relationship with service dog

6Nov

Road Trips Are for Junk Food

Humans inevitably succumb to junk food on road trips; why not dogs? That seems to have been the theme of our weekend jaunt to Santa Fe, despite all of our best intentions.

You’d think two childless lesbians could just pick up and go whenever they wanted, right? It’s not that simple, though, when you have three dogs, four cats, and a very recently adopted (ridiculously adorable) kitten who happens to be missing half of one of his rear legs. Named Dilly. Dilly Pickle, if you want the whole name. So before we leave town, we have to first find a petsitter for the hooligans, then arrange for a second person who can take care of Dilly (since he’s not fully integrated into the household yet, and needs more expert care). Only then can I make the motel reservations. I write up our itinerary, our contact numbers, and update the other paperwork: the emergency list of vets and shelters, the feeding instructions, and the household instructions, with info on how to sign in to the wi-fi, how to get onto NetFlix, when the garbage will be picked up, all that jazz. Write the check for the petsitter, put everything into a folder on the counter. Then I pack for Rocky, making sure she has bagged food for the trip, her own bowl, a spoon for the wet food, treats in a treat bag, plenty of poop bags, the proper paperwork in her vest, etc. Somehow, we inevitably end up packing our bags at the last minute, throwing clothes into duffles, grabbing phone chargers, trying to remember the things we forgot the last time. Then we rush out the door.

We hit the road on Friday morning about 11 a.m., first having to drop Dilly off at his sitter’s house, then we were off to Santa Fe. Technically, it’s a four-hour drive, but our drives take longer than the GPS tells us, because of coffee breaks and then the necessary restroom pit stops, especially since we try to let Rocky pee, and she just walks around for twenty minutes and doesn’t do a damn thing. We needed to be there by 6 p.m. for a reading at Collected Works Book Store in the downtown plaza. We figured we had plenty of time.

We started off with full travel mugs of coffee. We made it as far north as Truth or Consequences, before we ran out of coffee, and were in dire need of some facilities. We punched “Starbucks” into our navigation system, and came up with two independent coffee shops. One of them was the Black Cat Books and Coffee. Cool, we thought. Something unique and fun. Let’s check it out. We drove through “TOC” (Truth or Consequences), which is like a town that time forgot, and pulled up in front of the little bookstore. I opened the back door to let Rocky out – and realized that I had forgotten her leash at home. Shit. I called out to Sabrina, “I forgot Rocky’s leash.” “What?” I know, I’m thinking. What kind of service dog handler forgets her dog’s leash? And yes, I had also forgotten to put the spare leash in her bag, after I had cleaned the bag a couple of weeks ago. We had no leash.

Thank god my wife is resourceful. She took off her belt, and handed it to me, and we had a make-shift leash. We went into the coffee shop, relieved. The woman at the counter greeted us. Behind her was a map of New Mexico with a large arrow pointing to TOC, saying, “You are here NOW.” “Oh, you’re lucky. The other person with a dog just left, so it’s OK for you to come in.” Sabrina said, “She’s a service dog.” She said, “The other one was a service dog, too. We like all dogs. But we only allow one in the store at a time. Otherwise they might get into a fight.” Sabrina and I glance at each other. The woman continues, “Unless the two dogs know each other, if they come in together. I mean, we’re not a dog dating service.” It was not worth the effort. We decided to get our coffee and go. Of course, there was no espresso – only regular brewed coffee, and not enough for two cups of that, so we had to wait.

When we finally got our cups, she asked if Rocky could have a treat. I said yes, and she held it out to her. “Does she do a trick?” I hate when people ask this. Service dogs do not do tricks for food. Actually, I do not even like other people to give her treats. I prefer, if treats are given, that they give the treat to me, and then I give her the treat, so that I am always the source of food. But, whatever. Rocky received her bacon treat, and we left. As we got in the car, we saw a Dollar Store across the way. Sabrina thought they might have leashes there, so we drove over to check it out. As we pulled into the parking lot, we noticed that just next door was a Paws & Claws Thrift Shoppe. I decided to walk over there first. It didn’t look too promising; mostly full of junk. But the woman inside, when I asked about leashes, pointed me to a small pet section, and I found one leash – a black one, that happened to have printed on it “Rocky Mountain Veterinary Clinic,” which was simply too perfect, the combo of having Rocky’s name on it, and the fact that I grew up in the Rocky Mountains. Plus it only cost one dollar. As I pulled out my dollar bill, the woman said, “Can I give Rocky a treat?” Damn, this dog was scoring! So, a Milkbone to follow the bacon treat.

We had several more pit stops, but we eventually made it to Santa Fe, checked into our motel room, and got to the reading with a scant ten minutes to spare. Rocky did finally eat a meal late Friday night, but refused to eat the next day, once again thrown off by traveling. But Saturday night, a group of us had arranged to meet for dinner at a nice restaurant, Cafe Fina, on the outskirts of town. Sabrina and I arrived early, and a server set up a table for the five of us. As we were waiting, the server came up to me and said, “I can bring a bowl of water and plate of bacon for your dog.” Oh my god! I politely refused, saying that as a service dog, she was not allowed to eat in restaurants.

puppucino-smRocky had a couple of cookies as a treat for service work (from me) that Saturday, but that was about it. On Sunday morning, she had no interest in food. We packed all our belongings, and loaded everything into the car for the drive home. On the way out of town, we stopped at a Starbucks for our first caffeine of the day. It’s a cool little place, that has both a drive-through, and a walk-up window. We always go to the walk-up window. A very friendly barista greeted us. He took our orders, and then said, “Would your dog like a puppucino?” We both looked at him. I said, “A puppucino?” He said, “It’s whipped cream in a cup.”

I thought, “Why the hell not. She’s on vacation.”

Rocky thought she’d reached nirvana. Seriously. I only let her eat about half of it. She had it all over her muzzle, and then she bit the cup and tried to take it from me.

That’s it. No more junk food for this dog. Time to get home and have some kibble.

 

21Oct

Rocky Has Issues Too

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that recently I’ve been using the services of animal communicator Kat Berard. In January she worked with our pit/boxer cross, Malakai. A few weeks ago, she helped out Ripley, trying to ease her transition into retirement.

Well, Rocky, my new service dog, has some issues, too. So why not let her have a chat with Kat to see if we can work some things out?

Mostly it centers around separation anxiety. She wants to be with me all the time. Hey, that’s great, right? She’s my service dog. She should want to be with me all the time! Well, yes, that’s true. I have been working very hard over the last five months to create a bond with Rocky, so she feels strongly connected to me. But I also need her to trust that this is her home, that I will always return to her, and she will not be abandoned.

Here’s a little background. Rocky is from American Service Dogs, which places shelter dogs in service positions. I believe Rocky actually came from a private home, not a shelter – but the fact remains she was given up once, and went to live at a training kennel. At some point, she was assigned to a young boy, and went as far in the training that she went home with him and his family. But the family, because of changes in their lives, decided a service dog was not a good solution for them at that time, and returned Rocky to American Service Dogs. Back to the training kennel, and dealing with a second abandonment.

When Rocky and I first started working together at the kennel, she was slow to bond, showing strong attachment to Jared Latham, the manager and lead trainer at ASD. When she eventually shifted her loyalties to me, she didn’t want me to leave at the end of class; she wanted to go home with me. Once Rocky had her first overnight visit at my house, that was it. She was committed.

I still return to the training facility a couple of times a week for further classes with Rocky. I have to close the dutch door to the training room so Rocky can’t see the main entrance – otherwise she attempts to head toward that escape route at every opportunity. At the end of class, after behaving perfectly, I open the training room door, and she nearly pulls me off my feet racing for the front exit. I can barely restrain her. As soon as our car is in sight, she’s fine. Then she know’s she’s going home.

Here is a more extreme example of her fear. Last month, we took a friend and spent a long afternoon at White Sands National Monument. It was a big outing for Rocky, her longest yet. We came home and fed all three dogs, and my friend Ruth said, “Rocky must be tired. Why don’t we leave her home and let Ripley be the one to go out to dinner with us?” I knew that Rocky adored Malakai, and I, too, felt Rocky was exhausted. I also knew Ripley would love the special time being service dog for the evening, so I agreed. We locked the dogs in the house just to be on the safe side (given Rocky’s recent history as an escape artist).

We were gone about an hour and a half. When we came home, Rocky met me right inside the door, whining, and she started to pee. I quickly opened the door to the dog yard, believing at first she simply had to go to the bathroom. But when I stepped outside, she went into the most submissive position I have ever seen. She got down on her belly in the dirt, and crawled towards me, head lowered. She appeared to be begging my forgiveness for whatever horrible thing she had done which had made me leave her behind. Of course, I should have known better; I had seen her pee in submission/fear before, once or twice at the kennel.

I gave her  as much love and reassurance as I could, and convinced her to come back into the house, but it still took nearly four hours before she would stand up in front of me and behave normally.

Talk about heartbreak. Oh, I so wished I spoke dog that night!

So, we have asked Kat to drop in for a bit this weekend to see what’s up, to reassure Rocky I’m a permanent fixture in her life, to explain that sometimes even service dogs have to be separated from their people for short periods of time, and I’d like her to be able to handle that without having a nervous breakdown. Because that would be helpful. For both of us.

 

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18Oct

Extra Special Time for Ripley

I returned from our trip to Jemez Springs with animal communicator Kat Berard’s transcript with Ripley in hand, determined to take new actions. We arrived home at about 4 p.m., and our petsitter had left in the morning, so Ripley and Malakai had been alone most of the day. When we pulled into the driveway, we heard Malakai’s familiar welcome home yips from the backyard, and then saw two bouncing dogs through the glass door.

You would never guess, at these moments, that Ripley is over eleven years old. She springs two or three feet in the air. She may have arthritis in her front legs, but nothing hampers those rear legs. She could be an Olympic hurdler. I let Rocky into the kitchen, where Malakai proceeded to dance in happy circles around her, and allowed Ripley to follow me outside. Special treatment time. Leaving the side gate open, I brought Ripley with me as I began to unload the car with all our luggage and miscellaneous items. At first, she tried to jump into the car. Clear message – “You’re not going anywhere without me.” I convinced her we had no plans to depart,and were only unpacking, and then, tail wagging madly, she accompanied me for six or so trips into the house with all our gear.

I then slipped on her leash, and the two of us headed out to the end of the driveway to the mailbox. Again, I’m not sure what wagged more – the tail or the body of the dog. We picked up two days’ worth of mail, and walked back to the house together.

One of the things Kat had suggested was “family outings,” as well as allowing Ripley to be the service dog now and then. I needed to pick up a prescription at Walgreen’s that evening, so we loaded all three dogs into the car, and this time, Ripley wore her service vest instead of Rocky.

Jessica says hello to Ripley

Jessica says hello to Ripley

Walgreen’s Pharmacy is one of Ripley’s favorite places. The two young women who usually assist us (Jessica in particular) dote on her, and always hand out Milk Bones. In fact, sometimes I receive two Milk Bones in my hand, and then return home only to find that one of the paper prescription bags in my larger bag is filled to the brim with more Milk Bones.

So that night, we all drove to Walgreen’s, only about ten minutes away, if that. Rocky and Malakai stayed in the car with Sabrina, and Ripley and I headed into the store. I swear, she danced down the aisles! By her excitement, I could tell – obviously, it had been far too long. She received all kinds of special attention. I pocketed the Milk Bones, and when we exited the store, I gave her one. (I try never to give her treats inside of stores. Part of the service dog thing.) Once we entered the car, I gave Milk Bones to all three dogs. And, bonus to the whole experience: Rocky didn’t seem upset, because she hadn’t been left behind at home. It worked out for everybody.

Over the next week, I made an effort to bring Ripley outside on the front patio with me alone at times. I saved her a special spot on the bed. (She likes to lie between my legs first thing at night, with her head on my stomach, while Rocky prefers to sleep next to me.) I remembered to talk to her more, to tell her how much I loved her.

Last night, I needed to go to Walgreen’s again. Once more, a family outing – all three dogs in the car, Ripley in her service vest. Once more, Ripley bounce-walked through the store, tail wagging. We found Jessica, her favorite cashier, at the counter. She has met Rocky, and knows about our transition. Jessica beamed, “Oh, I’m so glad to see Ripley out again!” Milk Bones followed, of course.

For an extra bonus, we decided to take all three dogs to Caliche’s Frozen Custard for Poochie Cones after the Walgreen’s run. Sabrina took charge of Malakai (who always wants to pee on the tile wall, so that’s a bit of a challenge), and I led Rocky and Ripley. Rocky ate the whole cone for the first time. Ripley, as usual, ate hers in two bites: one for the ice cream, the second for the cone. All were happy.

More family outings ahead. A little ice cream is good for everybody.

 

*Feature photo by Jessica at Walgreen’s, E. Northrise Drive, Las Cruces NM

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15Oct

Ripley Opens Up: A Session with the Animal Communicator

While we were in Jemez Springs with Rocky, the rest of the clan (our cats, Ripley and Malakai) stayed at the house with our petsitter Ashley. This was a big first – Ripley had never been away from me overnight since she has been my service dog, let alone three nights, with the exception of the time I was in the hospital three years ago. Then, Sabrina brought her to the hospital each morning, and she slept at the foot of my bed all day long, only returning home at night. In other words, she knew where I was, she knew I was sick, and she still was taking care of me.

This was entirely different. I walked out of the house with a suitcase, with Rocky at my side, and she had no idea where I was going or when I was getting back. Yes, I did tell her. But that human-to-dog talking thing is imperfect. She was not happy.

Ripley, full body pose

Ripley, full body pose

So while we were away, I had arranged for Ripley to talk to Kat Berard, animal communicator. Not just because of this trip, but also because I know Ripley has been struggling with her new role as a retiring service dog. In preparation for the conversation, I had sent a fact sheet and the pictures in this blog post (one close-up of Ripley’s face, one showing her whole body, and one more that simply is a favorite – I chose one of Ripley and Rocky, because I thought it would help Kat to see the two of them together).

I also had two questions:

  1. How can we make the transition from working service dog to retired service dog easier for Ripley?
  2. What are Ripley’s fears/concerns about having Rocky in the household, and about no longer going on daily outings? How can I communicate to her that this is something I am doing for her benefit, and that she will always hold a special place in my heart?

The final thing Kat asks clients to provide is a personal message. Here is what I asked her to say to Ripley.

Ripley, I love you. I know you always want to keep me safe and take care of me, as you have done so well for the past six years. I noticed signs you were aging and it was getting harder for you to do your job. I want to let Rocky come in and take some of the harder work away, so you can rest, knowing I will still be taken care of and safe. I would like you to help me with Rocky; she is still learning, and you can be a good teacher, even though I know Rocky can be an energetic silly pup at times. You have so much wisdom, and that is what I need from you now. You will always be my first service dog, and because of that, you hold a very special place in my heart. No one can ever replace you. There will always be a place for you in our home.

Kat sent the transcript of her conversation with Ripley to me via email while we were still in Jemez Springs. She communicated with Ripley for an hour. Here was the first thing Ripley said: She is having difficulty transitioning from service dog to family dog. She does not feel useful now, because she is not used to “Be-ing” versus “Do-ing.” Kat said, “She does not know how to simply be a dog. That is, she is so far advanced beyond “Dog” that she does not know how to relax and rest and enjoy life.”

The biggest message in the communication, which made complete sense to me, was that because Ripley is so highly intelligent, I must keep her interest in life by engaging her each day, or at least over the course of the week. Though it is critical for me to build the bond with Rocky, I need to spend one-on-one time with Ripley, even if it’s only for ten minutes at a time, leaving Rocky inside while I am outside with Ripley, or letting Ripley be the one who accompanies me inside a store as my service dog.

Kat communicated to Ripley that Rocky is here to help me because Ripley is aging, that this is a natural process, not a fault of hers. She explained that it is important for me to bond with and train Rocky, so she can learn well, to help me, so Ripley can relax and not worry about me. She told Ripley how much I appreciate all she has done for me over the years, and that now I want her to be able to rest, and know that I will still be taken care of.

Here are the parts where Ripley spoke out, that sounded so Ripley. When asked how to make the transition easier, Ripley said, “I do not want to be forgotten; that is all. I want to be included in what is going on whenever that is possible. I know that Michelle cannot always take me where she is going but I would still like to go along sometimes.” (Kat suggested more family car rides.)

Ripley gets a kiss from Rocky

Ripley gets a kiss from Rocky

When asked about fears and concerns of having Rocky in the household, Ripley said, “I am not afraid of Rocky, and I am not afraid for Michelle. I do miss what I was doing, and I hope that Rocky is as smart as I am, because Michelle needs/wants a very well-trained service dog. I will do my best to help Rocky be like me. This will not be easy because Rocky is smart, but she is not me.” (Kat made a note here that this was a factual rather than egotistical statement, because Ripley has been focused on me for years. Ripley does not know if Rocky can devote the same type of focused energy to what she needs to do for me, if she is mature enough.)

The last thing Ripley said was, “Please ask Michelle to be very careful with herself while Rocky is learning to be a smarter dog, especially if I am not with them when they go somewhere.”

Which both made me laugh a little, and also made my heart overflow.

Love you always, my Ripley dog.

 

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11Oct

Rocky Hits the Road: First Over-night Vacation

Rocky and I were scheduled to take a four-day trip to Massachusetts about a month ago. I was a little nervous about it, because that’s a pretty big trip for a first over-nighter. First of all, it involved air travel, which is always a little nerve-wracking in the beginning. And it wasn’t a short jaunt. We would have been flying from El Paso to Chicago, then on to Boston, plus an hour’s car ride to our destination. Ripley’s first over-night trip was by car. Her first airplane trip was from San Francisco to San Diego – short and sweet, a nice practice run. But, it all ended up not happening for Rocky, because I caught the fever/weird illness from Hades, and stayed in bed for two weeks. Trip cancelled.

As luck would have it, an opportunity came up this month to take a much more manageable first trip. My sister-in-law Kristen Mendenhall and Sabrina’s brother Edmond Temple were up from California to visit their old stomping grounds, Jemez Springs. Kristen had been invited back to do an art show of her new paintings at the Jemez Fine Art Gallery, and we decided to drive up for the opening reception last weekend, turning it into a mini-vacation.

The Laughing Lizard Inn in Jemez Springs

The Laughing Lizard Inn in Jemez Springs

Jemez Springs is in Jemez Canyon, at six thousand feet elevation, a gorgeous place any time of the year, but right now, simply stunning. The red rock bluffs are gorgeous, some of the trees are changing leaf color to golden tones, and everything is lush and green. It’s tiny, with only about four restaurants to choose from (not all of them open every night), but a tourist destination for its mineral water pools (Jemez Hot Springs), scenic drives on Highway 4 which run through it, the Santa Fe National Forest that surrounds it, and various connections to Native American sites and connections to the nearby Jemez Pueblo.

We stayed for three nights at the Laughing Lizard Inn. I think it was the last room available in town – we only booked a week ahead, and everything else was filled (and there are, believe it or not, quite a few B&Bs, guest houses, inns, etc.). We lucked out and got the “Sunflower Suite,” which meant we not only had a big bedroom, but also a front sitting room and a full kitchen. Cool. The art show was great, we had a good time, la de dah.

rockys-four-poster-bed-72

Rocky’s four poster bed, with special dog sheet

OK, enough about all that. What about the dog? How did Rocky do on the trip? It was almost five hours of driving one way, with pit stops, her longest car trip ever. We stopped a couple of times for “dog relief.” She peed, no problem. But once again, the pooping was a bit of an issue. We finally pulled over at an RV park, and I got out with her determined to wait as long as it took. We must have walked for fifteen or even twenty minutes, but she eventually relieved herself. Success! Once we got to the Laughing Lizard, she seemed to recognize that we were “home,” if only temporarily. One signal: when I travel, I always ask for an extra flat sheet, or if car travelling, bring one of my own, to place on top of the quilt or bedspread, to minimize dog hair impact. Then I invite Rocky (as I had always invited Ripley) to jump onto the bed. “OK, then! This is my place!” (By the way, she loved her very high four poster bed.)

So from there on out, it was a simple task. I just took her outside the front door to a patch of wildness, or down the nearby stone stairs to another larger area of mowed-down stubble, and Rocky took care of business.

Problem number two: She went on hunger strike. Rocky is used to eating twice a day, first thing in the morning and around 4 p.m. The thing is, she always has company. Ripley and Malakai eat in the same room with her. She would have nothing to do with the collapsible rubber bowl I brought – too weird. I used a bowl from the kitchen, and she took a couple of bites. Then she drank water and walked away. That was it the first day. The second day, again, nothing. However, since there were no other dogs around, I was able to leave the bowl of food on the floor. Sometime in the middle of the night, she got up and licked the bowl clean. That became her routine. She only ate when I wasn’t looking, and she only ate one meal a day. Oh, well. I figured if she was really hungry, eventually, she’d eat.

Rocky is a champ at outings. She’s great at being invisible underneath restaurant tables, waiting patiently at art  shows, lying at my side while I am deep in conversation with someone. So that part went well.

Rocky and Sabrina

Rocky and Sabrina

We needed to pick up some groceries – half and half for coffee, coffee filters, apple juice, sodas, snacks. There’s only one little grocery store in town, really just a convenience store, The Trail House. There was a sign outside (buried among many signs) that said guide dogs were welcome, another larger one that said, “No pets.” When Sabrina, Rocky and I walked in, the woman behind the counter immediately said, “No dogs.” I said, “She’s a service dog.” She said, “Well, we can’t have them here, because we have food service,” pointing to a sandwich area in the back. I was insistent. “She is a service dog, and by federal law, she is allowed to be here with me.” The woman did not look happy with me, and scowled at us as we walked around the store. Sabrina’s response is to try to get people to lighten up by chatting with them. I had a moment’s hesitancy as I wondered if we had crossed the border between Jemez Springs into Jemez Pueblo (I couldn’t remember if I had seen the sign on the way), and wondered if federal law applied on tribal land. What do I know? But, we stayed, and bought our groceries, and even got a begrudging smile out of the woman before we left. Maybe because we bought so much.

We had a couple of stupid people encounters. They happen everywhere. Here’s my favorite. It was our last morning, and we were almost done loading up the car. Our room was up an outdoor stone staircase from the parking lot, separate from the other four rooms of the inn. I had just taken Rocky down the stairs to the little stubble field to pee before we headed out on the road again. She was off leash; as there were usually no people around, I had been working with voice commands, having her follow me around the inn property. Rocky was standing next to me when a man appeared from the parking lot. Sabrina was by the car, which was between us, and he approached her. Rocky, ever inquisitive, started to walk towards him. The man asked Sabrina if she knew when the inn manager would arrive. I was trying not to interrupt by giving an abrupt command to Rocky to return – she was simply wandering a bit, and was still only about six feet away from me. But when she neared the man, he turned to her, and read aloud the patches on her vest: “Working dog: Do not pet. Service dog.” He said, “Is this your service dog?” I said, “Yes.” Then, absolutely ignoring what he had just read aloud himself, he began petting Rocky. Not one pet, not two. But full-on repeated petting. I had no idea how to respond. I could have abruptly recalled Rocky, but somehow that seemed rude. I could have walked over and snapped on her leash and taken her away, saying, “She is a service dog. Don’t pet.” But that seemed even ruder. Why is it that when clueless, stupid people do clueless, stupid things, I’m the one who ends up feeling like I am being rude?

But, all in all it was a successful first trip, and Rocky passed with flying colors. Go, Rocky!

 

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6Oct

White Sands: Getting Busy

Sabrina, Ruth, Michelle & Rocky at White Sands

Sabrina, Ruth, Michelle & Rocky at White Sands

A few weeks ago, when our friend Ruth Thompson was visiting, we decided to take a day trip to White Sands National Monument, part of the National Park Service. We had been meaning to go for months, and it was a perfect day – overcast with dramatic cumulonimbus clouds, making the sky varied and beautiful, which also brought the temperature down to a heavenly 75 degrees, instead of the 100-plus degrees the park can soar to with its desert landscape.

The park is only about an hour from our home. Ruth, Sabrina, Rocky and I loaded into the car a bit before noon, and headed out. Now, Rocky has been to El Paso a couple of times, to the airport and once for a medical appointment with me, but this would be her longest road trip so far, since we ended up being gone about six hours. Not that long, right?

Rocky was fine for the drive. An hour? Piece of cake. Once at the park, we stopped at the visitor center, and took a human bathroom break, and I also immediately brought Rocky out to let her stretch her legs and take a potty break. Here’s one of the things you don’t often talk about in service dog training: teaching your dog to pee in a timely manner (preferably on command) when you are out in the world. See, the dog is working. You are doing things, and taking potty breaks isn’t always convenient. Say you are attending an all-day conference. When there is a coffee break, you need to be able to bring your dog outside, tell her to pee, and wrap it up quickly, so you have time to get back inside and actually use the bathroom yourself, and maybe even have a cup of coffee. As anyone knows who has a pet, some dogs love to take their time. They want twenty minutes in the backyard, or a half-mile walk before anything happens.

Rocky has become fairly adept at taking care of pee breaks. She peed right away at the visitor center. But sometimes you run into snags. When I was working with Ripley, all was well until the first time we traveled to New Mexico. The problem? Ripley is a complete tenderfoot. She only liked to pee on grass. Suddenly there was none. The hotels were landscaped with rock and gravel. Same with the highway rest stops. Even most homes had desert landscapes. When I tried to bring her onto what looked somewhat grass-like (i.e., scrubby plants), we discovered the cursed goat thorn. After that, she began walking on pavement and curbs, and wouldn’t even step onto the rocks. I finally went to a pet store and bought her a set of dog boots. She tried to kick them off at first, but then I led her onto the rocks at a roadside rest stop when I knew she really had to go, and she realized – oh! My feet don’t hurt. It saved our vacation. Rocky, at least, has tougher feet.

Rocky on the boardwalk

Rocky on the boardwalk

We piled back into the car, and drove into the center of White Sands. What an amazingly gorgeous place! We stopped at the boardwalk, and took the short nature hike with signs saying that the sand comes from gypsum, talking about how the dunes form, and explaining various intricacies of the plant and animal life in the region. Ruth and I were busy with our cameras, and Rocky was busy with her nose, peering down through the bars of the fence at everything. I gave Rocky another pee break opportunity, and we loaded up again.

We drove the car all the way through the park, to where the huge pure white dunes are, and saw people sledding down them. Although it looked incredibly fun, we decided that me with my cane and Rocky probably didn’t quite make for a good sledding combo that day. There were so many great photo ops though. We weren’t disappointed in the least. I hadn’t had my camera out in ages – my real camera, the Nikon, not just my phone – and it felt wonderful to be using it.

After we had oohed and aahed our way through the entire park, we stopped back in at the gift shop/visitor center. OK, being blunt now: I was pretty sure Rocky needed to poop. Poop is an entirely separate issue. “Hey,” the dog says. “That’s private! I only do that at home!” Coaxing a dog to poop in an unfamiliar area is ten times more challenging than encouraging a dog to pee on command. So while Ruth and Sabrina went inside, I took Rocky to the pet relief area. In training, we are supposed to use the command, “Get Busy!” However, I use “Go Potty!” with both Ripley and Malakai, so by default I have kept using that command. There I was, walking back and forth with her for ten to fifteen minutes. She peed. She had a very, very busy nose, and explored everything worth exploring. There were signs to watch for rattlesnakes, so I was being insanely alert, and getting impatient. Finally, I decided nothing was going to happen, so I joined Ruth and Sabrina in the gift shop.

Curious Rocky

Curious Rocky

Rocky madly enjoyed that as well, trying to sniff everything within her reach, so I spent the whole time saying, “Leave it!” Obviously something else to work on. Very curious, this dog. After buying a few postcards, it was time to head back, and just as we got in the car, it started to rain. A nearly perfect day.

That is, until we were about ten minutes from home. Rocky and I were in the back seat. She was standing up instead of lying down. She began to get very agitated. I tried to calm her, but nothing was working. When we were about five minutes away, she made as if to jump into the far back. I couldn’t figure it out. Then I saw she was holding her tail tucked all the way up to her stomach. Oh, god. NOW she needs to go, I thought. Now. I told her, “We’re almost there, baby. We’re almost there.”

Sure enough, as soon as we pulled into the driveway and I opened the car door, she ran to the gate. I let her into the house and she bolted out through the dog door. Relief!

The next day, we took Ruth to the El Paso airport for the next leg of her journey. After the one hour drive, while Sabrina accompanied Ruth inside to check her bag, I took Rocky to the airport’s pet relief area. It took a bit, maybe ten minutes, and some encouragement. But she pooped! Away from home! I went into the airport to see Ruth off, and as I went to hug her, I said, “Rocky pooped!”

Like the true friend that she is, she was ecstatic.

*Feature photo credit, Ruth Thompson; Group photo credit, a kind young woman visiting the park from San Diego.

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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.

 

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.

16May

Retiring My Service Dog: The Hardest Decision

Years ago, those in the service dog field told me that most service dogs retire at the age of ten, so I knew this time would come. We’ve already stretched it out longer – Ripley turned ten last May; she’ll be eleven on May 24. I had begun to make initial inquiries, checking into the possibilities of finding a “next” dog. But deep down, I felt entirely unprepared emotionally. How in the world could Ripley and I stop being a team? This dog, who I have had since she was two months old, and who has been at my side for the past six years, 24/7, as my service dog? She is my first, my entire experience of service dog/handler. And she is simply Ripley. What dog could possibly replace her?

As I have struggled with these questions, one of my biggest concerns was that I was following some arbitrary standard, saying that a dog retires at a certain age. Ripley still seemed eager to go, wanted to hop into the truck every time we had an outing, loved being with me, wanted to work. Would bringing in a new dog make her go into a state of decline, fall into depression? I was afraid that retiring her too early would break her heart.

When I first began to investigate other service dog organizations, we were in the midst of big life changes. We were preparing to move from California to New Mexico, my wife was retiring from her job. We were putting our house on the market, packing, in a state of flux. It soon became clear that it was not a good time to put in applications for a new dog, because the organizations all wanted things like photographs of your home, descriptions of your yard, even home visits. We needed to be settled somewhere before I could proceed. So I deferred all of that for another six months or so, and Ripley and I continued on as before.

Once all the boxes were unpacked in New Mexico, I realized it was time. Now that there were no physical obstacles, I found that it was my heart that was getting in the way. Even though I was beginning to notice signs of Ripley’s aging, I doubted myself and needed reassurance that what I was doing was the right thing.

Napping-72

Ripley spends a lot of time napping now.

I found an article on Anything Pawsable.com, a website with information for service and working dogs, about knowing when to retire your service dog by Kea Grace. Grace lists five things to look for when making the determination if it is time: your dog isn’t acting happy; she is slowing down; her sleep needs have drastically increased; she has health issues (things like arthritis, cataracts, cancer, diabetes, etc.); and she isn’t responsive.

The first item was not an issue. Ripley is a happy dog, tail always wagging. Whew.

But number two, I had to admit, was true. Ripley is slowing down. She can’t keep up with me. I have recently started going on walks, and she can’t go with me. We tried the first two days, and she was limping afterwards. I thought at first it was a matter of working up to longer walks, but that was not the case. It was simply too much. She doesn’t want to go on the walks.

Three also. Her sleep needs have dramatically increased. When we are at home, most of the time she’s on the bed asleep. Even when we go out, as much as she likes going out, as soon as she gets in the truck she snoozes in the back seat until we arrive at our destination.

She’s also starting to have some health issues, which is entirely new. About two months ago, I noticed gait issues. After a visit to the vet, we determined that she had arthritis in her front legs. She is now on Rimadyl twice a day for pain. I also recently discovered she is developing cataracts, and is having some vision problems.

All of this means that she is sometimes unresponsive. In other words, I ask her to do a task, like walk with me to the mail box, and she won’t come – because she thinks we’re going to go on a longer walk, and she doesn’t want to, because it will hurt. Or she’s supposed to remind me to take my medications, but she’s napping, and doesn’t get up. That sort of thing.

Which means that four of the five indicators on Grace’s list are true for Ripley. Which means…

that Ripley wants to retire. Now I just need to figure out how to do it gracefully, so she still feels valued, loved and needed.

P.S. Tomorrow I have an interview with American Service Dogs of Las Cruces to meet potential candidates for my next dog. Wish me luck.

 

24May

Happy Birthday, Ripley! Ten Years Old

It's my party!

It’s my party!

Today is a big day in our household. Ripley, the caped wonder, is celebrating her tenth birthday.

We had to commemorate the occasion with something special. So earlier this week, I stopped by the Dollar Tree in Healdsburg and picked up candles and party hats. And today, we made a trip to the grocery store for ice cream. Of course, we needed to document the festivities. There was a bit of a bribery involved with dog biscuits as we tried to convince Malaki, Ripley’s brother, to tolerate the hat. He wasn’t too convinced. Several attempts were made. Finally, we managed to take a few photos. Ripley is much more tolerant of these situations, having put up with me for many more years. Then I placed two bowls of vanilla ice cream on the deck with candles in them – unlit. I didn’t want to push my luck. I figured, worse case scenario, a dog might eat some wax. But remarkably, both dogs remained in the sit and stay pose while I snapped a few more pictures, without lunging for the bowls.

Tongue-licking expectation

Tongue-licking expectation

Then I removed the candles, and let them go for it. Malaki wasn’t quite sure what to make of it at first. Sabrina had to dip a cookie in to convince him that the bowl wasn’t poisoned. Ripley had no such qualms. I had made rather heaping portions for the photo op, and Sabrina’s wiser head prevailed; she stopped the dogs halfway through. We retired the remaining ice cream to a tupperware container for later consumption.

This is actually part of a longer tradition with Ripley. When I used to work in Calistoga at the newspaper, to celebrate on her birthday we would go to the frozen yogurt shop, and I would buy a kid-sized plain frozen yogurt cup just for her. Then we’d sit outside on the patio, where she was allowed to lick up the whole thing herself, much to the delight of the passing tourists. The Cloverdale grocery store didn’t have any frozen yogurt, so vanilla ice cream was my closest compromise.

This hat is ridiculous. Can we just eat?

This hat is ridiculous. Can we just eat?

Earlier today, Ripley and I attended the Healdsburg Literary Guild’s Graveside Readings at Oak Mound Cemetery in Healdsburg, an annual event for that group, where writers come together in the old part of the cemetery on Memorial Day Weekend to read verse. When we arrived, I announced Ripley’s birthday, and one friend said, “Wow, that makes her seventy years old!” I turned to Ripley and said, “Any retirement plans?” At that precise moment, she happened to vigorously shake her head side to side several times. Everyone laughed. Apparently, her answer is a resounding no.

It’s hard to believe it was ten years ago that I brought home that little fluff-ball blonde puppy, who over the first year in our household chewed up three of my flip-flops, a library book, and an inordinate number of items owned by Sabrina, among them her leather wallet, leather checkbook cover, and a belt. She was a gift from Sabrina, shortly after we moved in together – the first dog I had had since I was a child.

Our bond was instant and strong. A few years later, when I was having medical issues and began exploring the idea of having a service dog, I was faced with a choice: Should I seek out a new dog to
help me, or should I first see if the dog I have is capable of providing what I need? I decided to work with Ripley, to see if she would be able to transition from being a companion animal to becoming a service dog. With the assistance of some expert trainers and lots of support, I began working with her. She astounded me, over and over again. Everything I asked her to do, she did. It was as if she had just been waiting for the opportunity. We were meant to be a working team.

That's my ice cream!

That’s my ice cream!

And now here we are. Ten years together. She is still fit, still wanting to work, at least for now. I know the time will come sometime in the next few years that she really will need to retire. That’s going to be a hard one. I will get another service dog. But there will never be another Ripley. She’s always going to be the first, and the dearest.

Happy birthday, Ripley. Love you more than words can express.

P.S. Today is also the birthday of our good friend Andrew. He turned seven today. Ripley is thrilled to share a birthday with him. Sending dog kisses to Andrew from Ripley, and hugs from me.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
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