Ripley

15Sep

A Good-Night Ritual for Ripley

I am part of a Zen sangha, a group of practitioners, called Suffering and Delight, for people dealing with chronic pain and/or illness, whether it be physical or emotional. Quite often, of course, when one has chronic pain or illness, emotional pain comes along for the ride. This group has been a life-saver for me, especially since, unlike many other things, I did not have to sacrifice it when I lost my ability to drive. I used to go to a regular Zen practice group which I could no longer attend, because it was over an hour’s distance from my home. The beauty of this group? We meet online, via Zoom video conferencing. So even when I moved to New Mexico, I brought my Zen sangha with me.

Every six months we begin a new practice period, where we focus on a different syllabus, a new angle of study. Some things remain the same. We always open the night with fifteen minutes of zazen, or sitting meditation. But from there, we go in all kinds of directions.

Now, we are looking at “radical self care,” and one of the assignments we were given was to introduce a ritual into our daily lives. Our priest, Beata, said it could be something as simple as bowing to your toothbrush before brushing your teeth in the morning. Each of us was invited to come up with something in our day that caused us to pause, and acknowledge an act in a new way.

I thought about this for a while, and then I realized I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I created a good-night ritual for Ripley.

Sometimes, in the scurry of daily living, with three dogs in the house, cats to feed, and my focus on working with Rocky, it is easy to overlook Ripley. She spends most of her day napping on the king-sized bed. Even when we come home from an outing, as much as she wants to run to greet me, she is the dog who holds back, afraid of being bumped and jostled by the others, especially now that her vision is failing. I wanted to carve out a time just for her, filled with respect and love.

Each night, after the dogs have alerted me for my medications and after they have all piled onto the bed, right before I am about to get into my spot, I go to the foot of the bed on my side, which is where Ripley sleeps, and I kneel down. She turns her body towards me. I put both hands up, hold her face, and, like a mantra, I say this phrase very softly, over and over again:

“Thank you for your years of service. May you sleep gently tonight.”

I stroke her chest, rub the inside of her ears, pull her close to kiss her nose. We do this for about five minutes. I give her one last kiss on top of her head, then stand, and get into bed, snuggling my feet down next to her.

We have been doing this for about a month. Ripley waits for it now, waits for me to come from the bathroom, waits for me to kneel. Her whole body leans towards me, towards the whispered words.

Sometimes Rocky gets jealous. I tell her, “When you are old, I will do this for you, too.”

(photos by Sabrina Temple)

7Sep

Ripley gets the paper

As a retired service dog, now over 12 years old, Ripley spends most of her day just lounging on our king-sized bed – and looking forward to her next meal. Her eyesight isn’t so great now, due to advancing cataracts, and her hips hurt from arthritis. She has fully relinquished her main duties to Rocky.

But that doesn’t mean she has relinquished her desire to serve me, to be important in my life. I have to remind myself it is critical to give her jobs which are within her ability, so she can feel she is contributing, and still earning her keep as a service dog. She does some of her old jobs, like remind me to take my medication twice a day – but Rocky does that in tandem with her, so it’s not special for her alone. We needed something else.

It’s hard for her to go on long walks because of her hips. But she loves short walks – and I mean very short walks. So we hit upon a perfect solution.

 

Every day, Ripley and I go to the end of our driveway to pick up the newspaper. Sometimes it’s during the day; usually it’s not until after dark, when it’s nice and cool. I do not need to put Ripley on a leash. There is no danger that she will take off running after one of our desert bunnies (unlike Rocky!). She meanders slowly down the road, at her own pace, knowing exactly where we are going. She halts at the end of the driveway and waits for me, if I have fallen behind because I stop to pick up trash that has blown into the yard from the wind.

I retrieve the newspaper, and the mail if we haven’t picked that up yet. Then Ripley turns around, and heads back down the long driveway to the house. She may stop to smell a few plants, or take a pee break. But other than that, it’s a pretty direct path.

And when we have arrived back at the front gate, and I let her in through the main door, her tail is wagging, her eyes are happy, and she proudly suffers through having Rocky and Malakai sniff her from head to tail, investigating where she has been on her own private outing.

Service dog job accomplished. Another good day.

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!

22Nov

Kitten Conditioning

hey-dilly-72We have a new member of our household – introducing Dilly Pickle, the rambunctious, fearless, three-legged kitten.

Now, as you may remember, if you’ve been following this blog, Rocky had had no experience with cats prior to moving into our household. On the day we first met Rocky in May, at the American Service Dogs kennel, we brought in Dozer, our most easy-going cat, to see how Rocky would react. We wanted to make sure she would be able to adapt. She seemed curious and eager to play, but with no bad intentions. When she finally came to our house for an overnight visit in August, it became clear that Rocky was a bit more focused on cats than was comfortable. She spent her entire first twenty-four hours skittering around, wanting to lunge after every cat that came into view. (We had four.) Ah, more work needed. So we then brought Bailey, our oldest and grumpiest cat, in to the kennel, and worked with trainer Jared Latham to try to desensitize my dog. Between Bailey’s body language and a squirt bottle, we managed to get the message across that cats were to be left alone. It still took a while for Rocky to calm down completely at home, but eventually she made peace with the cats. Just as with our other two dogs, canine and feline co-habitate without incident.

During all of this time, my wife Sabrina has been fostering kittens for ACTion Programs for Animals (APA). A total of thirty-seven kittens have passed through our house this year, on their way to new homes. Sabrina’s office is kitten central, with two big kitten condos set up, so she can keep two separate litters at a time. She lets them out to play during the day, but only in her office, with the door closed. The great thing is that all of our dogs have been exposed to the little ones, without anyone being in danger. Rocky has had lots of opportunity to be around kittens, in a safe way. It has also let the kittens get used to dogs.

dilly-water-dish-72But Sabrina finally succumbed, and became an official “foster failure” with Dilly Pickle, meaning that with this one kitten, she simply couldn’t give him up. So he’s staying with us. About three months old, he was the runt of the litter, all of them polydactyl (having extra digits – it looks like their paws are mittens!), and Dilly himself is missing more than half of his back left leg – an injury that occurred before APA got him from the shelter.

His first weeks in our house, Dilly was with his litter mates in a kitten condo. But after the others were old enough to be adopted, and we made the decision to keep him, we moved his condo into our bedroom. Kitten season is over, so he is now the only little guy in the house. It took a few days for Sabrina to feel brave enough to let him run around, and at first he was closely guarded. However, it soon became apparent that this little guy has no idea he is disabled. He began climbing up to the top of our cat trees, scrambling up every piece of furniture, leaping off of bureaus. He is fearless. And, having grown up with dogs coming in and out of his room, Dilly thinks they are just one more option for playtime.

I was pretty cautious with Rocky initially. I’m still working on her reaction to rabbits on our walks outside. That prey behavior, which triggers something instinctual. I didn’t want this small creature, running quickly, to spark a bad reaction. But I needn’t have worried. From the beginning, she has been wonderful. She will be half asleep on the bed, and Dilly runs right over her body, and Rocky barely even raises her head. Once Rocky ran from the front door towards the kitten, who was across the room, just to say hi. The kitten was startled, and did a Halloween cat all-fluffed-up-and-hissing greeting. Rocky immediately stopped right in front of him, and lowered her head, as if to apologize. “Sorry, little guy. Didn’t mean to scare you!”

Wagging tails are huge fun, of course. Ripley will eventually give warning snaps, because Dilly has sharp teeth, and he bites down hard on those tails. The warnings are good, as Dilly is beginning to learn some boundaries.

Overall, of the three dogs, I had worried about Rocky the most, because she is the youngest, and has never had a kitten loose in the house. Yet, surprisingly, she has been the best with Pickle. I think Ripley is getting grumpier in her old age. And Malakai doesn’t like having his favorite spot in the bed taken.

So, good girl, Rocky. Because believe me, this will not be the last kitten in the house. You might as well enjoy them.

 

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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9Jul

Training Days 5 & 6 – Getting Reacquainted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8Jul

Ripley Takes Off: Airplane Stories

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

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

Hanging out at the airport

Hanging out at the airport

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

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

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

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

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

Flying-sm

Ripley checks in before take-off

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

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

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

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

Sigh. It felt really good to get home.

 

 

5Jul

Playing with Rocky & Training Day Four

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

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

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

New Team-72

Michelle & Rocky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21Jun

What’s In a Name? How Ripley Became Ripley

Even though Ripley’s name is stitched right on her vest, I am constantly asked, “What’s your dog’s name?” One adorable little girl, upon hearing the answer, said, “Oh. I thought that was her brand.”

After I say her name, the response varies, usually generationally. Older people, those around my parents’ age, invariably say, “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” Although I have a faint recollection of the column which used to appear in our newspaper (and is still syndicated today), it is not the origin of my service dog’s name. Many also mistakenly hear it first as “Riley,” as there are apparently a lot of Riley dogs out there. And, usually, Ripley or Riley, folks think the name indicates she is a he.

Those in my generation sometimes guess the true root of her name. I am always most impressed when a person thirty or younger nails it – as this indicates she or he is a die-hard sci-fi fan. Because, you see, Ripley is named after Sigourney Weaver’s character in Alien, the cult classic from 1979.

Why, you ask, this namesake? Well, the story actually starts even further back than my service dog. It starts with a teddy bear.

In the late 1990s, my life was a mess. I am a trauma survivor, and everything had caught up to me – I was suffering from severe depression, had an out-of-control eating disorder, and was extremely suicidal. I had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals for a couple of years and was barely functioning. Finally, after a particularly bad spell, I turned to my parents for assistance, and they helped me to locate a treatment program near Los Angeles for eating disorders and therapy. They drove me that long trip from Napa Valley to LA, right before Easter weekend.

I checked in, and started going through initial paperwork, while my mom and dad went out to grab a cup of coffee prior to coming back to say goodbye to me for the four-week stay I was about to embark on. My mom had recently been visiting me in the hospital, and knew that good coffee was always a welcome gift, so they went to Starbucks, where she picked up a latte to go for me. When they came back with the coffee, she had one more item – a teddy bear in a yellow duck suit. Because it was Easter, it had been on sale at Starbucks, and on a whim, she had picked it up for me. The bear’s face was peeking out through a yellow “hat” with an orange duck bill, and the torso was entirely yellow. It was completely ridiculous, but cute. I thanked them, took my coffee, we hugged, and they left me alone.

As I went back to my room, I almost stuffed the bear in the closet. But then I saw that the duck part of the bear was actually removable. Underneath was a completely normal, cuddly soft perfect teddy bear. I placed her on my bed. I was in a terrible space, every night plagued by nightmares, feeling unsafe and attacked. I decided to name her Ripley, after the Alien character, a woman warrior who could fight off my bad dreams.

I slept with Ripley throughout that month, and then every night for years after. She became worn and a little smushed, but I couldn’t ever give her up. Then in 2005, my wife gave me a puppy. As soon as I met her, I knew that she, too, was Ripley. Just like my bear, she was going to give me a reason to keep waking up every morning, a way to stay safe. To avoid confusion, the teddy bear became Ripley Bear. Now I slept with both of them – double protection.

I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but four or five years after Ripley entered my life, I found I no longer needed Ripley Bear. She moved out of the bedroom, and up to a shelf in my studio. She had completed her service.

And Ripley, the dog, even though she may seem gentle as a flower, remains my warrior, the one who wakes me from nightmares, the one who can sense if I am in danger, the one who reminds me life is worth living, and she is always right here by my side.

 

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
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