Rocky Has Issues Too

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that recently I’ve been using the services of animal communicator Kat Berard. In January she worked with our pit/boxer cross, Malakai. A few weeks ago, she helped out Ripley, trying to ease her transition into retirement.

Well, Rocky, my new service dog, has some issues, too. So why not let her have a chat with Kat to see if we can work some things out?

Mostly it centers around separation anxiety. She wants to be with me all the time. Hey, that’s great, right? She’s my service dog. She should want to be with me all the time! Well, yes, that’s true. I have been working very hard over the last five months to create a bond with Rocky, so she feels strongly connected to me. But I also need her to trust that this is her home, that I will always return to her, and she will not be abandoned.

Here’s a little background. Rocky is from American Service Dogs, which places shelter dogs in service positions. I believe Rocky actually came from a private home, not a shelter – but the fact remains she was given up once, and went to live at a training kennel. At some point, she was assigned to a young boy, and went as far in the training that she went home with him and his family. But the family, because of changes in their lives, decided a service dog was not a good solution for them at that time, and returned Rocky to American Service Dogs. Back to the training kennel, and dealing with a second abandonment.

When Rocky and I first started working together at the kennel, she was slow to bond, showing strong attachment to Jared Latham, the manager and lead trainer at ASD. When she eventually shifted her loyalties to me, she didn’t want me to leave at the end of class; she wanted to go home with me. Once Rocky had her first overnight visit at my house, that was it. She was committed.

I still return to the training facility a couple of times a week for further classes with Rocky. I have to close the dutch door to the training room so Rocky can’t see the main entrance – otherwise she attempts to head toward that escape route at every opportunity. At the end of class, after behaving perfectly, I open the training room door, and she nearly pulls me off my feet racing for the front exit. I can barely restrain her. As soon as our car is in sight, she’s fine. Then she know’s she’s going home.

Here is a more extreme example of her fear. Last month, we took a friend and spent a long afternoon at White Sands National Monument. It was a big outing for Rocky, her longest yet. We came home and fed all three dogs, and my friend Ruth said, “Rocky must be tired. Why don’t we leave her home and let Ripley be the one to go out to dinner with us?” I knew that Rocky adored Malakai, and I, too, felt Rocky was exhausted. I also knew Ripley would love the special time being service dog for the evening, so I agreed. We locked the dogs in the house just to be on the safe side (given Rocky’s recent history as an escape artist).

We were gone about an hour and a half. When we came home, Rocky met me right inside the door, whining, and she started to pee. I quickly opened the door to the dog yard, believing at first she simply had to go to the bathroom. But when I stepped outside, she went into the most submissive position I have ever seen. She got down on her belly in the dirt, and crawled towards me, head lowered. She appeared to be begging my forgiveness for whatever horrible thing she had done which had made me leave her behind. Of course, I should have known better; I had seen her pee in submission/fear before, once or twice at the kennel.

I gave her  as much love and reassurance as I could, and convinced her to come back into the house, but it still took nearly four hours before she would stand up in front of me and behave normally.

Talk about heartbreak. Oh, I so wished I spoke dog that night!

So, we have asked Kat to drop in for a bit this weekend to see what’s up, to reassure Rocky I’m a permanent fixture in her life, to explain that sometimes even service dogs have to be separated from their people for short periods of time, and I’d like her to be able to handle that without having a nervous breakdown. Because that would be helpful. For both of us.


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Extra Special Time for Ripley

I returned from our trip to Jemez Springs with animal communicator Kat Berard’s transcript with Ripley in hand, determined to take new actions. We arrived home at about 4 p.m., and our petsitter had left in the morning, so Ripley and Malakai had been alone most of the day. When we pulled into the driveway, we heard Malakai’s familiar welcome home yips from the backyard, and then saw two bouncing dogs through the glass door.

You would never guess, at these moments, that Ripley is over eleven years old. She springs two or three feet in the air. She may have arthritis in her front legs, but nothing hampers those rear legs. She could be an Olympic hurdler. I let Rocky into the kitchen, where Malakai proceeded to dance in happy circles around her, and allowed Ripley to follow me outside. Special treatment time. Leaving the side gate open, I brought Ripley with me as I began to unload the car with all our luggage and miscellaneous items. At first, she tried to jump into the car. Clear message – “You’re not going anywhere without me.” I convinced her we had no plans to depart,and were only unpacking, and then, tail wagging madly, she accompanied me for six or so trips into the house with all our gear.

I then slipped on her leash, and the two of us headed out to the end of the driveway to the mailbox. Again, I’m not sure what wagged more – the tail or the body of the dog. We picked up two days’ worth of mail, and walked back to the house together.

One of the things Kat had suggested was “family outings,” as well as allowing Ripley to be the service dog now and then. I needed to pick up a prescription at Walgreen’s that evening, so we loaded all three dogs into the car, and this time, Ripley wore her service vest instead of Rocky.

Jessica says hello to Ripley

Jessica says hello to Ripley

Walgreen’s Pharmacy is one of Ripley’s favorite places. The two young women who usually assist us (Jessica in particular) dote on her, and always hand out Milk Bones. In fact, sometimes I receive two Milk Bones in my hand, and then return home only to find that one of the paper prescription bags in my larger bag is filled to the brim with more Milk Bones.

So that night, we all drove to Walgreen’s, only about ten minutes away, if that. Rocky and Malakai stayed in the car with Sabrina, and Ripley and I headed into the store. I swear, she danced down the aisles! By her excitement, I could tell – obviously, it had been far too long. She received all kinds of special attention. I pocketed the Milk Bones, and when we exited the store, I gave her one. (I try never to give her treats inside of stores. Part of the service dog thing.) Once we entered the car, I gave Milk Bones to all three dogs. And, bonus to the whole experience: Rocky didn’t seem upset, because she hadn’t been left behind at home. It worked out for everybody.

Over the next week, I made an effort to bring Ripley outside on the front patio with me alone at times. I saved her a special spot on the bed. (She likes to lie between my legs first thing at night, with her head on my stomach, while Rocky prefers to sleep next to me.) I remembered to talk to her more, to tell her how much I loved her.

Last night, I needed to go to Walgreen’s again. Once more, a family outing – all three dogs in the car, Ripley in her service vest. Once more, Ripley bounce-walked through the store, tail wagging. We found Jessica, her favorite cashier, at the counter. She has met Rocky, and knows about our transition. Jessica beamed, “Oh, I’m so glad to see Ripley out again!” Milk Bones followed, of course.

For an extra bonus, we decided to take all three dogs to Caliche’s Frozen Custard for Poochie Cones after the Walgreen’s run. Sabrina took charge of Malakai (who always wants to pee on the tile wall, so that’s a bit of a challenge), and I led Rocky and Ripley. Rocky ate the whole cone for the first time. Ripley, as usual, ate hers in two bites: one for the ice cream, the second for the cone. All were happy.

More family outings ahead. A little ice cream is good for everybody.


*Feature photo by Jessica at Walgreen’s, E. Northrise Drive, Las Cruces NM

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Ripley Opens Up: A Session with the Animal Communicator

While we were in Jemez Springs with Rocky, the rest of the clan (our cats, Ripley and Malakai) stayed at the house with our petsitter Ashley. This was a big first – Ripley had never been away from me overnight since she has been my service dog, let alone three nights, with the exception of the time I was in the hospital three years ago. Then, Sabrina brought her to the hospital each morning, and she slept at the foot of my bed all day long, only returning home at night. In other words, she knew where I was, she knew I was sick, and she still was taking care of me.

This was entirely different. I walked out of the house with a suitcase, with Rocky at my side, and she had no idea where I was going or when I was getting back. Yes, I did tell her. But that human-to-dog talking thing is imperfect. She was not happy.

Ripley, full body pose

Ripley, full body pose

So while we were away, I had arranged for Ripley to talk to Kat Berard, animal communicator. Not just because of this trip, but also because I know Ripley has been struggling with her new role as a retiring service dog. In preparation for the conversation, I had sent a fact sheet and the pictures in this blog post (one close-up of Ripley’s face, one showing her whole body, and one more that simply is a favorite – I chose one of Ripley and Rocky, because I thought it would help Kat to see the two of them together).

I also had two questions:

  1. How can we make the transition from working service dog to retired service dog easier for Ripley?
  2. What are Ripley’s fears/concerns about having Rocky in the household, and about no longer going on daily outings? How can I communicate to her that this is something I am doing for her benefit, and that she will always hold a special place in my heart?

The final thing Kat asks clients to provide is a personal message. Here is what I asked her to say to Ripley.

Ripley, I love you. I know you always want to keep me safe and take care of me, as you have done so well for the past six years. I noticed signs you were aging and it was getting harder for you to do your job. I want to let Rocky come in and take some of the harder work away, so you can rest, knowing I will still be taken care of and safe. I would like you to help me with Rocky; she is still learning, and you can be a good teacher, even though I know Rocky can be an energetic silly pup at times. You have so much wisdom, and that is what I need from you now. You will always be my first service dog, and because of that, you hold a very special place in my heart. No one can ever replace you. There will always be a place for you in our home.

Kat sent the transcript of her conversation with Ripley to me via email while we were still in Jemez Springs. She communicated with Ripley for an hour. Here was the first thing Ripley said: She is having difficulty transitioning from service dog to family dog. She does not feel useful now, because she is not used to “Be-ing” versus “Do-ing.” Kat said, “She does not know how to simply be a dog. That is, she is so far advanced beyond “Dog” that she does not know how to relax and rest and enjoy life.”

The biggest message in the communication, which made complete sense to me, was that because Ripley is so highly intelligent, I must keep her interest in life by engaging her each day, or at least over the course of the week. Though it is critical for me to build the bond with Rocky, I need to spend one-on-one time with Ripley, even if it’s only for ten minutes at a time, leaving Rocky inside while I am outside with Ripley, or letting Ripley be the one who accompanies me inside a store as my service dog.

Kat communicated to Ripley that Rocky is here to help me because Ripley is aging, that this is a natural process, not a fault of hers. She explained that it is important for me to bond with and train Rocky, so she can learn well, to help me, so Ripley can relax and not worry about me. She told Ripley how much I appreciate all she has done for me over the years, and that now I want her to be able to rest, and know that I will still be taken care of.

Here are the parts where Ripley spoke out, that sounded so Ripley. When asked how to make the transition easier, Ripley said, “I do not want to be forgotten; that is all. I want to be included in what is going on whenever that is possible. I know that Michelle cannot always take me where she is going but I would still like to go along sometimes.” (Kat suggested more family car rides.)

Ripley gets a kiss from Rocky

Ripley gets a kiss from Rocky

When asked about fears and concerns of having Rocky in the household, Ripley said, “I am not afraid of Rocky, and I am not afraid for Michelle. I do miss what I was doing, and I hope that Rocky is as smart as I am, because Michelle needs/wants a very well-trained service dog. I will do my best to help Rocky be like me. This will not be easy because Rocky is smart, but she is not me.” (Kat made a note here that this was a factual rather than egotistical statement, because Ripley has been focused on me for years. Ripley does not know if Rocky can devote the same type of focused energy to what she needs to do for me, if she is mature enough.)

The last thing Ripley said was, “Please ask Michelle to be very careful with herself while Rocky is learning to be a smarter dog, especially if I am not with them when they go somewhere.”

Which both made me laugh a little, and also made my heart overflow.

Love you always, my Ripley dog.


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Rocky Hits the Road: First Over-night Vacation

Rocky and I were scheduled to take a four-day trip to Massachusetts about a month ago. I was a little nervous about it, because that’s a pretty big trip for a first over-nighter. First of all, it involved air travel, which is always a little nerve-wracking in the beginning. And it wasn’t a short jaunt. We would have been flying from El Paso to Chicago, then on to Boston, plus an hour’s car ride to our destination. Ripley’s first over-night trip was by car. Her first airplane trip was from San Francisco to San Diego – short and sweet, a nice practice run. But, it all ended up not happening for Rocky, because I caught the fever/weird illness from Hades, and stayed in bed for two weeks. Trip cancelled.

As luck would have it, an opportunity came up this month to take a much more manageable first trip. My sister-in-law Kristen Mendenhall and Sabrina’s brother Edmond Temple were up from California to visit their old stomping grounds, Jemez Springs. Kristen had been invited back to do an art show of her new paintings at the Jemez Fine Art Gallery, and we decided to drive up for the opening reception last weekend, turning it into a mini-vacation.

The Laughing Lizard Inn in Jemez Springs

The Laughing Lizard Inn in Jemez Springs

Jemez Springs is in Jemez Canyon, at six thousand feet elevation, a gorgeous place any time of the year, but right now, simply stunning. The red rock bluffs are gorgeous, some of the trees are changing leaf color to golden tones, and everything is lush and green. It’s tiny, with only about four restaurants to choose from (not all of them open every night), but a tourist destination for its mineral water pools (Jemez Hot Springs), scenic drives on Highway 4 which run through it, the Santa Fe National Forest that surrounds it, and various connections to Native American sites and connections to the nearby Jemez Pueblo.

We stayed for three nights at the Laughing Lizard Inn. I think it was the last room available in town – we only booked a week ahead, and everything else was filled (and there are, believe it or not, quite a few B&Bs, guest houses, inns, etc.). We lucked out and got the “Sunflower Suite,” which meant we not only had a big bedroom, but also a front sitting room and a full kitchen. Cool. The art show was great, we had a good time, la de dah.


Rocky’s four poster bed, with special dog sheet

OK, enough about all that. What about the dog? How did Rocky do on the trip? It was almost five hours of driving one way, with pit stops, her longest car trip ever. We stopped a couple of times for “dog relief.” She peed, no problem. But once again, the pooping was a bit of an issue. We finally pulled over at an RV park, and I got out with her determined to wait as long as it took. We must have walked for fifteen or even twenty minutes, but she eventually relieved herself. Success! Once we got to the Laughing Lizard, she seemed to recognize that we were “home,” if only temporarily. One signal: when I travel, I always ask for an extra flat sheet, or if car travelling, bring one of my own, to place on top of the quilt or bedspread, to minimize dog hair impact. Then I invite Rocky (as I had always invited Ripley) to jump onto the bed. “OK, then! This is my place!” (By the way, she loved her very high four poster bed.)

So from there on out, it was a simple task. I just took her outside the front door to a patch of wildness, or down the nearby stone stairs to another larger area of mowed-down stubble, and Rocky took care of business.

Problem number two: She went on hunger strike. Rocky is used to eating twice a day, first thing in the morning and around 4 p.m. The thing is, she always has company. Ripley and Malakai eat in the same room with her. She would have nothing to do with the collapsible rubber bowl I brought – too weird. I used a bowl from the kitchen, and she took a couple of bites. Then she drank water and walked away. That was it the first day. The second day, again, nothing. However, since there were no other dogs around, I was able to leave the bowl of food on the floor. Sometime in the middle of the night, she got up and licked the bowl clean. That became her routine. She only ate when I wasn’t looking, and she only ate one meal a day. Oh, well. I figured if she was really hungry, eventually, she’d eat.

Rocky is a champ at outings. She’s great at being invisible underneath restaurant tables, waiting patiently at art  shows, lying at my side while I am deep in conversation with someone. So that part went well.

Rocky and Sabrina

Rocky and Sabrina

We needed to pick up some groceries – half and half for coffee, coffee filters, apple juice, sodas, snacks. There’s only one little grocery store in town, really just a convenience store, The Trail House. There was a sign outside (buried among many signs) that said guide dogs were welcome, another larger one that said, “No pets.” When Sabrina, Rocky and I walked in, the woman behind the counter immediately said, “No dogs.” I said, “She’s a service dog.” She said, “Well, we can’t have them here, because we have food service,” pointing to a sandwich area in the back. I was insistent. “She is a service dog, and by federal law, she is allowed to be here with me.” The woman did not look happy with me, and scowled at us as we walked around the store. Sabrina’s response is to try to get people to lighten up by chatting with them. I had a moment’s hesitancy as I wondered if we had crossed the border between Jemez Springs into Jemez Pueblo (I couldn’t remember if I had seen the sign on the way), and wondered if federal law applied on tribal land. What do I know? But, we stayed, and bought our groceries, and even got a begrudging smile out of the woman before we left. Maybe because we bought so much.

We had a couple of stupid people encounters. They happen everywhere. Here’s my favorite. It was our last morning, and we were almost done loading up the car. Our room was up an outdoor stone staircase from the parking lot, separate from the other four rooms of the inn. I had just taken Rocky down the stairs to the little stubble field to pee before we headed out on the road again. She was off leash; as there were usually no people around, I had been working with voice commands, having her follow me around the inn property. Rocky was standing next to me when a man appeared from the parking lot. Sabrina was by the car, which was between us, and he approached her. Rocky, ever inquisitive, started to walk towards him. The man asked Sabrina if she knew when the inn manager would arrive. I was trying not to interrupt by giving an abrupt command to Rocky to return – she was simply wandering a bit, and was still only about six feet away from me. But when she neared the man, he turned to her, and read aloud the patches on her vest: “Working dog: Do not pet. Service dog.” He said, “Is this your service dog?” I said, “Yes.” Then, absolutely ignoring what he had just read aloud himself, he began petting Rocky. Not one pet, not two. But full-on repeated petting. I had no idea how to respond. I could have abruptly recalled Rocky, but somehow that seemed rude. I could have walked over and snapped on her leash and taken her away, saying, “She is a service dog. Don’t pet.” But that seemed even ruder. Why is it that when clueless, stupid people do clueless, stupid things, I’m the one who ends up feeling like I am being rude?

But, all in all it was a successful first trip, and Rocky passed with flying colors. Go, Rocky!


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White Sands: Getting Busy

Sabrina, Ruth, Michelle & Rocky at White Sands

Sabrina, Ruth, Michelle & Rocky at White Sands

A few weeks ago, when our friend Ruth Thompson was visiting, we decided to take a day trip to White Sands National Monument, part of the National Park Service. We had been meaning to go for months, and it was a perfect day – overcast with dramatic cumulonimbus clouds, making the sky varied and beautiful, which also brought the temperature down to a heavenly 75 degrees, instead of the 100-plus degrees the park can soar to with its desert landscape.

The park is only about an hour from our home. Ruth, Sabrina, Rocky and I loaded into the car a bit before noon, and headed out. Now, Rocky has been to El Paso a couple of times, to the airport and once for a medical appointment with me, but this would be her longest road trip so far, since we ended up being gone about six hours. Not that long, right?

Rocky was fine for the drive. An hour? Piece of cake. Once at the park, we stopped at the visitor center, and took a human bathroom break, and I also immediately brought Rocky out to let her stretch her legs and take a potty break. Here’s one of the things you don’t often talk about in service dog training: teaching your dog to pee in a timely manner (preferably on command) when you are out in the world. See, the dog is working. You are doing things, and taking potty breaks isn’t always convenient. Say you are attending an all-day conference. When there is a coffee break, you need to be able to bring your dog outside, tell her to pee, and wrap it up quickly, so you have time to get back inside and actually use the bathroom yourself, and maybe even have a cup of coffee. As anyone knows who has a pet, some dogs love to take their time. They want twenty minutes in the backyard, or a half-mile walk before anything happens.

Rocky has become fairly adept at taking care of pee breaks. She peed right away at the visitor center. But sometimes you run into snags. When I was working with Ripley, all was well until the first time we traveled to New Mexico. The problem? Ripley is a complete tenderfoot. She only liked to pee on grass. Suddenly there was none. The hotels were landscaped with rock and gravel. Same with the highway rest stops. Even most homes had desert landscapes. When I tried to bring her onto what looked somewhat grass-like (i.e., scrubby plants), we discovered the cursed goat thorn. After that, she began walking on pavement and curbs, and wouldn’t even step onto the rocks. I finally went to a pet store and bought her a set of dog boots. She tried to kick them off at first, but then I led her onto the rocks at a roadside rest stop when I knew she really had to go, and she realized – oh! My feet don’t hurt. It saved our vacation. Rocky, at least, has tougher feet.

Rocky on the boardwalk

Rocky on the boardwalk

We piled back into the car, and drove into the center of White Sands. What an amazingly gorgeous place! We stopped at the boardwalk, and took the short nature hike with signs saying that the sand comes from gypsum, talking about how the dunes form, and explaining various intricacies of the plant and animal life in the region. Ruth and I were busy with our cameras, and Rocky was busy with her nose, peering down through the bars of the fence at everything. I gave Rocky another pee break opportunity, and we loaded up again.

We drove the car all the way through the park, to where the huge pure white dunes are, and saw people sledding down them. Although it looked incredibly fun, we decided that me with my cane and Rocky probably didn’t quite make for a good sledding combo that day. There were so many great photo ops though. We weren’t disappointed in the least. I hadn’t had my camera out in ages – my real camera, the Nikon, not just my phone – and it felt wonderful to be using it.

After we had oohed and aahed our way through the entire park, we stopped back in at the gift shop/visitor center. OK, being blunt now: I was pretty sure Rocky needed to poop. Poop is an entirely separate issue. “Hey,” the dog says. “That’s private! I only do that at home!” Coaxing a dog to poop in an unfamiliar area is ten times more challenging than encouraging a dog to pee on command. So while Ruth and Sabrina went inside, I took Rocky to the pet relief area. In training, we are supposed to use the command, “Get Busy!” However, I use “Go Potty!” with both Ripley and Malakai, so by default I have kept using that command. There I was, walking back and forth with her for ten to fifteen minutes. She peed. She had a very, very busy nose, and explored everything worth exploring. There were signs to watch for rattlesnakes, so I was being insanely alert, and getting impatient. Finally, I decided nothing was going to happen, so I joined Ruth and Sabrina in the gift shop.

Curious Rocky

Curious Rocky

Rocky madly enjoyed that as well, trying to sniff everything within her reach, so I spent the whole time saying, “Leave it!” Obviously something else to work on. Very curious, this dog. After buying a few postcards, it was time to head back, and just as we got in the car, it started to rain. A nearly perfect day.

That is, until we were about ten minutes from home. Rocky and I were in the back seat. She was standing up instead of lying down. She began to get very agitated. I tried to calm her, but nothing was working. When we were about five minutes away, she made as if to jump into the far back. I couldn’t figure it out. Then I saw she was holding her tail tucked all the way up to her stomach. Oh, god. NOW she needs to go, I thought. Now. I told her, “We’re almost there, baby. We’re almost there.”

Sure enough, as soon as we pulled into the driveway and I opened the car door, she ran to the gate. I let her into the house and she bolted out through the dog door. Relief!

The next day, we took Ruth to the El Paso airport for the next leg of her journey. After the one hour drive, while Sabrina accompanied Ruth inside to check her bag, I took Rocky to the airport’s pet relief area. It took a bit, maybe ten minutes, and some encouragement. But she pooped! Away from home! I went into the airport to see Ruth off, and as I went to hug her, I said, “Rocky pooped!”

Like the true friend that she is, she was ecstatic.

*Feature photo credit, Ruth Thompson; Group photo credit, a kind young woman visiting the park from San Diego.

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Asking an Animal Communicator for Help

I am not a woo-woo person. By this I mean usually when someone starts talking about past lives, I start edging towards the door. I tend to avoid palm readers and fortune tellers. I have a fair number of friends who use tarot cards, and others who rely heavily on astrological charts. While I appreciate the art work of the different decks, and have at times found tarot readings to be entertaining, I don’t put much stock in them. And yet, at the same time, I don’t dismiss all of this out of hand. I have run into too many examples of weird things that don’t fit into the purely rational. So I guess you could say I’m somewhat skeptical, but not entirely a disbeliever.

Malakai in our California backyard

Malakai in our California backyard

So last winter, when our dog Malakai was exhibiting troubling behavior, and my good friend Ruth Thompson recommended an animal communicator, I was willing to go there. We had already tried everything else at our disposal. What could it hurt?

Here’s what was going on. We were in California and had put our house on the market in the early fall, getting ready for a move to Las Cruces. It was now January. Over those months, our lives had become completely chaotic. First we got the property ready for showing, with landscapers cleaning up our one-and-a-half acres, and spray washing the house, while we spruced up the inside. Then we had our realtor over, and started showing. We ended up in escrow two times, only to have it fall through. We decided to go forward with a January move date anyway, and began serious packing. We made weekly trips with items for donations to the local library, to Goodwill, and other locations.  The entire house was in boxes; we were emptying out the garage and storage shed, had a Pod in the driveway for temporary storage, and haulers came twice to get rid of the stuff that wasn’t salvageable. Finally, as we neared the date that our moving van would arrive, we sent off our five cats to our local veterinarian’s for boarding, so nobody would get lost in the shuffle during that last week.

Malakai is normally a sweet tempered, social, easy-going dog. He suddenly developed a morbid fear of riding in the truck, an activity he used to enjoy. He would pant like crazy and drool whenever he was in the vehicle with us. At first we brought him with us everywhere, thinking it would help with his discomfort, but that only made it worse. We didn’t want to leave him alone at the house, but didn’t have any other options, as our other dog at the time was Ripley, my service dog, who always accompanied me when we left to go anywhere. Malakai also became clingy and anxious at home. He loved having all the people visit, but became inconsolable, pacing the house. We had no idea what to do with him, and were dreading the three-day drive to New Mexico.

Then Ruth gave me the name of Kathleen (Kat) Berard, an animal communicator in San Antonio, Texas. I contacted her via email. She asked for a good photo or two of Malakai, a close-up, which showed his eyes, and one that showed his whole body. She gave me a questionnaire to fill out. The questions included basic info (his age, breed, weight, height, favorite activities, main job) plus our primary concern, and any message we wanted to communicate to him. She also asked what his living environment was like, and who else lived in the house with him (people and animals). We set up a time for the “consultation.” I’m not sure what I was expecting; I guess at first I thought we would be on speaker phone or something. But then it became clear this was to be a psychic connection. Kat is a former court reporter; her services include a complete transcript of the conversation she has with your animal.


Malakai’s expressive ears

So then we waited for the day. Malakai simply seemed to be relaxed, resting. A few days later, Kat sent us her transcript. The thing that convinced me immediately was that Malakai SOUNDED like Malakai. I don’t know how to explain this to you, but it was his voice; the way I would have expected him to talk. He said we were all so busy now; it wasn’t like before. Kat explained that the busyness was temporary. He didn’t know where the cats went, and he was worried about them. Kat told him where the cats were, and that everybody would be making the move together. One of the things we often did when we were leaving the house was to say, “Malakai, watch over the house. We’ll be back soon.” That stressed him out; he didn’t like the responsibility. Hearing that, it made perfect sense. We immediately changed our language. She also told us to start talking to him, like we would to a human, each time we left the house, telling him where we were going, when we would come back. That comforted him a great deal. He said the truck anxiety was because someone had banged on the truck window when he was alone in the truck, threatening him. We used to say, “Guard the truck,” when we would leave him there. It scared him; he didn’t understand about the windows, that he was safe inside. It took a while for the truck anxiety to dissipate, but with all the other anxiety, we noticed an almost immediate lessening.

Mostly, we felt as if there was an avenue of communication. That he had been listened to, and had had a chance to express his fears. I know, it sounds a little crazy. But I became a believer.

So this is one more thing in our tool belt now. I have been meaning to call Kat, because I feel that despite the fact I have been trying to talk to Ripley about her new role in the household, now that Rocky is here, she doesn’t completely understand. This weekend, we are going away for our first overnight trip with Rocky. We will be gone for three nights, a road trip up to Jemez Springs to see an art show by Sabrina’s sister-in-law. Kat will be talking to Ripley while we are away. It’s time. I can’t wait to hear what Ripley has to say back to me.

*Feature photo credit, Wendy Dayton

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Lost & Found

So I’ve told you before about Rocky Houdini, my service dog with the tendency to escape. For a couple of weeks at the start, we were at our wit’s end, because she kept getting out of the yard. But she never went far. She always showed up at the front gate, as if to say, “Hi! I just found the coolest short cut!”

But we thought we had resolved all of that. We added extra chain link fence to the section by the low rock wall, ending that escape route. When Rocky was still managing to get out, we knew she was either going under the fence, or squeezing through gaps near the gates. (She has a weasel-thin body and is shameless about using it to her advantage.) So Sabrina, my wife, went for broke and put in a line of electric fence just off the ground all around the perimeter. We had done this at our last house for our small Catahoula-cross, Houla. When she hit the fence for the first time, we heard a little “yip,” then it was the end of the problem. Rocky is a bit more of a dramatist. We heard a huge “YIP-YIP-YIP!” and she came tearing into the house with her tail between her legs. She wouldn’t even go into the backyard for about three days after that. However, we had no more escaping dog. She now keeps a very respectful distance from the fence.

Well, a couple of weeks ago, we had two work projects going on, getting things ready for a friend arriving from out of town for a week’s stay. Miranda Otero had finished laying tile in the bedroom, and was due to arrive in about an hour to complete the painting of the hallway, and John Marble was in for the final day of the atrium project, finishing the new shade structure. All three dogs were in my writing studio with me. John started using a pneumatic nail gun for the final touches. Rocky hates that damn gun. I looked up at one point, and realized – no Rocky.

I went to Sabrina’s office. Rocky was not there with her. “Bri, Rocky’s missing.” We both went into high alert. It didn’t occur to us at first she could be outside of the house and fenced yard. We had closed all the loopholes. I started searching all over the house, and Sabrina went to the yard. Since we have been doing all of the work, there are not a lot of places to hide in the house. I looked in the living room, behind chairs, and under the futon couch and one piece of furniture she could possibly squeeze under. I checked the kitchen, then the bedroom, looking under the bed. I went back to my office. She wasn’t underneath my desk, or under the altar.

I heard Sabrina out in the yard, calling her name. Rocky was not in the yard. The other two dogs stood at the door, looking at us expectantly. Sabrina went out into the front, and started searching the neighborhood. Our next door neighbors were just pulling out of their driveway. They immediately volunteered to help, offering to drive one way down the loop, looking for her. Another neighbor heard the calls, and volunteered to go the other direction.

John got into his truck, and joined the search. Sabrina came back to the house, and looked through every corner of the garage. Still no Rocky. We were still incredulous that she had gotten out of the yard. Sabrina said, “Search the house again; I’m going to get in the truck and start looking.” So now there were four vehicles driving through the neighborhood.

I went back to the house, and started over. I opened every door: the kitchen pantry, the laundry room door, the linen closet in the second bathroom. I looked under the bed again. Two cats were there, staring at me, obviously hiding out from all the fuss. I said to them, “Well, you guys. Where is she?” Then I stood up and turned around. The walk-in closet? I opened the door – and there sat Rocky, with woeful eyes. She’d been in the bedroom closet the whole time. How she got in there, I’ll never know. The door opens out; it must have been ajar just enough for her to paw open to go in there to hide, and then someone else (as in another dog) pushed it closed.

Rocky Found

Rocky Found

I gave her a huge hug, and then went running for my phone. I called Sabrina’s number – and heard her ringtone two feet away. She had left the phone behind. So we had a whole posse of people out looking for Rocky, and I couldn’t tell them she had been found. Right at that moment, Miranda showed up, so I asked her to help me call off the search. She drove back out until she found one of the circling cars, and within minutes, Sabrina and John were at the house, and all our wonderful neighbors were back at their original tasks. The neighbors said only, “Glad we could help; this is a great outcome.”

Last time Rocky escaped, Sabrina was annoyed as all get-out. This time, Sabrina fell to her knees when she saw Rocky and started to cry.

This dog. She’s officially part of the family. No more tests of affection, though, OK?



Allergies quote

Now I’m Mad: Time to Ruffle Some Feathers

Most of the time I’m pretty good about standing up for my rights as a service dog handler. Occasionally, I allow myself to get bullied. This has been one of those times. But now I’m mad, and I’m ready to take some action.

When I lived in California, for about fifteen years I received all of my healthcare through the Kaiser Permanente system, first via my job, and then through spousal benefits from my wife Sabrina’s employer. What this meant was that healthcare was easy, in a lot of ways. Whenever I needed a new doctor, he or she could be found under one proverbial roof. I knew the system, everybody was working together, and it made managing my sometimes very complex medical situation relatively painless.

So when we moved to Las Cruces in late January of this year, one of my biggest anxieties was establishing a new network of providers. Sabrina no longer had employee healthcare, so she had a separate plan. I had been switched to Medicare, with Blue Cross/Blue Shield as supplemental. I had only a thirty-day supply of medications. I knew I had to find, immediately, a neurologist for my hypokalemic periodic paralysis disorder, a psychiatrist for my bipolar disorder, and a primary care physician to fill in for anything else that might arise. The providers needed to be close by (I can’t drive, so Sabrina has to provide all of my transportation), they had to accept both of my insurance plans, and they needed to be accepting new patients. The list wasn’t very long.

Removal quoteI felt lucky when I found Epoch Integrated Health Services in downtown Las Cruces, and was given an appointment with psychiatrist Dr. Beale without too much waiting time. Until I showed up for the appointment, that is. The first day, I waited two hours without being seen, and had to leave because I had another appointment, and had to reschedule. When I returned for my second appointment, I waited another hour and a half, and finally was called into his office. He took one look at me and said, “Oh. You can’t bring that dog in here.”

I thought he was kidding. Honestly, I thought it was a joke. I was standing there with Ripley in her service vest, and couldn’t believe that a doctor at a medical clinic was telling me I couldn’t bring my service animal into the room. Then Ripley shook, and he said, “See, that’s what they do. They shake. I’m allergic. Get her out of here.”

Prior to seeing Dr. Beale, I had gone through intake with a counselor, Janis Burkhardt. She had said nothing to me about Ripley, made no indication that this would be an issue. What could I do? I needed those prescriptions for my medications. I brought Ripley to the waiting room and gave her leash to Sabrina, then returned for my appointment. (Thank god Sabrina was there. I don’t know what I would have been expected to do had I come to the appointment alone.)

I continued to see Beale over the next several months. Each time, I left Ripley in the waiting room. At no time was I offered an alternative. I never saw another psychiatrist at the clinic, and did not believe there was one. At one of my sessions with Beale, he asked me what my current “challenges” were. I told him I was in the process of training a new service dog. He then told me he did not believe animals should be in service to humans, that it was like slavery; he felt they should be free beings. He went on for some time about this “philosophy” of his. I was seething inside, but again, I said nothing.

Last month, I received a letter from Janis Burkhardt at Epoch stating that I had failed to have my quarterly treatment plan update, and that if I did not schedule one, I could no longer receive services at the clinic. The letter noted they would be happy to refer me to another provider, in that case. When I read the letter, I suddenly had some hope – maybe there was someone else? So I scheduled the appointment with Burkhardt, determined to talk to her about the service dog issue with Beale.

When I arrived at the clinic, Burkhardt called me back to her office. As I stepped in, she said, “Oh. Sorry. I’m allergic to dogs. You’ll have to leave the dog in the waiting room. With your friend.” (On another note: Sabrina has been referred to as “my friend” on multiple occasions at the clinic, despite the fact that she is listed as my wife, is my emergency contact, and accompanies me to every appointment.) I was now furious. I had brought Rocky, my new service dog, that day. I again was forced to leave her with Sabrina in order to go to my appointment. I asked Burkhardt why she had done her first interview with me with my service dog in the room. She said, “Oh, sometimes I let it slide, but then I have to pay the consequences.”

I told her that Beale would not see me with my service dog, and that I must have both an intake counselor and a psychiatrist who would see me with my service dog. I told her it was illegal according to the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, to deny me this right.

Task quoteShe took out some paper, began to write. “Oh, OK then. I’ll ask my supervisor. Let’s see, I think Dr. X likes dogs. He always pets them. But he’s not here very often. And maybe Carol. She likes dogs, too.” I couldn’t believe it. Likes dogs? As if we were talking about a pet parade or something? Then she said, “What is your disability?” It is against the law to ask a person’s disability. Again, disbelief. And then, the clincher: “What was that thing you said again? The ADH something?” I said, “Excuse me?” She said, “You know, you said there was some AD something?” And I said, “You mean the ADA? The Americans With Disabilities Act?” She said, “Oh, yes. That’s what you said.”

After my appointment with her, she took me to the waiting room, where I was able once again to be reunited with my service dog, and I was given future appointments with a different counselor and a nurse practitioner for meds, both of whom, supposedly, do not have dog allergies.

But obviously, this is systemic. Here is a healthcare organization, that has offices in Albuquerque, Alamogordo, Deming, Santa Teresa, and Roswell, with the corporate headquarters in Las Cruces. Many of the patients are on Medicare, and are either elderly or lower income. The clinic I have been going to specializes in behavioral healthcare and also in addiction and recovery. I know there are many people coming here who are far less likely than me to stand up for themselves. And it took me some time.

From the beginning, I should have been offered options. If your clinic’s main psychiatrist AND one of your intake counselors are allergic to dogs, then on the phone, someone should be asking each client if they have a service dog, and making appointments accordingly. No client should ever be separated from his or her service dog. It’s illegal.

Where allowed quoteI’m tired of being bullied. And I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.

(For a full text of the ADA guidelines on Service Dogs, go here.)

Rocky Vest-Pho A Dong-72

Rocky Out on the Town

Rocky and I have now officially been set loose in Las Cruces – watch out! We have advanced to the part of training that focuses on public access, meaning it is time to introduce distractions of all kinds, getting Rocky ready for life out in the real world. But is the world ready for us?

Brief overview of the hard parts: I said “Heel” approximately two thousand times. Working outside means walking in the sun, which means I get tired, and have to use my cane, so in addition to getting frustrated with Rocky when she is so excited that she’s ignoring me (usually because she’s trying to keep up with the other dogs in our group), I get a little cross because my shoulder starts to hurt from the sharp corrections, and it’s difficult to keep up with some of the other dog handlers, who are more able-bodied than I am. And then there’s the attention: When people see service dogs moving in a pack, or going through exercises, they stop to stare, or come up to ask questions, and I get it, really, I do, but that’s just one more thing to deal with when I’m doing my best to stay upright.

Here’s how the day started. Rocky suited up for the first time in her new service vest on Saturday, and seemed to immediately know we were headed out for real work. It’s funny – that’s exactly how Ripley acts. When I put her vest on, she knows she’s on the job. Now, don’t get me wrong. Rocky still had quite a few instances today when she momentarily forget she had the vest on. But when I say, “Get Dressed!” she stands stock still, and lets me buckle the vest onto her. She is ready.

We headed to American Service Dogs to meet up with the rest of the group at 9:30 a.m. There were eight handlers with dogs. After some brief business, we all loaded back into our cars and headed off to the day’s destination: the Farmers and Crafts Market of Las Cruces. This huge market, held on Main Street each Saturday from 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m., features nearly 300 vendors. Hundreds of adults, children, and dogs come each weekend to stroll, shop, listen to music, and enjoy the New Mexico weather. It’s the perfect place to bring a working dog that needs to learn to ignore distractions.

At the Farmers and Crafts Market

Michelle & Rocky at the Farmers and Crafts Market

First we met on a corner and ran through training basics, things we would be working on at home for the rest of the week. The commands include: “Handle & Massage” (getting a dog used to being touched all over), “Get Dressed” (put on the vest), “Calm” (calming a dog down), “Name” (saying a dog’s name and having them look you in the eye), “Off” (get down off of person or furniture), “Load” (get into vehicle), “Easy” and “Hurry” (varying the pace of a dog), “Place” (sending dog to lie down in a certain area), “Gotcha” (allow someone to grab dog by the collar), then come from 10 feet away, sit/stay at 10 feet and down/stay at ten feet. All of this went great.

Then we were off to walk the market. Really, Rocky did remarkably well. She did not react to any people, didn’t try to pick up food, or go into any of the food vendor stalls, didn’t respond to any of the dozens of pet dogs that were present, not even the two that lashed out at her in snarling, barking frenzies. The only thing she did that made it hard for me was tug at her leash, walking slightly ahead of me instead of staying in a relaxed heel position. And, again, this was mostly because I was with other handler/dog teams who were walking slightly ahead, and she wanted to keep pace. Still, that constant tug can be exhausting. And frustrating.

After an hour at the market, Sabrina, Rocky and I headed back to the truck and home.

But the big day wasn’t over yet. We decided to take Rocky out to dinner! The original plan was to head out to Habanero’s, our favorite Mexican food restaurant in Las Cruces. But for some reason, they were closed. So we went right next door to the best Vietnamese place in town, Pho a Dong. It turned out to be a perfect choice. Even thought it was Saturday, there were only a few other patrons – maybe three tables occupied. We chose a four-top table in the corner, which gave us lots of room and privacy.

Robert, one of the owners, came over immediately to wait on us. He knows us, and has met Ripley before, so was surprised to see Rocky. I told him it was Rocky’s first night out at a restaurant. He turned to her and said, “Well, hello, Ms. Rocky. Thank you for joining us this evening.” Pho a Dong has great food. But Robert is part of the fun of dining here. He is a relentless comedian, who is so quick with the one-liners that it makes your head spin. He broke into a Rocky Balboa mimicry, and started asking my dog about Paulie.

Again, restaurants have their challenges. A dog must stay still for a relatively long period of time. She should not respond to the smell of food by getting up and putting her nose near the table, or by trying to pick up food scraps on the floor. She should be quiet. It’s stimuli, yes, but almost more demanding of the dog when she is out walking; it requires absolute passivity, while still maintaining attention and focus on the handler.

Dinner at Pho a Dong

Dinner at Pho a Dong

I had a feeling that Rocky would ace this one, and she did. She laid at my feet throughout the entire dinner without making a sound. She did not once try to get up, not when our waiter came, not when the food was served, not when the dishes were cleared. The only time she moved was when I asked Robert to take a photo, and I accidentally scooted my chair back slightly. She had been directly underneath the table, and it startled her, and she sat up. So, the photo here shows me with my hand on her head, as she got back down on the floor, behind my chair.

Otherwise, she was a complete rock star. Which has become her new nickname, ‘natch, when things go well. Rocky the Rock Star.

White Hat Rocky-72

White Hat Hacker aka Rocky

Yes, Rocky is in training to be a service dog. But we think she may have another inborn talent. It appears she has the capacity to be an ace White Hat Hacker.

For those of you not familiar with the term,  Technopedia.com defines a White Hat Hacker as:

a computer security specialist who breaks into protected systems and networks to test and asses their security. White hat hackers use their skills to improve security by exposing vulnerabilities before malicious hackers (known as black hat hackers) can detect and exploit them. Although the methods used are similar, if not identical, to those employed by malicious hackers, white hat hackers have permission to employ them against the organization that has hired them.

What leads us to believe this could be Rocky’s line of work? Well, it isn’t that she has mastered computer code. But she is an expert in assessing the security of a fenced dog yard.

Rocky's escapes thus far

Rocky’s escapes thus far

Remember in my last post, when I said  she had managed to jump the four-foot rock wall bordering our front patio, because we had left the front door open? That was on her first overnight at our house. The following Saturday, she came for her first weekend visit. She sat calmly with me in my office, as I worked online, ordering her new collar tags and other items. All at once I heard Sabrina say, “Rocky! Hey, Rocky’s in the front yard!”

Yes, thanks to only a few moments of inattention, Rocky had managed to go out to the dog yard, wander around to the far corner, and come to the one section that is bordered with four-foot rock wall instead of six-foot chain link fence, landing in the front yard (which is completely enclosed by rock wall). Relieved that this was as far as she had roamed, I opened the front door and called her inside.

We kept the dog door locked the rest of the day, realizing  we now had an escape artist to deal with. That night, before bed, I let all three dogs out to pee. I sat in the large open area with all of them, with the outside light on. Rocky disappeared into the mesquite for a few moments. When I called for everyone to come in, she didn’t appear. I panicked. I ran to the front yard, but she wasn’t there. I immediately knew what happened. “Hey!” she must have thought. “Hurdles!” Hop one rock wall, then another. I grabbed a flashlight, and ran out the side patio door. Sure enough, there she was, running towards me from the driveway. OK, definitely need to take care of that rock wall issue.

Chain link fence, waiting to be installed

Chain link fence, waiting to be installed

We had to make a quick five-day trip to California to see my grandmother, who had fallen and broken her hip, so Rocky went to the kennel, and we promised to come back for her upon our return. This Saturday, we kept that promise, picking her up for another long weekend. On Sunday, our handyman John came over to troubleshoot dog yard solutions, and we decided to extend the chain link fence all the way to the house on that escape-prone side. Until he can get the poles in on Tuesday, John and Sabrina simply leaned the fencing along the wall, to keep Rocky from gaining access. We figured we had a secure backyard for the time being, and could once again open the dog door.

Then I’m sitting out on the patio today, and look up to see – Rocky on the other side of the rock wall, coming up to the gate, tail wagging. Gawd!

Sabrina and I just finished walking the perimeter of the fence and have found there are spots where the bottom is raised just enough that, with a bit of digging, Rocky and her slender little body can squeeze right under.

May have to hot wire the whole perimeter. Damn.

Now why do I see her as a White Hat Hacker as opposed to a Black Hat Hacker? She doesn’t actually run away. She comes right to the front door afterwards, as if to say, “Uh, guys? You have a security issue here. Just thought I’d let you know.”

Thank god for that.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
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