Monthly Archives: May 2016

24May

Happy Birthday Dear Ripley, Happy Birthday to You! Eleven Years Old

Today is Ripley’s birthday, so we continued with a long-standing tradition, with a New Mexico twist.

Ripley always gets frozen yogurt (or ice cream) on her birthday. When I worked at the Calistoga Tribune in California, we would go to the local frozen yogurt shop on her birthday, and she would get her own small cup of yogurt. After I had to stop working, we went to Sno Bunnies in Healdsburg, Napa Valley. Last year, we had a party at home with ice cream, candles, and birthday hats.

Caliche's Frozen Custard

Caliche’s Frozen Custard

This year, we went to Caliche’s Frozen Custard in Las Cruces for Poochie Cones. Thanks go to our friends Vicki Gaubeca and Becky Corran, who introduced us to Caliche’s during our first weeks in Las Cruces. It was still winter, and a little cold for frozen yogurt, but that didn’t deter us from standing outside in line to get our first taste, and Ripley’s first free Poochie Cone. So of course, we knew that had to be our destination today.

Caliche’s is more than just a custard shop. It is a destination. We have yet to stop by when the drive-through isn’t busy, when people aren’t sitting on the benches outside, when cars aren’t streaming in and out of the parking lot. And at night, especially on weekends, the whole place is lit up and hopping with activity.

Victoria holding two Poochie Cones

Victoria holding two Poochie Cones

But Poochie Cones are the absolute best part. Every time we go, we see someone there with a dog, or several people with dogs, ordering for themselves, and getting the special treat of a miniature cone with frozen custard, free, for the canine member of the family.

Ripley is an old hand at eating yogurt, cones, ice cream. Well, eating in general. She’s a lab, after all. It’s her nature. Malaki, our other dog,  had to work up to it. The first time he was offered a Poochie Cone, it ended up on the ground, because he couldn’t figure out how to eat it. We had to rein Ripley back from that one. Malaki did finally slurp it off the pavement, and, what the heck? It can’t be any worse than, say, cat poop, right? The second time, Sabrina tried to shove it in his mouth, and he managed to make a fairly decent go of it eventually. Our last trip, he mastered licking, and then ate the cone. Hallelujah! Meanwhile, Ripley downs her Poochie Cone in two bites: first bite, custard; second bite, cone. Gone. Then she looks at Malaki’s cone with deep longing.

Malaki knows how to make it last.

Malaki knows how to make it last.

Today, as I was attempting to make a photographic record of the occasion, Sabrina tried to restrain Ripley to prolong the consumption. I think Ripley licked the cone once before the two-bite assault. I had to snap quickly. Malaki was a champ. He is now a professional Poochie Cone eater. But, in Ripley’s opinion, he prolongs the process far too long with all that unnecessary licking.

Sabrina and I also celebrated, of course, with our standards. Mine is a regular sundae with chocolate syrup, Sabrina’s is a fudge brownie sundae with raspberry sauce added. Mmmmmmm.

We sang “Happy Birthday” on the drive home, as there was no time for such shenanigans while holding Poochie Cones and attempting to focus the camera.

Behind all of this, of course, is the fact that Ripley is aging. Remember that old saw about one dog year being equivalent to seven human years? Well, turns out that isn’t right at all. Of course, we knew that already. Just looking at a puppy growing up, you can tell that in the first year of a dog’s life, she goes from being an infant to a teenager. And that’s about correct – for medium dogs, one year is equal to about fifteen at the start. Then she ages about nine human years the next twelve months, and about five human years each year after that.

What does that all end up meaning? According to Pedigree’s Dog Age Calculator, where you can plug in your dog’s age and then the breed, Ripley is 82 years old. Eek! Not liking that number. Then there are a couple of other online converters that seem to err in the opposite direction, such as this one, which concludes by saying that Ripley at age 11 is really 57.

Ripley says, "What? No more?"

Ripley says, “What? No more?”

But on the American Kennel Club website, they offer a more general graph, based on weight (dogs less than 20 lbs., those 21-50 lbs., and those greater than 50 lbs.). This makes sense, since we know that smaller dogs live longer, and the big breeds have shorter life spans. Since Ripley weighs just over 50 lbs. (she’s about 52 lbs.), I figure that puts her in between the middle and high age ranges – which means at age eleven, in human years she is now somewhere between 65 and 72.

So even though the sight of Caliche’s puts a spring in her step – it is definitely time for Ripley to retire.

22May

Service Dog In Training: Rocky Meets Dozer, Our Cat

Rocky, the two-year-old female who will most likely be my next service dog, had a big week. She not only met me, Ripley, and my wife Sabrina – she also met, we’re pretty sure, her very first cat.

Rocky is, by our best guess, a Belgian Shepherd Malinois mix. We went to see her on Tuesday for the first time – we being Ripley, me and Sabrina. I knew that Ripley would be fine. As long as the other dog is not aggressive in any way, we never have any issues. Ripley gets along with everybody. She did a little meet and greet, and then that was it. No big deal. Rocky was very friendly with me, approaching repeatedly, and generous with gentle kisses. It was nice to have kisses. She has a soft mouth, and a fairly submissive demeanor. I got no hit that she would try to be the alpha in the household, which is good.

We decided to come back the next day with Malaki, our pit cross, since he can be somewhat nervous with new additions to the family. We also had no idea if Rocky had ever encountered a cat, and because we have four cats at home of our own, plus a roomful of kittens who Sabrina is fostering for a local rescue program, we wanted to ensure that any potential service dog didn’t have major cat issues.

So, on Wednesday we loaded up our truck again, this time with Ripley, Malaki, and Dozer. Dozer is our most mellow cat. Part Siamese, he’s the kind of guy you can toss in the air and catch on the way down, a cat you can literally flip over on his back on the bed to rub his belly, and he purrs all the way through it. We figured if anybody could handle the situation, it would be Dozer.

Malaki tested first. We kept him on a leash, with Rocky and Ripley loose in the room, along with about five people. Malaki was alert but OK –  until Rocky came up and licked his nose. Then Malaki growled and snapped. Rocky immediately backed up, then kept her distance. As Jared Latham, head trainer at American Service Dogs said, “Well, now we know what Malaki doesn’t like. That’s the only way dogs have to communicate. It may not be the best way, always, but it’s the only way they have.” We let the dogs be in each other’s presence a while longer, and it was clear from that point that it was going to be a workable situation. Malaki established a boundary, Rocky respected it, and that was that.

Rocky fascinated by Dozer

Rocky fascinated by Dozer

Now for that cat. Rocky hadn’t noticed Dozer at first. Jared brought her over to the crate that Dozer was in, on the floor. Whoa! Immediate interest! As you can see in the photographs, Rocky was intensely fascinated with the cat. She stretched out on the floor and just stared at him. Dozer couldn’t care less. He was completely unintimidated. He’s grown up around dogs, and has no fear. So they touched noses through the door, and had a good sniff. We opened the crate door – and Rocky tried to crawl inside with Dozer! It was hysterical. There was no maliciousness; she just wanted in there to see what the heck was going on. Jared pulled her back out, and we allowed space for Dozer to exit.

As we all watched, Dozer nonchalantly began to walk the perimeter of the room. Rocky did a GI Jane crouch-crawl, in pursuit. As Dozer made a little headway, Rocky sprang up and trotted after. She began to bounce up and down, complete play behavior, an invitation: “Come on! Let’s go!” Dozer ignored her, and kept walking around the room. He went to the opposite corner, and jumped on top of some wire kennels, and Rocky nearly died of excitement. This was fun! Then Dozer disappeared behind the couch. The dog ran all the way behind the couch, and found no cat. That was simply too much for Rocky. A game of hide-and-seek where the cat actually vanished? She became a bit obsessed, and had to be escorted from the room. Jared and Sabrina had to tip the couch over to find Dozer, who had gone inside – it was a sofa bed, it turned out, so had a “secret” compartment. Still, Dozer was completely unruffled, and walked calmly back to his crate.

We’re thinking we should have brought Bailey, who maybe would have taken a swat at Rocky, and given her more of a sense of real cat behavior. She’ll learn.

 

17May

The World of Service Dog Organizations: Where to Begin?

Not every dog can be a service dog. I am proud to say I trained Ripley myself, with some assistance, and a lot of helpful advice and support. But I was incredibly lucky. She is a remarkable dog. I just happened to have a puppy who turned out to be perfectly suited, later on in her life, to be a service dog.

This time around, I knew I didn’t want to start from scratch, all on my own. I really wanted to work with a service dog agency, to have help finding the right dog, so I could transition smoothly. Ripleys don’t happen every day.

When I started thinking about finding a new service dog, I was living in Sonoma County, California, so of course, the first possibility that came to mind was Canine Companions for Independence (CCI). CCI is the largest nonprofit provider of assistance dogs, founded in 1975 in Santa Rosa. I figured since I was a local, it was the most natural place to start. However, I didn’t get very far. I filled out the online application, knowing that according to the FAQ page, I could expect a response within 4-6 weeks, and if I qualified, the application process would take about six months – then I would go on the waiting list. To my surprise, I heard back in just a few days, a quick email saying I did not qualify.

It was a frustrating way to start the search. As I investigated further, looking at agencies as far away as Canine Assistants in Georgia, I discovered the same problem again and again – most nonprofit agencies specialized in certain types of assistance dogs. One might focus on seizure alert dogs and dogs to help people with physical disabilities (i.e., primarily people in wheelchairs). Another might focus on people with physical disabilities, veterans with PTSD, and children with autism. Still another might provide dogs who specialized in physical disabilities, diabetes alert, and seizure alert. Somehow, each agency that I found had categories that I didn’t quite fit into.

I couldn’t seem to get past that initial questionnaire. Yes, I have a seizure disorder, but it’s under control. Yes, I have a psychiatric disability (bipolar disorder), but I am not a veteran, and many of the agencies stated they only trained dogs to help with PTSD or depression. My primary disability is something no one has ever heard of before, a genetic disorder called Hypokalemic Periodic Paralysis Disorder. I had a hard time getting anyone to understand that I actually am physically disabled. I am paralyzed – it’s just that it is episodic. I never know when it’s going to happen. I look like I’m fine, and then, bam! I’m slumped in my chair, unable to move. Things fall out of my hands. I’m incredibly vulnerable, especially if I’m out in a public place.

But I wasn’t even getting through the gatekeepers to describe any of this. I just kept getting the answer “No, we don’t train dogs for that.”

The wonderful thing about these nonprofit organizations is that they provide service dogs at no cost to the clients. Everything is funded by donors. The downside is that there is a huge demand. Waiting lists are often two years long. So I knew that even if I could get an agency to accept me, choose to work with me, I may be looking at a very long wait.

I contacted Assistance Dogs of the West in Santa Fe. Since I was moving to New Mexico, I thought that might be a good bet. They have a shared cost approach, with the client paying part of the expense. For in-state residents, it comes up to a little over $6,000. The first chunk, $75 for registration and $450 for an initial assessment and evaluation, is nonrefundable, even if you are not accepted into the program. And still, there would be a six month to two year waiting period. Assistance Dogs of the West trains dogs for those with mobility challenges, seizure and diabetes response dogs, autism dogs, and dogs to help with PTSD, anxiety and depression. Because of the way the program described their “mobility challenges” dogs, it sounded like a possibility. I wrote a long email inquiry, and then followed up with a phone call. The person I spoke with said she didn’t think the program would be a good fit for me. I was beginning to get incredibly discouraged.

There was one more option in New Mexico – American Service Dogs. This group is  in a different category. In addition to all of the nonprofit service dog organizations, there are also private companies and individuals who train working dogs. They are not receiving donor dollars. So, you pay for your dog. But, you also don’t have to sit on a waiting list for two years. And you can ask for more customized training, suited to your needs. I decided I was willing to investigate.

There are several things about American Service Dogs that I like, besides the things I just mentioned. Instead of selectively breeding special dogs, like most service dog organizations, they go to local shelters to find their dogs. Since Sabrina and I have a long history of supporting animal rescue efforts, this is highly appealing – giving a dog a second chance. Also, most of the service dog organizations train a dog for two years, then you come in and spend two weeks working together, during which time you are expected to bond. At American Service Dogs, the process takes place over six months, as the two of you train together, establishing the connection. Since it’s right here in Las Cruces, I can do that. Finally, the cost is not that high, comparatively – it’s actually less than the in-state fee for Assistance Dogs of the West.

So we made the decision. American Service Dogs it is. Time to go meet our new dog!

16May

Retiring My Service Dog: The Hardest Decision

Years ago, those in the service dog field told me that most service dogs retire at the age of ten, so I knew this time would come. We’ve already stretched it out longer – Ripley turned ten last May; she’ll be eleven on May 24. I had begun to make initial inquiries, checking into the possibilities of finding a “next” dog. But deep down, I felt entirely unprepared emotionally. How in the world could Ripley and I stop being a team? This dog, who I have had since she was two months old, and who has been at my side for the past six years, 24/7, as my service dog? She is my first, my entire experience of service dog/handler. And she is simply Ripley. What dog could possibly replace her?

As I have struggled with these questions, one of my biggest concerns was that I was following some arbitrary standard, saying that a dog retires at a certain age. Ripley still seemed eager to go, wanted to hop into the truck every time we had an outing, loved being with me, wanted to work. Would bringing in a new dog make her go into a state of decline, fall into depression? I was afraid that retiring her too early would break her heart.

When I first began to investigate other service dog organizations, we were in the midst of big life changes. We were preparing to move from California to New Mexico, my wife was retiring from her job. We were putting our house on the market, packing, in a state of flux. It soon became clear that it was not a good time to put in applications for a new dog, because the organizations all wanted things like photographs of your home, descriptions of your yard, even home visits. We needed to be settled somewhere before I could proceed. So I deferred all of that for another six months or so, and Ripley and I continued on as before.

Once all the boxes were unpacked in New Mexico, I realized it was time. Now that there were no physical obstacles, I found that it was my heart that was getting in the way. Even though I was beginning to notice signs of Ripley’s aging, I doubted myself and needed reassurance that what I was doing was the right thing.

Napping-72

Ripley spends a lot of time napping now.

I found an article on Anything Pawsable.com, a website with information for service and working dogs, about knowing when to retire your service dog by Kea Grace. Grace lists five things to look for when making the determination if it is time: your dog isn’t acting happy; she is slowing down; her sleep needs have drastically increased; she has health issues (things like arthritis, cataracts, cancer, diabetes, etc.); and she isn’t responsive.

The first item was not an issue. Ripley is a happy dog, tail always wagging. Whew.

But number two, I had to admit, was true. Ripley is slowing down. She can’t keep up with me. I have recently started going on walks, and she can’t go with me. We tried the first two days, and she was limping afterwards. I thought at first it was a matter of working up to longer walks, but that was not the case. It was simply too much. She doesn’t want to go on the walks.

Three also. Her sleep needs have dramatically increased. When we are at home, most of the time she’s on the bed asleep. Even when we go out, as much as she likes going out, as soon as she gets in the truck she snoozes in the back seat until we arrive at our destination.

She’s also starting to have some health issues, which is entirely new. About two months ago, I noticed gait issues. After a visit to the vet, we determined that she had arthritis in her front legs. She is now on Rimadyl twice a day for pain. I also recently discovered she is developing cataracts, and is having some vision problems.

All of this means that she is sometimes unresponsive. In other words, I ask her to do a task, like walk with me to the mail box, and she won’t come – because she thinks we’re going to go on a longer walk, and she doesn’t want to, because it will hurt. Or she’s supposed to remind me to take my medications, but she’s napping, and doesn’t get up. That sort of thing.

Which means that four of the five indicators on Grace’s list are true for Ripley. Which means…

that Ripley wants to retire. Now I just need to figure out how to do it gracefully, so she still feels valued, loved and needed.

P.S. Tomorrow I have an interview with American Service Dogs of Las Cruces to meet potential candidates for my next dog. Wish me luck.

 

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
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