Monthly Archives: August 2016

19Aug

Now I’m Mad: Time to Ruffle Some Feathers

Most of the time I’m pretty good about standing up for my rights as a service dog handler. Occasionally, I allow myself to get bullied. This has been one of those times. But now I’m mad, and I’m ready to take some action.

When I lived in California, for about fifteen years I received all of my healthcare through the Kaiser Permanente system, first via my job, and then through spousal benefits from my wife Sabrina’s employer. What this meant was that healthcare was easy, in a lot of ways. Whenever I needed a new doctor, he or she could be found under one proverbial roof. I knew the system, everybody was working together, and it made managing my sometimes very complex medical situation relatively painless.

So when we moved to Las Cruces in late January of this year, one of my biggest anxieties was establishing a new network of providers. Sabrina no longer had employee healthcare, so she had a separate plan. I had been switched to Medicare, with Blue Cross/Blue Shield as supplemental. I had only a thirty-day supply of medications. I knew I had to find, immediately, a neurologist for my hypokalemic periodic paralysis disorder, a psychiatrist for my bipolar disorder, and a primary care physician to fill in for anything else that might arise. The providers needed to be close by (I can’t drive, so Sabrina has to provide all of my transportation), they had to accept both of my insurance plans, and they needed to be accepting new patients. The list wasn’t very long.

Removal quoteI felt lucky when I found Epoch Integrated Health Services in downtown Las Cruces, and was given an appointment with psychiatrist Dr. Beale without too much waiting time. Until I showed up for the appointment, that is. The first day, I waited two hours without being seen, and had to leave because I had another appointment, and had to reschedule. When I returned for my second appointment, I waited another hour and a half, and finally was called into his office. He took one look at me and said, “Oh. You can’t bring that dog in here.”

I thought he was kidding. Honestly, I thought it was a joke. I was standing there with Ripley in her service vest, and couldn’t believe that a doctor at a medical clinic was telling me I couldn’t bring my service animal into the room. Then Ripley shook, and he said, “See, that’s what they do. They shake. I’m allergic. Get her out of here.”

Prior to seeing Dr. Beale, I had gone through intake with a counselor, Janis Burkhardt. She had said nothing to me about Ripley, made no indication that this would be an issue. What could I do? I needed those prescriptions for my medications. I brought Ripley to the waiting room and gave her leash to Sabrina, then returned for my appointment. (Thank god Sabrina was there. I don’t know what I would have been expected to do had I come to the appointment alone.)

I continued to see Beale over the next several months. Each time, I left Ripley in the waiting room. At no time was I offered an alternative. I never saw another psychiatrist at the clinic, and did not believe there was one. At one of my sessions with Beale, he asked me what my current “challenges” were. I told him I was in the process of training a new service dog. He then told me he did not believe animals should be in service to humans, that it was like slavery; he felt they should be free beings. He went on for some time about this “philosophy” of his. I was seething inside, but again, I said nothing.

Last month, I received a letter from Janis Burkhardt at Epoch stating that I had failed to have my quarterly treatment plan update, and that if I did not schedule one, I could no longer receive services at the clinic. The letter noted they would be happy to refer me to another provider, in that case. When I read the letter, I suddenly had some hope – maybe there was someone else? So I scheduled the appointment with Burkhardt, determined to talk to her about the service dog issue with Beale.

When I arrived at the clinic, Burkhardt called me back to her office. As I stepped in, she said, “Oh. Sorry. I’m allergic to dogs. You’ll have to leave the dog in the waiting room. With your friend.” (On another note: Sabrina has been referred to as “my friend” on multiple occasions at the clinic, despite the fact that she is listed as my wife, is my emergency contact, and accompanies me to every appointment.) I was now furious. I had brought Rocky, my new service dog, that day. I again was forced to leave her with Sabrina in order to go to my appointment. I asked Burkhardt why she had done her first interview with me with my service dog in the room. She said, “Oh, sometimes I let it slide, but then I have to pay the consequences.”

I told her that Beale would not see me with my service dog, and that I must have both an intake counselor and a psychiatrist who would see me with my service dog. I told her it was illegal according to the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, to deny me this right.

Task quoteShe took out some paper, began to write. “Oh, OK then. I’ll ask my supervisor. Let’s see, I think Dr. X likes dogs. He always pets them. But he’s not here very often. And maybe Carol. She likes dogs, too.” I couldn’t believe it. Likes dogs? As if we were talking about a pet parade or something? Then she said, “What is your disability?” It is against the law to ask a person’s disability. Again, disbelief. And then, the clincher: “What was that thing you said again? The ADH something?” I said, “Excuse me?” She said, “You know, you said there was some AD something?” And I said, “You mean the ADA? The Americans With Disabilities Act?” She said, “Oh, yes. That’s what you said.”

After my appointment with her, she took me to the waiting room, where I was able once again to be reunited with my service dog, and I was given future appointments with a different counselor and a nurse practitioner for meds, both of whom, supposedly, do not have dog allergies.

But obviously, this is systemic. Here is a healthcare organization, that has offices in Albuquerque, Alamogordo, Deming, Santa Teresa, and Roswell, with the corporate headquarters in Las Cruces. Many of the patients are on Medicare, and are either elderly or lower income. The clinic I have been going to specializes in behavioral healthcare and also in addiction and recovery. I know there are many people coming here who are far less likely than me to stand up for themselves. And it took me some time.

From the beginning, I should have been offered options. If your clinic’s main psychiatrist AND one of your intake counselors are allergic to dogs, then on the phone, someone should be asking each client if they have a service dog, and making appointments accordingly. No client should ever be separated from his or her service dog. It’s illegal.

Where allowed quoteI’m tired of being bullied. And I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.

(For a full text of the ADA guidelines on Service Dogs, go here.)

14Aug

Rocky Out on the Town

Rocky and I have now officially been set loose in Las Cruces – watch out! We have advanced to the part of training that focuses on public access, meaning it is time to introduce distractions of all kinds, getting Rocky ready for life out in the real world. But is the world ready for us?

Brief overview of the hard parts: I said “Heel” approximately two thousand times. Working outside means walking in the sun, which means I get tired, and have to use my cane, so in addition to getting frustrated with Rocky when she is so excited that she’s ignoring me (usually because she’s trying to keep up with the other dogs in our group), I get a little cross because my shoulder starts to hurt from the sharp corrections, and it’s difficult to keep up with some of the other dog handlers, who are more able-bodied than I am. And then there’s the attention: When people see service dogs moving in a pack, or going through exercises, they stop to stare, or come up to ask questions, and I get it, really, I do, but that’s just one more thing to deal with when I’m doing my best to stay upright.

Here’s how the day started. Rocky suited up for the first time in her new service vest on Saturday, and seemed to immediately know we were headed out for real work. It’s funny – that’s exactly how Ripley acts. When I put her vest on, she knows she’s on the job. Now, don’t get me wrong. Rocky still had quite a few instances today when she momentarily forget she had the vest on. But when I say, “Get Dressed!” she stands stock still, and lets me buckle the vest onto her. She is ready.

We headed to American Service Dogs to meet up with the rest of the group at 9:30 a.m. There were eight handlers with dogs. After some brief business, we all loaded back into our cars and headed off to the day’s destination: the Farmers and Crafts Market of Las Cruces. This huge market, held on Main Street each Saturday from 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m., features nearly 300 vendors. Hundreds of adults, children, and dogs come each weekend to stroll, shop, listen to music, and enjoy the New Mexico weather. It’s the perfect place to bring a working dog that needs to learn to ignore distractions.

At the Farmers and Crafts Market

Michelle & Rocky at the Farmers and Crafts Market

First we met on a corner and ran through training basics, things we would be working on at home for the rest of the week. The commands include: “Handle & Massage” (getting a dog used to being touched all over), “Get Dressed” (put on the vest), “Calm” (calming a dog down), “Name” (saying a dog’s name and having them look you in the eye), “Off” (get down off of person or furniture), “Load” (get into vehicle), “Easy” and “Hurry” (varying the pace of a dog), “Place” (sending dog to lie down in a certain area), “Gotcha” (allow someone to grab dog by the collar), then come from 10 feet away, sit/stay at 10 feet and down/stay at ten feet. All of this went great.

Then we were off to walk the market. Really, Rocky did remarkably well. She did not react to any people, didn’t try to pick up food, or go into any of the food vendor stalls, didn’t respond to any of the dozens of pet dogs that were present, not even the two that lashed out at her in snarling, barking frenzies. The only thing she did that made it hard for me was tug at her leash, walking slightly ahead of me instead of staying in a relaxed heel position. And, again, this was mostly because I was with other handler/dog teams who were walking slightly ahead, and she wanted to keep pace. Still, that constant tug can be exhausting. And frustrating.

After an hour at the market, Sabrina, Rocky and I headed back to the truck and home.

But the big day wasn’t over yet. We decided to take Rocky out to dinner! The original plan was to head out to Habanero’s, our favorite Mexican food restaurant in Las Cruces. But for some reason, they were closed. So we went right next door to the best Vietnamese place in town, Pho a Dong. It turned out to be a perfect choice. Even thought it was Saturday, there were only a few other patrons – maybe three tables occupied. We chose a four-top table in the corner, which gave us lots of room and privacy.

Robert, one of the owners, came over immediately to wait on us. He knows us, and has met Ripley before, so was surprised to see Rocky. I told him it was Rocky’s first night out at a restaurant. He turned to her and said, “Well, hello, Ms. Rocky. Thank you for joining us this evening.” Pho a Dong has great food. But Robert is part of the fun of dining here. He is a relentless comedian, who is so quick with the one-liners that it makes your head spin. He broke into a Rocky Balboa mimicry, and started asking my dog about Paulie.

Again, restaurants have their challenges. A dog must stay still for a relatively long period of time. She should not respond to the smell of food by getting up and putting her nose near the table, or by trying to pick up food scraps on the floor. She should be quiet. It’s stimuli, yes, but almost more demanding of the dog when she is out walking; it requires absolute passivity, while still maintaining attention and focus on the handler.

Dinner at Pho a Dong

Dinner at Pho a Dong

I had a feeling that Rocky would ace this one, and she did. She laid at my feet throughout the entire dinner without making a sound. She did not once try to get up, not when our waiter came, not when the food was served, not when the dishes were cleared. The only time she moved was when I asked Robert to take a photo, and I accidentally scooted my chair back slightly. She had been directly underneath the table, and it startled her, and she sat up. So, the photo here shows me with my hand on her head, as she got back down on the floor, behind my chair.

Otherwise, she was a complete rock star. Which has become her new nickname, ‘natch, when things go well. Rocky the Rock Star.

8Aug

White Hat Hacker aka Rocky

Yes, Rocky is in training to be a service dog. But we think she may have another inborn talent. It appears she has the capacity to be an ace White Hat Hacker.

For those of you not familiar with the term,  Technopedia.com defines a White Hat Hacker as:

a computer security specialist who breaks into protected systems and networks to test and asses their security. White hat hackers use their skills to improve security by exposing vulnerabilities before malicious hackers (known as black hat hackers) can detect and exploit them. Although the methods used are similar, if not identical, to those employed by malicious hackers, white hat hackers have permission to employ them against the organization that has hired them.

What leads us to believe this could be Rocky’s line of work? Well, it isn’t that she has mastered computer code. But she is an expert in assessing the security of a fenced dog yard.

Rocky's escapes thus far

Rocky’s escapes thus far

Remember in my last post, when I said  she had managed to jump the four-foot rock wall bordering our front patio, because we had left the front door open? That was on her first overnight at our house. The following Saturday, she came for her first weekend visit. She sat calmly with me in my office, as I worked online, ordering her new collar tags and other items. All at once I heard Sabrina say, “Rocky! Hey, Rocky’s in the front yard!”

Yes, thanks to only a few moments of inattention, Rocky had managed to go out to the dog yard, wander around to the far corner, and come to the one section that is bordered with four-foot rock wall instead of six-foot chain link fence, landing in the front yard (which is completely enclosed by rock wall). Relieved that this was as far as she had roamed, I opened the front door and called her inside.

We kept the dog door locked the rest of the day, realizing  we now had an escape artist to deal with. That night, before bed, I let all three dogs out to pee. I sat in the large open area with all of them, with the outside light on. Rocky disappeared into the mesquite for a few moments. When I called for everyone to come in, she didn’t appear. I panicked. I ran to the front yard, but she wasn’t there. I immediately knew what happened. “Hey!” she must have thought. “Hurdles!” Hop one rock wall, then another. I grabbed a flashlight, and ran out the side patio door. Sure enough, there she was, running towards me from the driveway. OK, definitely need to take care of that rock wall issue.

Chain link fence, waiting to be installed

Chain link fence, waiting to be installed

We had to make a quick five-day trip to California to see my grandmother, who had fallen and broken her hip, so Rocky went to the kennel, and we promised to come back for her upon our return. This Saturday, we kept that promise, picking her up for another long weekend. On Sunday, our handyman John came over to troubleshoot dog yard solutions, and we decided to extend the chain link fence all the way to the house on that escape-prone side. Until he can get the poles in on Tuesday, John and Sabrina simply leaned the fencing along the wall, to keep Rocky from gaining access. We figured we had a secure backyard for the time being, and could once again open the dog door.

Then I’m sitting out on the patio today, and look up to see – Rocky on the other side of the rock wall, coming up to the gate, tail wagging. Gawd!

Sabrina and I just finished walking the perimeter of the fence and have found there are spots where the bottom is raised just enough that, with a bit of digging, Rocky and her slender little body can squeeze right under.

May have to hot wire the whole perimeter. Damn.

Now why do I see her as a White Hat Hacker as opposed to a Black Hat Hacker? She doesn’t actually run away. She comes right to the front door afterwards, as if to say, “Uh, guys? You have a security issue here. Just thought I’d let you know.”

Thank god for that.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
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