Author: Michelle Wing

16Jul

Kennel Break! Rocky’s First Home Visit

Rocky came home on Thursday for her first official home visit, and I can sum up the experience in one four-letter word: CATS!

So let me confess. I had a little fantasy going on. I had really been looking forward to this day. Since I first met Rocky in May, I’ve been waiting for the moment when she could come to our house, thinking about what it would be like for her, building up a little dream image. We’d come in, she’d look around, it would feel like home. She’d feel relaxed and safe. We’d lounge around, letting her get used to things, and I’d take a gazillion pictures. It would go so well, that our next visit would be an overnight one. I had it all planned.

Well, it didn’t quite work out that way.

See, we have four adult cats in the house, and four foster kittens in a kitty cage in Sabrina’s office, and our whole house must smell feline, and obviously, to Rocky, this is entirely new. Because from the moment she walked in the door, she was on alert. Her ears were perked, she was leaning forward, she was practically standing on her tiptoes. Where are these mysterious creatures?

She paraded through the entire house, with me at the end of the leash. We got to the atrium, and there was Dozer, our most nonchalant cat, half asleep in a corner. Now, she met Dozer once, at the kennel, back in May. But that was two months ago, and apparently erased from her doggy brain. Rocky approached, fascinated. She got a little too close, poking her nose right into him. He turned into hissy cat for a moment, and scooted out of the way. Rocky strained at the leash while I tried to correct.

We went into the living room for a time out. Dozer leapt up to the top of the cat tree in the same room, just a few feet away, curled into a ball, and fell asleep. Rocky sat at my feet, intently watching. I decided a short walk was in order. We strolled through the house again. I stopped in my writing studio. Kenji, the white and black cat, was asleep on a dog bed there. I let Rocky approach. Kenji didn’t move. That went fine, because a still cat isn’t nearly as interesting as a moving cat. Kenji blinked twice, I let Rocky sniff from a distance of about 18 inches, and we went back to the hallway.

Then Bailey, our grey cat, happened to wander by, unaware. Rocky lunged for her, and Bailey turned into a fuzzed up ball of spitting frenzy. This time, I didn’t kid around. I yelled out a huge “AHHT!” and gave a stern leash correction. Rocky sat at my feet immediately, subdued. Okay. That was better.

We went back to the living room to sit for a break. Meanwhile, Malaki, our pit cross, was chilling out with Sabrina. He had been our major worry; Sabrina had him on a leash the whole time, to ensure that he was behaving during the visit. He, of course, was looking like an angel, resting quietly, while Rocky was the one that was behaving like a maniac.

Ripley was in the bedroom on the bed. I brought Rocky in there to say hi, coaxing her up, not sure how that would be. They had no trouble lying next to each other. But then, a sound. CAT! Sure enough, that’s where Little Bit, our tawny cat was hiding – under the bed. Rocky jumped off and went to the side, peering underneath. OK, this isn’t a good spot either. Exit bedroom, to the sound of yet another hissing cat.

 

Rocky and I went in search of Sabrina and Malaki, who were now in Sabrina’s office. With the kittens. I came in and sat in a chair some distance from the kittens’ cage, and placed Rocky in a down/stay on the other side of me, so she was away from the cage. Malaki loves the kittens, and they are used to him. This is a new batch of fosters; they have only been with us a couple of weeks, and are rather feral. As soon as Rocky entered the room, they went crazy. Even though she was lying down, they turned into spluttering hissy balls of fur, and began dashing around the cage in a frenzy. We didn’t stay long.

We went out to the atrium, Rocky now a hyper, excited mess. Malaki was lying down next to her, on leash. Rocky was also on leash, but pacing. She kept stepping back and forth, over Malaki. He finally had had enough, and he snapped at her. Rocky immediately chilled out, coming over to lie down at my side.

A three hour visit, that’s all it was. I was exhausted. We were exhausted. Then we left to go to the kennel for an hour of training. Rocky and I were both so tired we were loopy during the training exercises.

Not to worry. All part of the process, right? Next Friday, Bailey the grey cat is coming to the kennel with us. To teach Rocky to respect cats. Wish us luck.

 

13Jul

How Slow Can You Go? Training Day 9 & A Bit About Jared Latham

(I am finally caught up! Well, practically. This post is for last night’s training session. From here on out, we’ll be in REAL TIME!)

Training Day 9

As 6 p.m. approached, time for our training session at American Service Dogs, I almost called to cancel. I was feeling that rotten. But then I thought, no, that doesn’t make sense. Rocky needs to see me when I’m at my best – and at my worst. Because that’s what she is going to have to learn how to do; read my body language, and know what I need from her. I can’t teach that if I only show up on good days. So Ripley, Sabrina and I got into the truck and headed out.

Jared Latham, our trainer, could tell right away I wasn’t at the top of my game. But he said, “That’s OK. We’ll go ahead with the movement work, and just take it at your pace. Let me know when you need to rest.” He also said it would be good for Rocky, because she would have to learn to adjust her pace to mine.

I began to walk around the room in a circle, as I had done two days before, this time using my cane. I was feeling very weak, so I was walking incredibly slowly. It was like watching super slo-mo, a grandma shuffle. Rocky was at heel on my left. At first, she had no idea what to do. The pace was so much slower than what we had used on Tuesday that she was completely thrown off. She couldn’t tell what her role was. I would take a step, and she would sit down before I took my next step. So she was bopping up and down between a step and a sit, in between my shuffles. Then she did downward dog stretches between a couple of my steps. After that, once or twice she simply laid down, waiting for me to catch up.

Jared told me to keep giving her the command “Easy,” reminding Rocky to hold back, stay in step with me. At the beginning, we were the only ones in class. But then the little shepherd Fling arrived, with her handler. They stepped into the center of the circle, and started working on basic commands.

We interspersed our glacial walking with right circles, left circles, and U-turns, and occasional sit/stays and down/stays. Gradually, Rocky fell into step with me, got into rhythm. Now her biggest problem was when our circle passed one of the other dogs in the room – Ripley or Fling. Rocky likes dogs. She’s social. She wants to veer out, say hi. Jared helped me to do small corrections, keeping Rocky’s focus on me, adjusting her attention, while at the same time keeping her pace at my pace.

I would like to say at this point how much I appreciate Jared, and how much I am learning from him. That’s Jared, the photo up top. I hope at a later date to interview  him to find out more details about his background. For now, I can tell you he received his initial dog training from his service in the Army, where he worked with bomb dogs. He left the service because a bomb went off too close to him, and he has TBI (traumatic brain injury). It affects  his short-term memory (among other things), and he compensates by keeping everything written down, logged, relying heavily on his iPhone, iMac, etc. (He’s a Mac guy, through and through.) The Army used to be very focused on more punitive dog training: choke collars, adverse conditioning. But they learned in more recent years that wasn’t so effective, and have moved towards more positive reinforcement. In addition to training service dogs, Jared helps many people in Las Cruces deal with aggressive dogs. He uses that combination: strictness when necessary, lots of rewards and praise when that is enough.

As I work with Rocky, Jared often walks quietly along beside me, and at just the right moment, tells me when I can give a slight corrective tug to the leash, or reminds me to give a verbal command, so Rocky knows what is coming next. He also acknowledges the times I have done something correctly, noticing when I catch Rocky just before she breaks out of her sit during a stay, or starts to wander, which reinforces my self confidence. I feel as if every day I am adding tools to my kit, building my knowledge base.

 

One last thing about this night: When I arrive, Rocky almost always runs to greet us. But it is usually Ripley she goes to initially, not me. She loves other dogs, and has included Ripley in her circle of friends. Then she’ll turn to me and say hi. At the end of training on Tuesday, though, something different happened. I was exhausted. Laurie, the kennel helper, asked if I was done, and I said yes, and handed her Rocky’s leash. Laurie turned, and she and Rocky walked all the way to the door of the training room.

Then Rocky spun around, and ran to the end of her leash to come back to me. As if she wanted to say goodbye. My heart melted on the spot.

 

12Jul

New Challenges for Training Days 7 & 8: My Cane and Movement Work

This past week, on July 5 and 7, we upped the ante a bit in my work with Rocky. Part of it was planned, and part of it happened because of my own body.

Let’s talk about the body part first, since that was the first to occur. On Tuesday, when I came to class, I wasn’t doing too well. We’ve had a run of quite a few days now with heat over 100 degrees, and extreme temperatures are one of the triggers for my episodes. I don’t always have full-on paralysis attacks. Sometimes what happens with prolonged exposure to triggers is that I have overall body weakness. I just get wobbly. I have a hard time walking in a straight line, and I need to rest a lot. When that is going on for me, I use a cane to help with balance and support. So on Tuesday, I used my cane in class with Rocky for the first time.

Ripley is, of course, very used to my cane, since I use it almost every time we go out on errands. I bring it as a precaution, because even if I feel strong at the outset of a trip, something might come up while we’re in the middle of a store (fluorescent lights are a trigger) or while eating in a restaurant (certain foods are triggers, and I never know when they will affect me), and then I need support to be able to walk back out of the building.  Or any number of other things. You get the idea.

But Rocky had never seen the cane before during training, so I wasn’t sure how she would react. We used to have a little dog named Houla, and she was first adopted from a shelter to be a companion dog for Sabrina’s dad. He was elderly and used a cane. And it turned out she was terrified of canes, for some reason – something from her earlier life. So Sabrina ended up with Houla instead. Since Rocky is also a rescue dog, we really had no idea how she would react.

Luckily, I had nothing to worry about. Rocky acted as if the cane had been there all along. We went through a usual class with no problems. In fact, the only issue we had at all that day was towards the end of the class, when we were working on straight line heels. With this command, I was supposed to give Rocky a heel command, walk three steps, then stop, and she was to sit at my side without being told. Initially she was doing great. Then she began doing all her sits backwards – facing Jared, the trainer!

I scolded her and said, “Ignore him. He’s not important.” He laughed and said, “I know, they all do this. They only pay attention to me, and then later they shift all their attention to their handlers, and forget all about me.”

On Thursday, I returned, thankfully with a bit more pep, and Jared said it was time to advance to movement work. Up to this point, most of the training has been incremental; give a command, stop, next command. That’s important in the beginning, but Rocky has all of this down pat, and she is starting to get bored. Now it was time to put it all together into movement, so I spent almost the entire hour of training walking with Rocky heeling at my side.

We walked in a circle around the training room, and Jared gave me these commands: circle right (turn in a tight circle towards the right and then keep walking in the same direction), circle left, and (drat! can’t remember the exact command! but — ) turn 180 degrees right and begin walking the opposite direction, or turn 180 degrees left and begin walking the opposite direction. Each time Jared gave one of these commands, I would say, “Rocky, heel.” At first, she bumped into me when I turned. But as the class progressed, she began to watch me, and pay attention to which way I was about to turn. Remember when I said in a previous post that Ripley never runs into me, no matter how erratically I walk? That’s what this is teaching. Training Rocky to look at me, focus on what I am doing, so when I change direction, she changes direction, too.

Throughout these exercises, Jared would occasionally call out another command, such as “Sit” or “Down/Stay.” And wherever we were, we would execute that command. Then we would continue with the circle heeling exercise.

Imagine that you’re in the grocery store, walking down an aisle, and you think, “Oh. Right! I need milk, too.” And you suddenly make a U-turn, to go back to another aisle. Or you walk into a restaurant, and find that there is a crowd of people, and you have to make an abrupt stop, and wait for a table. Your service dog needs to be able to react as quickly as you do, turning, stopping, sitting, waiting, then starting up again, without running into you or anyone else, without getting her leash tangled up, always paying attention.

What was fun was seeing the progress – watching Rocky rise to the challenge, listen to my voice, catch my minor corrections, and by the end of the night, become focused on me with her full attention.

We celebrated by collapsing on the floor when we were finished for a well-deserved selfie session, followed by kisses for Sabrina and Ripley.

Good dog.

9Jul

Training Days 5 & 6 – Getting Reacquainted

As much as I had been looking forward to my three-week trip to California, I also felt reluctant to go. It seemed I was just starting to make a connection with Rocky, and then I left. Would I have to start all over again?

My first day back with her was on June 28. We were joined in class by the big Mastiff, Danu, and a new little herding dog named Fling, there for her first day of class. (It’s funny; training is just like going to a dog park. I’m learning the names of all the dogs, but not, so far, the names of the handlers. It’s impossible not to learn the dog names, as every command starts with the name: “Fling, sit.” “Danu, stay.” “Rocky, come.” You get the picture.

We started off as always with sits, the most basic command, then worked on sit/stays and down/stays, now up to 10 seconds. Danu was having a “I don’t really want to pay attention to my handler” day, so Jared, our trainer, was assisting with some stern corrections. Add that to the fact that Rocky looked at Jared the entire time we were in the room, and I was getting a little frustrated. It was as if I wasn’t even at the other end of the leash.

However, I knew this was mostly because I had been away, and she  hadn’t seen me. It was a case of “Who are you again?” On top of that, I was feeling a bit “whooshy,” which is my short-hand way of saying I was weak and kind of on the edge of having a paralysis attack – which I did not want to happen. (Not that my preferences have ever mattered in the least.) To make matters worse, I had forgotten both my cane and my bottle of water.

As we moved on to other commands, Jared had me take Rocky into the adjoining training room, so there would be fewer distractions. I worked on straight line heels, where I say, “Heel,” lead off with the left foot, step one step, then stop, and Rocky is supposed to sit at my side. We also practiced “Comes,” where I stand in front of her, step back to the end of a loose leash with her in a sit position, say her name to get her attention, and BEFORE she moves, say, “Come,” and she is supposed to come and sit at my feet. Rocky was doing great on these two exercises – except every time Jared would poke his head in the room, she would do her “sit” backwards, facing him instead of me. Gaw!

Finally, it was the end of class, and we returned to the main room for our last exercise, the extended down/stay, where we stand next to our dogs for about 10 minutes. Sabrina looked at me and said, “Are you OK? Do you need a chair?””  I mumbled, “I’m fine.” The woman working with Fling said, “Are you just saying that?” To which I had to honestly answer, “Uh, yeah,” as I started to wobble. The kennel assistant, Laurie, and Sabrina both grabbed a chair and brought it to me. I guess it’s not as easy to hide what’s going on as I sometimes think.

On July 1, I returned to training, and Jared asked right away how I was doing. I happily reported I was feeling stronger. I found we were working with Fling again. Her handler immediately said, “You look better today!”

We increased our time on sit/stays and down/stays to one minute, and again worked on name/come commands and straight line heels. By the end of the class, I felt I had made that connection again, and Rocky was working beautifully with me. Jared said he would keep us in the Obedience One group for another week or two, then bump us up to Obedience Two. That means we’ll start moving out into the world, beginning our access training, getting used to people, elevators, electronic doors, cars – all those things a dog is not exposed to when training in a kennel.

Even more importantly, Rocky will start coming home with me soon, first for overnight visits, then longer stays, and eventually for good.

Blanket Buddies-smOne of my favorite parts about these nights is this – whenever we enter the training room, Rocky runs up to give Ripley a nose kiss. Usually during the training session, I don’t use treats as a reward, except at the very end for new tasks. This drives Ripley crazy, because she is so food oriented. Why is that other dog getting little cookies? So as soon as we finish, I walk Rocky over to where Ripley is sitting, next to Sabrina, and give Ripley the “down” command, then reward her with a treat. Rocky always lies down, too, right next to Ripley. Double treat. That’s the way the evening ends – Rocky and Ripley side by side on Ripley’s blanket, with Rocky’s tail wagging madly.

**If you are enjoying these posts about the adventures of Rocky and Ripley, I have a favor to ask of you. Please click on the Calendar/Date icon on the top of the page to open this individual post. Once you have done that, a number of options will appear at the bottom of the page. You can “like” the post, add a comment, check the box below the comment box that says, “Notify me of new posts by email,” or share this post with others via your favorite social media outlet – Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, or email. Thanks so much for reading, and dog kisses from Rocky and Ripley!

8Jul

Ripley Takes Off: Airplane Stories

Ripley and I just returned from a three-week vacation to California, a journey that included four plane rides, two three-hour airporter bus rides, a taxi cab trip, several Uber rides, and a whole bunch of hopping in and out of various vehicles driven by friends.

The biggest travel challenges are always negotiating airports. Ripley and I have flown quite a bit, but still, things tend to get a little interesting. I always contact the airline ahead of time to let them know I will be flying with a service dog. She fits underneath the seat in front of me (where a bag would go), so we don’t get special treatment in that way. Airlines do usually ask that we not take an aisle seat, to guarantee that Ripley does not accidentally impeded traffic, with a tail or paw getting run over by a flight attendant’s beverage cart, for instance. But this time around, I decided to ask for more assistance for the first time ever.

Hanging out at the airport

Hanging out at the airport

I was flying from El Paso to Phoenix, then San Francisco (SFO) on the way to California, then from SFO to Los Angeles (LAX), ending in El Paso on the way home. Both ways, I had only an hour for my connecting flights, and the airports in Phoenix and LAX are large. Travel is hard on me, and my body is unpredictable in these circumstances. The last thing I needed was to find myself either weak or partially paralyzed, because I just coming out of a paralysis attack as I was attempting to make that connecting flight. So, at the urging of a friend, I requested a wheelchair escort.

I flew American Airlines. The agent I dealt with was fabulous. As soon as I even hinted about my nervousness, she said, “Let’s get you that wheelchair.” All I had to do was get on the plane in El Paso, which is a small airport. In Phoenix, I would be met by an airline employee with a wheelchair, who would take me to my next flight. Then at SFO, another employee would meet me again, and take me to baggage claim. The same arrangements were made for me for my return trip. It all worked beautifully, and I am so grateful, especially since we had delays on the trip home, and I would have been hard pressed to make my connecting flight.

But, there was still some humor along the way, both because of my wheelchair, and simply because traveling with a service dog always keeps things interesting.

I was using my cane, to assist with walking. At the security checkpoint, they took my metal cane, and gave me a wooden one. Ripley and I were sent through the metal detector, and it went off. They asked if it was possible for me to go through alone. “Of course,” I said. We walked back through, I asked Ripley to sit and stay, and then I walked through on my own. No alert. Then I called Ripley through. The machine alerted. I knew it would, because of the metal on her tags and collar. The guard asked if he could pat her down. He did so, while she waited patiently. Then he dusted my hands for bomb-making material (which almost always happens), and we were cleared. I picked up my own cane, and all our other stuff, and we were off.

On the first leg of the trip, the El Paso to Phoenix flight, I was seated next to a large Latino man. As soon as I tucked Ripley into her space, he looked at me and said, “Does she bite?” I reassured him that he was safe, and that Ripley would not bite him. After landing, I forgot my book at my seat, not realizing it until I was at the front of the plane. Apparently, once you reach the front of the aircraft, you can’t go back. The young woman with my wheelchair was waiting for me just outside the door of the plane. She asked me to take a seat, and the flight attendant went back to retrieve my book once all the passengers had deplaned. While we were waiting, the pilot approached us. He took his cell phone out of his pocket to show me a picture of his dog. Then we were off, Ripley trotting along beside me as I was whisked to my next gate in the wheelchair.

Flying-sm

Ripley checks in before take-off

I got to board first, in the Number 1 category. From Phoenix to SFO, we were in a window seat, next to a very slender woman, with a older man in the aisle seat. We had to wait a bit before take-off, and Ripley got bored of sitting under the seat, and popped up, placing her head on my lap. The man said he loved dogs, and asked if he could take a picture. Then the woman said, “Oh, I want a picture, too!” General oohing and aahing all around.

On our return flight at SFO, when I approached my gate, they called my name, asking me to come forward to identify myself before boarding. They told me they had changed my seat, putting me in the bulkhead, so Ripley and I would have more room. Nice! Again, I was in Category 1, because of my “wheelchair” status.  When pre-boarding started, a man approached me, and he said he was going to escort me to the plane. He walked down the gangway with me, and he kept saying things like, “It is slightly lower here,” and “There is a turn to the left.” I was puzzled, but didn’t figure it out. As we got to the plane, he said, “She is in Delta 8.” Then the flight attendant took over, and led me to my seat. As I helped Ripley to settle in, and turned to lift my bag, she looked at me with some confusion and said, “You’re not blind?” I said, “No.” She said, “Oh. Sorry! That’s what they told me!” Well, that was a first!

I was seated next to a nice young doctor from Hong Kong, here doing research. We were delayed, waiting nearly half an hour before take-off. He and I were having a nice chat, when I felt a paralysis episode coming on. I managed to say, “Uh, sorry,” then my head dipped to my chest. He said, “It’s fine. Don’t worry.” I felt lucky to be sitting next to a doctor. He didn’t panic, or call a flight attendant over. Just let me have my time-out, and acted like it was perfectly normal. Whew. Also grateful that it happened while I was on the plane, and not while I was trying to get to a plane.

We waited out one final airport in Los Angeles, and the only incident there was this – I was sitting and resting, with Ripley at my feet, when I heard an odd sound. I looked up, and sure enough, someone several feet away was actually making kissy noises, trying to get Ripley’s attention. Seriously? Here we are, in a completely busy, crazy, loud environment – and this clueless person is purposefully trying to distract my dog?

Sigh. It felt really good to get home.

 

 

5Jul

Playing with Rocky & Training Day Four

(Still catching up – this is from June 7, the last session we had before Ripley and I went on vacation!)

Through a misunderstanding, I arrived at class an hour early. It turned out to be a serendipitous mistake, as it allowed me to spend sixty minutes in a back room simply hanging out with Rocky, grooming her, stroking her, and playing; in other words, bonding in a way we haven’t been able to so far.

I sat on the floor, with my legs apart in a vee. She would wander across the room, sniffing around.  I called her name, and she would come running, landing in a heap in my lap, or sliding full body between my legs. Then she would just lie there, head over my thigh, luxuriating in the attention. She will blossom in our home, I am sure of it. She is so ready to be with a primary handler, away from the kennel.

New Team-72

Michelle & Rocky

Ripley was a bit confused by me paying attention to Rocky, not sure what her role was. She wandered over periodically, checking in. I completely understand that she is trying to sort this out. Who is this interloper, taking up space in my lap? But there was no hostility or aggression. I tried to include her as much as I could, and she had her blanket, her “safe space,” to return to, when Rocky and I were involved with each other. Sabrina was also there to help out.

There was a poodle in a kennel in the same room who barked much of the time which was annoying and gave Sabrina a headache so that wasn’t great, but otherwise – the hour was very good. Only one incident. Rocky kept licking one foot. She let me look at her other feet, was very good about letting me touch her body all over. But when I tried to examine the troublesome toe, at first she was OK, but then she got squirrelly, and wouldn’t let me see. Jared, the trainer, came into the room towards the end of the hour, and I asked him about it. He called Rocky over to the couch, and commanded her to give him the foot. She did. He looked at it, and said it was just a scab. But then I noticed she had peed on the floor. Clearly there are some fear issues here. She will do what he tells her to, but only because, at times, he demands it. Jared is a good trainer; but our styles are different. He sometimes uses a stronger approach than I feel is necessary, and I can tell already that Rocky is as sensitive as Ripley is. Strong is not needed. She will respond to a much lighter approach. One more reason that it will be good for us to have her out of the kennel soon, and in our home, so that I am her primary handler.

I had to use to the bathroom before class, and I had Rocky, so I told Sabrina to take Ripley. That was weird for all concerned – for me, to be in a bathroom with another dog, and for Ripley, to let me disappear from her sight. Even in these smallest of things, there are going to be big adjustments for all of us.

For our training session, we had two other female classmates, one with a big galoot of a Mastiff, and the other with a young mixed breed, lean but taller than Rocky. From the get-go, it was a difficult night. The Mastiff wasn’t cooperating, so Jared once or  twice got his attention with a squirt of canned air, each time scaring the bejesus out of Rocky. After the first blast, Rocky kept trying to avoid Jared, and leave the room, which meant each time one of our exercises landed us near the doorway, she pulled in that direction.

Jared was still trying to help the woman with the Mastiff, using verbal corrections, and they tended to be in the middle of the room. So everywhere Rocky and I went, we ran into them, with Rocky shying away. To make matters worse, there was a new kennel helper who was watching the class, and she was doing things such as praising Rocky when she executed a command correctly, or offering suggestions, talking to me, saying, “Jared told me that….”

I was trying to pay attention to Rocky, knowing full well what was going on and what I needed to do, and trying desperately to get Rocky to focus on me. Argh!  By the end of the class, Rocky finally did some really great, attentive “comes.” Jared was talking to me, as I listened out of the corner of my ear, saying, “Yes, good, big praise for that one.” At the the same moment, the kennel helper said, “Good girl, Rocky!” I had reached my limit. I turned to her and said, “It would be very helpful if you didn’t praise my dog when I am working with her.” She immediately apologized, and stopped her interruptions.

After class, we spoke briefly, and I asked her name, said I hadn’t meant to be rude. She said Rocky is her favorite in the kennel, assured me she understood. I also spoke to Jared privately, said, ” I hope you didn’t mind; I had to say that.” He just smiled, said, “She’s new. She’ll learn. It was a hard day.”

And it was a hard day. But I left feeling hopeful, because Rocky and I had connected so strongly in play, and we had also persevered through the tough training situation, and had still managed to work as a team.

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.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
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