19Aug
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.)

14Aug
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.

8Aug
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.

29Jul
Out in My Yard-72

Bunnies, Cat Food & the Great Escape – Rocky Spends the Night

The long-awaited event finally arrived: Rocky’s first sleepover!

Rocky has been so excited for the past few weeks, wanting to come home with us. Each time I leave her at the kennel, it gets harder and harder, because she so clearly wants to get in the truck with me at the end of our training session. So I’d like to tell you that thanks to all these hours of work, the entire experience went off without a hitch. But that would be more than an exaggeration. It would be a bold-face lie.

OK, parts of it were fantastic. Really fantastic. Rocky and Malaki got along great. No animosity at all. They were both off leash the entire visit (Tuesday 7 p.m. to Wednesday 1 p.m.), and had not a single incident. She and Malaki raced around in the dog yard, and it appears they may become buddies. Won’t that be grand?

But as soon as we arrived, Rocky went into cat obsession again, despite our training session with Bailey. It wasn’t quite as bad as before, but she was jacked up and fixated. Part of it is that this is all so new. She’s been living at a kennel. So I thought, “I know. I’ll take her for a walk to burn off some of that excess energy.”

Open the door, please?

Open the door, please?

Good idea, but not completely thought out. She was thrilled to go for a walk. But as soon as we hit the road outside our house, I realized our nemeses: bunnies. We live in a subdivision where each house has over an acre of land, so it feels very rural. Within a few feet, the little desert rabbits that abound here started popping out left and right. On our twenty-five minute walk, we must have seen at least two dozen, maybe more. Rocky went crazy, straining at the leash. To save my left shoulder from being wrenched out of the socket, I had to pass the leash behind my hips, and brace with my full body to stop her pulling. We also had quail, doves, and lizards to contend with. It was a marathon session of “AHHT!” “Leave it!” and “Easy.”

The good news is that Rocky did not respond at all to the barking dogs we passed, or the cars, or the people. Which lets me know that this is about exposure. She has been exposed to dogs, cars, and people. But not to bunnies, quails, or lizards. More walks ahead.

Back at the house, exhausted, I got water for myself, and watched Rocky tank up on water. Laurie at American Service Dogs had told me that Rocky hadn’t eaten much of her dinner, so I tried to offer her some of her dry food, but she wouldn’t eat. I eventually offered her some from my hand. She ate a couple of handfuls, but that was all.

We continued to keep an eye on cat interactions. Dozer strolled around in Rocky’s presence throughout the visit, and batted her whenever she got pushy. Kenji also allowed close contact, and bopped her on the nose when Rocky was a little too inquisitive. Little Bit hid the whole time – but that’s Little Bit. It takes her a while with everyone. There was one incident in the dog yard, late at night, when Rocky was way out in the distance, and she spotted Dozer and took off in pursuit. Dozer ran full out for the dog door. I grabbed Rocky right at the entrance and slammed her down, with a huge, loud “AHHT!” I’m hoping the message got across.

Resting in Studio-72

Relaxing in the writing studio

She also had some really nice moments of being relaxed and calm. We all sat in the living room and watched TV for an hour, Rocky lying peacefully right at my side. She spent some time resting beside me in my writing studio. Yes, very good.

And at bedtime, believe it or not, Rocky was in a pile of bodies on our king-sized bed:. me and Sabrina, Ripley and Malaki, and Rocky. And then who comes prancing into the mix, but Dozer! Rocky became alert, then realized, “Oh. I guess it’s just that cat.” She went back to sleep. We’re going to be able to work this out.

The next day, I tried to offer her breakfast, and she again refused to eat. Then Sabrina said, “Ha! No wonder she’s not hungry! Did you look at the cat food bowl?” Last time Rocky visited, we discovered she is slender enough to go through the cat door into the bathroom where we were keeping the cat food. So we were in the process of moving the feeding station. I thought Sabrina had already moved all of the food. But she had left the large bowl of dry food in that room. And sometime when we were not looking, Rocky had gone in and eaten the entire bowl!

Since she had no need for breakfast, I took her for a second walk. It was essentially a replay of the day before, except I remembered to add in some of the movement work heeling techniques, doing right circles, left circles, right abouts, left abouts, which forced her to pay attention to me periodically instead of the bunnies and birds.

At 9 a.m. a workman came over to give us an estimate about repairing the trellis in our atrium. We were sitting with the dogs on the front patio area of our house when he arrived. The patio is bordered by a four foot rock wall. As he pulled up in his truck, Rocky leapt up onto the top of the rock wall! Sabrina stood up and yelled, and Rocky jumped back down, on our side. OK, now we know she can jump over. Great. (The dog yard has a six-foot chain link fence.)

I thought the workman was only here to talk ideas and give a quote. I took Ripley and Rocky into my writing studio, and left Sabrina with him. Both dogs were relaxing quietly with me, while I did some work. I vaguely became aware of a drilling/sawing sound, but it didn’t fully register. Suddenly Sabrina came to my door, and said, “Where’s Rocky?” I said, “What?” She said, “The front door was open.”

The workman had actually started to take down the trellis, using an electric saw, and the sound frightened Rocky. Sabrina and he were removing lumber through the door, and had left it open. I hadn’t noticed that Rocky had left the studio. I started frantically searching first the house, and then the backyard, while Sabrina went out to the front, both of us calling her name. When I fully realized she was not in the house or in our yard, I panicked. She wasn’t wearing any ID tags or anything. I ran out the front door, and heard Sabrina yelling for her. As I got to the end of the driveway, Sabrina said, “Rocky! Come here!” I could tell by her tone of voice that she could see Rocky. I looked up and saw my dog, two houses down the road. I yelled, “Rocky! Come!” She ran straight to me, and I knelt in the dirt, embracing her. Oh my god. I can’t even tell you.

We’re hoping that her next visit won’t be quite so thrilling.

 

 

25Jul
Rocky Down-sm

Distractions, Distractions – Training on July 19 & 22

Ripley patiently waiting

Ripley patiently waiting

It’s funny – the more I work with Rocky, the more I realize how I have come to take so many things about Ripley for granted. I’ve mentioned before that Rocky is learning how to heel without running into me. Well, she also loves riding in the truck – GOING places! What that means is that she has a tendency to push ahead when a gate or door is opened. At her second home visit, which was last Friday, I wasn’t anticipating it. When I opened our front gate, she bolted through. I dropped my water bottle, wrenched my shoulder, and my cane went crashing to the ground. I had a brief flash of anger, before calming myself with this thought: “OK. Something to work on. Walking through gates and doors.”

Because, you see, I haven’t had to do this for years. Ripley waits calmly at every door, every time. It’s hard to remember those first months, when she was trying my patience. I have to remind myself there is a learning curve. That Ripley, just like Rocky, screwed up in the beginning.

Rocky really does want to please. She wants to do a good job. I’m the one who needs to stay centered, and remember that each lesson must be repeated multiple times in order for her to have success.

Harper-sm

Harper the puppy

Jared, the head trainer, went on vacation last week, so we worked with a different trainer for the first time – Luke Nail. The unofficial theme of the day was distractions. First, we had classmates. Lately, Rocky and I have often been the only team working. But on Tuesday, we were joined by puppy Harper, a squirming little five-month-old bundle of excitement with her two people, and Fling, who we’ve hung out with before. (And I should know the handlers’ names by now, but I still don’t. I’ll learn them!) Fling and Harper worked on their commands, at their levels, while Luke upped the ante a bit for me and Rocky.

We were mostly focusing on sit/stay and down/stay. But instead of just extending either time or distance, Luke added some extra challenges. While I stood at the end of the leash with Rocky in a stay, Luke had me pace back and forth. Then he had me walk past Rocky, until I was behind her, leaving her in the stay. Finally, I gave a “Rocky, come!” command from behind. All of this she executed beautifully.

Fling and her handler

Fling and her handler

Now came the really creative part. Luke asked me to put Rocky in a down/stay, and then walk away and drop the leash while keeping her attention. First he threw a couple Pup-Peroni sticks near her. She didn’t budge. Good dog. Then he grabbed a small plastic bag, and started tossing random things in her vicinity: bolts, glue bottles, other clunky metal pieces. She glanced at them, but didn’t break position. Luke picked up a hat, lofted it through the air, and it landed near her. No startle response. I was impressed. Then he came up behind her, and clapped his hands loudly. Rocky jumped to her feet. Whoops.

Luke said, “OK, that was a fail. Let’s bring her back to a success.” I put her back in down/stay, and we did a couple more dropped objects, then a softer hand clap, which she was good with.

Now, why is this all an important part of training? Let’s say I’m in a restaurant, and my service dog is under the table. My cane is leaning against my chair, and it slips, and crashes to the ground. If my dog startles, she might jump up, and knock against the table hard enough to upset drinks. You get the idea. A dog should be able to respond appropriately. Real danger – react. Loud sounds or nearby objects that are not danger – stay calm.

On Friday, Jared returned from vacation, and we did more movement work. But once again, distraction training entered into the picture. This time, instead of simply having me walk in a circle and ask Rocky to focus on heeling appropriately, Jared stood in the center of the room and tossed out small treats in our path. So as I attempted to keep Rocky’s gaze on me, I also had to check each downward glance towards one of those tempting Pup-Peroni pieces. We were pretty exhausted that night, because we had done cat training earlier in the day, and then had gone home to test our new skills for three hours, before returning to the kennel for the evening’s class. So neither of us were in top form. I have to admit – Rocky ate quite a few of those treats.

We’ll do better next time.

 

23Jul
Bailey-sm

Bailey the Cat Kicks Some Dog Butt

So what do you do when your service dog in training shows an unhealthy obsession with felines? You enlist one bad-ass cat to show her some manners.

After hearing about our first home visit last week, where Rocky spent the entire time straining at her leash and on tiptoe, cat hunting, trainer Jared Latham at American Service Dogs said, “Bring me a cat.” Well, we have several to choose from. Dozer isn’t a good option, because he simply doesn’t care; too nonchalant. Kenji is equally unfit, because he’s smart enough to freeze; a cat that doesn’t move won’t stimulate enough interest. Little Bit is certainly pissy enough. A little too pissy. Neither one of us wanted to lose a limb in the process. She also has a bad habit of peeing all over you when she’s stressed, and we didn’t really want to add that to the afternoon’s agenda. So Bailey seemed the obvious candidate.

Bailey is the same age as Ripley; well, actually her senior by about two months. She turned eleven in March. So she’s the grande dame in the household. She has always been regal and rather aloof, not much into the whole petting, lap-sitting thing. In fact, she’s not very interested in humans, except for their obvious usefulness as providers of food. There are only two instances where she asks for human touch: one, when you are sitting on the toilet, and she rubs against your legs, asking for head scratches; and two, when you are in bed, and she cuddles against your feet. Be warned, though – if it gets hot, and one has the audacity to stick one’s feet out from under the covers, Bailey does not hesitate to bite your toes for that rude disturbance.

She does, though, like dogs. She was completely enamored of our little Catahoula-cross, Houla, who passed away a few years ago. Now, she is infatuated with Malaki, our pit-boxer cross. She rubs up against him, cuddles with him, loves to groom his face.

New dogs are a different manner. Especially new dogs with no manners, who come charging across the room at her like Rocky did last week.

We arrived at American Service Dogs with Bailey in the cat carrier, and went back to Jared’s office. Rocky, Sabrina, Jared, Bailey and I were all in the small room, ready for cat training. At first, Jared had us leave Bailey in the carrier, and I had Rocky on leash. My job was to walk Rocky around the room and correct her whenever she looked at the carrier. One time Jared used a spray bottle as a correction. After that, it was just me, “AHHT” voice corrections, and leash tugs. Rocky’s eyes kept going back to the carrier, but eventually I managed to convince her this was off limits, and she went into a down/stay right in front of the carrier, eyes averted.

Then we brought the carrier out into the large training room, and practiced walking in circles around the carrier, where I again corrected Rocky each time she strayed towards the cat. This brought up all the initial behavior at first, but after about ten minutes, Rocky began to listen to me, and ignore the cat in the box.

We went back to the small office, for the real test. Jared let Bailey out of the carrier. Of course, as I knew she would, Bailey immediately went under the sofa. Since we wanted her to stay visible, Jared got down on the floor and reached underneath to grab her. Even as he did it, I thought to myself, “Oops. This is not going to end well.” He pulled back his hand suddenly and yelped, “Hey! She bit me!” One of the rules with cats: When they are hiding, do not reach underneath into said hiding place bare-handed to grab. You don’t know what end you are going to get, and they have a much better turning radius than you do. You are going to lose.

When we are trying to flush out a cat, we use either a squirt bottle, or a stick (broom stick, yard stick, etc.) I handed Jared my cane. “Try this.” He swept it underneath the couch, and Bailey popped out the other side, coming up to the top of the couch. Now she remained in our sight, and I was able to work more with Rocky, who was interested (OK, very interested), but managed to stay in her down/stay position with some effort.

Bailey took control at this point. Parading her diva self around the room, she made it very clear that she was in charge, she would not be intimidated, and this dog had better learn some manners. She strolled right past Rocky at one point, and sat just inches away from her.

By the end of the session, I was able to let Rocky off leash, and she walked slowly over to Bailey, without aggression, and gave her friendly, respectful face licks. Just a couple. Then she retreated. No one got clawed or hissed at. No one got chased or terrified. Bailey returned to her carrier with dignity.

A highly successful training session. Whew.

 

18Jul
Ruby

The Power of “AHHT”

While Ripley and I were in California in June, we spent ten of our eighteen days camping out at my good friend Wendy Dayton’s house. The visit didn’t go quite as planned – Wendy was to be my wheels for the duration (as she often had been before I left California), and we had a list of fun activities on the agenda. But the night before I flew out of New Mexico, she texted me at about 10 p.m. – “Houston, we have a problem.” She was at the emergency room, waiting to have x-rays of her foot. While dusting cobwebs out of the spare bedroom (where I was to stay), she had stepped down off of a bed, fallen, twisted her ankle – and, yes in deedy, broken a bone in her foot. Oops. The right foot, of course, which meant she couldn’t drive.

So, after frantic rearranging (figuring out an airporter bus, how to get to her house, etc., etc.), I did safely arrive at Wendy central, to find her in her very stylish big boot. Here I was, the friend who could be so helpful. She is a single woman living alone with three dogs who is suddenly stranded for six weeks. I am the house guest with one more dog, who can’t drive either. Aren’t we a party waiting to happen? Our plans needed to be altered; somehow we managed, thanks to Uber, the goodwill of friends, former paid drivers of mine, and pizza delivery.  And, of course, a sense of humor.

But, I did find myself with quite a bit of time alone at the house, while Wendy was off at work during the day from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. (thankfully transported to and from by friends). And home meant home with four dogs.

Shanti

Shanti

Shanti is Ripley’s age; they’ve known each other forever, with many shared visits to the dog park over the years. She’s white and black, sleek and fast, despite her advancing years, and loves to chase balls. Although completely sweet, she still, when excited (such as when you first walk in the door), jumps up on people. Ruby, the little white moppet, is only about four, and thinks she rules the roost. Mostly this shows up when the other dogs try to play, and she attempts to stir up trouble by getting in the middle. Titus is the youngest, a brown and white complete hooligan, lovable but with quite a few bad habits, which include barking at all who go by the house, barking when anyone is talking on the phone, barking in general, chasing all cleaning implements (while barking), and jumping up on the back of people’s legs repeatedly. And, all three of them love to rush out to the back yard to bark, whenever that opportunity arises.

When we would come in the front door, we would be greeted by a cacophony of barking, and Wendy would have to use the door and her legs to push the dogs back in order to enter. We didn’t even try with the pizza delivery guy. Wendy put the money outside with an envelope, and a note to leave the pizza on the porch. It would have been utter chaos otherwise. At one point, a neighbor came by to speak to Wendy about repairing a fence, and the poor man was drowned in barking, until Wendy was finally able to push her way through the dog body mass to get outside to find out what he wanted.

With all of this going on, there were a number of times when Ripley just left the living room and went into the guest room to lie down. She needed a break.

Titus

Titus

Let me stress: These are not bad dogs. They are all wonderful dogs.  They simply have some not so desirable habits. And since I had nothing better to do, I thought, why not try out some of the dog training techniques I have been learning?

So, while Wendy was at work, I began with the very basic command that Jared Latham of American Service Dogs had taught me for correction: “AHHT!” It’s a stern, guttural correction that gets a dog’s attention. You say it, then follow it with whatever your command is. When the dog responds, then you give praise. Every time Titus barked, I barked right back. “AHHT!” He startled. And stopped barking. Immediately. If Shanti jumped on me, I said, “AHHT! Off!” Then I ignored her until she came up to me respectfully. When Titus jumped on the back of my legs, I raised my leg up backwards, pushing him off, and said, “AHHT! Off!” When Ruby went running right into everybody’s business, I said, “AHHT!” There was a lot of “AHHT”-ing going on those first few days. But it worked. Miraculously.

After four days, I left the house with a friend, who came to pick me up for coffee. When I returned, I put the key in the lock, opened the door…and was greeted by three silent dogs, tails wagging. Not a single bark.

I’m no dog whisperer. But this stuff works.

16Jul
Rocky & Argentina-sm

Kennel Break! Rocky’s First Home Visit

Rocky came home on Thursday for her first official home visit, and I can sum up the experience in one four-letter word: CATS!

So let me confess. I had a little fantasy going on. I had really been looking forward to this day. Since I first met Rocky in May, I’ve been waiting for the moment when she could come to our house, thinking about what it would be like for her, building up a little dream image. We’d come in, she’d look around, it would feel like home. She’d feel relaxed and safe. We’d lounge around, letting her get used to things, and I’d take a gazillion pictures. It would go so well, that our next visit would be an overnight one. I had it all planned.

Well, it didn’t quite work out that way.

See, we have four adult cats in the house, and four foster kittens in a kitty cage in Sabrina’s office, and our whole house must smell feline, and obviously, to Rocky, this is entirely new. Because from the moment she walked in the door, she was on alert. Her ears were perked, she was leaning forward, she was practically standing on her tiptoes. Where are these mysterious creatures?

She paraded through the entire house, with me at the end of the leash. We got to the atrium, and there was Dozer, our most nonchalant cat, half asleep in a corner. Now, she met Dozer once, at the kennel, back in May. But that was two months ago, and apparently erased from her doggy brain. Rocky approached, fascinated. She got a little too close, poking her nose right into him. He turned into hissy cat for a moment, and scooted out of the way. Rocky strained at the leash while I tried to correct.

We went into the living room for a time out. Dozer leapt up to the top of the cat tree in the same room, just a few feet away, curled into a ball, and fell asleep. Rocky sat at my feet, intently watching. I decided a short walk was in order. We strolled through the house again. I stopped in my writing studio. Kenji, the white and black cat, was asleep on a dog bed there. I let Rocky approach. Kenji didn’t move. That went fine, because a still cat isn’t nearly as interesting as a moving cat. Kenji blinked twice, I let Rocky sniff from a distance of about 18 inches, and we went back to the hallway.

Then Bailey, our grey cat, happened to wander by, unaware. Rocky lunged for her, and Bailey turned into a fuzzed up ball of spitting frenzy. This time, I didn’t kid around. I yelled out a huge “AHHT!” and gave a stern leash correction. Rocky sat at my feet immediately, subdued. Okay. That was better.

We went back to the living room to sit for a break. Meanwhile, Malaki, our pit cross, was chilling out with Sabrina. He had been our major worry; Sabrina had him on a leash the whole time, to ensure that he was behaving during the visit. He, of course, was looking like an angel, resting quietly, while Rocky was the one that was behaving like a maniac.

Ripley was in the bedroom on the bed. I brought Rocky in there to say hi, coaxing her up, not sure how that would be. They had no trouble lying next to each other. But then, a sound. CAT! Sure enough, that’s where Little Bit, our tawny cat was hiding – under the bed. Rocky jumped off and went to the side, peering underneath. OK, this isn’t a good spot either. Exit bedroom, to the sound of yet another hissing cat.

 

Rocky and I went in search of Sabrina and Malaki, who were now in Sabrina’s office. With the kittens. I came in and sat in a chair some distance from the kittens’ cage, and placed Rocky in a down/stay on the other side of me, so she was away from the cage. Malaki loves the kittens, and they are used to him. This is a new batch of fosters; they have only been with us a couple of weeks, and are rather feral. As soon as Rocky entered the room, they went crazy. Even though she was lying down, they turned into spluttering hissy balls of fur, and began dashing around the cage in a frenzy. We didn’t stay long.

We went out to the atrium, Rocky now a hyper, excited mess. Malaki was lying down next to her, on leash. Rocky was also on leash, but pacing. She kept stepping back and forth, over Malaki. He finally had had enough, and he snapped at her. Rocky immediately chilled out, coming over to lie down at my side.

A three hour visit, that’s all it was. I was exhausted. We were exhausted. Then we left to go to the kennel for an hour of training. Rocky and I were both so tired we were loopy during the training exercises.

Not to worry. All part of the process, right? Next Friday, Bailey the grey cat is coming to the kennel with us. To teach Rocky to respect cats. Wish us luck.

 

13Jul
Jared Latham-sm

How Slow Can You Go? Training Day 9 & A Bit About Jared Latham

(I am finally caught up! Well, practically. This post is for last night’s training session. From here on out, we’ll be in REAL TIME!)

Training Day 9

As 6 p.m. approached, time for our training session at American Service Dogs, I almost called to cancel. I was feeling that rotten. But then I thought, no, that doesn’t make sense. Rocky needs to see me when I’m at my best – and at my worst. Because that’s what she is going to have to learn how to do; read my body language, and know what I need from her. I can’t teach that if I only show up on good days. So Ripley, Sabrina and I got into the truck and headed out.

Jared Latham, our trainer, could tell right away I wasn’t at the top of my game. But he said, “That’s OK. We’ll go ahead with the movement work, and just take it at your pace. Let me know when you need to rest.” He also said it would be good for Rocky, because she would have to learn to adjust her pace to mine.

I began to walk around the room in a circle, as I had done two days before, this time using my cane. I was feeling very weak, so I was walking incredibly slowly. It was like watching super slo-mo, a grandma shuffle. Rocky was at heel on my left. At first, she had no idea what to do. The pace was so much slower than what we had used on Tuesday that she was completely thrown off. She couldn’t tell what her role was. I would take a step, and she would sit down before I took my next step. So she was bopping up and down between a step and a sit, in between my shuffles. Then she did downward dog stretches between a couple of my steps. After that, once or twice she simply laid down, waiting for me to catch up.

Jared told me to keep giving her the command “Easy,” reminding Rocky to hold back, stay in step with me. At the beginning, we were the only ones in class. But then the little shepherd Fling arrived, with her handler. They stepped into the center of the circle, and started working on basic commands.

We interspersed our glacial walking with right circles, left circles, and U-turns, and occasional sit/stays and down/stays. Gradually, Rocky fell into step with me, got into rhythm. Now her biggest problem was when our circle passed one of the other dogs in the room – Ripley or Fling. Rocky likes dogs. She’s social. She wants to veer out, say hi. Jared helped me to do small corrections, keeping Rocky’s focus on me, adjusting her attention, while at the same time keeping her pace at my pace.

I would like to say at this point how much I appreciate Jared, and how much I am learning from him. That’s Jared, the photo up top. I hope at a later date to interview  him to find out more details about his background. For now, I can tell you he received his initial dog training from his service in the Army, where he worked with bomb dogs. He left the service because a bomb went off too close to him, and he has TBI (traumatic brain injury). It affects  his short-term memory (among other things), and he compensates by keeping everything written down, logged, relying heavily on his iPhone, iMac, etc. (He’s a Mac guy, through and through.) The Army used to be very focused on more punitive dog training: choke collars, adverse conditioning. But they learned in more recent years that wasn’t so effective, and have moved towards more positive reinforcement. In addition to training service dogs, Jared helps many people in Las Cruces deal with aggressive dogs. He uses that combination: strictness when necessary, lots of rewards and praise when that is enough.

As I work with Rocky, Jared often walks quietly along beside me, and at just the right moment, tells me when I can give a slight corrective tug to the leash, or reminds me to give a verbal command, so Rocky knows what is coming next. He also acknowledges the times I have done something correctly, noticing when I catch Rocky just before she breaks out of her sit during a stay, or starts to wander, which reinforces my self confidence. I feel as if every day I am adding tools to my kit, building my knowledge base.

 

One last thing about this night: When I arrive, Rocky almost always runs to greet us. But it is usually Ripley she goes to initially, not me. She loves other dogs, and has included Ripley in her circle of friends. Then she’ll turn to me and say hi. At the end of training on Tuesday, though, something different happened. I was exhausted. Laurie, the kennel helper, asked if I was done, and I said yes, and handed her Rocky’s leash. Laurie turned, and she and Rocky walked all the way to the door of the training room.

Then Rocky spun around, and ran to the end of her leash to come back to me. As if she wanted to say goodbye. My heart melted on the spot.

 

12Jul
Sabrina & Rocky-sm

New Challenges for Training Days 7 & 8: My Cane and Movement Work

This past week, on July 5 and 7, we upped the ante a bit in my work with Rocky. Part of it was planned, and part of it happened because of my own body.

Let’s talk about the body part first, since that was the first to occur. On Tuesday, when I came to class, I wasn’t doing too well. We’ve had a run of quite a few days now with heat over 100 degrees, and extreme temperatures are one of the triggers for my episodes. I don’t always have full-on paralysis attacks. Sometimes what happens with prolonged exposure to triggers is that I have overall body weakness. I just get wobbly. I have a hard time walking in a straight line, and I need to rest a lot. When that is going on for me, I use a cane to help with balance and support. So on Tuesday, I used my cane in class with Rocky for the first time.

Ripley is, of course, very used to my cane, since I use it almost every time we go out on errands. I bring it as a precaution, because even if I feel strong at the outset of a trip, something might come up while we’re in the middle of a store (fluorescent lights are a trigger) or while eating in a restaurant (certain foods are triggers, and I never know when they will affect me), and then I need support to be able to walk back out of the building.  Or any number of other things. You get the idea.

But Rocky had never seen the cane before during training, so I wasn’t sure how she would react. We used to have a little dog named Houla, and she was first adopted from a shelter to be a companion dog for Sabrina’s dad. He was elderly and used a cane. And it turned out she was terrified of canes, for some reason – something from her earlier life. So Sabrina ended up with Houla instead. Since Rocky is also a rescue dog, we really had no idea how she would react.

Luckily, I had nothing to worry about. Rocky acted as if the cane had been there all along. We went through a usual class with no problems. In fact, the only issue we had at all that day was towards the end of the class, when we were working on straight line heels. With this command, I was supposed to give Rocky a heel command, walk three steps, then stop, and she was to sit at my side without being told. Initially she was doing great. Then she began doing all her sits backwards – facing Jared, the trainer!

I scolded her and said, “Ignore him. He’s not important.” He laughed and said, “I know, they all do this. They only pay attention to me, and then later they shift all their attention to their handlers, and forget all about me.”

On Thursday, I returned, thankfully with a bit more pep, and Jared said it was time to advance to movement work. Up to this point, most of the training has been incremental; give a command, stop, next command. That’s important in the beginning, but Rocky has all of this down pat, and she is starting to get bored. Now it was time to put it all together into movement, so I spent almost the entire hour of training walking with Rocky heeling at my side.

We walked in a circle around the training room, and Jared gave me these commands: circle right (turn in a tight circle towards the right and then keep walking in the same direction), circle left, and (drat! can’t remember the exact command! but — ) turn 180 degrees right and begin walking the opposite direction, or turn 180 degrees left and begin walking the opposite direction. Each time Jared gave one of these commands, I would say, “Rocky, heel.” At first, she bumped into me when I turned. But as the class progressed, she began to watch me, and pay attention to which way I was about to turn. Remember when I said in a previous post that Ripley never runs into me, no matter how erratically I walk? That’s what this is teaching. Training Rocky to look at me, focus on what I am doing, so when I change direction, she changes direction, too.

Throughout these exercises, Jared would occasionally call out another command, such as “Sit” or “Down/Stay.” And wherever we were, we would execute that command. Then we would continue with the circle heeling exercise.

Imagine that you’re in the grocery store, walking down an aisle, and you think, “Oh. Right! I need milk, too.” And you suddenly make a U-turn, to go back to another aisle. Or you walk into a restaurant, and find that there is a crowd of people, and you have to make an abrupt stop, and wait for a table. Your service dog needs to be able to react as quickly as you do, turning, stopping, sitting, waiting, then starting up again, without running into you or anyone else, without getting her leash tangled up, always paying attention.

What was fun was seeing the progress – watching Rocky rise to the challenge, listen to my voice, catch my minor corrections, and by the end of the night, become focused on me with her full attention.

We celebrated by collapsing on the floor when we were finished for a well-deserved selfie session, followed by kisses for Sabrina and Ripley.

Good dog.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
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