Author: Michelle Wing

15Dec

Farewell to Ripley’s Ride

I sold my Honda Civic this week. A very nice man named Agustin bought it for his 18-year-old daughter, her first car. I couldn’t have been more pleased with the entire transaction. Still, as I signed over the title, and handed him the keys, I felt myself fighting back tears. Just a car, right?

No, not just a car. In all likelihood, the last car I will ever drive.

My wife Sabrina gave me this beautiful, new blue manual transmission Civic coupe in 2006. I used it to drive over the country roads from Cloverdale to Calistoga, to my job at the Calistoga Tribune newspaper, hugging the curves, loving the way it handled. Ripley was already in my life at the time, as a companion animal. When she became my service dog four years ago, she became my constant escort. We buckled up safely with a back-seat harness, and away we went. Off to work each day, and then all over Napa and Sonoma counties to poetry readings, volunteer engagements, concerts, dinners out with friends. The Civic has always been my Ripleymobile. The trunk held a water dish, an extra leash, her blanket, a towel in case we decided to stop for a walk at the river.

We were a Honda family. Sabrina drives a Ridgeline truck, which is the “family” vehicle. If we’re going somewhere together, Sabrina drives – she has a commercial license, and likes to be the one at the wheel. So the Civic was always just for me and Ripley. Our independent adventure machine, our dynamic duo getaway car. Together, we logged 130,000 miles.

But in November 2012, I lost my license for medical reasons. I had had two episodes which my neurologist and I thought, in all likelihood, were seizures. Back in 2004, I had also had a seizure, and had lost my license . After a medication adjustment, and being seizure-free for six months, the license was reinstated. I anticipated a similar result. This time, I had actually delayed going to see my neurologist, afraid to tell him about the episodes – they weren’t quite as severe, and I was so fearful of that loss of freedom. How was I going to keep my job, now that I was commuting from so far away? Finally, though, I realized I had to do something, for my own health and safety, and went in for a checkup. There were no new episodes, and by early February, I was nearing that six-month mark. My neurologist was in the process of filling out paperwork to reinstate my license.

Then out of nowhere, in a single week’s time, I had more than 30 episodes. They were not quite like seizures, because I remained conscious. But I slumped forward, could not move or speak. As Sabrina put it, it was as if someone pulled my plug. We were terrified. Three times we went to the emergency room, with episodes happening even when we were at the hospital. The first time, I was diagnosed with seizures and they upped my medications and sent me home. The condition worsened and we returned two days later. A new doctor in the ER put me on a different seizure med, much stronger, then discharged me. The episodes continued, but now I also had slurred speech and a drugged appearance from the medication. Two days later, we went in again. The first ER doctor was back on duty. After running tests on my heart and other things, he came in and announced that my condition was psychosomatic. I was furious. I did not have another episode that night in the ER, and he said that proved his point. This left both of us confused, hurt and angry.

For the next year and a half, my life was in turmoil. My neurologist, the chief of neurology at Kaiser, who I like and trust, believed that these episodes were some kind of seizure, but could not understand why they were not responding to any seizure medications. (I do have a seizure disorder, but my regular seizures are controlled by my other medications.) My psychiatrist, who I also like and trust, believed that they were psychosomatic, telling me this did not mean they were not “real,” but that there was an underlying emotional cause, and I needed to work with a therapist to find out what was triggering them. So I threw myself into intense practice with another helper, my psychologist, looking for answers. Still, the episodes continued. My boss allowed me to telecommute for those first few months, until it became clear I was not able to reliably do even that because of the impact of this condition on my life.

In a very short time, I went from logging seventy-plus miles a day to being virtually homebound, on our rural property, more than four miles from town. And the Civic sat unused in the driveway.

I had to turn in my license and get a state ID card. For two years, I paid car insurance and registration fees on a vehicle that was virtually unused. Sabrina would drive the Civic periodically to keep it running, and I made sure it got oil changes. Always in the back of my mind, I thought, “If it’s seizures, we’ll find a medicine. If it’s emotional, I’ll figure out what’s wrong. I’ll be able to drive again.”

Then in May of this year, I went for an appointment with my neurologist, and I had one of my “episodes” in his presence. That is when he made the diagnosis, finally, that has explained everything – and also changed everything. I have periodic paralysis disorder. This isn’t something that is going to go away with medication or therapy. There is no cure. And someone with this disorder is not safe behind the wheel of a car.

rear-sm

“All My Children Have Paws” license plate frame, Animal Rescue Site

As you can see, it still took a while for me to fully come to grips with this. To reach the point of letting go. Even though I have been relying on other people for transportation for two years, somehow having my Honda in the driveway gave me comfort. I still had my car. Someday.

But it was finally time to say goodbye to the Ripleymobile. Thanks for all the great times, for the adventures, for keeping us safe. For the incredible freedom, which I appreciate now only in retrospect.

And a humble, huge thank you to all of the wonderful people in my life who have stepped forward to help me stay connected with the world. Dog hair and all.

30Nov

Invisible Disabilities

Have you ever seen a person park in a handicapped spot, then watched them exit the car, and thought, “Well, they certainly don’t look handicapped.” In your eyes, there is no evidence. No walker, no wheelchair. No crutches, cane or noticeable limp. And for a moment, there is that annoyance, or even a flash of anger, thinking this person is a pretender, a fraud? Someone taking advantage of the system? Because wouldn’t you love to have that handicapped spot, right in front?

But there are so many illnesses and disorders that are invisible to the naked eye. Fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, lupus, MS, compressed discs in the back, other spinal injuries causing pain, early onset of Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) – all of these can lead to either a loss of muscle strength and/or pain which makes walking difficult, and that handicapped placard a necessity.

When I am out with Ripley, my service dog, I encounter a similar problem. From the outside, to the casual observer, I seem perfectly healthy. Here I am, walking with a service dog. People try to make sense of that. Although few would ever approach someone to ask about their handicapped placard, because there is the additional attraction factor (people are fascinated by working dogs), total strangers feel free to strike up a conversation everywhere we go.

So this is what I hear:  “Who do you train dogs for?” “Are you training her?” or even “Is that your dog?”

This despite the fact that Ripley is now nine years old. Yes, she does look good for her age, but anyone paying any attention can see the whitening around her muzzle. And she is clearly not a one- or two-year-old yellow lab. You can tell that simply by looking at her body.

I am hesitant to discuss my medical history with strangers. It feels so personal. But I have decided here, now, to tell my story, in the interest of education, in hopes that it might help others.

I have a seizure disorder. This is, thankfully, right now completely controlled by medication. The medication causes some side effects. It can be heavily sedating, particularly at night. I also have bipolar disorder. This, too, is managed by medication, but is more tentative. I have to be careful about getting the right amount of sleep, not staying up too late, eating properly, watching for warning signals that my system is getting out of balance. I have pills to take as needed to bring myself back into alignment when things get wacky.

For these two illnesses, Ripley helps me in several ways. She is trained to respond to an alarm on my watch, reminding me to take my medications. (I tend to turn the alarm off, then forget to get up and actually take the pills. In fact, I did that just this minute.) If I get amped up, in a manic state, Ripley notices, and makes physical contact, pressing her body against me, which helps me to re-center. Because of the sedative quality of my medications, I need her for hearing dog skills at night. My wife, Sabrina, works a night shift. Ripley will wake me in case of nighttime danger — a smoke alarm, etc. She wakes me when the alarm clock goes off. I also have terrible nightmares, and get trapped in them, unable to wake myself because of the medications. Ripley senses my distress, and gets on top of my chest, licking my face until I wake up.

But the illness that has been kicking my butt for the past three years is something called Periodic Paralysis Disorder (PPD). I first had an episode when I was in my early twenties, but it was thought at the time that it was a seizure. Even three years ago, when the episodes started happening with alarming frequency, my neurologist thought they were some kind of seizure, and my psychiatrist thought they were some kind of psychosomatic reaction. With only a couple of seconds warning, I go into a paralyzed state. My arms, legs, and face become completely unable to move. I cannot talk. But I am fully conscious and can hear what is going on around me. The episodes last anywhere from three to ten minutes or so. I never know when they will happen. Sometimes I go several days without having one. Sometimes I have one a day. Some days I have as many as five, six, seven or more. The more I have, the more exhausted I become, as they have a cumulative effect. My muscles weaken, and I have a harder time recovering. I appear somewhat drunk after, with slurred speech, and have difficulty walking. I often have to go sleep to regain my strength.

It took a while for my neurologist to diagnosis the PPD. I actually had an episode in his office, and that’s when he realized what was happening. Then we did a genetic test, and confirmed the diagnosis — it is a genetic disorder, caused by an improper release of potassium at the cellular level. There is no cure.

I lost my driver’s license three years ago, and had to leave my job. I am now on SSDI, because I cannot hold down a regular job. I never know when and where the attacks will happen. I still go out and do things, but having Ripley is an absolute lifesaver. If I am alone downtown, and have an episode, I may end up slumped on the floor in the middle of the aisle at the hardware store. Or collapsed in a chair at a coffee shop. To outsiders, I appear to be asleep. But in weird places. Ripley’s presence alerts people to the fact that something medical is going on. She comes between my legs, places her head in my lap, watches over me until I come back into my body. I would not feel safe without her.

So, no. I am not training Ripley. I have a disability. Please do not make assumptions about people that you see out in the world. There are so many invisible wounds.

3Jun

Small Wonders

Sometimes being out in the world with a service dog can be draining and hard. You receive a lot of attention – some of it good, some neutral, some negative – but attention, nonetheless. Gone are the days of being just “part of the crowd.” People always notice you. So there is constantly a sense of being watched, observed.

As I have just noted, much of it is good attention. Folks like dogs. They want to say hi, ask about Ripley, tell me about their dogs, just chat. They often want to pet her. All of this is OK, but at the end of a long day, when I have been asked for the umpteenth time, it begins to wear thin.

Then there is the neutral attention, the people who are simply looking. I’m not sure what they think, but I know they are paying attention, watching me as I stand in line, or walk across the room.

The worst, of course, are those who for whatever reason don’t like dogs. The people who think maybe I’m faking it, that Ripley isn’t a service dog, that I’m cheating, or that it’s not fair that they can’t bring their dogs everywhere. They are watching for the slightest misstep, an error, a reason to be able to ask me to leave.

All of this, of course, is exacerbated by the fact that I do, after all, have a disability. Sometimes I am not well. So I find myself sometimes in the situation of having someone trying to carry on a conversation with me about my dog when I am in the middle of having a physical reaction, a small medical crisis, that Ripley is trying to support me through. It would be funny, if it weren’t so ridiculous at the same time.

So it is with deep gratitude that I receive the small wonders that arise during my forays out in the public – those brief gifts that come, unbidden.

One happened this week. I went to Plank Coffee in Cloverdale after a short meeting, having about half an hour to kill before my driver was scheduled to come pick me up for an afternoon of errands. When we go to Plank, we always order the same thing: a large soy latte in a big red mug, and one of their fifty-cent luscious peanut butter dog biscuits, which Ripley gets to eat just outside on the sidewalk, as snacking indoors while working is taboo.

After making short work of her cookie, we came back inside and took a seat. Our barista said he’d bring the latte to our table. I pulled out a notepad, and started going over some lists. Moments later, he delivered the steaming mug of coffee – with a surprise. The baristas there often make a design with the foam – a leaf, or a heart. But here, rendered perfectly, was my dog’s face. The barista smiled and said, “Special portrait.”

That simple gesture erased every little ounce of negative energy I was carrying. I was so touched. And as I sipped that latte, with my beautiful, faithful service dog at my feet, that face stayed intact, right to the bottom of the cup.

As I got up to leave, I brought the mug back to the counter, and said to my barista, “Look. She’s still there!” He grinned, and said, “That’s because she’s well behaved, just like yours.”

Nothing could tarnish the glow of that morning. Thank you for the small wonders, and kind gestures, granted by so many of you out there.

23May

Hospital Visits: Right By Your Side

Going to the emergency room is never fun for anyone. You are usually in pain, sometimes not thinking straight, and you might even be having difficulty communicating properly. If you have a service dog, the last thing you want to deal with is someone trying to challenge your rights to have your dog with you at this critical time.

Ripley is very clear with her thoughts on the matter. She wants to be right with me. The first time we went into the ER together at Kaiser, she was in the small room with me, on a leash, alongside Sabrina, my wife. I was wheeled out of the room and down the hall for a CAT scan, where I disappeared behind a shut door for several minutes, as Ripley and Sabrina waited in the hall. As we were wheeling back to my room, Ripley was walking alongside the gurney, trying to touch my hand.

When we reached the room, and my gurney was put back into place, without warning Ripley suddenly leapt up at the foot of the bed and landed right in between my legs. She did it with tremendous grace and elegance. She knew I was in pain, and was careful not to jostle me. She laid her head down and settled in, as if to say, “That’s it. She’s not going anywhere else now without me.” A doctor and a nurse walked by my room right at that moment, and gave startled looks. I said, “I hope this is OK.” They said, “As long as you’re comfortable, it’s fine.”

This has become our standard. If I am ever in a hospital or medical setting, up on a gurney, Ripley wants to be next to me, particularly if she knows I am in some distress. It makes perfect sense – at home, part of her job is to watch over me and provide alerts when I am sleeping, so she lies either next to me when Sabrina is working her graveyard shifts, or at the foot of the bed on other nights. A hospital gurney is even taller than a regular bed; she can barely see me. In her opinion, I am sure, she’s thinking, “How can I do my job from down here?”

EEG Style-smBecause I have a seizure disorder, I recently had to go in for an EEG test. The test lasts about 20-30 minutes. Sabrina, Ripley and I were all in the room with the technician. The fabulous headgear is the height of fashion. I was joking, because the chest strap was even in rainbow colors – was it special for LGBT patients?

After getting into all my gear, I got up on the bed to lie down, and it was clear Ripley wanted to join me. I asked the technician if this was OK, and she said as long as Ripley was still, it EEG-smwould be fine. Ripley is very good at being still. She seems to understand this is part of the deal – she gets to be next to me if she is very quiet. So I had my EEG with Ripley in my arms. The technician found it particularly amusing, because the tests are recorded not only via a graph printout, but also on video. So some doctor would be reviewing this, and see that I had a dog in bed with me.

Here are the basic rules when it comes to being in a medical environment. As long as you are in is not a sterile area, your service dog is permitted. In other words, service dogs will generally not be allowed into an operating room, or into the prep room for surgery. They also will not be allowed into a room where there is equipment that could be harmful to them, such as x-rays or other scanning devices like MRIs or CAT scans. So be prepared for a temporary separation from your dog when you are taken into those settings. For this reason, it’s always best to have a friend or partner with you, so that your service dog can be relinquished to someone they know.

Otherwise, though, your dog should be permitted to be with you. To help ensure that this process goes smoothly, make sure your dog is in a service vest, with all of the appropriate papers in his or her pocket. I also learned it was important to have rabies tags. We hate jingly tags at our house, and so never attach the rabies tags to our dogs’ collars. The first time I brought Ripley to the ER with me, the guard asked for those tags. Luckily, I did have her latest immunization records in her vest. But after that, I put her rabies tags in her vest as well, so that we had those to show if and when needed.

After Surgery-smLast November, I had surgery at Kaiser, a hysterectomy, and was in the hospital as an inpatient for two and a half days. I barely remember it, because I was so zonked out on all of the medications they were giving me. What I do remember, though, is this: I woke up at some point, and there was Ripley, asleep at the foot of my bed. I later wrote a poem about that, called Awakening. Sabrina took this photograph; when I told her I was going to write this post, she gave it to me – it was the first time I had seen it. It’s a bit surreal to see a photo of yourself being completely out of it. At the same time, it was so comforting to see that Ripley was there, taking care of me.

The biggest challenge with having a service dog in medical settings is being an advocate for yourself. For the most part, Kaiser has been fantastic, and it hasn’t been an issue. But every once in a while, I run into problems. A few weeks ago, I had some odd issues come up and my doctor wanted me to go in and take a heart stress test. Sabrina, Ripley and I went to the main Kaiser campus, to the EKG lab. A female technician came out to get me. She said Ripley couldn’t come. I didn’t question it, and left Ripley with Sabrina. Had I been alone, I would have been less likely to comply, but Ripley will stay with Sabrina. I went in to do the stress test, and realized, as I did it, that there was absolutely no reason Ripley could not have been in that room with me. I was in there for about 20-25 minutes. When I opened the door, there was Ripley – sitting in this hyper-alert pose, staring at the door, waiting for me. The following week, I had to go back for an EKG. This time, I brought Ripley into the room. As I got up onto the gurney, she leapt up, too. I said to the technician, “Hope this is OK.” He said, “As long as she is still.” And as if she could hear, Ripley froze…tucked right between my legs, with her head on my belly. We got a clear EKG reading, and were done in a few minutes. All good.

The last time I was at the ER, Ripley again immediately jumped up on the gurney, and as we were being wheeled to my room, we heard a chorus of “Oh, look! Isn’t that sweet?” Sweet, yes. Cute, OK. But so much more than that. This is my lifeline, my right arm, my protector. And where I go, she goes. As if to say, “Don’t worry, Mom. I know it’s scary right now – but I’ve got your back.”

30Apr

Peeking: Negotiating Public Restrooms

People that aren’t used to the concept of service dogs don’t often completely understand that the service dog/handler team is together everywhere, at all times, in all situations. They are never separated.  So, I have been in a restaurant or cafe with an acquaintance, and said, “I’ll be right back – I need to go use the restroom.” And the person will hold out his or her hand, offering to take my dog’s leash. No, that’s not the way it works. Service dogs go to the bathroom, too.

There are two different categories of challenges I have run into when negotiating the world of public restrooms as part of a service dog team: the actual physical facts of the entry and exit, and the interactions with people. Each can be either flummoxing or amusing, depending on the situation.

First, there is the physical part. When I first began training Ripley, I read in one of my service dog manuals that I should never use a handicapped stall, unless I myself was in a wheelchair and needed the special access. Since that was not the case, I wanted to honor that directive, and during our initial forays into public restrooms, I steadfastly avoided the larger stalls, heading for the regular, smaller ones. I soon found myself in a number of humorous situations. One night, I went to see a play at a local theater. The bathroom had two stalls, and there was a line of people waiting to use them. When it was my turn, Ripley and I headed for one of the doors. We managed to get inside, but then found that the stall was so small, that when the door was closed, my knees were almost touching it by the time I could sit down. Poor Ripley was squeezed in a narrow space wrapped around the toilet, her head up over my lap. It was impossible to even get to the toilet paper without reaching around her belly. I was almost hysterical (with giggles) by the time we finished our business. I found out later that the theater does have a separate, unisex one-room bathroom, and that’s what we use now when we go to see plays.

Too often, restroom doors swing in instead of out. That’s fine for a person to step into the stall, but when a dog also has to walk into the narrow space, and then you both have to turn around and reposition before you can close the door, again, it can get quite comical.

One other factor in the equation is that I am often carrying two bags. Part of my disability is that I cannot drive, so I do not have the luxury many folks have of using my car as a storage unit. I’m constantly schlepping my life around with me when I’m out in public. I have my messenger bag, with my books, notepad, etc., and sometimes a camera bag, and then I have Ripley’s bag, a small duffel that I use to carry all of the things I’ll need for her if we’re going to be out on the town all day – water bottle, collapsible dog bowl, small blanket, treat bag, extra poop bags. Some restrooms do have a hook to hang a bag on, but they are generally designed for a purse. And in a small stall, if I hang my two bags on a hook, and then have Ripley sitting in front of me, once again, I barely have room, and we’re like the proverbial sardines in a can.

Luckily, many of the newer buildings have generously sized stalls, so even the non-handicapped spaces are wider, and it is less of an issue. But, needless to say, I now check out the space when I enter, and if it looks like a tight squeeze – Ripley and I head for the handicapped stall. It’s just not worth the anguish. Of course, if there were ever anyone needing that stall, I would allow them first priority. But in an empty bathroom – I figure, my disability and special needs count, too.

Oh, and don’t even ask me about Port-a-Potties. Gaw.

The Pink Nose

The Pink Nose

OK, now the second issue. The people. Here’s what happens. We’re in our stall, and I’m doing my business, and then I hear, “Oh!” Oops. Ripley is peeking again. If there’s a stall next to ours with someone in it, and she hears a sound, she’ll poke her nose under, just to check it out. And the woman is, of course, surprised. Usually it’s not a bad thing. They think it’s cute. Or, I’ll hear a child out in the waiting area say, “Mom, there’s a dog in there.” They have a lower line of vision, and are looking down, and they notice her paws under the door. So when we come out, I have a whole line of women and children beaming at me.

This is positive, for the most part. But people want to chat, and sometimes pet, and ask questions. Sometimes they want to talk to me while I’m in the stall. And I’m going to the bathroom. I’m at the theater, trying to get back to my seat before the second act. Or returning to a friend waiting for me. And sometimes, sometimes, I think, “Can I just pee like everybody else?”

These are the moments when it is very clear that a service dog is not just a tool. Ripley is my ally, my assistant, my right hand. But she is also an adorable yellow lab with a pink nose. People melt when they see dogs. They get all gooey. They want to tell me about their dogs, or the dog they used to have, or the dog they had that just passed away. And all of that is really sweet, but I’m just trying to go to the bathroom, and wash my hands. Or sometimes someone will start the whole, “What does she do for you?” discussion, in the bathroom. And really, I don’t mind educating the public, it comes with the territory – but could we not do it in the bathroom?

I guess I’m old fashioned. I think it’s weird when people talk on their cell phones in public restrooms, too. And when people have conversations from one stall to the next.

Just Waiting

Just Waiting

But – I do have to confess. I  talk to Ripley. As we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to fit into yet another small box, and find a place for our bags, and get the door closed. I do talk to her. Maybe I’m the crazy one.

18Apr

Service Dogs Vs. Therapy Dogs: What’s the Difference?

Being out in the public with a service dog, I am constantly asked questions. Over the past few weeks, one question has dominated: Is that a therapy dog? Where can I go to get my dog trained as a therapy dog?

There appears to be a great deal of confusion among the general population about the different types of service dogs, and what their roles, responsibilities, and privileges are. For example, most of these “Is that a therapy dog?” questions have come when I have been in a retail setting, like a grocery store or drug store. Therapy dogs would not be in such a setting with their vests on. And although some people seem to understand, basically, what a therapy dog does (provide assistance and comfort in a more clinical setting), others believe that a therapy dog will be for them – to give emotional support to the handler.

So, in the hopes of clearing up some of the mystery behind all of this, I am going to lay out the basic definitions of the three categories of dogs who help people: emotional support dogs, therapy dogs, and service dogs.

Emotional support dogs fall into the most common (and least understood) category. To qualify to get an emotional support dog, all that is required is a letter from your doctor or psychiatrist saying that a dog would be beneficial to you as an emotional support animal. You are not required to have a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. So this is something that is available to anyone – an elderly person who simply needs extra comfort, for example. However, the privileges of an emotional support dog are extremely limited. They are only allowed two things:

  • to live in an apartment or other rental unit where otherwise dogs would not be permitted, and
  • to fly on an airplane with their person.

That’s it. Emotional support dogs are not allowed entry into restaurants, stores, etc. You are not given permission to bring your chihuahua in your cart in the grocery store. Emotional support dogs are not required to wear vests, although some identification may be helpful when flying. (Paperwork is always important when dealing with airlines.) And, depending on the airline, you may find some difficulty, as some have more rigorous guidelines.

Therapy dogs are dogs who are specifically trained to give affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, and schools. They often work with people with learning disabilities or those in stressful situations, like a courtroom, or a disaster area. They can come in all sizes and breeds. The most important thing about them is their temperament – they must be friendly, gently, and patient. A therapy dog will be petted constantly, and may have children climbing on top of him or her, or the dog may be asked to jump up onto a patient’s bed. So the dog must be very confident, and comfortable with lots of contact.

They are allowed to go into settings such as schools and hospitals, libraries and daycare centers, rest homes and courtrooms, to perform their duties. However, they do not have the rights of a service dog. Just because they own a vest, it does not mean they can go into restaurants, movie theaters, grocery stores or concerts. The handler is not disabled, so those privileges are not extended to the therapy dog/handler team. The therapy dog is only allowed access rights when she/he is  performing her/his duty — at the school, nursing home, office, etc.

A therapy dog should wear a vest that clearly says “therapy dog,” not “service dog.” And the vest should be removed when the dog is not on the job.

There is no one standard for training a therapy dog. However, many organizations who use therapy dogs provide training, to help get your dog ready to become one of their volunteers. I have added a page in my resource section with listings of organizations that provide training in the Northern California Area.

Service dogs have the most privileges, and, correspondingly, the highest level of responsibility. In order to use a service dog, the handler must have a disability, as defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Go to Sec. 12102. Definition of disability for a complete listing.) Although technically there are no laws stating this, it is highly recommended that the handler have a letter from his or her doctor stating that a service dog is required because of the person’s disability. I have such a letter, and carry a copy of it in Ripley’s vest at all times.

The most important difference between a service dog and the other categories of dogs is that a service dog has a task or tasks. Legally, a business owner can ask you only one question: What does your service dog do? And “My dog comforts me” is not an adequate answer. You must be able to say something like, “My dog picks up objects,” or “My dog opens doors,” or “My dog reminds me when to take my medications,” or “My dog is an alert-and-assist dog for seizures,” or “My dog notifies me when my blood sugar is low,” or “My dog helps me to stabilize my balance,” or “My dog responds to my PTSD symptoms.” There are many, many different tasks a dog can do – but a bona fide service dog is a working dog, and has a job.

Service dogs also are not required to wear vests, but it makes their work much easier, for simple identification in the eyes of the public. Having an ID card can also ease access, so registration with a service dog organization is a good idea. The most recognized one, and the one I use, is USAR Plus. That way, I have an ID card with our pictures to show in case anyone ever asks. And they do ask sometimes.

A working service dog/handler team has the right to access to any place the public has access to — the only limitations are private homes, and some places in the public arena that may be inappropriate for safety reasons, such as sterile areas in a hospital or rooms where x-rays or other imaging equipment is being used  (most areas in a hospital are OK), some construction sites, etc.

OK — whew. Hopefully that makes all of this a little less murky and a tad more understandable. Onward to the next public encounter!

29Mar

Dog Socks

Okay, Ripley and I have to talk to you about her socks. If you ever run into us at the grocery store, you’ll see that in addition to her blue service vest, she will be sporting a pair of very spiffy baby blue argyle socks on her front feet.

These socks are the topic of much conversation. Every time we go shopping, we hear, “Oh, that is SO adorable!” Or titters of laughter. Or we overhear children saying to their parents, “Look, mom. That dog has socks on!” Sometimes, we let the comments slide by as part of the background. But often, my pride gets the best of me, and I have to respond. I turn and say, “They are so she won’t slip.” In other words, I am saying, “Really, I don’t just dress my dog up for the heck of it. These socks have a purpose.”

Here’s how it all started. One day fairly early on in our working relationship, we were in a grocery story, far back in one of the aisles. Ripley slipped on the waxed floor, and all four legs went sliding out, leaving her on her belly. I coaxed her up, and we took a few steps, but it happened again. At this point, she was trembling with anxiety. She was lying in a heap on the floor, and refused to get up. I panicked, not knowing how to reassure her, or get her out of the store. She is too big to carry at 62 pounds. Eventually, I was able to convince her to stand again, and very slowly and carefully, we made our way out of that aisle and safely to the check-out stand.

Here’s the problem: We keep Ripley’s nails trimmed back, but she has always had a very long quick. So we can only cut the nails so short without causing a bleeder. This is complicated by the fact that when she is tense in a new situation, she is a nail-walker; instead of letting her feet relax, putting her pads down, she arches her feet and hits the ground nails first. These two issues spell disaster when encountering the high-gloss floors  in grocery stores and a few other establishments.

I had a pair of dog boots, but they seemed like overkill. They are tricky to put on and off, she isn’t too fond of them, and they take up a lot of space to carry around all the time. I browsed the internet looking for solutions, and hit upon dog socks. The dog socks are simple little stretchy pull-on socks. On the underneath, they have non-slip pads. They’re like the socks hospitals give out to patients. The socks come in sets of four. Initially, I put on all four, but I soon discovered that using two is adequate – front-wheel drive is enough traction, and makes getting in and out of gear (as it were) simpler. As an additional bonus, your set lasts twice as long, and you have an extra pair ready to go when one pair is in the laundry.

I found some online, but wasn’t sure about sizing, so I went to The Healdsburg Doghouse to check out their supply. The first time I went in, the only ones they had in Ripley’s size were pink argyle. Desperate, I bought them. Hey, they worked great! But I knew we couldn’t stick with pink. It was bad enough to be getting the “oh, so cute!” attention. To have them in pink was beyond embarrassing. We checked back in regularly, and soon found the baby blue argyle – whew! At least now they match her vest. And they are so small, they fit very nicely into the pockets on the side of the vest, making them always handy.

Dog Socks 2-sm

Ripley models her dog socks at the grocery store.

You want the socks to be snug, so they won’t fall off. Ripley ended up wearing a large. (They make them for toy dogs, so some are very tiny.) Occasionally we have an errant sock because I don’t get them on well, and I’m at the checkout stand and look down to see a bare front foot, and we have to back-track to locate the missing sock. Or a nice person says, “I found your sock.” But for the most part, they stay on really well. The socks are meant for indoor use, so don’t need to be laundered often, but they do wash nicely. Sometimes I forget she has them on. The other day, we walked through the parking lot in the pouring rain, and were in the truck, and I noticed she was sitting up in the back seat, instead of lying down as she usually does. I glanced at her, wondering what was up. Oh, gaw! She had sopping wet dog socks on. Sorry, Rippers!

Dog socks are also great for elderly dogs at home who are dealing with arthritis or stiffness if you have laminate or hardwood floors, and the dogs are beginning to have trouble getting up from a prone position. Again, you just have to remember they are not designed for outdoor use.

Even though we’ve been using them for years now, Ripley still acts completely put out when we stop at the door of the grocery store to put on her socks. I’ve become very skilled at getting them on – I brace my body against hers, and use a stay command so she stands still. But she will hold her foot up in the air for a couple of seconds, as if she can’t walk. Then, she takes that first step – and supreme confidence takes over. It’s as if she’s saying, “Oh, right! I have my socks on! Nonslip!” She prances through the store with great assurance, and I think, once again, thank goodness for dog socks.

 

26Mar

Buying Groceries

It had been a pretty uneventful trip to the grocery store. We were almost home free, standing in the checkout line – me, Ripley, and my wife Sabrina. As Sabrina pushed the cart ahead, the woman before us turned and said, “Oh, what a cute dog.” I said thank you. She said, “So, is she working, or in training?” Oh. This question. We get this a lot. Because I don’t have an immediately identifiable disability, i.e., I’m not in a wheelchair, and I don’t appear to be blind, people often think I’m training Ripley. And, to be fair, the presence of Canine Companions for Independence in the county does mean that folks do see more training teams.

“No,” I said. “We are a working team.” Then she said, “I wish I had trained my dog to be an assistance dog.” At first, I held out a vague hope that she was saying this because she had some disability, and was recognizing the fact that her dog could have been assisting her over the years. But then, the conversation went in the direction that these conversations go, far too often.

“Just the other day, I had to take my mother to Kaiser,” she said. “I dropped her off, and then I was in the parking lot, and I realized, I still had her Kaiser card and her I.D. Well, I knew I couldn’t leave my dog in the car. She would just panic! So, I went up to the building, and I explained what happened to the person at the door, and he said, ‘Well, just go in, and bring it to her, and hope that no one stops you.’ And no one did! Weren’t we lucky!”

I smiled awkwardly, and said nothing. Because what I was thinking was, “No, I wish someone had stopped you and asked you to leave. Because it’s people like you that make it difficult for people with real service dogs.” But I didn’t say that, because I’m sure she would have thought I was being rude, and she wouldn’t have understood, and she probably would have thought I was making a federal case out of some little incident.

And really, I don’t want to have that feeling. I get angry and flustered. I long to say something, but I don’t. It’s not worth the effort, number one. I can’t be in education mode every moment of every day. I am out with Ripley whenever I am out – and that means these little incidents happen a lot. People are constantly saying things to me such as, “I wish I could take my dog into restaurants,” or “You’re so lucky to be able to bring your dog everywhere.” Well, yes, in a way, I am lucky. I’m grateful for this privilege. I love my dog, and she means the world to me, and I can’t imagine negotiating my daily life without her. But I also hate my disabilities. Do you not think I would trade a “normal” dog/handler relationship for a completely healthy mind and body?

Because of folks like this, the ones who bend the rules, I end up running into problems. I have people who see Ripley’s vest, and still ask me if she is a service dog when I enter a business. There are people who buy vests just so they can bring their cute little toy poodle or chihuahua into the store. (Which isn’t to say that small dogs can’t be service dogs – they can. I’ve just seen a lot of small posers.) I was at a big-box stores, and listened to a dog barking, aisles away, the entire time I was there – supposedly a service dog. Service dogs don’t behave like that. Fortunately, on that day, the staff people kept coming up to me and saying, “Can you believe this? Some people.” They recognized that Ripley, by her demeanor, was truly a service dog, and honored the two of us by commiserating with us over this imposter. Thank goodness. But because of recent incidents like this, and ensuing media coverage, there’s been a bit of a backlash. What was once all friendly has now become occasionally hostile. And it’s largely due to those who try to pass pets off as service animals. There is a difference.

In the end, the only thing I can really do is keep to the high ground. I try to remain friendly, make sure that our team is always behaving well, and follow the rules. We have responsibilities as well as privileges. I never forget that. Even at the grocery store.

 

 

22Mar

Ensuring a Friendly Welcome

When Ripley and I are out in the world as a service dog/handler team, most of the time we receive a very warm welcome. We are lucky, living in Sonoma County, California – the presence of Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) means that many people in this region are familiar with the blue vests of service dogs. We are frequently approached by folks who say they have attended a graduation at CCI, or they have friends who raise puppies, or that they themselves have been part of the training process of a working dog. All of that exposure means that, for the most part, Ripley and I don’t have to explain ourselves.

But we have run into those moments when a store clerk or restaurant owner has met us at the door and said, “No dogs.” Often, it has been a situation involving a first-generation American, perhaps because of the lack of exposure in their countries of origin. So, for example, I have caused consternation at gas station quick stops, some restaurants, and small groceries.

In each case, rather than either giving up and leaving, or getting angry and demanding my rights, I look at the opportunity as a teachable moment. Ripley’s service vest has zippered pockets, and they are handy for much more than plastic waste bags. The U.S. Department of Justice provides, via the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an ADA Business Brief about service animals. It is a one-page summary about how a a business must respond to a service dog and his or her handler – what questions they can ask,  how they must treat them, all the basic rules. It also explains in simple, straight-forward language what a service dog is, differentiating them from pets, and provides a telephone number and website for further information.

I always keep at least three copies of the ADA Business Brief in Ripley’s vest. If I run into a situation where someone is unfamiliar with service dogs, I pull out a copy and present it to them. It’s amazing how the tension dissolves. People love to have explanations and something tangible to refer to – especially in a situation where you might be dealing with a person who speaks English as a second language, having something in writing is key. In a Japanese restaurant, I remember the owner said very gratefully, “Oh, thank you. Now I can show this to any of my patrons, in case they ask me why there is a dog in the restaurant.” Later, when I was eating, I looked over towards the kitchen, and saw the entire kitchen staff reading the brief.

At a Mexican grocery, I had similar good results. Once I had shown the brief, and explained (another thing I will often do is make the connection with my medical alert bracelet, since my condition is not readily visible – it helps people understand more — then I point to the similar symbol on Ripley’s vest), on a later visit to the same store, a young girl was expressing fear around Ripley’s presence. This is another cultural gap, where in some countries dogs may run wild in the streets or be used mostly as guard animals, so people are more fearful of them. The store owner, speaking to her in Spanish, explained that this was a helper dog, and that she had nothing to fear. It was a beautiful moment, hearing him advocate for us.

More recently, I have run into encounters at other establishments where our entire identity as a service dog/handler team is being questioned. That is fodder for another post, as we ponder the abuses of the system, when folks randomly buy vests online and then take pets into stores and restaurants, passing them off as service dogs, introducing an unneeded hurdle for the real working teams who must then deal with the repercussions. Very frustrating, and too common. But, as I said — for another post.

 

14Mar

The Three Levels of Service

Most people think a working dog is constantly at the same stage of alertness, but there are actually three levels of service: on duty, on call, and off duty.

Ripley Poetry Slam

On duty is the stage the general public is most familiar with. When a working dog dons her vest, that means she is on duty. When Ripley is on duty, a number of things take place. First, she is focused and alert, with her attention on me. She walks easily and closely at my side, and is not distracted. If someone asks to pet her, she looks at me first to see if it’s okay. She allows a brief hello, and is back to business. People who expect the typical exuberant Labrador greeting are often disappointed, thinking she is being unfriendly, but that’s not it. She simply has a job to do.

She tucks herself into small spaces, staying out of the way, with her top priority being that she is in close proximity to me. When we are in social settings, she is extremely quiet. She sits through theater performances, concerts, restaurant meals, and no one knows she is there until she emerges at the end from under my chair or the table.

And, of course, she does her job. Ripley is both a medical alert and assist dog for my seizure disorder, and a psychiatric service dog for my bipolar disorder. It is her job to remind me to take my medications on time, to help me get to a safe place and stay with me when I am having my seizures, to calm me down when I begin being hypomanic. Because my medications are sedative, she also has tasks similar to those of a hearing dog, and wakes me in case of emergencies, such as a smoke alarm going off, or other middle of the night incidents.

2013-07-20 Ripley

The next level of service is on call. This means the dog is still working, but at a more relaxed level. Typically, on call is when the dog is at home. The vest is off, the leash is off. At our house, Ripley usually stays in the same room with me, just inches away. It looks as if she’s a dog taking a nap. But, she’s still working. Many of her tasks happen at home – medication reminders, mood management, seizure monitoring. The difference is that she doesn’t have to wear that public persona. She can appear more like a dog. However, she’s not doing crazy canine things like the other two hooligans in the house, such as racing into the yard to bark at raccoons, or rushing out to annoy the UPS man. Even though this is a step-down level of duty, it is still on duty, and she acts with some decorum.

Ripley @ San Diego

The final level of service is off duty. This is when a working dog knows she is officially allowed to be “dog.” For us, the epitome of this is going to the beach. When we step onto the sand, and I remove Ripley’s vest, she transforms from a sedate and mature service animal into a frolicking pup instantaneously.  In and out of the surf, splashing and playing. We have been to San Diego several times and visited Dog Beach at Ocean Beach, a favorite location. Even here, though, her behavior is somewhat different than a typical dog. The handler/service dog bond is so strong, that when she plays, she wants to interact with me, not other dogs. So Ripley politely greets any canines who say hello, but what she really wants to do is have fun with me. She waits on the beach until I wade out into the surf, and I open my arms wide. Then she races out to meet me to give a wet hello. She turns, runs back to the shore, and we repeat – over and over – as if we are the only two on the beach.

We also have off duty time wading in the Russian River, playing at the dog park, or even in our own front yard – without the vest, romping through the grass, being silly. That’s all it takes.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
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