Annie’s Guiding Eyes in Africa: first-time travel with a guide dog to Kenya.

Thursday October 22, 2015

Retinoblastoma survivor and WE C Hope CEO, Abby White, reflects on the recent experience of traveling with her guide dog to Nairobi and Cape Town – Annie is thought to be the first guide dog to visit Kenya.

Annie outside Kenyatta International Convention Centre, Nairobi.

Annie and I stand in front of the Kenyatta International Convention Centre and statue of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta (first president of Kenya) in Nairobi.

Annie might have a chip on her shoulder that allows her to fly internationally, but she is the happiest traveller I know. She has taken nearly thirty flights to date, but this current trip has been full of firsts. As any perfect guide dog, she has taken them all in her stride.

This was Annie’s first visit to Africa. She was the first British guide dog in Kenya (so far as we know). She was also the first guide dog Kenya Airways has ever carried in the passenger cabin, and the first guide dog processed through the passenger terminal at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi. She was also the first guide dog South African Airways has carried on their route Johannesburg – London.

I have been asked many questions about how things work flying with a guide dog. I have also been immensely impressed with Kenya Airways as they worked through the experience of carrying a service dog for the first time. So I write this post to share some of our experience and give thumbs up for two wonderful companies and the people of Kenya who made it all possible.

Why Do I Have a Guide Dog?

I was born with bilateral retinoblastoma – cancer in both eyes. I had several years of treatment, including radiotherapy to both eyes. While both my eyes were saved, I never had useful vision in my right eye. Ultimately, that eye was surgically removed in 2002 due to late effects of radiotherapy. My right eye is artificial. Though it looks real, it is does not enable me to see.

My left eye had good sight for many years. With strong prescription spectacles, I could even read newspaper print. Side effects of radiotherapy are now ironically destroying the sight this treatment saved as a baby. In 2000, I began to lose peripheral vision, and my central vision became increasingly blurred. By 2005, glasses were no longer useful. Today, sometimes all I see is a blur. I lost a lot of confidence and stopped socialising, especially at night as my night vision is appalling.

I hate using a white cane for several reasons. Firstly, I find that people tend to see the cane and a disability, not me the human being. Secondly, the cane can only tell me of obstacles immediately in front of me. While I respect that the cane is a key to independence for thousands of people around the world, I needed a different approach to regain my independence and confidence.

Guide dogs can think, analyse and make decisions, and thus share the responsibility of navigating the world safely.  A dog is also a confidence boost and a comfort, a sense of security.  People usually see a cute dog rather than a disability (though this presents its own challenges in terms of people distracting the dog by talking to or petting it inappropriately).

I hesitated to apply for a guide dog primarily due to challenges of international travel. Most of my family and many friends live abroad, and by the late 2000s, I was helping to build up retinoblastoma care in Africa. I knew my future held international travel despite my brutalised confidence.

Annie Portrait

I finally made an application in 2010 when I saw that travel was becoming easier thanks to the EU PETS Travel Scheme. I waited for a long time for Annie, who was known to be very comfortable flying. We began training together in June 2012.

Annie is a very sweet looking medium black retrieverdor (her father was a golden retriever and her mother a black Labrador). She has a beautifully gentle nature and has become a wonderful partner and friend.

Flying High

Annie snuggles with her beloved pink octopus on a flight from London to Toronto – we had just one seat as this was a very busy flight.

A big supply of watermelon to keep Annie well hydrated in the African heat.

Annie walks through the security scanner at LAX.  Her harness, lead and collar are removed as they are security screened with our bags.  Note Annie’s bright white eyes – a reflection like this in a child’s eye could be an early sign of childhood eye cancer!

Annie had an extra-special vet visit in Cape Town as part of her quarantine exemption.  The vet came to our apartment complex to draw blood for testing to ensure she had not picked up any diseases in Kenya.  Lauren was lovely, and made the process very easy.

Pets travelling internationally are generally carried in special crates in the hold, registered as manifest cargo. Licenced service dogs cannot be removed from their owner, nor sedated in transit. They must be alert to work during the flight in the event of an emergency, and from the moment of arrival.

Seating policies vary between airlines and are dependent on cabin structure, but generally we are allocated a bulkhead seat with an additional seat for Annie. Airlines do not charge for the additional seat.

I have only pre-boarded the plane once with Annie by choice, and it was chaotic – everyone wanted to say hello to her. I felt like we were on show and I could not settle her. Now I choose to board last. There are pros and cons of both approaches but generally this is the better option for us.  I think it’s important that airlines and airports allow the passenger to choose what works best for them as an individual and partnership.

Once on board, I remove Annie’s working harness and she wears a car harness attached to my seatbelt via her lead. She settles on her pink cushion, snuggling with her treasured octopus or hippo pillow pet (one of my best-buys ever). As the air conditioning flows at foot level, I wrap her up in a fleece blanket when we’re airborne.

Take off, landing and even moderate turbulence don’t seem to bother her. On a recent flight back from LA, she slept right through the landing at Heathrow!

I do not feed Annie for eight hours before the flight, offering her only small treats during that time and in flight. She generally drinks little during the day, even when we are at home, and refuses to drink during the flight. I have always offered her ice cubes and keep her gums moist throughout the flight. Recently, I discovered watermelon is a great alternative to keep her well hydrated – though it’s important to remove all the seeds first as watermelon seeds can cause dangerous blockages in dogs.

I have lost count, but I think Annie has flown 28 times now, her longest being 12 hours from LA to London. She has never once needed to toilet on the plane.

However, some airports do create challenges by not having appropriate rest areas near the departures area (landside or airside).

LAX is the very best airport we have flown through in this respect (both in terms of facilities and ground staff preparedness), and Heathrow is the worst, with the exception of Terminal 4. This is thanks only to the brilliant staff at the Hilton T4 – a super hotel if ever you’re looking for a place to stay at LHR.

Annie has her own European Union PETS passport that records her unique identity, her rabies vaccination, blood testing, parasite treatments and pre-travel health checks. We go to the vet between 120 – 24 hours before travel. The vet checks Annie’s microchip before performing the health check and giving a parasite treatment.

Annie poses with her passport.

Annie poses with her passport before a trip to California and a special assignment as guide to her bridesmaid partner.

The photo page of Annie's passport.

The photo page of Annie’s passport. A separate page details her microchip ID.

The process on arrival varies between countries, but Annie is always processed with me in the passenger terminal. At some airports, we go through the RED or “agriculture” lane to declare Annie. At others, officials meet us either on the plane or at a designated point on the ground to check the paperwork. Sometimes, a microchip reader is used to confirm the number in the passport matches the microchip in Annie, but in my experience, this is rarely done outside the UK. Her microchip has never been checked when entering mainland Europe, the USA or Canada.

Some countries quarantine dogs travelling from countries with high infection risk, such as dogs travelling from Kenya to South Africa. Pretoria exempted Annie from quarantine as she is a service dog, but the process was an adventure – an entire blog post of its own.

Suffice to say that I have the deepest gratitude for Sue West at Bollore Logistics in Nairobi and many other wonderful people in England. South Africa, Kenya, Belgium and Australia who all contributed to getting us safely to Cape Town on schedule. Without their hard work, I would not have been able to attend the world congress of the International Society of Paediatric Oncology this year in Cape Town.

Annie poses next to the congress bannner of the International Society of Paediatric Oncology in Cape Town.

Annie poses next to the congress banner at the International Society of Paediatric Oncology 2015 world congress in Cape Town.

Annie and I explore beautiful Cape Town on our one free day after the congress with Rachael Olley, a colleague from the UK Childhood Cancer Parents Alliance.

Why Annie and I Were In Kenya

In October 2004, I co-founded World Eye Cancer Hope (WE C Hope) because of a little girl from Botswana.  You can read Rati’s story here.  We created the Kenya National Retinoblastoma Strategy as a model for care of children with eye cancer in resource limited settings, to give hope of cure to children like Rati across Africa and around the world.

Annie poses at Queen Elizabeth Point, Gibraltar.

For the last two years, I have travelled to Kenya on my annual visit without Annie, and very much felt her absence.  She has worked well with me in the USA, Canada and Europe. On this trip, I would travel from Kenya to South Africa to attend the world congress of the International Society of Paediatric Oncology in Cape Town. From there, on to engagements in the USA. If I could not work with Annie in Kenya, we would be apart for seven weeks – a potentially very damaging length of separation.

Guide Dogs UK (the organization that trained Annie) were sceptical as guide dogs do not exist in Kenya, there are no laws to protect access and they had concerns about hazards such as infection risk and Annie’s ability to navigate the unfamiliar environment. However, I was certain she could work well in Nairobi, and trusted that the people of Kenya would embrace her if I gave them the opportunity to understand her and how valuable she is to my independence.   I have not been disappointed.

The Pride of Africa – Kenya Airways’ first Guide Dog!

Before booking my flights, I checked that each airline would carry Annie. With a total of five airlines on this trip, that’s quite a process.   I learned close to my departure date that Kenya Airways had never before carried a guide dog in the passenger cabin. KQ’s London team had no experience of the process. Despite a bumpy start that was understandable once I was aware of the uncharted territory they were in, they worked hard with their colleagues at head office in Nairobi to set things up for us.

I had one named contact to work with, and was delighted to meet Baljeet at Heathrow before my departure. She was very easy to work with and is a credit to the London team. Once the path of communication was established, I was very impressed with how well the team stayed in touch with one another and with me, by email and by telephone.

In Kenya, I met with the Director of Cargo and Manager of Standards and Procedures to review the experience from both passenger and airline perspective. Tom, Caroline and I discussed at length the various issues of travelling with and accommodating a service dog. I truly felt they cared about getting it right, respected my practical experience as the passenger and wanted to learn from my knowledge.

Travelling and working with Kenya Airways on this journey was most refreshing. Annie and I have known the best and worst of airline travel, even on this trip. If KQ pay attention to training and regularly reminding their staff about implementing the written policy, I am confident they will be one of the best airlines to travel with a service dog. They have really invested time in and energy in asking the right questions, listening to and understanding my responses and respecting my needs as the passenger with the guide dog.

Annie and I stop for a photo outside the Kenya Airways office at Yaya Centre.

Kenya Airways staff welcomed us in Nairobi.

Asante sana to the entire KQ family in London and Nairobi for all you did to make our journey easy and enjoyable. Annie and I look forward very much to flying with you on our next visit to Kenya!

Kenya’s Reception to Annie

In Nairobi, Annie was processed with great efficiency at the passenger terminal of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. This was made possible by the collaborative work of Bollore Logistics, a wonderful company that generously advocated for me and Annie, and the Department of Animal Services, the government office that granted the processing dispensation.

Annie taking a break during a hike on our break-day at Hell’s Gate National Park. Can you spot the zebra in the far background?  Annie was intrigued by the new wildlife (zebra, griaffe, antelope, buffalo), but stayed completely focused on work during the hike.

Annie proved she can work well in Kenya, and everyone welcomed her with great interest and awe.  A letter from the Kenya High Commission in London paved our way, helping security staff and management communicate effectively in granting access. She was welcomed into malls, stores, restaurants and offices with no issues.

The only place I did not take her was onto the ward at KNH. I did not wish to cause potential anxiety among children already distressed by the experience of their cancer treatment and hospitalization.

I was very impressed with how open, accepting and understanding Kenyan citizens were of our partnership. Though many people did fear her size and black colour, this did not become a barrier. With patience and understanding on my part also, we had a very positive experience. I am hopeful that many positive visits lie ahead of us.

Towards a Brighter Future

This year’s visit was very exciting for me.  Annie enabled me to be more independent, and we saw major progress for children with cancer.

Kenya became the first country in Africa to have locally trained and qualified child life specialists – a huge step forward for child-centred medical care. Child life specialists are highly skilled professionals who help children cope with traumatic life experiences such as critical illness and intensive therapy.

 Child life leaders help a patient understand life-saving eye removal surgery, using a custom-made puppet with a removable eye.

A child life leader helps a young girl choose a new artificial eye.  Choice gives children a sense of control in the midst of potentially overwhelming experiences.

Currently the retinoblastoma team at Kenyatta National Hospital are treating for the first time a baby with cancer in both eyes, and good potential to save sight in both eyes.  From seven years ago when only one in four children treated in Nairobi were surviving and no eyes were saved, this is an incredible turnaround. This precious child is a beacon of hope for the whole continent and the world. A reminder of what is possible when we work diligently together with the child firmly at the heart of all we do.

Annie and I pause with Prof Brenda Gallie before entering Hell's Gate National Park.

Annie and I pause with Prof Brenda Gallie (Medical Director of We C Hope) before entering Hell’s Gate National Park near Naivasha for a walk on the wild side.

Radiotherapy is no longer a primary treatment for retinoblastoma due to its vicious side effects. While its effects are now destroying my sight, I will be forever grateful for many years of good sight. I have had a richer life than most as a direct result of having been born with cancer, and I refuse to be seen as a “victim”. While I am still dealing with the consequences of childhood cancer every day, I am also living, learning and reaching out to lift others up as I find my own way forward through those challenges.

Learning to do things differently after 39 years of sight, in a world designed overwhelmingly for the sighted is exceptionally hard. However, with Annie by my side, I will continue to embrace the opportunities life gives me.

I will continue to challenge perceptions, push the boundaries, give back and brighten the future with hope for other children who currently struggle to find appropriate care and have little chance of cure.  With welcomes such as we received in Kenya, and the desire to help us travel well as we experienced with Bollore and Kenya Airways, I know Annie and I have much opportunity ahead of us to change the world.

Annie shows off her fabulous beaded Maasai collar while hugging her beloved hippo pillow pet during a short flight in South Africa.

Annie and I in front of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta's statue in Nairobi.

Annie and I in front of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s statue at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre in Nairobi.

Annie and Hippo - her favourite snugge-toy.

Annie and Hippo – her favourite snuggle-toy.  Even before she went to Africa, she knew she had friends there!

1 reply
  1. Stephen Anderson says:

    A really interesting read. I’ve always wanted to visit Kenya and knowing that it’s dosble with a guide dog makes this achievable and realistic.

    Regarding access, how did you find it? Was eating out a challenge? Were you regularly challenged or even denied access, even at first? What were hotels like with guide dogs?

    Did Kenyan Airways dude Roy any e tea space? My guide dog simply wouldn’t fit inbetween my legs in a non-bulkhead seat.

    Sounds like you’ve had a great time out there. You’ve inspired me!


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