retirement

21Apr

Once a Service Dog, Always a Service Dog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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24May

Happy Birthday Dear Ripley, Happy Birthday to You! Eleven Years Old

Today is Ripley’s birthday, so we continued with a long-standing tradition, with a New Mexico twist.

Ripley always gets frozen yogurt (or ice cream) on her birthday. When I worked at the Calistoga Tribune in California, we would go to the local frozen yogurt shop on her birthday, and she would get her own small cup of yogurt. After I had to stop working, we went to Sno Bunnies in Healdsburg, Napa Valley. Last year, we had a party at home with ice cream, candles, and birthday hats.

Caliche's Frozen Custard

Caliche’s Frozen Custard

This year, we went to Caliche’s Frozen Custard in Las Cruces for Poochie Cones. Thanks go to our friends Vicki Gaubeca and Becky Corran, who introduced us to Caliche’s during our first weeks in Las Cruces. It was still winter, and a little cold for frozen yogurt, but that didn’t deter us from standing outside in line to get our first taste, and Ripley’s first free Poochie Cone. So of course, we knew that had to be our destination today.

Caliche’s is more than just a custard shop. It is a destination. We have yet to stop by when the drive-through isn’t busy, when people aren’t sitting on the benches outside, when cars aren’t streaming in and out of the parking lot. And at night, especially on weekends, the whole place is lit up and hopping with activity.

Victoria holding two Poochie Cones

Victoria holding two Poochie Cones

But Poochie Cones are the absolute best part. Every time we go, we see someone there with a dog, or several people with dogs, ordering for themselves, and getting the special treat of a miniature cone with frozen custard, free, for the canine member of the family.

Ripley is an old hand at eating yogurt, cones, ice cream. Well, eating in general. She’s a lab, after all. It’s her nature. Malaki, our other dog,  had to work up to it. The first time he was offered a Poochie Cone, it ended up on the ground, because he couldn’t figure out how to eat it. We had to rein Ripley back from that one. Malaki did finally slurp it off the pavement, and, what the heck? It can’t be any worse than, say, cat poop, right? The second time, Sabrina tried to shove it in his mouth, and he managed to make a fairly decent go of it eventually. Our last trip, he mastered licking, and then ate the cone. Hallelujah! Meanwhile, Ripley downs her Poochie Cone in two bites: first bite, custard; second bite, cone. Gone. Then she looks at Malaki’s cone with deep longing.

Malaki knows how to make it last.

Malaki knows how to make it last.

Today, as I was attempting to make a photographic record of the occasion, Sabrina tried to restrain Ripley to prolong the consumption. I think Ripley licked the cone once before the two-bite assault. I had to snap quickly. Malaki was a champ. He is now a professional Poochie Cone eater. But, in Ripley’s opinion, he prolongs the process far too long with all that unnecessary licking.

Sabrina and I also celebrated, of course, with our standards. Mine is a regular sundae with chocolate syrup, Sabrina’s is a fudge brownie sundae with raspberry sauce added. Mmmmmmm.

We sang “Happy Birthday” on the drive home, as there was no time for such shenanigans while holding Poochie Cones and attempting to focus the camera.

Behind all of this, of course, is the fact that Ripley is aging. Remember that old saw about one dog year being equivalent to seven human years? Well, turns out that isn’t right at all. Of course, we knew that already. Just looking at a puppy growing up, you can tell that in the first year of a dog’s life, she goes from being an infant to a teenager. And that’s about correct – for medium dogs, one year is equal to about fifteen at the start. Then she ages about nine human years the next twelve months, and about five human years each year after that.

What does that all end up meaning? According to Pedigree’s Dog Age Calculator, where you can plug in your dog’s age and then the breed, Ripley is 82 years old. Eek! Not liking that number. Then there are a couple of other online converters that seem to err in the opposite direction, such as this one, which concludes by saying that Ripley at age 11 is really 57.

Ripley says, "What? No more?"

Ripley says, “What? No more?”

But on the American Kennel Club website, they offer a more general graph, based on weight (dogs less than 20 lbs., those 21-50 lbs., and those greater than 50 lbs.). This makes sense, since we know that smaller dogs live longer, and the big breeds have shorter life spans. Since Ripley weighs just over 50 lbs. (she’s about 52 lbs.), I figure that puts her in between the middle and high age ranges – which means at age eleven, in human years she is now somewhere between 65 and 72.

So even though the sight of Caliche’s puts a spring in her step – it is definitely time for Ripley to retire.

17May

The World of Service Dog Organizations: Where to Begin?

Not every dog can be a service dog. I am proud to say I trained Ripley myself, with some assistance, and a lot of helpful advice and support. But I was incredibly lucky. She is a remarkable dog. I just happened to have a puppy who turned out to be perfectly suited, later on in her life, to be a service dog.

This time around, I knew I didn’t want to start from scratch, all on my own. I really wanted to work with a service dog agency, to have help finding the right dog, so I could transition smoothly. Ripleys don’t happen every day.

When I started thinking about finding a new service dog, I was living in Sonoma County, California, so of course, the first possibility that came to mind was Canine Companions for Independence (CCI). CCI is the largest nonprofit provider of assistance dogs, founded in 1975 in Santa Rosa. I figured since I was a local, it was the most natural place to start. However, I didn’t get very far. I filled out the online application, knowing that according to the FAQ page, I could expect a response within 4-6 weeks, and if I qualified, the application process would take about six months – then I would go on the waiting list. To my surprise, I heard back in just a few days, a quick email saying I did not qualify.

It was a frustrating way to start the search. As I investigated further, looking at agencies as far away as Canine Assistants in Georgia, I discovered the same problem again and again – most nonprofit agencies specialized in certain types of assistance dogs. One might focus on seizure alert dogs and dogs to help people with physical disabilities (i.e., primarily people in wheelchairs). Another might focus on people with physical disabilities, veterans with PTSD, and children with autism. Still another might provide dogs who specialized in physical disabilities, diabetes alert, and seizure alert. Somehow, each agency that I found had categories that I didn’t quite fit into.

I couldn’t seem to get past that initial questionnaire. Yes, I have a seizure disorder, but it’s under control. Yes, I have a psychiatric disability (bipolar disorder), but I am not a veteran, and many of the agencies stated they only trained dogs to help with PTSD or depression. My primary disability is something no one has ever heard of before, a genetic disorder called Hypokalemic Periodic Paralysis Disorder. I had a hard time getting anyone to understand that I actually am physically disabled. I am paralyzed – it’s just that it is episodic. I never know when it’s going to happen. I look like I’m fine, and then, bam! I’m slumped in my chair, unable to move. Things fall out of my hands. I’m incredibly vulnerable, especially if I’m out in a public place.

But I wasn’t even getting through the gatekeepers to describe any of this. I just kept getting the answer “No, we don’t train dogs for that.”

The wonderful thing about these nonprofit organizations is that they provide service dogs at no cost to the clients. Everything is funded by donors. The downside is that there is a huge demand. Waiting lists are often two years long. So I knew that even if I could get an agency to accept me, choose to work with me, I may be looking at a very long wait.

I contacted Assistance Dogs of the West in Santa Fe. Since I was moving to New Mexico, I thought that might be a good bet. They have a shared cost approach, with the client paying part of the expense. For in-state residents, it comes up to a little over $6,000. The first chunk, $75 for registration and $450 for an initial assessment and evaluation, is nonrefundable, even if you are not accepted into the program. And still, there would be a six month to two year waiting period. Assistance Dogs of the West trains dogs for those with mobility challenges, seizure and diabetes response dogs, autism dogs, and dogs to help with PTSD, anxiety and depression. Because of the way the program described their “mobility challenges” dogs, it sounded like a possibility. I wrote a long email inquiry, and then followed up with a phone call. The person I spoke with said she didn’t think the program would be a good fit for me. I was beginning to get incredibly discouraged.

There was one more option in New Mexico – American Service Dogs. This group is  in a different category. In addition to all of the nonprofit service dog organizations, there are also private companies and individuals who train working dogs. They are not receiving donor dollars. So, you pay for your dog. But, you also don’t have to sit on a waiting list for two years. And you can ask for more customized training, suited to your needs. I decided I was willing to investigate.

There are several things about American Service Dogs that I like, besides the things I just mentioned. Instead of selectively breeding special dogs, like most service dog organizations, they go to local shelters to find their dogs. Since Sabrina and I have a long history of supporting animal rescue efforts, this is highly appealing – giving a dog a second chance. Also, most of the service dog organizations train a dog for two years, then you come in and spend two weeks working together, during which time you are expected to bond. At American Service Dogs, the process takes place over six months, as the two of you train together, establishing the connection. Since it’s right here in Las Cruces, I can do that. Finally, the cost is not that high, comparatively – it’s actually less than the in-state fee for Assistance Dogs of the West.

So we made the decision. American Service Dogs it is. Time to go meet our new dog!

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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