Ridealong companions bring mental and physical well-being, security and more to haulers’ on-road lives
Roady, a handsome trucking Rottweiler, wasn’t getting much sleep.
Every night he stood guard over his owner, Tim Blevins, waiting for him to stop breathing. Blevins, a trucker from Cleveland, Okla., didn’t know he had severe sleep apnea, but several times a night Roady jammed his wet nose into Blevins’ face, startling the breath back into his lungs. When Blevins finally told his doctor about the nightly episodes, the doctor diagnosed sleep apnea and said Roady probably saved his life. “I had no idea what was going on, but Roady knew it wasn’t right,” Blevins says.
He got fitted with a CPAP machine and Roady finally got some rest. Today, Roady is mostly retired from the road, but Blevins still calls home just to talk to his companion. They are planning one last road trip this summer and Blevins can hardly bear to think about it as a final chapter in their trucking days. “It’s hard to explain, but Roady, he’s not really a dog. Not to me anyways,” says Blevins.
Truckers who take their pets on the road with them say they are happier, healthier and better drivers because of their companions. In spite of the care, cost and inconveniences of trucking with a pet, the positives appear to outweigh the negatives. Pet owners report an increased quality of life and in some cases, such as Blevins’, even credit their pet with saving their lives.
Exercising the mind
According to a survey of pet owners conducted by the American Animal Hospital Association, 76 percent of respondents say pet ownership reduces their stress levels, and 65 percent report their pets improve their mental health.
Dr. Sylvia Gearing, a clinical psychologist in Dallas, Texas, is an expert on pet/human bonds and says pets can have tremendous psychological benefits for truck drivers who are away from home for long periods. “In a recent study, researchers found that levels of ‘feel-good’ brain hormone oxytocin spiked when subjects merely petted a dog. In fact, pets served as a sort of multiplier for their happiness. Pets can even nullify negative moods, lower loneliness levels and improve overall happiness,” Gearing says.
Owner-operator Mike Greenwell, leased to Branson, Mo.-based small fleet D & R Trucking, says his Yorkie pup Isabella — “I usually just call her Izzy” — was given to him at a moment in his trucking life when the stress of the job had taken its toll. His wife “said I was going crazy,” as Greenwell puts it. She got him a bigger dog that he took back, then little Izzy. “I’ve had her for five years,” Greenwell says. “Since she was eight weeks old, she’s always been on the truck.”
One of the primary benefits he’s seen, in addition to the increased exercise numerous daily walks affords him, is an uptick in his sense of well-being, brought by both the sense of companionship she brings as well as the change she’s forced in his own behavior on the road. What’s good for the dog is good for the hauler. “I used to drive every day until my miles were done,” Greenwell says. “Now I stop two or three times a day for her. It’s really helped me.”
While most people think of dogs as the ideal trucking pet, truckers have been known to hit the road with all kinds of animals.
“I am much less stressed and more focused since I started driving with Frank,” says Joe Mansheim, who pulls a 24-foot flatbed for Elite Transportation Systems in the Minnesota Twin Cities area. He says his duck companion, a Drake Mallard he’s had since it was a duckling, is friendly, personable and quite lovable — Mansheim says it’s hard to stay irritated when Frank starts quacking at him to chill out.
The two watch baseball together, and his customers call and ask for the “truck with the duck. … Everyone wants their five minutes with Frank,” Mansheim says.
Jonathan Simmons, an owner-operator from Ocklawaha, Fla., leased to Prime Inc., has been trucking for 30 years and says nothing beats traveling with a cat. His year-old companion, a calico cat named Seminole started traveling with him when she was a kitten. Simmons says she’s less trouble than a dog and is content with her perch on the passenger side. “She’s a wonderful friend. She makes me feel like I’m not alone. She can sense when I’m having a bad day and will jump over and sit on my lap. I love seeing her so happy to be in my truck. She keeps me calm, and I know she helps keep my blood pressure down,” he says.
Another cat lover, Crystal LeBron of Mansfield, Texas, has been team trucking with her husband for nearly four years and says that, while she’s trucked with both dogs and cats, she most prefers being on the road with her Siamese: “The cats tend to get very good at trucking life. When the truck is rolling, they are sleeping. The moment the brakes pop out they get all energetic and run around and play until we get going again.”
She believes they keep her alert and says she’s happier and more relaxed with them in the truck. “They’ll come and cuddle on your lap and purr, and that makes me happy,” she says.
While Simmons loves the mental health benefits of trucking with a cat, he admits he got more exercise when he took along his dog, Taz, a mixed-breed terrier. “Dogs have more physical demands, but it was good for me,” Simmons says.
Blevins had to walk and exercise Roady and said he was more fit when Roady traveled with him. Providing exercise for their companion animals results in better fitness for the pet-owner and health benefits, such as a reduction in the risk for cardiovascular disease with lower blood pressure.
Drivers may even drive smarter when accompanied by a pet. In a 2002 study by the Food and Drug Administration, pet owners were given math problems to solve in the presence of their pets. They had lower heart rates and blood pressures when their pets were present than when the animals were removed. A different study, by the National Institutes of Health, showed that pet owners not only make fewer doctor visits for non-serious medical reasons but are more likely to have long-term survival rates after being treated for a heart condition
The physical benefits of hauling with a pet extend to security. Truckers often choose a dog for protection, but it doesn’t have to be a big dog. Kristopher and Brandy Peters are owner-operators from Missouri who travel with Little Joe, a seven-pound toy poodle, and Pinky, a 10-year-old, five-pound Chihuahua. Kristopher says Little Joe watches Brandy like a hawk when she’s out of the truck. “If a trucker even comes near her, he barks like crazy. Some people are scared of small dogs. Little Joe has an ‘alert bark’ and will let us know if something is wrong.”
Debra Blevins drove with Droopy, a small, mixed-breed dog who kept an eye on her whenever she left the truck and was a deterrent to anyone with nefarious intentions. She says she appreciates her pets for their companionship more than their protection but can’t dispute Roady’s role in deterring a potential break in. “Tim was working on the reefer, and heard Roady start barking his head off,” she says. “A man jumped down from the truck and ran off. We think Roady saved the day again.”
Some birds, too, can be effective theft deterrents. Owner-operator Larry Leckrone’s on-road companion of nearly two decades — a macaw named Mugsy with a sharp beak and very strong bite (see “Bird Business,” p. 19) — has saved Leckrone’s rig at least once, he says. “He’s an excellent guard dog. When a young man tried to rob me in Fontana, he left his ring finger in the cab. They found him by following the blood.”
While many trucking companies recognize the health and happiness benefits of pet ownership, others don’t allow pets in the truck. They cite idling costs, wear and tear on the truck, driver distraction and insurance concerns as reasons for no-pet policies. Some have seen pet policies abused and canceled the privilege, while others believe liberal pet policies are a recruiting and retention benefit. Those companies that allow pets usually require a $500-600 deposit, an up-to-date vaccination record and have some breed and weight restrictions. Truckers determined to take their pets along have plenty of pet-friendly companies to choose from.
“You can tell how a company treats their employees by their pet policy,” says Blevins, who drives for pet-friendly Miller Truck Lines of Stroud, Okla. “They waived the weight restriction on Roady and even asked for a photo of him to keep on record in case he accidentally got lost. You appreciate that in a company.”
Jim Atchley, director of driver recruiting for U.S. Xpress, says the company’s pet policy allows one pet of a non-aggressive breed with a $500 non-refundable deposit that they will deduct from drivers’ paychecks. “We have a lot of applicants who specifically ask about our pet policy,” Atchley says. “Women who drive solo like the security of having a pet along, but most drivers say they want them for the companionship.”
Steve Tucker, President of Barnett Trucking in Tuscaloosa, Ala., says the company’s pet policy is a recruiting benefit and that drivers appreciate their positive attitude toward pet ownership. “It’s a less lonely job when you have a four-legged companion along. Happier drivers are more alert,” he says.
Do You Run with a Ride Along Pet?
No — 58%
Yes — a dog 28%
Yes — a cat 4%
Yes — a smake, reptile, iguana 4%
Yes — a fish 4%
Yes — a different animal 2%
Veterinary Care of the Road
By Carolyn Magner
Veterinarian Tim Hammond, of Tuscaloosa, Ala., has had trucker clients who travel with dogs, cats and ferrets and has heard of truckers who take along birds, snakes and rodents. No matter what type of animal you prefer, he says the sooner you train them for the road, the better. They need to adjust to the truck and be able to go for long periods of time between potty breaks. A well-behaved pet makes everyone’s life easier.
One of the biggest fears of pet owners is being away from home and having their pet get injured or sick. For instance, Tim Blevins’ Rottweiler, Roady, got stung by bees while sniffing around a dumpster, and, luckily, Blevins had a fully-stocked first aid kit. He gave Roady Benadryl before bobtailing to a nearby veterinary clinic.
Hammond says the more common illnesses a traveling pet might encounter include gastrointestinal conditions such as acute vomiting and diarrhea, colitis, pancreatitis, gastric dilatation and volvulus (bloat followed by rotation of the stomach) and hemorrhagic enteritis. These can be triggered by such events as getting into bad scraps, overeating or changing the pet’s food. “These can develop into serious conditions and need to be evaluated by a veterinarian,” Hammond says.
Pack a first aid kit for your pet that includes Benadryl, Pepto-Bismol, antibiotic ointment, prescriptions and bandages such as NuSkin. Include your pet’s vaccination record and health record, as well as contact information for your veterinarian.
In case of an emergency, use your computer, smartphone or GPS unit to find nearby veterinary services or check with the truckstop manager for recommendations. Always start by searching for “veterinarians” and “veterinary emergency services,” but “animals” and “animal hospitals” may also bring results. Larger cities may have 24-hour clinics.
Signs your pet may be ill
• Reduced appetite
• Reluctance to go out at a rest stop
• Reduced alertness and responsiveness
• Difficult elimination of urine or feces
“They’re not for everbody,” says owner-operator Larry Leckrone, of Colville, Wash., whose ridealong companion is a macaw named Mugsy who holds a distinct advantage — as Leckrone sees it — over other potential road companions in the animal kingdom. With a vocabulary of around 300 words, the 21-year-old bird is a treat to wake up to, Leckrone says. “First thing I hear in the morning is ‘Daddy I love you’ and then ‘Big potty.’”
Yes, Mugsy was potty-trained even before Leckrone took him out on the road — by Leckrone’s wife, Tina, who today runs a small business in a bird-raising and rescue operation. Mugsy was their first macaw, Larry says. “My wife trained him to a trash can, and he’s got one in the sleeper” of Leckrone’s vintage 1962 C523 model Kenworth. Leckrone custom-built his 120-inch sleeper in part to accommodate the bird, with a cover over one side of the roof AC so it doesn’t blow directly on him. “He loves to watch TV with me,” Leckrone says. “If I’ve got the refrigerator door open, he loves to sit on the door and search inside for one of several treats. … Hostess cupcakes are a favorite,” but “all he’ll do is pick the squiggle off the top, he won’t take a bite.”
Macaws, which in captivity can live to be more than 100 years old, can become diabetic, so Leckrone is careful about how much sugar the bird gets. “Tonight he will get a four-egg omelet, rice, kidney beans, a blueberry muffin and a piece of banana,” Leckrone said at the end of September, all in “a good-size bowl — about the size of cereal bowl.” In addition to the well-balanced dinner, Mugsy eats “two bowls of fresh fruit and vegetables every day,” Leckrone says.
Leckrone estimates it costs around $800 a month just to feed the bird. And, at one time, Mugsy broke the roof AC, not to mention other messes. “He’s like a 5- to 9-year-old child,” Leckrone says, adding “but what’s nice is he never says anything bad. I think he’s smarter than a lot of the truck drivers out here today.”
It’s all worth it for the companionship — “He’s been my buddy all these years,” Leckrone says.
Ridealong Pet Photo Contest
Denver-based Swift Transportation driver Bill Kast well remembered the name of owner-operator Larry Leckrone’s macaw (pictured with Leckrone), Mugsy, when we featured his photo of them in Truckers News’ May Online table of contents. As is the case with so many drivers, Leckrone says, the bird left a particular impression on Kast.
“It happens real regularly,” Leckrone says. “I keep his wings trimmed and let him outside — he sits on the bug shield, or he’s down by the stacks. He loves to play catch, has a little mallard duck he’ll throw out the window. I’ll tell the drivers who come by, ‘Don’t hand it to him, throw it!’”
Kast’s photo was one of the many notable shots taken by the truck driver-photographers of the Truckers News Flickr.com photo-sharing group, which this month hosts a contest asking for pictures of ridealong pets or other animals/wildlife in conjunction with this story. Prizes include publication in the magazine and a photography book. To join the group and enter, as well as find contest rules, visit http://flickr.com/groups/truckersnews.
Submit your pet story
Have an awesome pet you would love to brag on to the world? Submit your story — and photos if you have them — to Truckers News by mail to Truckers News Pet Stories, 3200 Rice Mine Road NE, Tuscaloosa, AL 35405 or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. We may publish your story online or in an upcoming issue!
Online Social Networking — for Dogs
“No humans were harmed in the making of” the K9 Friends United social-networking website, says founder Diarmuid Scullin, an Irish long-hauler who started out with a simple — if somewhat off-the-wall — idea. “Have you ever noticed that the vast majority of dog owners tend to be warm, open and friendly people but maybe because of time or other commitments you rarely see two walking together, talking together or getting a chance to meet up, show off their dogs and find out what is happening in the canine world?” he asked.
He envisioned a social networking website in the style of so many out there online today but centered around members’ pets.
The end result is a big success, all around, Scullin says. The online network could boast “almost 1,500 members from 16 different countries … in a matter of months,” Scullin said at mid-year. He’s also got a behavior expert as well as a veterinarian on call for responses to users’ questions, soon to be delivered in webinar format.
Also coming soon is a “Tributes” section of the site, where dog owners can memorialize their passed-away pets. “The death of a dog often reveals the deep bond that humans can attain with their pet,” Scullin says.
Dog lovers, check K9 Friends United out for yourself at www.k9friendsunited.com.
Trucker’s life-saving dog
Visit www.truckersnews.com to read Karen Colwell’s firsthand account of how her husband’s dog Yu-No saved his life on the road.
What is the primary benefit of a ridealong pet?
Companionship — 50%
Exercise — 6%
Security – 6%
I don’t know, have never had one — 33%
Health — 4%
Other — 1%
More pet stories:
My Guardian Angel – Trucker wife Karen Colwell shares a firsthand account of her dog, King Yu-No, saved her husband’s life.
My Blue Macaw – Team driver Tara Gillaspie shares about the joys of taking her blue and gold macaw, Topaz, on the road.