Monthly Archives: June 2016

21Jun

What’s In a Name? How Ripley Became Ripley

Even though Ripley’s name is stitched right on her vest, I am constantly asked, “What’s your dog’s name?” One adorable little girl, upon hearing the answer, said, “Oh. I thought that was her brand.”

After I say her name, the response varies, usually generationally. Older people, those around my parents’ age, invariably say, “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” Although I have a faint recollection of the column which used to appear in our newspaper (and is still syndicated today), it is not the origin of my service dog’s name. Many also mistakenly hear it first as “Riley,” as there are apparently a lot of Riley dogs out there. And, usually, Ripley or Riley, folks think the name indicates she is a he.

Those in my generation sometimes guess the true root of her name. I am always most impressed when a person thirty or younger nails it – as this indicates she or he is a die-hard sci-fi fan. Because, you see, Ripley is named after Sigourney Weaver’s character in Alien, the cult classic from 1979.

Why, you ask, this namesake? Well, the story actually starts even further back than my service dog. It starts with a teddy bear.

In the late 1990s, my life was a mess. I am a trauma survivor, and everything had caught up to me – I was suffering from severe depression, had an out-of-control eating disorder, and was extremely suicidal. I had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals for a couple of years and was barely functioning. Finally, after a particularly bad spell, I turned to my parents for assistance, and they helped me to locate a treatment program near Los Angeles for eating disorders and therapy. They drove me that long trip from Napa Valley to LA, right before Easter weekend.

I checked in, and started going through initial paperwork, while my mom and dad went out to grab a cup of coffee prior to coming back to say goodbye to me for the four-week stay I was about to embark on. My mom had recently been visiting me in the hospital, and knew that good coffee was always a welcome gift, so they went to Starbucks, where she picked up a latte to go for me. When they came back with the coffee, she had one more item – a teddy bear in a yellow duck suit. Because it was Easter, it had been on sale at Starbucks, and on a whim, she had picked it up for me. The bear’s face was peeking out through a yellow “hat” with an orange duck bill, and the torso was entirely yellow. It was completely ridiculous, but cute. I thanked them, took my coffee, we hugged, and they left me alone.

As I went back to my room, I almost stuffed the bear in the closet. But then I saw that the duck part of the bear was actually removable. Underneath was a completely normal, cuddly soft perfect teddy bear. I placed her on my bed. I was in a terrible space, every night plagued by nightmares, feeling unsafe and attacked. I decided to name her Ripley, after the Alien character, a woman warrior who could fight off my bad dreams.

I slept with Ripley throughout that month, and then every night for years after. She became worn and a little smushed, but I couldn’t ever give her up. Then in 2005, my wife gave me a puppy. As soon as I met her, I knew that she, too, was Ripley. Just like my bear, she was going to give me a reason to keep waking up every morning, a way to stay safe. To avoid confusion, the teddy bear became Ripley Bear. Now I slept with both of them – double protection.

I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but four or five years after Ripley entered my life, I found I no longer needed Ripley Bear. She moved out of the bedroom, and up to a shelf in my studio. She had completed her service.

And Ripley, the dog, even though she may seem gentle as a flower, remains my warrior, the one who wakes me from nightmares, the one who can sense if I am in danger, the one who reminds me life is worth living, and she is always right here by my side.

 

17Jun

Training Day Three – Breakthrough

I had a bit of an epiphany before arriving at our next day of training. Because the training room has fluorescent lights, I have been wearing a special pair of tinted glasses over my regular glasses, designed to protect my eyes – one of the triggers for my episodes of paralysis is fluorescent lights. I realized, though, that one of the problems I seemed to be having was keeping Rocky’s attention, getting her to make eye contact. What if it was the glasses? What if she couldn’t “find” me behind those two pairs of lenses?

So for our third day of training, I decided to risk the lights, and shuck the tinted glasses. Once again, Rocky and I were the solo team working with Jared Latham, head trainer, with Sabrina and Ripley looking on from the sidelines.

Up to this point, Rocky has spent half the class looking at Jared. I have felt like a poor second, someone she is tolerating at the other end of the leash. But on this day, everything changed. We clicked. For the entire hour that we worked together, Rocky listened to my voice. She looked up at me at the end of every command. We were a team.

We learned the four part correction sequence. Give a command. “Rocky, sit.” If she fails to respond, give a voice correction and repeat the command. “AHHT! Sit.” If she still fails to respond, give a leash correction, along with the voice correction and command. This means I am holding the leash loosely, so I now give a brief tug on the leash in the direction of the position I am asking for, and say, “Rocky, AHHT! Sit.” If even this fails to give the desired result, I move to the final step, which is to use my hand to place my dog in the correction position (using as little contact as possible), with the dog’s name and command. And always, after the dog has done what I have asked, respond with verbal and physical praise.

Rocky sits

Rocky sits

Rocky, for the most. part, does not need correction. She knows all the commands, and knows how to follow them. The only reason she ever needs correction is because she gets bored; as in, “Really, do I have to do this again? I’d rather lie down now. I’m tired of sitting.” So that gave me a chance to practice the sequence, at least up to step three. Step four was never needed. After a few times of practice, the steps feel useful and practical. There is no manhandling, no jerking or tugging. Just clear, precise directions in those moments when my dog is not paying attention, and I need to bring her focus back to task.

After the class, we had another breakthrough moment. Sabrina asked Jared about Malaki, our other dog, who tends to pull on the leash. Malaki can also be an escape artist; he has slipped out of a regular collar, so for a while, we used a harness. They discussed different types of collars, and Jared said one possibility was to combine a choke collar with a regular collar, in a manner which keeps the dog secure, without causing choking. He picked up a nearby choke collar and slipped it over Rocky’s head to demonstrate how the leash clips in.

As Jared went to remove the collar, it caught on Rocky’s ears, and she cried out. He stopped, and tried again. She shrieked in pain, and it was clear that the collar was too tight, catching as it came over her head. Jared released the collar, and I realized he was going to wait until we left to deal with it.

I didn’t want go knowing that my dog was in this situation. I got on the floor with Rocky, my knees on either side of her chest, and took the collar in my hands. Jared got down as well, to hold her; I believe he thought she might bite or snap out of fear. Gently, very gently, I brought it up on one side first, and worked it to the edge of one ear, lying the ear flat and then pushing it through until that side was free. Then I repeated the movements on the opposite side, and the chain slipped off over her head and nose into my hands. Rocky moved forward into my chest, and licked my hands and face.

It wasn’t planned; it was only a few seconds. But in that moment, Rocky learned she can trust me. And that’s going to take us a long way.

15Jun

Training Day Two – Classmates

(Note: Rocky and I have actually completed four days of training, and Ripley and I are in California right now on a writing retreat and visiting friends until June 26. I’m playing catch-up with blog posts, since somehow I fell behind, and there’s so much tell you!)

After our initial day of training, Rocky and I stepped into a much different arena for day two, as we were joined by classmates – two Rottweilers, one a seven-month-old wiggler, and the other full grown but still young. The young Rottweiler was working with a woman, and the older dog was being trained by a man.

We worked in the front training area, which isn’t very large. The first challenge was simply trying to stay in our own space and out of each other’s way. The second was trying to deal with the cacophony of commands. The man used a very large voice for all of his communication with his dog, and it was a bit like listening to a drill sergeant commanding an entire unit. Since my style is much softer, trying to create the cocoon in which Rocky and I could work proved somewhat difficult. But, I had to keep reminding myself, sometimes she will be in a situation with a lot of background noise, and she will still need to be able to shut that out and respond to me. So it’s actually a good thing to practice in all kinds of environments.

Rocky did well, and with the others in the class, I had less self-consciousness about giving commands, praising, and taking the beginning steps in this new relationship.

American Service Dogs sign

American Service Dogs sign

One of the things that we practiced this time that is very new for me is the use of the command “AAHT!” instead of “No!” Here’s the thinking behind this one, from kennel master Jared Latham. If you use the word “No,” dogs learn the word quickly as an indication of bad behavior, and your displeasure. The problem comes if you also use the word “no” in regular conversation. Let’s say you and your spouse are trying to decide where to go for dinner. “Do you want to have Thai food?” “No, not Thai food again! How about Chinese?” “Ack. No, no, no. You know they use MSG and I always get a migraine. What about Mexican?” So the dog is sitting there, hearing this chorus of  “no,” wondering what in the world is going on. She either thinks she has done something wrong, or she begins to tunes it out, as the word slowly loses its impact.

Instead, I am learning to say the word “AAHT!” It is said in a short, clipped, slightly gruff tone, when a dog does not do as she is told. Rocky has already been trained to respond to this command, and when I use it, I am amazed at the reaction – immediate attention. Jared said the sound itself is similar to the low growl that a mother dog makes to check the behavior of a pup. (I have to tell you that later, after returning home, I tried it out on Malaki, our other dog. Sometimes when I let him out in the backyard at night for one more run before bed, he doesn’t come in at the first call. I realize it’s partially my fault. I say, “Malaki, come. Come, Malaki. Come. Come one, you. Hey, buddy.” Etc. I end up sounding as if I am negotiating, almost pleading. That night, I said, “Malaki, come.” He didn’t come. I called out, “AAHT, come!” And he came tearing around the corner to the door. Impressive.)

One more thing from tonight’s training. Ripley, as usual, was on the sidelines watching from her blanket. Jared used her as the “demo dog” for several things that we worked on tonight. She was somewhat reluctant to come to him each time, still looking at him with that, “Who the heck are you, and why are you asking me to do these things?” expression. But he was so sweet with her. As he leaned down to coax her over, he said, “Come on, mamacita.” It made my chest ache, hearing those words from him. My sweet mamacita.

6Jun

Like an Old Married Couple

Since I last wrote, I’ve been thinking about what I said about me and Ripley, how we communicate. Working with Rocky, my service dog in training, I am noticing I need to focus on being precise with commands and signals. Consistency, above all else. Of course, all dogs want consistency. Try changing a dog’s dinner time, and you’ll see that right away.

Ripley and I seem to operate at a place beyond language. The more I thought about it, the more I realized we’re like an old married couple. It’s like when your wife says, “I can’t find my coffee cup,” and you say, “Did you look in the pantry?” Because you happen to know she has a tendency to grab things out of the pantry for the dogs when her hands are full, and sometimes puts the coffee cup down on one of the shelves, then closes the door and loses the mug. Or you say, “That guy came by again, about the whatchamacallit,” and your wife knows you mean it was the repairman coming to replace the filter in the swamp cooler.  You also know when her “No,” is a kidding no, and when it is a serious no, not only by the tone of voice, but by the body language that goes along with it.

Sabrina and I have been together for twelve years; that’s one year longer than I have been with Ripley. We’ve also had a lot of space in our relationship. Sabrina, up until she retired in December of this past year, worked four ten-hour shifts each week on graveyard, with a one-hour commute in each direction. So , four days out of the week, we spent about an hour together each day – and that was over a brief cup of coffee as she was waking up.  I’m not complaining. We both love having time to ourselves, and even now, living together full time, we manage to create a good deal of separation in our days, because it is what we are comfortable with. It makes us appreciate the moments when we are truly together. Vacations are always an absolute hoot.

Let’s compare this, though, with my relationship with Ripley. When she was younger, not yet my service dog, she was with me except when I was at work, which was four days a week. Also in those years, she was still my solitary companion most nights. Since 2011, she has been with me 24/7, never leaving my side except for a few rare occasions. When I was hospitalized for surgery for four days, she stayed with me at the foot of my bed all day, and Sabrina took her home at night. When I have certain medical procedures, such as mammograms, CAT scans and other imaging procedures that might be dangerous to her, she has to wait outside of the room until I am finished, and this past February, she was not allowed to accompany me in an ambulance. (I couldn’t speak at the time, or I may have insisted.) But other than that, she has been with me every moment of every day. She accompanied me to work until I could no longer work. She rides in cars, on golf carts, on buses, and on airplanes with me. She goes to concerts and movies and restaurants with me, shops with me, and sleeps with me. She has been on the gurney with me in the ER, laid at my side on the bed when I was having EEGs performed, and is right at my feet for every blood draw. I am never a single unit walking down the street. I am two – Michelle and Ripley.

No one knows me better than Ripley. Sabrina jokingly complains that I never walk in a straight line; she’s always inadvertently bumping into me. Ripley never misses a step, and we never bump. She knows exactly when I will wobble, how I will meander and turn. I don’t have to give her commands to pay attention. If someone tries to distract her, asking to pet or interrupt, she either assesses the situation on her own from my body language, can tell I am saying to ignore, or if it’s not quite clear, she stops and makes direct eye contact, waiting for direction. I say, “Yes,” and she will allow one pat. She can tell when I’m tired, when I’m sad, when I’m happy, when I’m not well, and all of that is mirrored in her own behavior. Of course, many of you have a dog that does this to some extent, yes? Imagine this same thing amplified, by a well-trained dog who is at your side every moment of the day. Here’s how close – when I visit the house of a friend, I sometimes forget, and go use the bathroom, closing the door, without taking Ripley with me. Big no. She is scratching on that door in two seconds flat. Not on her watch, she says. No closed doors.

I just finished reading A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler. As he explored his own growing connection with the rescued dogs, Kotler began digging into scientific research for answers. One question he had was about how dogs and humans seem to be able to communicate so well. It turns out that human emotions are not evenly distributed on the face – the left hemisphere of the brain handles emotion, controlling the right side of the face, so for figuring out what someone is feeling, we tend to look to the right side. This is called “the left-gaze bias.”

In 2007 in the U.K., some researchers did an experiment with dogs, showing them images of other dogs, monkeys, inanimate objects, and people. When the dogs saw  the first three things (dogs, monkeys, objects), their eyes worked evenly across the image. But with the images  of people, guess what? They had the “left-gaze bias.” Their eyes moved immediately to the right side of the face. They were trying to figure out what the people were feeling! I actually saw this experiment being carried out in a PBS documentary, Dogs Decoded. 

Taking it another step – back to my opening statement about being an old married couple – Kotler talks about the fact that we learn to communicate with our dogs by face reading and face mimicking. Here’s a quote from his book:

The skin is elastic, but only to a point. Any action repeated over and over again will eventually leave a mark. Wrinkles, creases, and smile lines are those marks. The reason couples who have been married for a long time start to look like one another is because couples are emotionally resonant. They tend to feel similar things at similar times, so their faces wear in the same way. And the same thing happens between humans and dogs. In the process of trying to understand one another, we’re slowly reshaping our faces to resemble one another’s. (p. 244, A Small Furry Prayer)

So not only do Ripley and I understand each other – we’re starting to look alike.

4Jun

First Day of Training & Kisses for Ripley

It’s real! Rocky and I have started our official relationship, embarking on the first of ten sessions of basic obedience classes at American Service Dogs. OK, I should be clear here – it’s not Rocky that needs obedience training – it’s me. Rocky has already completed all of this work, and has even gone through most of the basic service dog training. I’m in catch-up mode. What needs to happen are two things: I must learn how she has been trained, so I can give the appropriate commands and signals she is used to, and we have to get used to each other, since at this point, we are for all intents and purposes strangers.

Two good students

Two good students

For the sake of convenience, from here on out I will refer to American Service Dogs as ASD, because I’ll be talking about the organization a lot, and three keystrokes is easier than nineteen. ASD offers classes in the morning and evening  Tuesday through Friday, and in the morning on Saturday. You can sign up whenever it is convenient for you, and clients’ needs are met wherever they happen to be in the training process. What that means is that you never know who will be around on any given day. So for our first class, it happened to be just us – me and Rocky in the class with kennel master and lead trainer Jared Latham, and my wife Sabrina and soon-to-be-retired service dog Ripley on the sidelines.

This was both great (tons of individual attention) and not so great (tons of individual attention). I loved having the opportunity to get all of that one-on-one time, but I also felt as if I was under a big spotlight, and it was hard not to feel self-conscious.

We worked on the very basics: sit; sit/stay (working up to this through a four-step process, with tight leash stays, tight leash/loose leash stays, loose leash stays, and then stepping just in front of the dog for a brief stay); name with focused attention (calling the dog’s name when in sit, then rewarding her when she makes eye contact with you); and down. The hardest part about all of it was that as we went through the exercises, Rocky would, by default, look to Jared in between each set. She tended to walk towards him, make eye contact with him. She simply wasn’t focusing on me.

Since the only other canine in the room was Ripley, Jared used her as an example dog. She was lying patiently, for the most part, on her blanket next to Sabrina. Jared would pick up her leash, and do a demonstration of each new exercise. Ripley seemed completely confused by all of this, with a look of “Who is this man asking me to perform commands?” She did, however, perform them, and gladly took the treats offered. A couple of times, she left her blanket, and wandered out onto the floor to come after me. I told her to return, and she did. However, it was clear she thought it all highly irregular.

As I was trying to execute commands with Rocky, I became more and more aware that it has been ages since I have regularly used crisp, clear commands with Ripley. Yes, occasionally commands are called for. Sometimes I have to say, “Ripley, leave it!” or “Ripley, stay.” But most of the time, I embed my commands in sentences. I talk to her like she has a much greater understanding of the English language. “Ripley, let’s go get the mail.” “Ripley, fall back. Too narrow,” when I’m pushing a shopping cart, and we come to a tight squeeze. “Ripley, turn left here.” “Ripley, wait. I’ll be right back.” The thing is, she does whatever I request. The only way I can explain it is that she and I have been together so long; it’s a combination of her picking out certain words, reading my body language, and simply knowing what needs to be done next.

Rocky & Michelle-72

Rocky and Michelle

Working with Rocky is making me hyper-aware that I need to pay attention to what I am saying and doing. Four steps – Rocky’s name, the command, the praise and (sometimes) treat, and then the release. New habits, so she knows what the hell I want from her.

And getting over the self-consciousness, because this is about me and Rocky. Who else am I trying to impress?

Oh – and best part of the class? At the end, Rocky came over to say hi to Ripley, and gave her several sweet kisses. This is all going to work out.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
%d bloggers like this: