Travelling with dogs

Our “Pay-It-Forward” in Mexico: Coco’s

Ever since adopting Hogan and learning of his story and about the plight of other dogs back in his homeland of Mexico, I’ve done what I could to help Mexican rescues. Until now, all I could do was donate money or items through a wonderful person I’ve known mostly only on Facebook who visits Mexico several times a year, bringing down donations and bringing back dogs like Hogan every time.

CANDi arranged baggage waivers for us to bring down about 150 pounds of donated items, including dog crates, with Air Transat.

CANDi arranged baggage waivers for us to bring down more than 150 pounds of donated items, including dog crates, with Air Transat.

This winter, however, we decided we’d invest in a much-needed vacation. My husband isn’t the “sit on the beach” type, but we both wanted to escape winter and visit somewhere sunny and warm. I suggested we visit Mexico and volunteer at the Humane Society of Cozumel Island, where Hogan came from, for part of our vacation so we wouldn’t experience the boredom he associates with beach vacations. Win-win: pay it forward for Hogan’s rescue and get some fun in the sun!

Me with Janice, Hogan's first vet

Me with Janice, Hogan’s first vet

Before booking our vacation, I contacted Sandra, the Facebook friend who frequents Mexico to help several rescue organizations. She recommended a place to stay, an airline to book with (Air Transat or WestJet—we flew with Air Transat, and it was amazing!), donations to collect, ways to transport them all, and a whole lot more. She also supplied us with several crates to take down and connected us with other rescuers while we were down there. Sandra was leaving Playa Del Carmen the day after we arrived, so we met up with her and her rescue contacts for dinner our first night there. Among her contacts was Janice, who was the first vet Hogan ever saw and also the person who named him Gohan (see story here). I was so excited (and a little emotional) to meet Janice because she knew Hogan before we did, and she was one of the people responsible for saving him from the streets and getting him to a better life.

From left: Eric, Jan, Stephanie, Karina, Janice, Kelly, Sandra, Wes

From left: Eric, Jan, Stephanie, Karina, Janice, Kelly, Sandra, Wes

We also met Jan and Eric, who run Playa Animal Rescue, and Kelly, the founder of the Snoopi Project. These wonderful people all moved from the United States to Mexico and are devoting their time and resources to helping the vulnerable animals in the city, who are in such desperate need of help.

On our second day in Playa, Janice (Hogan’s first vet) and her co-worker Ulises picked us up with our big bag of donations for Coco’s Animal Welfare. It was very endearing when, on the ride over, I asked about the Christmas music playing (Frank Sinatra, no less) and was told they play it because it calms the animals. How sweet! Janice now works at Coco’s, which is an organization and clinic founded by Laura Raikes and named after her beloved cat. Laura, who moved to Mexico from Wales, began by rescuing cats but soon saw many other animals in need in the area, including wildlife such as raccoons and reptiles. The rescue became so much more than Laura ever imagined. Since 2009, Coco’s spay and neuter program has sterilized more than 18,500 animals, and more than 1,000 animals have been rescued and adopted out through the combined efforts of Coco’s volunteers and other rescue organizations.

Dogs in recovery after being sterilized.

Dogs in recovery after being sterilized.

As a testament to its great work, Coco’s has gained a lot of support over its seven years and, with the help of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and private donations (including a generous donation of land), is currently building a huge new facility that will give it room to help more animals. Currently, Coco’s isn’t a shelter, but it has developed a program for rehoming cats as well as Cachito’s Fund (named after Laura’s rescued dog), which is a foster-based program for dogs needing homes. Currently, there are five cats in residence who are up for adoption (plus Alice, the one-eyed staff cat, who isn’t going anywhere, according to Diana, the super-friendly office manager who is especially fond of sweet Alice). One of Coco’s primary missions is to spay and neuter animals to try to keep the population down, and the three vets on staff sterilize an average of 20 animals a day as well as participating in large-scale spay/neuter campaigns. Coco’s also offers sterilization and support services for local rescues, tends to sick or wounded strays and wildlife, educates the public (especially children) about animal welfare, and offers support to pet rescuers who need help caring for the animals they’ve taken in.


Cachito was in bad shape when Laura met him. He now lives a good life with her.


Alice, the office cat, lost sight in one eye when she was shot. She’s a very sweet girl.

When we visited Coco’s clinic, two veterinary technicians from the U.S. and Canada were on hand volunteering their services for a few weeks. Coco’s relies heavily on volunteers and donations to keep doing the great work it does. The new facility will offer a whole lot more, including residence rooms for visiting vets and vet techs; a conference room, equipped with video equipment and screen, largely for the purpose of educating school groups; separate cat and dog examination rooms; a catio; isolation rooms; and a laboratory. Unfortunately, Coco’s is a little short on funds to finish the new location. If you’d like to donate to this great cause, please click here.

Wes at the new Coco's facility. It's scheduled to be finished in May.

Wes at the new Coco’s facility. It’s scheduled to be finished in May.

The services that Coco’s provides are much needed in Playa Del Carmen and throughout Mexico and the Caribbean. If you love animals and want to help, please consider contributing to Coco’s or another local organization. And if you are travelling down south, you can collect and transport donated items (here’s Coco’s wish list). Before you travel, get more information from CANDi or by emailing Sandra. Air Transat, in particular, provides baggage waivers for humanitarian donations and allows dogs to be escorted to Canada free (more on that in my next post). In future, we’ll always fly Air Transat if we can to support its humanitarian efforts.

Our next day in Mexico was another dog-oriented one. We learned a lot more about where Hogan came from. I’ll write about that adventure soon!

A Cuban Rescue, Part One

This is Part One of a two-part story about the rescue of a Cuban street dog by Julie, who was Hogan’s foster mom. Click here or the link at the bottom of the article for Part Two of the story.)

Last February, my Mom and I visited a resort south of Varadero. It was only my second trip to Cuba, and I chose the location for its snorkelling, which was fantastic. The resort was small, quiet, no-frills, and all of two stars.  There were stray dogs and cats around that our tour operator sternly warned us not to feed (of course, however, everyone did).

Dogs on the resort property

Dogs on the resort property

Outside of the resorts, skinny, overworked horses, bony cattle, and free-roaming cats and dogs are commonplace.  While Cubans do keep dogs as working animals and pets, there is really no general understanding of routine vaccinations, sterilization, or preventative medicine. Hotels have an interest in ensuring their properties are free from curious, hungry, or diseased strays, which are perceived as a nuisance.

We watched a bonded male and female wander the periphery, the male predictably showing up at the dining hall looking for handouts, although the female wouldn’t approach. We heard that the pair once had puppies under the gardener’s shed. No one knew what happened to them. The staff spoke of tourists who sometimes befriended dogs, lamenting that it’s easier for a dog to leave Cuba than for a person to.

IMG_1756There were multiple sightings of an injured dog. Someone reported seeing puppies on the road leading to the resort. All just chatter among concerned tourists powerless to help. Toward the end of the two weeks, a black dog turned up one evening around the dining hall.  She looked like my dog Buttons who, at 17, was in failing health at home.  Maybe that’s why I took an interest.

The dog approached us the next day, tail and body wiggling.  She so wanted the attention of the tourists, but she was crawling with fleas and had open, infected sores from scratching,  visible through her thin fur. Although people didn’t really want to touch her, her persistence and happy demeanour earned her food scraps and fresh water, which was a good thing since she was producing milk and had obviously nursed puppies recently.  A security guard said some Cuban people had taken her pups, leaving her, and that he had watched her come from the ravine (pictured) between two resorts. We combed the garbage-strewn brush looking for the puppies but didn’t find any. She actually led us to a hole under a bridge at the top of the ravine, which we think may have been her den.

A couple of days remained before we were due to return home.  I thought maybe I could catch, vaccinate, and release the little black dog, not that I had any idea how. Discreet enquiries led me to two sympathetic staff members. One knew what to do, but I would have to meet him off-site since he could lose his job if the hotel management found out. Hotel jobs are among the most competitive and sought-after in the country.  I knew that this was no joke.  Another tourist provided a clothesline for use as a leash. Later that evening, I “caught” the dog (it wasn’t hard) and wrapped her in a towel. The staff member met me after his shift and agreed to take her to his home—in a gymbag on a public bus—for the night. He would  bring her back in the morning and meet me on his day off. He would arrange for a friend who drives a cab to take us to a veterinary clinic in the nearest city, 30 minutes away.

She had such itchy skin.

She had such itchy skin.

Leaving my Mom on the beach the next morning, I tucked all of the pesos I had left into my pocket and met the two men as planned. Both were clear: no pictures and no posting their names or faces on the Internet.

They showed me pictures of St. Francis of Assisi (known as the patron saint of animals) in their wallets. We drove to Matanzas, the nearest town, where the veterinary clinic was located. As we drove through the winding neighbourhoods, it was hard not to notice the many loose dogs, seemingly invisible to people, just existing on the streets. At the clinic, people were lined up outside. The cab driver explained our situation, and the vet took us in right away. He gave the dog a series of shots—rabies and other vaccinations. I later learned that the strength of one of them was 5 times more potent than the product we use here in Canada. He gave me medicine that was to be mixed with water and poured on the dog’s skin later in the evening to kill the fleas and dry up her sores.  Total cost: 15CUC, about $15.

Then, I asked about bringing her home. In rescue-speak, this friendly little dog was “highly adoptable.” I was certain I could find her a good home! Problem was, there are no stores in which to buy a collar, commercial dog food, or a crate, and there was no kennel  to be had at the vet. The veterinarian, though, said he knew a lady who could find us one. The two Cuban guys I was with looked at each other and shrugged. I think they knew they were in for a long day. The clinic phoned her. Yes, she had a kennel; yes, she could meet us, but she lived in another city an hour away. Decision made.

At her first vet appointment

At her first vet appointment

Next stop: we had to visit the Ministry of Agriculture to have the dog inspected and arrange for more paperwork. Luckily, this was also in Matanzas, near the clinic. The veterinarian came with us and spoke with the government workers. There was a fee for them to complete the necessary papers, in triplicate, on a typewriter. They would call the airport, where there would be another veterinarian inspection before boarding.

Duly signed and stamped paperwork in hand, we set off in search of a kennel in the city of Cardenas. It was here that I met Ingrid, the Cuban coordinator of APAC Varadero. APAC, a registered charity in Edmonton and an amazing organization, works with Cuban and Canadian veterinarians to run anti-parasite and spay/neuter campaigns to help Cuba’s street animals and try to make a dent in the animal overpopulation.

Ingrid welcomed us into her home (even the flea-ridden dog) and told us about APAC’s work. I remember feeling annoyed that I could have brought so many medical supplies down for her, had I only known.  The group relies on donations of money and veterinary supplies , primarily brought down by tourists, to carry out its work. It’s hard to believe that in Cuba,  just $5 will spay/neuter and feed a street dog or cat! Imagine if all the Canadian tourists simply donated their leftover convertible pesos!

Back at the resort, I paid the cab driver his fare and gave the other guy all I had left: 10CUC and some makeup for his girlfriend. Then I snuck the dog back onto the resort and into the shower to give her a flea bath and the medicinal dip.

My mom wasn’t entirely surprised at Plan B. We called the dog Coconut, or “Coco” for short.  The tour operator representative (who wasn’t so stern, after all) called Air Transat to make her reservation and confirm I could take Coco home.

Between her first car ride, all of the drugs and her first bath, Coco was completely exhausted! It was probably the first time in her young life that she had a good night’s sleep without scratching (the meal  of chicken and rice stealthfully swiped from the dining hall also probably helped).

The next morning, it was time to head home.  I walked Coco on the clothesline-leash,  receiving mixed responses from hotel guests:  supportive tourists wanting to hear how she did and how she liked the snow gave me their email addresses. Others clearly thought I was nuts! At the Varadero  airport, another veterinarian inspected her and stamped her paperwork. She would fly in the cargo hold.

Click here to find out what happened next for Coco.

My First Rescue Transport

I spent my morning shopping for the recommended items and setting my car up for my first transport!

I spent my morning shopping for the recommended items and setting my car up for my first transport!

A little over a month ago, I signed up with Open Arms Dog Transport as a volunteer driver. Every week since, I’ve received a notice about transports from the States (Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio, usually) needing drivers for 19 individual legs (or so) over the course of each weekend.

For the first time, I was able to sign up for one of those legs. Tonight I drove from Pickering to Newtonville with a little Yorkie rescue from a puppy mill. Evey is estimated to be six or seven years old. To think of the sheltered life this poor girl has had all those years, living in a cage with little human contact, day in, day out—not to mention how many litters her little body has gone through—breaks my heart.

Evey is a cuddler!

Evey is a cuddler!

However, it fills me with such joy to have played a small part in getting her to a new life of sniffing and walking on grass; sleeping in a warm, comfy bed; being cuddled by people who love her; interacting with other dogs; having toys to play with; running through snow; enjoying treats and training; getting medical care when she needs it; and, heck, even just having a name!

Such a sweet little girl

Such a sweet little girl







Over the next few weeks, Evey will experience so many firsts. She was a little stressed on our short drive (about 45 minutes), as she probably was on every drive she endured en route to her new foster home in Ottawa (with Loyal Rescue, the rescue my mom adopted Misha through). But within a few minutes, she settled into the crate and lay down for a while.

I am so excited for Evey! Both Cora and Dusty got to TAGS, and then to us, through rescue transport volunteers. Thank God for those volunteers! I couldn’t imagine life without either of my beagle babies or my Hogan, and it feels wonderful to have helped Evey get a small step closer to her forever family. Good luck, little girl! You now have a whole lot of people in your corner, and I’m proud to be one of them!

The Dogs’ First Vacation

We decided that this summer, instead of flying somewhere for vacation, we’d rent a cottage and bring our mothers and Cora, Dusty, and Hogan for a weeklong getaway.

Seatbelted into the back of the car for an outing

The cottage was on Bob’s Lake near the town of Sharbot Lake, Ontario—about a three-hour drive from home. We chose the cottage in part because it had a beach area (rather than a dock) so that the dogs could easily walk into the water if they wanted to.

We had good weather for the first three days, but we ended the week with a lot of rain, so Cora didn’t get to swim as much as she’d have liked to. We’d also hoped to get the dogs out for a ride in the canoe, but that didn’t happen either. Nevertheless, they got to enjoy unfamiliar scents, meet some new dogs, visit different towns (Merrickville and Westport), and experience a change from routine.

Cora and Hogan walking along Main Street in Westport

We have come to the conclusion that while the dogs were happy to be with us, taking them out of the everyday is stressful for them. They loved being on walks and going for  rides in the car, and they were content enough napping on the cottage couch, but they all seemed a little on guard much of the time. All three dogs loved just hanging out on the deck, though, whether in sunshine or under clouds. Cora seemed most relaxed in the water, very much in contrast to how Hogan and Dusty felt even near the water. And Cora even barked once! This is only the fifth or sixth time we have heard her bark in all the time we’ve had her. She let out a low grrr before the rouf, and she did it twice. I think she had spotted a small animal in the woods next to the cottage. It was very exciting to see this show of courage and ease from her! Moments like that bring us such joy because it’s one more sign of Cora letting go of her anxieties and just being a dog.

Dusty looking worried (which is his natural expression).

All in all, the quality together time was wonderful, and the change in routine, although perhaps stressful, was, I believe, good for the dogs. Maybe next time we take them away, they’ll relax into vacation mode more readily.

Here’s a video montage of our week at Bob’s Lake:

Guest Post: Summer Pet Safety Tips

This summer we have had quite a few days of the mercury rising over 30 degrees Celsius. While it is easier for us humans to keep cool (after all, we have sweat glands and can go to the fridge or freezer to get a cool treat whenever we want), what about our fur babies?

Mulligan’s yearly appointment was in March, and since Chris and I are very active in the summer and we take Mulligan everywhere we can, I asked the vet for some summer safety and first aid tips so that Mulligan can have a great summer too! Here are some of the tips he gave us:*

1.      If your dog gets bit by a horsefly, deerfly, or mosquito and is prone to swelling, you can give your dog  1 mg of Benadryl (in capsule or tablet form) per pound of body weight. Liquid Benadryl contains alcohol, so you want to avoid that. Dogs with certain medical conditions shouldn’t be given Benadryl, though, so talk to your vet first.

2.      Just like in the winter, dogs’ paws can split or become cracked—they don’t get to wear shoes on the hot pavement! So keep an eye out for any signs of discomfort when walking with your dog.

Mulligan frolicking on the beach

3.      Swimming or being in the water frequently at a pool or in a lake does not necessarily cool dogs down. Watch for warning signs of panting, licking the lips, and a tongue that is practically on the floor. It may be time to let your dog have a well-deserved “time out” inside where it is cool.

4.      Keep fresh water available at all times!

5.      Use clear Polysporin to help keep a surface cut from becoming infected.

6.      Believe it or not, dogs can get sunburned. Make sure there is a shady spot for your dog to lie down in if he or she is going to spend the day out in the sun.

Above all, please do not leave your dog in the car with the window cracked open while you run into a store! If you can, leave your dog in a nice, cool place—like home. When leaving your dog at home is not an option, make sure you pull over every few hours to let your dog stretch and have some cold water. If you’re travelling with another person and have to make a quick stop, opt to have someone stay in the car with the dog.

Enjoying just being near water

Some of Mulligan’s favourite ways to beat the heat are

  • eating frozen watermelon cubes made by his mom (that would be me)
  • eating the waves at the cottage (I mean this literally—he will be frolicking in the water and see a wave coming, so he will open his mouth and go headfirst into it. He always looks quite happy that he has got some of the wave in his mouth!)
  • going on very early morning and late evening walks (5 to 6 a.m. with me and 9 to 10 p.m. with Chris)

* I am not a vet, so please contact your vet prior to administering any medication to your pet. Also, as a dog lover, I am very passionate and have strong opinions about leaving a dog in the car. These are just my thoughts.