane, here’s a confirmation code” until Vietnam Airlines confirmed, since they don’t want to even let her on the plane unless they’re sure she’ll get through the 2nd leg of the trip. This means you have to buy a ticket and cross your fingers and wait until you have the 2nd airline confirmed before submitting for approval from the first airline. Yay! So much fun!

Vietnam Airlines specific tip: this may take a lot of hassling. The website says 24 hrs, but it took us 1.5 weeks of anxiously calling them every two days. The US customer service # is in California and only during regular business hours, and thus only communicates with the VN office (from where approval comes) by email. They were entirely nonchalant, but made several mistakes, forgot to ask for information, and generally dropped the ball several times. It was a nightmare, but in the interim no one took her spot on the plane, so…I’m guessing there’s probably a limited # of people who even make it this far :)

Don’t fly during Tet. Really.

General airline tip: each time you call, verify the forms you need to have with you. This list will change regularly, if our experience is at all representative of how it generally goes. I chose to bring all of the forms, including the ones people told me I didn’t need. I figured it couldn’t really hurt.

Make an appointment with your vet. Just to talk through all the requirements. Hopefully they’ve done this before, because they have a few things to do: first – update all the vaccinations, especially rabies. These are time-sensitive as well, your dog can’t have a rabies vaccination less than 45 days before entering Vietnam, so…that needs to happen well in advance. Take photocopies of ALL of these forms – start a folder or packet of medical records/documents. The doc will have to fill out an international travel form less than 10 days before you travel. Book that appointment now. Verify that they’re certified with the USDA to sign this form, since it’s the USDA you’ll have to bring it to. Yes…the USDA. Ethel counts as an animal export.

Many countries (including VN) require that your dog have an international microchip. An international one. This means the 12-digit microchip we use in America is useless, and you need a 16-digit microchip to be implanted. No, I have no idea why we use a different microchip.

Call the USDA: find out where their office is – likely the airport, but maybe that’s just NY – and when you can bring your form in to have them approve the vet form (this will happen in those 10 days before you fly). Verify that your vet is certified with the USDA. I found out last minute that my vets certificate hadn’t been updated with her new name (she’d been divorced) and had I not realized this, her form would have been declined. I had another vet at the same clinic fill it out for me instead.

A pro-tip: Make a packet of all of the medical records (microchip, inoculations, medical certificates), the full flight itinerary, any airline forms, any import forms. In a Word Document, put a photograph of the dog, a photograph of you, your passport # and DOB, and a list of ALL of the forms you’ve included. Photocopy this packet liberally. I carried a copy, Andrew carried one, and Ethel carried one (see next tip).

Another general pro-tips: Buy gallon-size plastic Ziploc bags. Tape one with clear packing tape to the top of your dog crate. Make a copy of your dog-document pack, fold it all in half, and stick it inside. This way if anything happens, the dog has a copy with him/her.

One more: buy delicious dog treats. The unhealthy kind that they only get every once in a while. None of the organic wheat treats crap. I bought the dog-bacon and a packet of string-cheese. When that exhausted and stressed out mutt gets off the plane on the other end, and sees you for the first time in almost 30 hours, you’d be amazed at the calming effect that delicious things will have. Keep these in your carry-on luggage.

IMG_1828The day of: Don’t feed the mongrel 5 or so hours before traveling. Dogs are happy and calm when they’re tired, so plan in time for walks and runs and games of tennis ball on that last day. If it’s an early flight, get up earlier so you can fit in a nice walk, it’ll  make a difference. Give them a chance to pee on the road outside the airport – she/he probably will (either because they’re nervous or because it smells so different – I’m not sure). Check in, but go through security as late as possible…sitting for a few minutes in a corner of JFK with your dachshund in your lap will do good things for both of you.

A reflection, after the fact: I stressed out about her under the plane alone for most of the flight. When we came down the stairs in Hanoi, I watched through the shuttle window as they unloaded the first round of bags. Her gray crate came into view on the truck as it drove around the back of the plane…and at first I didn’t see anything through the windows. Honestly I don’t know if my heart has ever beat so fast. When her furry little brown head popped up, it was the most relieving moment in…months.

jetlag cuddles will be good for everyone

jetlag cuddles will be good for everyone

Her nose pressed up against the door, smelling this absurd new place…and 10 minutes later someone was pushing her towards me on a baggage trolly. And she was SO happy. SO….happy. And tired.

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And then on one of those long days when I'm tired and reallllllly not in the mood to go home and read 16 essays, I get a text reminder of why I love this job. .
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