Monthly Archives: January 2015


Geared Up! A Dog’s Duffel Bag

Ripley and I are always schlepping our gear around. One of the consequences of not being able to drive is that, unlike most people, we aren’t able to use a car as a big, traveling suitcase. If we want to have something with us, we need to be able to carry it. Since I have my own stuff on any given day (writerly things like notepads, pens, books, a laptop, a camera), adding Ripley’s gear to the mix can get cumbersome. So we have learned to be compact and plan well.

One way we do that is to have Ripley’s bag always packed. When our ride arrives, all I have to do is clip on her vest, and grab a leash and the Ripley bag, and we’re out the door. When with friends who have young children, I sometimes jokingly refer to this tote as my “diaper bag,” and they completely understand. Can’t leave home without it.

So what goes into a good dog’s duffel bag? First off, there’s the bag itself. I happen to be very partial to Timbuk2 bags. Timbuk2 is based in San Francisco. They got their start making bicycle messenger bags, and have since branched out to make duffel bags, laptop bags, etc. The one thing that stays the same is the tough durability, the high quality of the craftmanship, and the great design, plus fun colors. I own a bunch of them. So choosing a Tumbuk2 duffel bag for Ripley was an easy choice. It has outside pockets, D-rings on both ends for clip-on accessories, loop straps as well as a shoulder strap. It zips closed all the way down the top. Inside, it is roomy and open, but along each side there are individual cubbies for stashing things, some of which are pockets, some mesh, one with a long zipper. The entire bag is water resistant and easy to clean.

Water Bowl

collapsible water bowl

The most important item in the bag is, of course, water. I carry a metal water bottle that is just Ripley’s (paw prints to make it obvious) so I never mistakenly use it for something else and forget to put it back in the bag. It has a carabiner on the top, so it can be attached to the outside of the bag, or to my belt if needed. Along with the bottle, I have a small collapsible water dish. This is hands-down the best one on the market. I have tried at least half a dozen water dispensers, from collapsible cloth bowls (they take forever to dry) to a folding bottle with a tray (Ripley wouldn’t touch it). This simple little bowl is perfect. It holds a little over one cup of water; you can easily refill it if your dog needs more. It doesn’t tip over. When done, just flatten, tap on the ground to shake off the excess water, and then use the carabiner to hang it off the end of your bag (or clip to your belt loop). It also will wipe completely dry with a paper towel.

Treat Bag

Outward Hound treat bag

Ripley would say the next most important thing is the treat bag! I use one from Outward Hound, a small bag with a drawstring enclosure that has a belt clip on back. Should I actually need it, I can easily attach it to my back or side pocket and carry it along.

Of course, one must always have an extra stock of poop bags, too. Ripley keeps six or seven in her vest pocket, but I stash a whole roll in the dog bag. Especially as a service dog, it is exceedingly bad manners not to clean up after one’s messes. So, like good Girl Scouts, we are always prepared.

The largest item in our bag is the fleecy dog blanket. Now, you may think at first blush that it’s a bit luxurious for Ripley to travel around with her own cushy blanket. But it really does make sense, at so many levels.

We often go into private homes. People are very gracious, even when they have no pets of their own. Still, I like to minimize our impact. Yellow labs shed. By placing the blanket down next to my chair, Ripley not only has a comfortable “home base” for the duration of the visit, we also keep the blonde hairs in one spot.

If we go to public venues, such as movie theaters or concert halls, the floors may be concrete or wooden, or marble. Any of these can be cold and uncomfortable for her, especially now that she is getting older, so having the blanket makes a difference if she is expected to lie on the floor for a two or three hour performance. It also serves a second purpose – those same floors can cause the slightest sound to ricochet through the room. A dog’s toe nails on the floor in the middle of a concert – eek! So having the blanket allows Riley a safe place to curl up, and move slightly now and then without fear of creating an interruption in the program.

And finally, when in restaurants, the blanket is the perfect solution when the legs of the table are structured in such a way that there is no unobstructed place for Ripley to lie down. I put the blanket over the top of any table leg bases, and that’s enough of a signal for her. She happily snuggles in for the duration.

Dog Socks-Converse

Pawks dog socks

A couple final items: I carry a spare set of dog socks (the primary set is in Ripley’s vest), for use on slippery floors – mainly grocery stores; a small flashlight, for night-time potty breaks (remember, you have to be able to find it before you can put it in the bag!); an extra leash (because too often I have forgotten one in someone’s car); a dog comb; and a small shopping bag, which I clip to the outside of the duffel bag with a carabiner. I also have a Service Dog patch attached to the bag, along with an ID tag, so that anyone finding the bag will know whose it is, and will hopefully return it.

There you go! Ready to pack yours now?


New Patches, Stronger Message

We received a package in the mail this week – a new service vest for Ripley. Now, her old service vest is still in great shape, despite being about three years old. It is sturdily made, wears well, and all it needs is an occasional washing to make it look sparkly again. So why invest in new clothes?

It’s about the message. When I chose the patches for the old vest, it was my first time outfitting a service dog. I had no experience being out in public as a handler, and definitely no clue what that was going to be like. Suffice it to say, I was ill prepared for the overwhelming amount of attention I found myself suddenly receiving. Everywhere we went, people wanted to say hello. Even though many folks have some clue that you’re supposed to be a bit reserved with service dogs, they simply can’t resist. Ripley’s small stature, the fact that she’s a yellow lab vs. a black lab or another breed of dog, and, on top of all that, she has a pink nose – god! People just can’t contain themselves! Then there’s the fascination with me. Because they can’t figure out what my disability is, since it’s not inherently obvious, they want to chat about that, in one way or another. Is this my dog? Am I a trainer? What does she do? Etc.

Medical Alert

Medical Alert Dog patch with caduceus symbol

Ripley’s old vest has three patches – one on the top (on her back) and one on each side. On her right side is a white patch with her name. We duplicated that on the new vest. On the top on the old vest is a white patch with a caduceus symbol, over the words “Medical Alert Dog.” When Ripley and I first began working together, this seemed like a logical choice, because I believed what I was suffering from, primarily, was a seizure disorder. They have “seizure dog” patches, but that seemed sort of personal; I wasn’t sure I wanted to give out that much information. So I opted for this patch instead. Little did I know what it would bode for me…an unending stream of questions. Because people don’t know what “medical alert dog” means. When they see the patch, it is an open invitation for inquiry.

Please Ask

Working: Please Ask Before Petting patch

I don’t mind answering questions about service dogs and what they do. I love my relationship with Ripley, and I love talking to people about all the wonderful things that are part of the lives of service dog/handler teams. But I like to be able to choose those moments. When it’s impossible to even grab a quick item at the grocery store, or walk through the lobby of the theater during intermission to go use the bathroom, because you are stopped by half a dozen people wanting to ask whether your dog can detect cancer, or if it goes to hospitals to visit sick kids, it can get frustrating.

On the old vest, the patch on the left said said, “Working: Please Ask Before Petting.” This felt perfect to me when I was first starting out. I figured that way people would respect our space, but could still say hello, within reason. Again, I wasn’t prepared for how often I would have to deal with this. When we are out in public, we are inundated with requests for greetings. At a large event, people are reaching out for Ripley one after another. It makes it absolutely impossible for her to focus on her job. It’s very difficult for me, because when I try to stand up for her, and set limits, it makes me feel rude. Which is crazy, I know, because she’s a service dog, and I shouldn’t have to feel bad about asking people not to distract her from her job. But I do.


Working Dog: Do Not Disturb patch

So we decided, let’s try an experiment. What about a new vest, with different patches, sending stronger messages? Maybe that will help the people we run into see that there is a boundary here. For the top patch, to eliminate that “what does it mean?” problem, I chose a symbol of a dog with the words “Working Dog: Do Not Disturb.” There is no longer the confusing medical symbol, no “medical alert dog” status. And there is the added language right there in plain view on top asking people not to distract Ripley because she’s on the job.

For the left side, I selected something bold and hard to miss – a red patch in the shape of a stop sign. It reads “STOP” in big white letters, then “Please Do Not Pet. I’m Working.” This retains some of that friendliness, by using the first person as if the dog is speaking, but still sets a clear, strong limit, saying, hey, I’ve got responsibilities.

Have to say, it’s a beautiful vest. Brand spanking new, the fabric almost stiff, the whites practically glowing. And I love the look of the new patches. But will they work, in the way I hope? May be wishful thinking. I might just have to step in and assist, learning how to stand up for those boundaries with or without red stop signs.


Coffee with a Canine

Hey, Ripley and I are getting out in the world! The blogosphere, that is. A few months ago, I was contacted by Marshal Zeringue, the host of a blog called Coffee with a Canine. He found me and Ripley through our Canine Bodhisattva postings, and invited us to be guests on his site. Eternally busy, it took me a while to get back to him, but I finally did. Marshal explained the rules – you take your dog out for a coffee date (to a cafe, or a park, or wherever), snap a few photos, and when you return, answer the questions that have been provided ahead of time. You got it, I said. We’re game!

Ripley and I are the featured pair on the Coffee with the Canine website on Jan. 8, visiting our favorite Cloverdale hangout, Plank Coffee – click here to read our interview. The participants (human) on Coffee with a Canine seem to all have some literary connection – writers, freelancers, bloggers, or artists such as photographers or children’s book illustrators. You can search through the archives by dog breed, with dozens and dozens of dogs to choose from.

It’s a fun place to pop in for a morning cuppa, meet a friend and revel in dog stories.

Here’s the main site link: Coffee with a Canine.

Grab some hot coffee and enjoy!




A Dog Doctor’s Discount

No dog loves going to the vet. Remarkably, though, Ripley has always been pretty brave about the whole thing. Our regular vet clinic, Wikiup Vet Hospital, is staffed with kind, compassionate and professional people, from front desk to techs to our main vet, Erich Williams. They have always been great to us, giving us a multi-pet discount, routinely comping small services like nail trims and follow-up appointments, and in general treating us like family. Ripley didn’t seem to mind going there, since it was usually only for regular check-ups and vaccines – especially since she was always rewarded with what we jokingly refer to at home as “trauma cookies” – cookies given as rewards after anything even remotely unpleasant.

All of that changed in 2014, though, when Ripley had a remarkably bad year. So bad, for both of us, that I couldn’t even write about it at the time. In January, late one night when we were at the house, and Sabrina was working graveyard, I stood in the kitchen handing out cookies to all three dogs. Ripley got a piece of the cookie caught in her lip, and tried to back out of the kitchen, beginning to act distressed. That helplessness triggered a melee, and all of a sudden, our 130-pound, two-year-old Great Dane was on top of her. We had a full-blown dog attack taking place in the narrow hallway. It took all my strength to break it up. Luckily that night, Ripley’s injuries were superficial enough that we could wait until morning for Sabrina to drive us to the vet to be checked and cleaned. We believed it to be a fluke, centered around the food, and became more diligent about similar situations.

But in late February, again late at night, again when Sabrina was working (remember, I can’t drive, and we live out in the country – almost an hour from an emergency vet clinic), the same thing happened. This time, though, the Dane tore Ripley’s whole back open. After finally managing to separate the dogs, my hands shook as I dialed first the number of a friend to drive us to a clinic, and then Sabrina, for advice on what to do while I waited. It looked ghastly, but was primarily a flesh wound, thank god. Still, Ripley was in shock, and terrible pain. It took nearly 90 minutes from the incident until I could get her to the clinic. Once there, I had to leave her overnight for surgery. Because the damage was so extensive, a few weeks later, a second surgery was required.

Needless to say, following this, we had to find a new home for the Great Dane, which in itself was a heartbreak. But Ripley’s safety came first, and it had become clear that it would be impossible for her to do her job, and help me, with the potential threat of this dog. (We found a wonderful home for the Dane through Rocket Dog Rescue of San Francisco. She was not a bad dog; she got along fine with our two male dogs. It appeared that the aggression was tied in with female-on-female competition, emerging as the Dane was reaching sexual maturity. Still, an unworkable situation in our home.)

When any dog has health issues, it is a concern for their owner. But when a service dog has issues, it has a critical impact on the life of the handler. What do you do if your dog is sick? If they don’t feel well enough to go out, or are injured? During Ripley’s recuperation from her injuries, I stayed home with her almost the entire time, and was very protective while slowly bringing her back into a working environment. One of the lingering effects of the attacks, though, was not fear of other dogs – but fear of veterinarians. Now she cowered, and tried to crawl under my chair whenever we had to go to the vet.

In November, I started noticing she was having discharge from her eyes, and immediately had concern. Her eyes looked red, and somewhat irritated. I took her to Wikiup, and had it checked out, but nothing obvious showed up. We tried some simple drops, and antibiotics. However, the problem seemed to persist. I became more worried. One of our older dogs, who passed away a couple of years ago, had suffered from sudden onset glaucoma, and had lost her sight because of it. I had been the person who raced her to UC Davis in the middle of the night, trying to save her eyesight. I panicked, thinking some similar scenario might be playing out. So, not wanting to take any chances, I made an appointment with the specialist, Dr. Rebecca Burwell at Eye Care for Animals.

Now, as soon as I made that appointment, I knew it would be expensive. She is a specialist, and just like human doctor specialists, she charges more. And 2014 had been a very expensive year in vet bills. I don’t have insurance for Ripley, so each of those surgeries and follow-up appointments and bottles of pills got paid for out of pocket. And most had been not at our regular vet, but at the emergency vet clinic, upping the price tag even more. But you don’t think about that. I mean, you do, but you don’t. She’s my service dog. She’s my Ripley. You do what you have to do to keep her healthy.

So Sabrina and I went in, and Dr. Burwell checked her eyes, the complete, thorough exam – and said they were fine. All she needs is over-the-counter eye drops to help with dry eyes. I was so relieved, just to know I had eliminated the bad possibilities. It was worth the $155 office visit.

I went to the front desk to pay, and pulled out my bank card. The receptionist pushed the bill towards me, saying, “Dr. Burwell has given you a discount.” And I said, “Oh, thanks.” And I continued handing her my card. The receptionist said, “No, you don’t understand. I don’t need your card.” And she pointed to the bill.

There, at the bottom of the bill, was the discount. It said, “Guide Dogs-Working: ($155.00) Total Due: $ 0.00”

She had written off the entire balance of the bill, the whole office visit. The receptionist said, “She likes to do that when she can.” I stood there in shock for a minute. Sabrina started crying. Then I felt tears in my eyes, too.

“Thank you,” we whispered. “Thank you.”

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
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