14 March 2012

Arriving in France with Collette

It was early June in 2003. Walt and I had sold our house in San Francisco in March. We'd had all our belongings — at least the things we wanted to keep — packed into a container for shipping, and then we'd flown off to France with the dog.

The dog’s name was Collette — we called her that because she was a collie of some sort. We had found at the Humane Society animal shelter in Santa Clara, California, in 1992 and adopted her. She had to travel in the cargo hold of the Air France plane, and that made us nervous.

Collette on the sidewalk in Rouen in June 2003

Nobody seemed to know what we had to do to export a dog from the U.S. to France. I had spent nearly six months talking on the phone to people all over the U.S. and even in France who were experienced in exporting dogs and were supposed to know what kinds of shots, blood tests, microchips, and documents needed to be taken care of.

Leaving the dog behind wasn’t an option. If she couldn’t make the move with us, we weren’t going to be able to move.

June 2003 at Etretat on the English Channel

Somehow we had figured out a procedure that made sense and followed it, even though the processes and requirements were not at all clearly spelled out. France had recently been declared rabies-free, so we had to be careful to have all the right shots and blood tests. Everything seemed to be in flux.

The dog didn’t mind.

June 2003 in Saint-Aignan

But one dog-export expert said the French customs authorities would be within their rights to deport a dog that arrived at Roissy without the proper paperwork. Who would be there in the U.S. to pick Collette up if they sent her back? That same expert also said French authorities could also decide to euthanize an animal that arrived in France illegally. So it seemed like a good idea to do things right.

When we arrived at Washington Dulles airport for our one-way flight, the people at the Air France check-in counter were mystified too. “You are traveling with a dog?” they asked. Yes, I said, we have paid for the dog’s passage. She’s here in her kennel.

At home in Saint-Aignan in 2004

“Well, I’m not a veterinarian,” the young Air France agent said. “I don’t know what kind of paperwork we need to see.” Well I do, I told him. It’s all in this folder — rabies vaccination certificates, blood test results, health certificates signed and stamped by the USDA, and all that. “OK, I’ll just make photocopies of all these papers,” the Air France employee said, "and you'll be all set.”

Suddenly another Air France crew member appeared out of nowhere, said it was time for the dog to be put on board, and whisked her away. We were nervous about whether we would ever see Collette alive again. She was 11½ years old, after all, and the trip would be long and cold.

On the beach at San Francisco in the 1990s...

When we arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, I went over to the baggage-claim officer's booth while Walt waited for our suitcases to come out on the conveyor belt. I told somebody we had a dog that was arriving as cargo. “We’ll go get the animal and bring it up on the elevator,” he said. A few minutes later, there was Collette — dazed and stiff, but otherwise fine, it appeared. She seemed sleepy.

And there were our bags too. So we were ready to go.

...and in the Southern California desert

The French customs agents were on strike that day. At the customs desk, I remember, there was one young woman wearing jeans and a tee-shirt, with a DOUANES armband as her only uniform. People were lining up, with all their suitcases and backpacks on the little airport carts, to talk to her and get cleared for entry into France.

We started to get in line behind the 10 or 12 travelers who were already waiting.

“These are all Americans,” I said to Walt. “They are standing in line because they think they are supposed to. I don’t think we need to wait here.” I suggested that we just slowly push the cart with our suitcases on it and the cart with the kennel and Collette on it right past the customs line and out the door into the airport lobby.

Headed out for a walk in the vineyard in January 2006

So that’s what we did. We walked very slowly in case anybody from customs might want to stop us and ask questions. I was prepared to counter any challenges with claims of innocence: “Oh, we didn’t realize we needed to show any papers...” But nobody challenged us. There we were, out of customs now, and actually in France.

P.S. Collette died six years ago today at the age of 14. She was a city dog who got to spend three years enjoying life in the country — the yard, the fresh air, French food, and vineyard walks with no leash.


  1. She looks contented in all those photos. A lovely commemorative post.

  2. Lovely photos and a fine looking dog... With that muzzle I'd hazard a guess at mainly Lassie-type collie with a shot of Alsatian [also you had 14 years with here... a Lassie-type collie is so in-bred that it barely gets beyond eleven.]... I prefer that muzzle too... Lassie-type muzzles are too pointed for me... may look alright for the breeders, but the slighty wider than Border Collie muzzle gives Collette a majestic, lion-like appearance.
    I'm glad you managed to get the paperwork OK and have great memories of her over here.

  3. Tim, I always thought there was something lion-like about Collette — a definite feline quality.

  4. She was a beautiful looking dog.

  5. I enjoyed getting to see more photos of Collette :) You would think that the process would be clearly outlined somewhere, wouldn't you? I'm so glad it all turned out okay to get her to France with you.

  6. Ken, I have a picture of her in the Box Canyon. Was it on our way to Joshua Tree National Park?

    Remember also when you visited and she rolled herself into something nasty and Walt had to hose her in the back yard! She looked dreadful with her fur all wet. It was her own fault!

  7. What a nice tribute to a lovely, and beloved dog.

    This kind of brings your introductory story to an end, doesn't it? You had blogged about buying in France, selling in San Francisco, packing up, heading east with Collette not knowing if she'd be able to move with you or not, and that's where the story broke off. (I already knew that she had made the move, but this fills in the blanks.)

  8. I love all your stories, especially about animals. I am a rescuer, dogs and cats.

  9. she was a beautiful dog..... the idea of taking animals on overseas flights has always scared me....Colette was not a spring chicken at the time either....glad trip went well...I would have been a nervous wreck

  10. I remember the suspense you had getting Collette into France, but didn't remember how iffy it was. I love the feeling of walking through those double doors into freedom.

    Our Maybelle died in March of 09 when she was 14- I will always remember her just like you will always remember Collette. I'm glad I got to meet her when she was living her last days in France.

    3.14 is Pi day btw.

  11. She looks lovely dog and I bet she loved every minute of her country retirement. What a nice post in remembrance of her.

  12. Sweet.

    I remember that Colette used to swipe the tomatoes out of your garden when you lived near Claris.

  13. I bet that 7/8 hours trip over the Atlantic must not have been pleasant for you - worrying about Collette but fas far as she was concerned , as an intelligent animal, I guess that since there was no danger and she was comfortable, she was fine.

    No matter what, both of you must have been happy to find each other after that long trip :-)
    She looked beautiful.

  14. I, too, took my dog to Europe, in the '80's tho'. I was going to live in Switzerland for 3 years and of course "Muffin" would not be left behind. I got the papers needed, like you, and after arrival in Geneva, my story went just like yours...no problems! Muffin went everywhere with me, to restaurants, hotels, etc., he was adored by all.

    Muffin died at 16yrs old and I think of him often. We can both have great memories of our dogs.

  15. thats a great story. thanks, Ken.

  16. Glad to have been Collette's friend from puppyhood until late in her life. She was a joy to run around in the house or yard with! So much energy (her, not me). I still miss her!

  17. Wonderful memories you must have of such a contented-appearing Collie. Clever naming her Collette, too.
    Now I see why you have Callie. I had a toy collie for my first dog and I adore their markings and sweet smiles.
    She must have truly enjoyed her "retirement in France" as you do.

    Mary in Oregon

  18. Animals aren't just part of a family... sometimes they make a family. My city cat made the voyage with me, and although he only lived six months after being here, he had a very happy retirement.

  19. What a wonderful story, and she was such a beautiful dog. There's a lot of dog-importing info online these days, following your trail-blazing lead -- even the UK has relaxed into the overall EU standards, so with proper paperwork it's (a tiny bit) less nerve-wracking.

  20. What a lovely tribute to your beautiful Colette. We still miss our previous dog even though we have Lulu to entertain us.

    The story is fascinating and also funny....so typical of our limited experience of French officials - if they don't know what to do, they just take some photocopies of everything and then you can be on your way !!

  21. Cheryl, as you know, you were one of the few people Collette felt friendly with — you, CHM, Harriet, Sue, my mother.

    CHM, I do remember Collette rolling in that poop or whatever at the date shake place. Walt gave her a bath with the garden hose and a bottle of Lemon Joy dish-washing liquid. We had to wash her because she was going to be spending a week in the Jeep with us, and the smell was horrible.


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