By Rosemary McClure
11:45 AM EST, December 14, 2012
Eleven salty dogs are sailing the waters of the Hawaiian Islands through Wednesday, making a splash aboard the Golden Princess cruise ship.
They’re strolling the Promenade deck, hanging out in the Donatello dining room and playing chase in the kids’ park on Deck 15. What’s more, most of these lucky canines are experienced sailors with several cruises under their belts, er, collars.
Most of them have something else in common. They’re graduates of the Guide Dogs for the Blind program.
“I never would have been brave enough to venture out on a cruise by myself,” said Texas resident Nancy Shugart, who set sail on her first cruise in 2005. “However, with my faithful guide dog by my side, I took the risk and have been cruising every year since.”
Shugart is one of 19 people being escorted by 11 dogs on the Golden Princess Hawaii cruise, which departed Los Angeles earlier this month for a two-week journey. The ship has port stops at Honolulu, Hilo, Kauai, Maui and in Ensenada, Mexico.
The cruise was organized by Dimensions in Travel, a Northern California-based travel agency that pioneered group guide-dog cruising in 2004. The agency sets up “one or two cruises a year,” said Andi Cercos, who specializes in travel for visually handicapped clients.
As many as 25 guide dogs can be accommodated on one of the group cruises. The agency arranges for special check-in at the pier, orientation tours, pet life jackets, dog play areas and doggie potty zones.
All of the group trips the company has planned have been in conjunction with Princess Cruises. “They know our requirements for the dogs and they accept us,” Cercos said. “We don’t have to reeducate a cruise line every time we plan a trip.”
The dogs adapt quickly to the ships, Shugart said, guiding their owners around obstacles, through hallways and along decks.
“They will help us find a place to sit upon being given the command: ‘Find a seat,’” she said. “I have learned, however, that I must be more specific with my precious 3-year-old yellow Lab, Porsche, and so I say, ‘Find an empty seat.’”
The dogs also help their owners make friends; they meet others with visual handicaps that belong to their cruise group and they get acquainted with lots of friendly sighted passengers who are attracted to their four-legged pals.
"With our dogs, we have the opportunity to be introduced to other passengers who come from all over the world,” Shugart said, adding a gentle reminder that proper guide dog etiquette requires people to ask permission before petting or talking to a guide dog that is working.
It’s not all work for the pups, however. Every afternoon from 4 to 5, Deck 15 on the Golden Princess erupts in noisy fun as an unused children’s play park becomes a dog park and the canines, mostly Labs and golden retrievers, race back and forth playing games.
What’s the most common question Shugart hears? “Where do the dogs go to the bathroom?” The answer, she said, is that crew members build 4x4 wooden boxes, fill them with bark chips and place them strategically around the ship in areas that will be convenient for dogs but out of the way of the other passengers.
"The cruise line has made everything work for us. It's a great way to travel," she said.
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