Monthly Archives: April 2017

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!

 

21Apr

Once a Service Dog, Always a Service Dog

We just returned from a five-day trip to San Diego (more about Rocky’s first plane rides and other adventures in upcoming posts!). Ripley, my now officially retired service dog, and Malakai, our pit cross, along with the four cats, stayed home with our pet sitter Ashley.

Ashley has stayed with our animals several times now, although only a couple of times with Ripley, as Rocky has only been “in service” and going on trips with us since last fall, and we haven’t gone out of town that often. As both a hyper-organized person and a Capricorn (can I blame it on that?), I leave detailed notes for her whenever we leave town, including:

  1. a statement signed by both of us giving her permission to make veterinary decisions during our absence
  2. a pet emergency sheet with our cell numbers, our vet’s contact info, the emergency vet’s info, and local friends to contact
  3. a feeding and care instruction sheet
  4. notes which include our itinerary, where we will be staying, any additional pet behavior notes, household notes (trash, laundry, location of essentials. mail, how to use wifi, TV, Netflix, etc.)

In other words, I tend to cover all the bases. Because Ashley has become a regular pet sitter/house sitter for us, much of it is now routine, but I still update all the data, and make sure everything is in order.

Upon our return, we check in to make sure everything went well. All the animals were fine – happy to see us, but clearly they had been well fed, cared for, and loved. Ashley came by to pick up some things and return our key, and that’s when we heard the funny part.

When Ashley stays over, she sleeps on the pull-out couch bed in the living room, and Malakai joins her, but Ripley prefers to sleep on our bed in the master bedroom. Apparently, one morning Ashley set her alarm clock, thinking she would get up early, but then decided she didn’t really need to, so she hit the snooze button. Seconds later, there was Ripley, standing over her. Ashley tried to roll over and go back to sleep. But the clock went off again, and Ripley wouldn’t let it go. She stood over Ashley until she got up. Then Ripley followed her to the kitchen, and wanted a treat.

I started laughing. “Oh, no!” I said. “That’s one of her jobs!” It had never occurred to me that along with all my other notes, I should warn Ashley that Ripley has been trained to alert me for alarms. The medication I take at night can be heavily sedating, and I used to have a hard time waking up when I needed to. I also have to take medications twice a day, and I have an alarm set on my watch. The alarm goes off, and if I am distracted, I don’t respond. So it has been Ripley’s job to come and get me, and harass me until I get up out of my chair and go take my medication. And, she gets a treat as a reward. Rocky is learning this skill, but she currently has backup all the time – Ripley and Rocky alert together, usually with Ripley leading the way.

Now that Sabrina is retired, sometimes she sets her alarm to wake up early, and then decides to sleep in. I hate it, because Ripley ignores Sabrina, and comes to wake ME up!

So, despite the fact that my official service dog, Rocky, was in San Diego, Ashley still had a service dog in the house…once a service dog, always a service dog. And there will be no sleeping through any alarms!

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
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