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.



Training Day Two – Classmates

(Note: Rocky and I have actually completed four days of training, and Ripley and I are in California right now on a writing retreat and visiting friends until June 26. I’m playing catch-up with blog posts, since somehow I fell behind, and there’s so much tell you!)

After our initial day of training, Rocky and I stepped into a much different arena for day two, as we were joined by classmates – two Rottweilers, one a seven-month-old wiggler, and the other full grown but still young. The young Rottweiler was working with a woman, and the older dog was being trained by a man.

We worked in the front training area, which isn’t very large. The first challenge was simply trying to stay in our own space and out of each other’s way. The second was trying to deal with the cacophony of commands. The man used a very large voice for all of his communication with his dog, and it was a bit like listening to a drill sergeant commanding an entire unit. Since my style is much softer, trying to create the cocoon in which Rocky and I could work proved somewhat difficult. But, I had to keep reminding myself, sometimes she will be in a situation with a lot of background noise, and she will still need to be able to shut that out and respond to me. So it’s actually a good thing to practice in all kinds of environments.

Rocky did well, and with the others in the class, I had less self-consciousness about giving commands, praising, and taking the beginning steps in this new relationship.

American Service Dogs sign

American Service Dogs sign

One of the things that we practiced this time that is very new for me is the use of the command “AAHT!” instead of “No!” Here’s the thinking behind this one, from kennel master Jared Latham. If you use the word “No,” dogs learn the word quickly as an indication of bad behavior, and your displeasure. The problem comes if you also use the word “no” in regular conversation. Let’s say you and your spouse are trying to decide where to go for dinner. “Do you want to have Thai food?” “No, not Thai food again! How about Chinese?” “Ack. No, no, no. You know they use MSG and I always get a migraine. What about Mexican?” So the dog is sitting there, hearing this chorus of  “no,” wondering what in the world is going on. She either thinks she has done something wrong, or she begins to tunes it out, as the word slowly loses its impact.

Instead, I am learning to say the word “AAHT!” It is said in a short, clipped, slightly gruff tone, when a dog does not do as she is told. Rocky has already been trained to respond to this command, and when I use it, I am amazed at the reaction – immediate attention. Jared said the sound itself is similar to the low growl that a mother dog makes to check the behavior of a pup. (I have to tell you that later, after returning home, I tried it out on Malaki, our other dog. Sometimes when I let him out in the backyard at night for one more run before bed, he doesn’t come in at the first call. I realize it’s partially my fault. I say, “Malaki, come. Come, Malaki. Come. Come one, you. Hey, buddy.” Etc. I end up sounding as if I am negotiating, almost pleading. That night, I said, “Malaki, come.” He didn’t come. I called out, “AAHT, come!” And he came tearing around the corner to the door. Impressive.)

One more thing from tonight’s training. Ripley, as usual, was on the sidelines watching from her blanket. Jared used her as the “demo dog” for several things that we worked on tonight. She was somewhat reluctant to come to him each time, still looking at him with that, “Who the heck are you, and why are you asking me to do these things?” expression. But he was so sweet with her. As he leaned down to coax her over, he said, “Come on, mamacita.” It made my chest ache, hearing those words from him. My sweet mamacita.


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.


First Day of Training & Kisses for Ripley

It’s real! Rocky and I have started our official relationship, embarking on the first of ten sessions of basic obedience classes at American Service Dogs. OK, I should be clear here – it’s not Rocky that needs obedience training – it’s me. Rocky has already completed all of this work, and has even gone through most of the basic service dog training. I’m in catch-up mode. What needs to happen are two things: I must learn how she has been trained, so I can give the appropriate commands and signals she is used to, and we have to get used to each other, since at this point, we are for all intents and purposes strangers.

Two good students

Two good students

For the sake of convenience, from here on out I will refer to American Service Dogs as ASD, because I’ll be talking about the organization a lot, and three keystrokes is easier than nineteen. ASD offers classes in the morning and evening  Tuesday through Friday, and in the morning on Saturday. You can sign up whenever it is convenient for you, and clients’ needs are met wherever they happen to be in the training process. What that means is that you never know who will be around on any given day. So for our first class, it happened to be just us – me and Rocky in the class with kennel master and lead trainer Jared Latham, and my wife Sabrina and soon-to-be-retired service dog Ripley on the sidelines.

This was both great (tons of individual attention) and not so great (tons of individual attention). I loved having the opportunity to get all of that one-on-one time, but I also felt as if I was under a big spotlight, and it was hard not to feel self-conscious.

We worked on the very basics: sit; sit/stay (working up to this through a four-step process, with tight leash stays, tight leash/loose leash stays, loose leash stays, and then stepping just in front of the dog for a brief stay); name with focused attention (calling the dog’s name when in sit, then rewarding her when she makes eye contact with you); and down. The hardest part about all of it was that as we went through the exercises, Rocky would, by default, look to Jared in between each set. She tended to walk towards him, make eye contact with him. She simply wasn’t focusing on me.

Since the only other canine in the room was Ripley, Jared used her as an example dog. She was lying patiently, for the most part, on her blanket next to Sabrina. Jared would pick up her leash, and do a demonstration of each new exercise. Ripley seemed completely confused by all of this, with a look of “Who is this man asking me to perform commands?” She did, however, perform them, and gladly took the treats offered. A couple of times, she left her blanket, and wandered out onto the floor to come after me. I told her to return, and she did. However, it was clear she thought it all highly irregular.

As I was trying to execute commands with Rocky, I became more and more aware that it has been ages since I have regularly used crisp, clear commands with Ripley. Yes, occasionally commands are called for. Sometimes I have to say, “Ripley, leave it!” or “Ripley, stay.” But most of the time, I embed my commands in sentences. I talk to her like she has a much greater understanding of the English language. “Ripley, let’s go get the mail.” “Ripley, fall back. Too narrow,” when I’m pushing a shopping cart, and we come to a tight squeeze. “Ripley, turn left here.” “Ripley, wait. I’ll be right back.” The thing is, she does whatever I request. The only way I can explain it is that she and I have been together so long; it’s a combination of her picking out certain words, reading my body language, and simply knowing what needs to be done next.

Rocky & Michelle-72

Rocky and Michelle

Working with Rocky is making me hyper-aware that I need to pay attention to what I am saying and doing. Four steps – Rocky’s name, the command, the praise and (sometimes) treat, and then the release. New habits, so she knows what the hell I want from her.

And getting over the self-consciousness, because this is about me and Rocky. Who else am I trying to impress?

Oh – and best part of the class? At the end, Rocky came over to say hi to Ripley, and gave her several sweet kisses. This is all going to work out.


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.


Service Dog In Training: Rocky Meets Dozer, Our Cat

Rocky, the two-year-old female who will most likely be my next service dog, had a big week. She not only met me, Ripley, and my wife Sabrina – she also met, we’re pretty sure, her very first cat.

Rocky is, by our best guess, a Belgian Shepherd Malinois mix. We went to see her on Tuesday for the first time – we being Ripley, me and Sabrina. I knew that Ripley would be fine. As long as the other dog is not aggressive in any way, we never have any issues. Ripley gets along with everybody. She did a little meet and greet, and then that was it. No big deal. Rocky was very friendly with me, approaching repeatedly, and generous with gentle kisses. It was nice to have kisses. She has a soft mouth, and a fairly submissive demeanor. I got no hit that she would try to be the alpha in the household, which is good.

We decided to come back the next day with Malaki, our pit cross, since he can be somewhat nervous with new additions to the family. We also had no idea if Rocky had ever encountered a cat, and because we have four cats at home of our own, plus a roomful of kittens who Sabrina is fostering for a local rescue program, we wanted to ensure that any potential service dog didn’t have major cat issues.

So, on Wednesday we loaded up our truck again, this time with Ripley, Malaki, and Dozer. Dozer is our most mellow cat. Part Siamese, he’s the kind of guy you can toss in the air and catch on the way down, a cat you can literally flip over on his back on the bed to rub his belly, and he purrs all the way through it. We figured if anybody could handle the situation, it would be Dozer.

Malaki tested first. We kept him on a leash, with Rocky and Ripley loose in the room, along with about five people. Malaki was alert but OK –  until Rocky came up and licked his nose. Then Malaki growled and snapped. Rocky immediately backed up, then kept her distance. As Jared Latham, head trainer at American Service Dogs said, “Well, now we know what Malaki doesn’t like. That’s the only way dogs have to communicate. It may not be the best way, always, but it’s the only way they have.” We let the dogs be in each other’s presence a while longer, and it was clear from that point that it was going to be a workable situation. Malaki established a boundary, Rocky respected it, and that was that.

Rocky fascinated by Dozer

Rocky fascinated by Dozer

Now for that cat. Rocky hadn’t noticed Dozer at first. Jared brought her over to the crate that Dozer was in, on the floor. Whoa! Immediate interest! As you can see in the photographs, Rocky was intensely fascinated with the cat. She stretched out on the floor and just stared at him. Dozer couldn’t care less. He was completely unintimidated. He’s grown up around dogs, and has no fear. So they touched noses through the door, and had a good sniff. We opened the crate door – and Rocky tried to crawl inside with Dozer! It was hysterical. There was no maliciousness; she just wanted in there to see what the heck was going on. Jared pulled her back out, and we allowed space for Dozer to exit.

As we all watched, Dozer nonchalantly began to walk the perimeter of the room. Rocky did a GI Jane crouch-crawl, in pursuit. As Dozer made a little headway, Rocky sprang up and trotted after. She began to bounce up and down, complete play behavior, an invitation: “Come on! Let’s go!” Dozer ignored her, and kept walking around the room. He went to the opposite corner, and jumped on top of some wire kennels, and Rocky nearly died of excitement. This was fun! Then Dozer disappeared behind the couch. The dog ran all the way behind the couch, and found no cat. That was simply too much for Rocky. A game of hide-and-seek where the cat actually vanished? She became a bit obsessed, and had to be escorted from the room. Jared and Sabrina had to tip the couch over to find Dozer, who had gone inside – it was a sofa bed, it turned out, so had a “secret” compartment. Still, Dozer was completely unruffled, and walked calmly back to his crate.

We’re thinking we should have brought Bailey, who maybe would have taken a swat at Rocky, and given her more of a sense of real cat behavior. She’ll learn.



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!


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.


Ripley spends a lot of time napping now.

I found an article on Anything, 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.



Dogs in Literature? Yep!

I can’t believe it’s December – mid-December at that. How did three months slip by?

Well, here’s what’s been happening in our world…we’ve been teaching! The team of Michelle/Ripley have been in front of a classroom since September, and we just finished our last day with students on Wednesday. Not just any group of students, though. We had the absolute privilege to be in a room with 20 human students and, on any given day, at least 10 dogs!

Bergin Group Shot-web

I taught a class to the undergraduates at Bergin University of Canine Studies in Rohnert Park, California, a school where students come from all over the county to get associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in cynology – the study of dogs. While attending Bergin, each student has a dog assigned to them – actually, more than one, as they rotate every few months throughout their time there, so dogs don’t form strong attachments to a particular student. The students take classes in things directly related to dog handling, like basic obedience and more advanced skill training, and also learn about things like genetics, breeds, canine psychology, sociology, and disability studies. And, believe it or not, they take liberal arts classes – dogs in art and dogs in literature.

Which is where I came in. Yep, the Dogs in Lit prof! I had every good intention of telling you all about the class as we went through the semester, but somehow that didn’t happen. Damn. So let me just cover a few highlights.

This was my first real teaching gig. I learned as much, if not more, than my students. There were challenges every day, in presenting the material, meeting student needs, and adapting my initial expectations to fit the reality of what I found up in front of the classroom. But I loved it. There were so many positive moments, times when things clicked, when something I had figured out as a new approach worked, when a student got it. It made everything worthwhile.

Ripley at BerginI loved having Ripley next to me, and looking out into the classroom to see ten more dogs lounging around underneath desks. It was such a pleasure to be on a campus that was devoted to dogs, and also to spend an entire semester reading books about dogs, talking about dogs: ethical issues, training issues, social issues, and how all of this could or would affect the students’ lives.

We watched dog movies (Wendy and Lucy, Best in Show), and saw an original short play performed (“A Dog’s Tail,” by Sonoma County playwright Scott Lummer). A local author, Amanda McTigue, came in to speak about her novel, Going to Solace, and ended up handing out autographed copies to the entire class. And when we wrote to the author of one of the novels we read, The Mountaintop School for Dogs, Ellen Cooney responded with individual answers to each student.

I read a lot of dog books! Our class reading list, besides Mountaintop, included A Dog’s Life: Autobiography of a Stray (Ann M. Martin) and excerpts from  Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles (Jeanette Winterson), as well as the short stories “The Boy from Lam Kien” (Miranda July), “The Chain” (Tobias Wolff), and “Dog Song” (Ann Pancake). We also spent two weeks on poetry, particularly focusing on Mary Oliver and Billy Collins.

But that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Students had to choose a book for their final project, so I had to come up with a recommended reading list. They covered a huge range of styles, from serious drama to mystery, romantic comedy to thriller, young adult fiction to memoir. Among the other books I have read in the last few months:

And it has been an inordinately fun romp through dog-land.

But after listening to each student in the class give their final presentation, and then spending about twenty hours over the past week working on writing up evaluations and grading, I have to admit this: Much as I love dogs, I think I’m ready to read a book about something else next week!



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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