22Oct

Spa Day – Ain’t She Pretty?

With the density of animals in our house, we jokingly say we sweep up a Chihuahua on a daily basis. The biggest hair shedding culprit is Ripley, my yellow lab/now retired service dog. I simply can’t keep up with her hair. She has a gorgeous thick coat. But trying to brush it? It’s a Sisyphean task.

I take her out to the driveway, with a Furminator brush and a regular brush, a stool to save my back, and a kitchen trash can to hold the hair. I brush and brush and brush. Inevitably, the wind picks up. Hair blows up into our faces, and all over the driveway. I’m sure that most of the birds’ nests in our neighborhood are lined with Ripley hair. When I think I have most of it, I use my hands and fingers to dislodge loose strands. And of course, more and more comes up. I brush again. Fingers again. Brush again. She always looks better, but when I release her back to the house for her “trauma cookie” reward, she is trailing loose hair everywhere.

Baths are equally problematic. We can bathe Rocky and Malakai in the shower without too many problems. Ripley clogs the drain immediately, and she’s wet for almost a day afterwards. Again, that water dog undercoat is an issue.

The last few weeks, she has been panting. I began to worry – is it panting from overheating from that thick coat, or is it pain panting? I finally decided it was time to call in a professional. I phoned our vet clinic, Calista Animal Hospital, and asked for a referral for a dog groomer. They recommended Wet Dog Mobile Pet Grooming. Awesome! They come to your house. This would be perfect for a first-time grooming experience!

Justin of Wet Dog Mobile Pet Grooming, Las Cruces NM

We had our appointment scheduled within two days, and Justin of Wet Dog showed up at our door. Ripley happily ran out to greet him, not knowing she was about to have a first-time experience.

We went over all the options. The basic package ($65) included two shampoos (before and after brushing), conditioner, towel and blow dry, shaving pads, clipping nails, and cleaning eyes and ears. I chose to add on undercoat removal ($15) and tooth brushing ($5). Then we went for the extra special “spa package,” an additional $15 charge, which included nail grinding, a special medicated shampoo which cuts down on shedding (melon scented – we had three choices), a massage, and a jerky treat. I figured, hell, Ripley is twelve and a half years old and I’m handing her over to a stranger for her first professional grooming. I better give her some perks.

She happily entered the van on her own, then looked back over her shoulder – oops! Too late. The door closed, and that was that.

I sat on the front porch for the first ten or so minutes. I heard Justin turn on the generator, the hum of the water tank. I realized I was leaning forward in my chair, listening closely. What’s that? A whimper? A squeal? No, just equipment. Geez, Michelle. You’re acting like a helicopter parent. I shook myself and went inside, knowing I would make myself crazy if I sat out there for the whole hour-plus of the grooming.

Finally, I heard the knock on the door from Justin. All done! Ripley looked like a pup, so sleek and pink from the grooming. I had never been able to get her so clean and well brushed. Her teeth looked great, too. (We do a yearly dental cleaning at the vet, but the months in between…whew. That breath can get bad!)

As part of the basic package, Justin also did a brief physical once-over (anal glands, coat, ears, skin), and everything checked out except he found a sore spot at the base of Ripley’s tail. I hadn’t seen it before, because of all the tufts. Justin let us look inside the van, to see how much hair had come off of my dog. Probably ten Chihuahuas!

I brought Sabrina out for a quick photo shoot, even though Ripley couldn’t wait to get back in the house, thanked and paid Justin, and then we all went inside – because although Ripley did get her jerky treat, she still expected a trauma cookie from me, for god’s sake.

(Sniff, sniff) I smell melon….

Malakai and Rocky crowded around her, sniffing madly. Melon, they seemed to say? Where the heck have you been?

For my part – money well spent. Clean, pink, groomed – and dry! Definitely will be doing this again. And Ripley? Well, she may not want to admit it. But I think she’s feeling pretty fine.

18Sep

Rocky hobnobs with authors at the Branigan Library

When you have a service dog, meeting with the general public in situations where conversation is encouraged can bring up some interesting interactions.

On Sunday afternoon, Rocky and I joined 23 other Southern New Mexico writers for the “Celebrate Authors” event at the Thomas Branigan Memorial Library in Las Cruces. From 2-4 p.m., over 80 lovers of all things literary came up to the Roadrunner Room on the second floor to chat with authors, buy autographed copies of books, and munch on a alarming amount of delicious food prepared for the event.

The event was sponsored by library staff and Friends of the Library, and we authors couldn’t have been more spoiled or well taken care of. Each of us had our own table, a nice blue table cloth, a name plate, a bottle of water, note pad and pens, plus a library book bag filled with cool swag waiting for us when we arrived. Visitors were handed a guide sheet that had all the authors’ names with a list of our books and brief descriptions, a mini-road map, as it were. Really, I’ve never been to a more well-organized event, start to finish.

It was great for me, because of those 23 names, I didn’t know anybody. The last author event at a library I attended in Sonoma County, California, I knew everyone on the list. Sabrina, my wife, was with me on Sunday, which allowed me to leave my table periodically to wander around.This opportunity to meet both local writers and readers was a real boon. Rocky, of course, is always up to new venues and people, so we were ready for a good day.

But I’m never completely prepared for some of the questions.

As I was talking to author Pierre Nichols, a woman writer at a nearby table, obviously looking at Rocky’s vest, said, “I’ve always wanted to know – why does it say, ‘Please don’t pet?'” I guess that’s an honest question, even though the answer seems so obvious to me. I explained, “A service dog is working. If someone pets her, it’s a distraction, and she can’t focus on her work. She said, “Oh! That makes sense!”

Moments later, I asked another gentleman whether both of his books were for young adults. As he explained that one was for a YA audience, the other for adult readers, he said, “So, how long were you in the service?” Puzzled, I said, “I’ve never been in the service.” I wondered what about my appearance or behavior made me seem military. Then he said, “But it says, ‘service dog.'”

Whoa. That’s a first.

I again went into education mode. I told him that service dogs helped people with disabilities, that she was “in service” assisting me. “Oh,” he said. “All this time I’ve misunderstood that.” He was a kindly soul, and well-intentioned, so I went further into my explanation than usual, telling him a little of my personal history, and we ended up having a very nice chat. He said he thought I should write about my disability, and I could probably make it humorous, too. Then he wasn’t sure if I would take that the wrong way. I laughed, said, “Don’t worry! My close friends and I all have jokes about it. It’s the only way to deal, sometimes.” Which led to him telling me some very funny stories about when he used to work at a cemetery. You never know where a conversation is going to take you.

Later, back at my author table, despite my special sun glasses, I began to feel overwhelmed by the banks of fluorescent lights (one of the triggers for my paralysis episodes), and realized I needed to get out of the building for a few minutes, and quick. I told Sabrina, and stood up, using my cane because I was already a bit unsteady. Right at that moment, a woman approached and wanted to talk about service dogs. I’m standing there, flushed, getting light in the head, wobbly, and she wants to chat. Luckily Sabrina was there, so I simply pushed past her and let Sabrina take over. It’s hard because my “nice” self doesn’t want to appear rude, but my survivor self doesn’t want to fall on my face onto the floor in front of 50 people.

We managed to get outside, and the natural light and air helped me revive. When Rocky and I came back in 10 minutes later, Sabrina and the woman were still talking. Good thing I hadn’t tried to be polite.

Other than that, the only issue was the man who showed up with a dog. Now, I’m almost positive you can’t bring dogs into the library. But somehow, because this event was on the second floor, he thought, well, no one will mind. In pranced this little dog – no service vest, no purpose. I convinced Rocky that he was not there to visit her, despite the fact that he was clearly not on the job. Just out for a stroll, I suppose. And a little light reading.

All in all, it was still a good day.

Rocky is getting used to this dog-and-person show, I think.

15Sep

A Good-Night Ritual for Ripley

I am part of a Zen sangha, a group of practitioners, called Suffering and Delight, for people dealing with chronic pain and/or illness, whether it be physical or emotional. Quite often, of course, when one has chronic pain or illness, emotional pain comes along for the ride. This group has been a life-saver for me, especially since, unlike many other things, I did not have to sacrifice it when I lost my ability to drive. I used to go to a regular Zen practice group which I could no longer attend, because it was over an hour’s distance from my home. The beauty of this group? We meet online, via Zoom video conferencing. So even when I moved to New Mexico, I brought my Zen sangha with me.

Every six months we begin a new practice period, where we focus on a different syllabus, a new angle of study. Some things remain the same. We always open the night with fifteen minutes of zazen, or sitting meditation. But from there, we go in all kinds of directions.

Now, we are looking at “radical self care,” and one of the assignments we were given was to introduce a ritual into our daily lives. Our priest, Beata, said it could be something as simple as bowing to your toothbrush before brushing your teeth in the morning. Each of us was invited to come up with something in our day that caused us to pause, and acknowledge an act in a new way.

I thought about this for a while, and then I realized I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I created a good-night ritual for Ripley.

Sometimes, in the scurry of daily living, with three dogs in the house, cats to feed, and my focus on working with Rocky, it is easy to overlook Ripley. She spends most of her day napping on the king-sized bed. Even when we come home from an outing, as much as she wants to run to greet me, she is the dog who holds back, afraid of being bumped and jostled by the others, especially now that her vision is failing. I wanted to carve out a time just for her, filled with respect and love.

Each night, after the dogs have alerted me for my medications and after they have all piled onto the bed, right before I am about to get into my spot, I go to the foot of the bed on my side, which is where Ripley sleeps, and I kneel down. She turns her body towards me. I put both hands up, hold her face, and, like a mantra, I say this phrase very softly, over and over again:

“Thank you for your years of service. May you sleep gently tonight.”

I stroke her chest, rub the inside of her ears, pull her close to kiss her nose. We do this for about five minutes. I give her one last kiss on top of her head, then stand, and get into bed, snuggling my feet down next to her.

We have been doing this for about a month. Ripley waits for it now, waits for me to come from the bathroom, waits for me to kneel. Her whole body leans towards me, towards the whispered words.

Sometimes Rocky gets jealous. I tell her, “When you are old, I will do this for you, too.”

(photos by Sabrina Temple)

10Sep

Rockin’ the stage

Rocky and I took another big step together on Saturday, Aug. 26 – rockin’ the stage at A Day for Her Story, in celebration of 97 years of Women’s Suffrage.

As a poet and writer, I often find myself in the role of performer, reading my words before an audience. That audience can be small and intimate, in a cafe or a classroom, or it can be large, on a theater stage with a microphone, complete with a tech crew in a sound booth.

Ripley loves performing. She has had a lot of practice. During her time working with me as a service dog, for five years I ran a program of readings about domestic violence awareness; I also started a reading series called Books on Stage, and served as the emcee for that. I led local poetry slams for teens, appeared on panels at local writers conferences, and in 2014, I published two books, which led to nearly 20 readings in Northern California and elsewhere, plus over six radio shows. Ripley thought being on stage was simply part of her job, and she also thought all the applause was for her.

But since I’ve had Rocky, I have had relatively few opportunities to get this new service dog in the limelight. I’m a newcomer to New Mexico, and am just starting to make connections with the literary scene here. I have been going to a poetry open mic held at Palacio’s down in Mesilla once a month, and have met a bunch of nice writers there. However, it’s a small crowd, in a very sedate setting, so not much of a challenge as far as testing stage presence. I had the great good fortune to be invited to Eastern New Mexico University to read, and Rocky went along for that, of course. We were in a classroom, with about 30 people in attendance. Yet somehow it didn’t have an “auditorium” feel, because I didn’t use a mic, the lights were standard classroom lights, and it was very relaxed. (Don’t get me wrong; it was a fantastic reading for me; I just don’t think Rocky learned much from it!)

Then a few weeks ago, my friend Lauren Goldstein contacted me. She is a poet, and had been given the assignment of rounding up a few other poets to read at the Women’s Suffrage rally at the downtown plaza on Aug. 26. Was I interested? Yes!

This opportunity had all the right challenges I had been looking for: a real stage, with a microphone and lights; a crowd of unknown size, which would be potentially distracted and busy; and a fairly long waiting time before going up onto the stage, with more distractions (food vendors, other dogs, random people all over the place). I really had no idea how Rocky would react given all of this, especially to that moment when we stepped up onto the stage, I gave her the command to lie down, and focused all of my attention onto the the faces of the crowd and the poems in my notebook.

Photo by Lauren Goldstein

I shouldn’t have worried. Rocky walked right up on the stage without a hitch, and laid down immediately facing the audience. She didn’t move a muscle during my reading. True, it was short – only two poems, about five or so minutes. But not once did I have to worry about what my dog was doing or not doing. She was precisely as I needed her to be – attentive, alert, not a distraction. I finished, bent down to pick up my cane, and Rocky stood and accompanied me off the stage, all of it as if she had done it a thousand times before.

Oh – and she did not even react to that snappy little dog who tried to lunge at her right before we went up the stage steps. Damn those extendable leashes! Good girl, Rocky!

 

7Sep

Ripley gets the paper

As a retired service dog, now over 12 years old, Ripley spends most of her day just lounging on our king-sized bed – and looking forward to her next meal. Her eyesight isn’t so great now, due to advancing cataracts, and her hips hurt from arthritis. She has fully relinquished her main duties to Rocky.

But that doesn’t mean she has relinquished her desire to serve me, to be important in my life. I have to remind myself it is critical to give her jobs which are within her ability, so she can feel she is contributing, and still earning her keep as a service dog. She does some of her old jobs, like remind me to take my medication twice a day – but Rocky does that in tandem with her, so it’s not special for her alone. We needed something else.

It’s hard for her to go on long walks because of her hips. But she loves short walks – and I mean very short walks. So we hit upon a perfect solution.

 

Every day, Ripley and I go to the end of our driveway to pick up the newspaper. Sometimes it’s during the day; usually it’s not until after dark, when it’s nice and cool. I do not need to put Ripley on a leash. There is no danger that she will take off running after one of our desert bunnies (unlike Rocky!). She meanders slowly down the road, at her own pace, knowing exactly where we are going. She halts at the end of the driveway and waits for me, if I have fallen behind because I stop to pick up trash that has blown into the yard from the wind.

I retrieve the newspaper, and the mail if we haven’t picked that up yet. Then Ripley turns around, and heads back down the long driveway to the house. She may stop to smell a few plants, or take a pee break. But other than that, it’s a pretty direct path.

And when we have arrived back at the front gate, and I let her in through the main door, her tail is wagging, her eyes are happy, and she proudly suffers through having Rocky and Malakai sniff her from head to tail, investigating where she has been on her own private outing.

Service dog job accomplished. Another good day.

6Sep

Rocky passed her test!

It’s official! Yesterday Rocky became a bona fide, full-fledged service dog, complete with an ID badge and a certified letter stating she had successfully completed training and passed the test conducted by American Service Dogs.

This is a first for both of us. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not have a set standard for the testing of service dogs. It does require that the person using a service dog have a disability, and that the dog must perform specific tasks to assist with that disability. It is completely legal to train your own dog to assist with your disability; you do not have to use a professional trainer or agency. Ripley and I did our training on our own, with guidance from some in the field, and some very good training manuals. But when it was time for her to retire, I knew I wanted to use a professional agency, because I didn’t have the luxury of starting off with a puppy – my disabilities were now more severe, I needed a dog to step in more quickly, and I wanted help in the transition process from one dog to the next.

American Service Dogs, and in particular their head trainer, Jared Latham, gave me everything I needed to make that possible. The training was supposed to take 20 weeks, or about five months. We took quite a bit longer. That was due to a number of factors. In June last year, I left for a month to go to California, and although I worked with Rocky in those summer months, she didn’t actually come to live with me until August, after another short trip to California. Then we were involved in a lot of home remodeling, which sometimes interfered with our training schedule at the kennel. And I was also managing the tough process of easing Ripley out of her role as my service dog. But by December, Rocky had taken over all service dog duties. And despite the fact that we didn’t always make it to class, she was getting a major education in public access, going everywhere with me. She not only accompanied me on the little day-to-day outings (dining out, store runs, doctor appointments, etc.), by the date of her test, she had flown to California and back twice, taken a Greyhound to Albuquerque, and gone on several long car trips. I had no doubts about her ability to be out in the world.

Still, as we headed out for our test yesterday, I was nervous. I’m a perfectionist, and I wanted everything to go just right. Last week, Sabrina and I went to Mesilla Valley Mall and did a practice run, and Rocky was perfectly in sync with me, acing everything. But she sometimes acts differently in front of Jared, because he used to be her trainer, and she’s not sure who to look at – him or me.

We went to the Barnes & Noble at the university campus for the test. First thing on the list, we tested “touch,” and Rocky nailed it, pushing the button to open the front door. Then we went inside to the cafe, and I gave her the command “under” as I sat down at a table. She went underneath and laid down, again right on cue. So far, so good.

We did a few more quick commands downstairs. “Handle and massage” – the dog should be able to be handled, her paws inspected, mouth opened, tail tugged, etc. “Get dressed” – stand at attention while the handler puts on the dog’s service vest, eager and ready to go to work. “Calm” – get the dog excited, then give her a command to go into a calm mode. Again, all no problem. Then, she got to ride the escalator to go upstairs, which she loves. Lots of tail wagging.

I won’t go through the whole test. There are about 35 commands, including long-term (10 minute) sit-stays and down-stays at a distance of 100 feet, a final down-stay that is even longer, and numerous moving commands at heel, with variations such as “hurry,” “easy,” an automatic sit when you stop, etc. There were only two that she hesitated on. Initially, she didn’t respond to “lap,” when I am sitting and she is supposed to put her front feet into my lap – which was crazy, because it’s one of her favorite commands. But I think it was because the chair had arms, and it threw her off. I tried it again on a bench, and she aced it. And we flubbed the “sit,” “come,” ‘stay” using hand signals only, because I hadn’t practiced that; I do use hand signals, but always in conjunction with voice, so we need to work on that.

Jared gave us a pass. Hooray! This by no stretch of the imagination means that the training is over. Ripley and I grew as a handler/service dog team throughout our years together, and it will be the same with me and Rocky. Passing this test means we have our foundation laid; the basic and advanced obedience skills are all there, and Rocky has a firm handle on public access. Now we can move forward with fine tuning behavior, and start teaching her more and more skills to help me directly with my disability.

Yay, Rocky! Rocky the Rock Star!

1Aug

What is she being trained for? HUH?

(I haven’t made a post in a really long time. Sorry! Jared Latham, I know I owe you one!)

So, I have this dilemma. Lately, when I am out with my service dog Rocky, I keep running into people who ask me this question:

“What is she being trained for?”

And it has me stumped. Because I can’t figure out the thinking behind the question. Here’s why. The question, to me, implies that I am a trainer, not a disabled person. That I am training her for someone else. Someone with a very visible disability, someone who is blind, or in a wheelchair, or something like that. Because usually, right after the question, the person says something like, “My dog would be jumping on the tables in this environment,” or “She’s so well behaved, I didn’t even realize she was here at first.” So I don’t think that it’s the person’s way of saying, “Wow, she must be IN TRAINING, because she’s obviously not fully trained yet.”

Rocky wears a very visibly marked service dog vest. One patch says “service dog.” Another says “Please no petting.” Still another says, “Working dog, do not distract.” Nowhere does it imply that she is “in training.”

Rocky is my second service dog. I worked as part of a team with Ripley first, who retired last year at the age of eleven. With Ripley, I was more used to some confusion, because my disability was even more “invisible” in those earlier years. But now, as my genetic disorder has progressed, almost every time I am out in public, I walk with a cane. I can no longer drive, and use a handicapped placard in the vehicles I travel in, because I never know how far I will be able to walk without difficulty. I also frequently have to wear totally geeky-looking tinted glasses to help protect myself from fluorescent lights, since they can be a trigger for some of my paralysis attacks. I certainly do not feel as if I look completely able-bodied anymore.

So, again, back to that question. Some people are even more specific when they ask. They say something along the lines of “How long have you been training dogs?” which obviously implies that I am a dog trainer, not a disabled person who is using a service dog for my own benefit.

In response, usually I simply say, “She is in service with me,” and leave it at that. Or “She helps me with my disability.” I really don’t like getting into my personal medical history with complete strangers. Still, I’m a bit flummoxed by the question. Part of me wants to say, “What exactly do you mean by that?” and just hear what they are thinking, what prompts the question in the first place.

You would think, with all the news about the amazing things dogs can do, that people would have a bit more open-mindedness about this. Almost everyone has heard about how dogs help our disabled combat vets suffering from PTSD. Most have heard of seizure alert dogs. C’mon, people, use your imagination!

In the meantime, I guess I simply have to try not to get irritated. It’s not worth it, right? Rocky’s doing her job, and that’s all that’s important.

 

27Apr

Shit Happens

I’m going to talk about a rather sensitive issue here – but, as I assume most of you reading these posts are animal people to some extent, I’m guessing you can handle it. This is about dog poop. And an unexpected “gift” from Rocky.

When traveling with my service dog, one of the foremost concerns I have is how long she’s going to have to go between bathroom breaks. With plane travel, this can be a huge issue. For starters, when I’m booking my flight, I don’t just look for the cheapest flight. I look for the flight that is shortest in duration, including layover time. As an example, the trip I just took from El Paso to San Diego? The shortest flight, through Phoenix, was four hours and forty five minutes. Longer flights, passing through Los Angeles, jumped up to seven hours or more, with three hour layovers.

Now, four hours seems like a relatively short time. But remember – it’s not only the plane flight. It’s a one hour drive from my house to the El Paso airport. Then you have to account for checking in two hours early, as recommended. Especially when traveling with a service dog, you need to allow for extra time, because I can’t do online check-in, and sometimes security takes longer. Then, once we land, there’s the walk to baggage claim, going to get the rental car, etc. All of that tacks on extra hours.

SFO pet relief station

Fortunately, airports are getting much better about accommodating service dogs. Most major airports now have pet relief stations somewhere outside the main terminal, usually either near the main check-in or baggage claim. I now check an airport’s maps before each trip, to find out what I will be facing. The one at El Paso airport is a fenced enclosure with grass. The one at San Francisco airport is all gravel, with good signage leading the way (plus paw prints on the floor). These animal relief stations have poop bags, garbage cans, and, generally, a water dish.

Unfortunately, if you are at one of these airports for a layover, you have to exit the airport to get to them, which means passing through security, then waiting in line and going through security again to get back to your gate. This is not only a huge hassle, but you may not have enough time, depending upon the length of your layover. And, if you have fatigue issues like I do, it can be very taxing.

Signs to SFO pet relief station

Some airports, like the one in Phoenix, have gone even further recently, by adding animal relief stations inside of the secured areas, so you can bring your animal to do her duty without leaving the gate area.

The other big issue is a dog’s unique temperament. Not every dog will be willing to use these stations, because of nerves about travel, the loud noises in the environment, etc.

Ripley always managed to be a champ about holding her bladder, and managing to get through the whole experience. I was ready to do whatever I could to help Rocky face the new situation, too. I booked the shortest flight, and on the morning we left San Diego, we got up early, so I could feed her and also give her time to relieve herself at the hotel. She decided to nix breakfast altogether – pre-travel nerves, which is not unusual for her. (Ripley never turned down a meal.) But, she did use the motel dog run to both pee and poop before we left, so I thought we were good to go.

On the flight from San Diego to Phoenix, Rocky became very agitated at one point. She sat up, and literally tried to jump from between my legs towards the aisle. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I managed to contain her, but she remained at a fairly high stress level throughout the flight. Once we landed, Sabrina, Rocky and I began the interminably long walk to our next gate through the Phoenix airport. I felt like I was going to collapse from exhaustion.

All at once, Rocky simply stopped and I almost tripped over her. Then, to my horror, I realized she was taking a dump, right there on the carpet. Sabrina quickly stepped behind her to form a human “privacy shield,” and I dropped to my knees, reached into her vest and pulled out a poop bag. I scooped it up as fast as I could, and stuck the bag in my sweatshirt pocket. Then we kept walking, as if nothing had happened, trying to draw as little attention as possible to this huge service dog faux pas.

Phoenix pet relief station inside gates

Literally two minutes later, we found the Phoenix animal relief station. We brought Rocky inside, and she sniffed everything. It had a small rectangle of artificial turf with a tiny fire hydrant on it, and instructions to “flush” after each use, plus poop bags, a waste bucket, and a sink for washing up. Nothing happened; she had no use for it at that point.

So, what’s the lesson here? I couldn’t really get mad at her. Shit happens, right? Hopefully next time we’ll get to the relief station sooner. Even service dogs have bad days.

25Apr

Rocky Goes Flying for the First Time

*Note: Our trip to San Diego was April 15-19, so these are “catching you up to date” posts.

It finally happened, that big day in a service dog’s life – Rocky’s first plane trip. And although we only flew from El Paso to San Diego (not far), because nothing is ever a straight shot, that round trip involved two planes there and two planes home, with stop-overs in Phoenix, so she got lots of practice. In addition to four planes, she hopped on two escalators, rode a total of four shuttle buses, and took several elevators. It was a crash course in public access, and she passed with flying colors.

Kudos go out to American Airlines for making the entire experience as stress-free as possible. We checked in with bags on both ends and were granted TSA pre-check status. That meant security was a breeze for Rocky and me. No lines, didn’t have to remove my shoes or hat or sweatshirt, and we were allowed to walk through the security gate together. On the way home, we got a beep, and I had to remove Rocky’s vest, but then we were fine. Sometimes security can be very dicey – at different airports, with Ripley, I have been required to go as far as removing her vest, leash and collar, leave her in a “sit” on one side of the gate, walk through myself, then call her to me. Then I’ve had to wait, holding onto her only with my bare hands, while all of her “clothing” passed through the x-ray equipment. You may have heard that a TSA agent asked a handler to remove the vest of a service dog at the Orlando airport in early April, and the dog spooked and ran off, and is still missing – any handler’s nightmare. I knew I could trust Ripley, but since it was Rocky’s first time, I felt apprehensive; so I was deeply relieved this aspect of the trip went without a hitch. (Sabrina wasn’t quite so lucky; she was left behind me at one point trying to raise her hands over her head without losing her pants, because they had made her remove her belt. Giggle.)

When I fly, I always approach the gate immediately and ask the boarding agent if we can pre-board, so I can stow carry-on bags and get settled with my dog before other passengers are on the plane. All of the boarding agents were very gracious about this, and allowed Sabrina, Rocky and me to be the first passengers on the plane. But this is where the flight crew went the extra mile. Two different times our seats were changed at the last minute to give Rocky (and us) more room. Flying from San Diego to Phoenix, a flight attendant who was traveling as a passenger happened to be seated in front of us. I was in the window seat, with Sabrina in the middle seat. When a large man came to take the aisle seat, the flight attendant immediately contacted one of the working flight attendants, asking that he be moved to another seat, as she knew it wasn’t a full flight. We thanked her for giving us the space; she laughed and said, “No, it’s not for you. I want the dog to be comfortable.” Then on the flight from Phoenix to El Paso, on a smaller plane with only two seats on each side of the aisle, the flight attendant took one look at us as we boarded and said, “Oh, that’s too cramped for you there.” She brought us up to the seats right behind first class, which had nearly twice the leg room. I can’t tell you what a difference those little adjustments make. Thank goodness for the kindness and attention of flight attendants!

And Rocky? Well, she did OK. Take-off and landing seemed to be fine. Once in the air, there were some moments of panting and obvious distress, mostly during turbulence, and I think there might have been times when the cabin pressure affected her a bit. But, overall, she performed like a champ.

Her worst part, believe it or not? The damn shuttle buses. I have discovered she is terrified of the sound of spitter valves and air brakes and hydraulic doors. Here’s my theory. With most other sounds, even though they are loud, she can hear them coming. We had a train outside a motel once: no problem. She didn’t mind the sound of low-flying jets over our motel. All the sounds on the airplane: again, no problem. Motorcycles don’t bother her. But those damn spitter valves and other sudden hisses? There is nothing, and then suddenly: ssssssss! It makes her jump out of her skin. So, we’re working on that. Always something.

But the good news is, I now feel confident that I can travel alone with her for my big trip to Northern California in June. Yay!

 

22Apr

Escalators, Elevators & Automatic Doors

On April 11, in anticipation of Rocky’s first big trip (airplanes!), we headed out for an afternoon training with Jared Latham of American Service Dogs to work on special access skills. Our destination? The Barnes & Noble bookstore at New Mexico State University, because it is the only place in Las Cruces that has an escalator.

We were joined by three other service dog handler teams, plus three other members of the ASD staff, so we made quite an entrance. Barnes & Noble has three things that make it an ideal place to practice for airports: escalators (tall ones!), an elevator, and handicap-access push button doors. It also has a nice, roomy floor plan, so our presence wasn’t intrusive.

Some time ago, before I met Rocky, she had been on an escalator in training with Jared, but that was over nine months ago. I never went on escalators during my years with Ripley, and have always been a little nervous about them; they can be intimidating. If available, I will still always choose an elevator. But here’s the thing: sometimes the escalator is right in front of you, and the elevator is located way in the back of the building. Since fatigue can be a major factor for me now, having the option of using an escalator is a perk. So I was willing to learn.

At first, Rocky balked, and wouldn’t go hear the base of the escalator. But Sabrina had the brilliant idea of boarding ahead of us. As soon as she did that, Rocky stepped right on with me.

After that, there was no stopping her. The two of us went up and down the escalators more than ten round trips. And if a dog can grin – well, she was grinning. Her tail was pumping like a metronome. Rocky was clearly pleased with herself, and jazzed about this new skill and her success. She trotted from one side to the next, to the point I had to slow her down so I could rest.

We broke up the routine by taking the elevator, so sometimes she took the up escalator, rode the elevator down, then took the up escalator up and down, then took the elevator up. Nothing seemed to faze her.

After it was clear this was a done deal, we moved outside to the handicapped access doors. Up to this point, I have only practiced this skill at home, using a fake button on the wall. I held a treat above the button and gave the command: “Rocky, touch!” Bam! She nailed that button with both paws, and the door came open. Whoop! We repeated it several times on the outside door, and then went inside, where the button is different, a smaller rectangular shape at a slightly different height, and bam! She nailed it again!

Rocky, Sabrina and I went home feeling very good about the day. Just to reinforce everything, we returned to Barnes & Noble the next afternoon, and went through all of it one more time on our own, without any other dog/handler teams, or our trainer. Piece of cake. Ready to rock and roll!

 

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
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