Rocky

27Apr

Shit Happens

I’m going to talk about a rather sensitive issue here – but, as I assume most of you reading these posts are animal people to some extent, I’m guessing you can handle it. This is about dog poop. And an unexpected “gift” from Rocky.

When traveling with my service dog, one of the foremost concerns I have is how long she’s going to have to go between bathroom breaks. With plane travel, this can be a huge issue. For starters, when I’m booking my flight, I don’t just look for the cheapest flight. I look for the flight that is shortest in duration, including layover time. As an example, the trip I just took from El Paso to San Diego? The shortest flight, through Phoenix, was four hours and forty five minutes. Longer flights, passing through Los Angeles, jumped up to seven hours or more, with three hour layovers.

Now, four hours seems like a relatively short time. But remember – it’s not only the plane flight. It’s a one hour drive from my house to the El Paso airport. Then you have to account for checking in two hours early, as recommended. Especially when traveling with a service dog, you need to allow for extra time, because I can’t do online check-in, and sometimes security takes longer. Then, once we land, there’s the walk to baggage claim, going to get the rental car, etc. All of that tacks on extra hours.

SFO pet relief station

Fortunately, airports are getting much better about accommodating service dogs. Most major airports now have pet relief stations somewhere outside the main terminal, usually either near the main check-in or baggage claim. I now check an airport’s maps before each trip, to find out what I will be facing. The one at El Paso airport is a fenced enclosure with grass. The one at San Francisco airport is all gravel, with good signage leading the way (plus paw prints on the floor). These animal relief stations have poop bags, garbage cans, and, generally, a water dish.

Unfortunately, if you are at one of these airports for a layover, you have to exit the airport to get to them, which means passing through security, then waiting in line and going through security again to get back to your gate. This is not only a huge hassle, but you may not have enough time, depending upon the length of your layover. And, if you have fatigue issues like I do, it can be very taxing.

Signs to SFO pet relief station

Some airports, like the one in Phoenix, have gone even further recently, by adding animal relief stations inside of the secured areas, so you can bring your animal to do her duty without leaving the gate area.

The other big issue is a dog’s unique temperament. Not every dog will be willing to use these stations, because of nerves about travel, the loud noises in the environment, etc.

Ripley always managed to be a champ about holding her bladder, and managing to get through the whole experience. I was ready to do whatever I could to help Rocky face the new situation, too. I booked the shortest flight, and on the morning we left San Diego, we got up early, so I could feed her and also give her time to relieve herself at the hotel. She decided to nix breakfast altogether – pre-travel nerves, which is not unusual for her. (Ripley never turned down a meal.) But, she did use the motel dog run to both pee and poop before we left, so I thought we were good to go.

On the flight from San Diego to Phoenix, Rocky became very agitated at one point. She sat up, and literally tried to jump from between my legs towards the aisle. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I managed to contain her, but she remained at a fairly high stress level throughout the flight. Once we landed, Sabrina, Rocky and I began the interminably long walk to our next gate through the Phoenix airport. I felt like I was going to collapse from exhaustion.

All at once, Rocky simply stopped and I almost tripped over her. Then, to my horror, I realized she was taking a dump, right there on the carpet. Sabrina quickly stepped behind her to form a human “privacy shield,” and I dropped to my knees, reached into her vest and pulled out a poop bag. I scooped it up as fast as I could, and stuck the bag in my sweatshirt pocket. Then we kept walking, as if nothing had happened, trying to draw as little attention as possible to this huge service dog faux pas.

Phoenix pet relief station inside gates

Literally two minutes later, we found the Phoenix animal relief station. We brought Rocky inside, and she sniffed everything. It had a small rectangle of artificial turf with a tiny fire hydrant on it, and instructions to “flush” after each use, plus poop bags, a waste bucket, and a sink for washing up. Nothing happened; she had no use for it at that point.

So, what’s the lesson here? I couldn’t really get mad at her. Shit happens, right? Hopefully next time we’ll get to the relief station sooner. Even service dogs have bad days.

25Apr

Rocky Goes Flying for the First Time

*Note: Our trip to San Diego was April 15-19, so these are “catching you up to date” posts.

It finally happened, that big day in a service dog’s life – Rocky’s first plane trip. And although we only flew from El Paso to San Diego (not far), because nothing is ever a straight shot, that round trip involved two planes there and two planes home, with stop-overs in Phoenix, so she got lots of practice. In addition to four planes, she hopped on two escalators, rode a total of four shuttle buses, and took several elevators. It was a crash course in public access, and she passed with flying colors.

Kudos go out to American Airlines for making the entire experience as stress-free as possible. We checked in with bags on both ends and were granted TSA pre-check status. That meant security was a breeze for Rocky and me. No lines, didn’t have to remove my shoes or hat or sweatshirt, and we were allowed to walk through the security gate together. On the way home, we got a beep, and I had to remove Rocky’s vest, but then we were fine. Sometimes security can be very dicey – at different airports, with Ripley, I have been required to go as far as removing her vest, leash and collar, leave her in a “sit” on one side of the gate, walk through myself, then call her to me. Then I’ve had to wait, holding onto her only with my bare hands, while all of her “clothing” passed through the x-ray equipment. You may have heard that a TSA agent asked a handler to remove the vest of a service dog at the Orlando airport in early April, and the dog spooked and ran off, and is still missing – any handler’s nightmare. I knew I could trust Ripley, but since it was Rocky’s first time, I felt apprehensive; so I was deeply relieved this aspect of the trip went without a hitch. (Sabrina wasn’t quite so lucky; she was left behind me at one point trying to raise her hands over her head without losing her pants, because they had made her remove her belt. Giggle.)

When I fly, I always approach the gate immediately and ask the boarding agent if we can pre-board, so I can stow carry-on bags and get settled with my dog before other passengers are on the plane. All of the boarding agents were very gracious about this, and allowed Sabrina, Rocky and me to be the first passengers on the plane. But this is where the flight crew went the extra mile. Two different times our seats were changed at the last minute to give Rocky (and us) more room. Flying from San Diego to Phoenix, a flight attendant who was traveling as a passenger happened to be seated in front of us. I was in the window seat, with Sabrina in the middle seat. When a large man came to take the aisle seat, the flight attendant immediately contacted one of the working flight attendants, asking that he be moved to another seat, as she knew it wasn’t a full flight. We thanked her for giving us the space; she laughed and said, “No, it’s not for you. I want the dog to be comfortable.” Then on the flight from Phoenix to El Paso, on a smaller plane with only two seats on each side of the aisle, the flight attendant took one look at us as we boarded and said, “Oh, that’s too cramped for you there.” She brought us up to the seats right behind first class, which had nearly twice the leg room. I can’t tell you what a difference those little adjustments make. Thank goodness for the kindness and attention of flight attendants!

And Rocky? Well, she did OK. Take-off and landing seemed to be fine. Once in the air, there were some moments of panting and obvious distress, mostly during turbulence, and I think there might have been times when the cabin pressure affected her a bit. But, overall, she performed like a champ.

Her worst part, believe it or not? The damn shuttle buses. I have discovered she is terrified of the sound of spitter valves and air brakes and hydraulic doors. Here’s my theory. With most other sounds, even though they are loud, she can hear them coming. We had a train outside a motel once: no problem. She didn’t mind the sound of low-flying jets over our motel. All the sounds on the airplane: again, no problem. Motorcycles don’t bother her. But those damn spitter valves and other sudden hisses? There is nothing, and then suddenly: ssssssss! It makes her jump out of her skin. So, we’re working on that. Always something.

But the good news is, I now feel confident that I can travel alone with her for my big trip to Northern California in June. Yay!

 

22Apr

Escalators, Elevators & Automatic Doors

On April 11, in anticipation of Rocky’s first big trip (airplanes!), we headed out for an afternoon training with Jared Latham of American Service Dogs to work on special access skills. Our destination? The Barnes & Noble bookstore at New Mexico State University, because it is the only place in Las Cruces that has an escalator.

We were joined by three other service dog handler teams, plus three other members of the ASD staff, so we made quite an entrance. Barnes & Noble has three things that make it an ideal place to practice for airports: escalators (tall ones!), an elevator, and handicap-access push button doors. It also has a nice, roomy floor plan, so our presence wasn’t intrusive.

Some time ago, before I met Rocky, she had been on an escalator in training with Jared, but that was over nine months ago. I never went on escalators during my years with Ripley, and have always been a little nervous about them; they can be intimidating. If available, I will still always choose an elevator. But here’s the thing: sometimes the escalator is right in front of you, and the elevator is located way in the back of the building. Since fatigue can be a major factor for me now, having the option of using an escalator is a perk. So I was willing to learn.

At first, Rocky balked, and wouldn’t go hear the base of the escalator. But Sabrina had the brilliant idea of boarding ahead of us. As soon as she did that, Rocky stepped right on with me.

After that, there was no stopping her. The two of us went up and down the escalators more than ten round trips. And if a dog can grin – well, she was grinning. Her tail was pumping like a metronome. Rocky was clearly pleased with herself, and jazzed about this new skill and her success. She trotted from one side to the next, to the point I had to slow her down so I could rest.

We broke up the routine by taking the elevator, so sometimes she took the up escalator, rode the elevator down, then took the up escalator up and down, then took the elevator up. Nothing seemed to faze her.

After it was clear this was a done deal, we moved outside to the handicapped access doors. Up to this point, I have only practiced this skill at home, using a fake button on the wall. I held a treat above the button and gave the command: “Rocky, touch!” Bam! She nailed that button with both paws, and the door came open. Whoop! We repeated it several times on the outside door, and then went inside, where the button is different, a smaller rectangular shape at a slightly different height, and bam! She nailed it again!

Rocky, Sabrina and I went home feeling very good about the day. Just to reinforce everything, we returned to Barnes & Noble the next afternoon, and went through all of it one more time on our own, without any other dog/handler teams, or our trainer. Piece of cake. Ready to rock and roll!

 

19Dec

Microchip Mayhem

Sometimes I forget little things. But I would have remembered if I sold my service dog to a woman named Alyssa.

Let me back up a bit. Normally, I am a very organized person. I have been that way forever – even as a kid, I arranged my books on the shelf by author’s name. But some systems challenge even me. Take, for example, pet microchipping.

In the beginning, it was simple. Avid was the only game in town. You paid, the vet implanted the chip, handed you a certificate, and you were good to go. If you moved, you called Avid and they updated your info. Three of our animals have Avid chips – those age nine and over. The others who had Avid chips have now passed away.

Since that time, competition has come onto the market. Each time we add a new animal, it seems there is a new company involved. Little Bit and Kenji, ages six and seven, are registered with PetLink. Malakai, age five, is registered with HomeAgain. Rocky and Pickle, ages three and four months, are registered with 24PetWatch. The plethora of new companies was difficult at first even for veterinarians – they had to have different scanners to read each chip. Now, thank goodness, there are universal scanners.

It is not as simple, though, as just receiving a certificate with your number anymore. The new microchip companies want to provide extras – and, in turn, charge your more. For an annual fee, or a lifetime fee, they offer things like online registration, the ability to update your info whenever you like; 24 hour call service; extra assistance when searching for your lost pet, with advertisements and flyers, etc. The basic microchip implant identification is still there, but it is easy to be led to believe that if you don’t sign up for more, your pet won’t have full protection.

I have a file folder with everyone’s microchip documentation, and additionally, a Word document that lists each pet, their microchip number and company, plus basic stats: breed, date of birth, weight, color. I use it as my quick go-to if something comes up.

We just changed the ownership for Pickle, as his microchip number was registered to ACTion Program for Animals, and after the adoption went through, it was time to put our personal names and address into the system. Since his microchip was with 24PetWatch, we already had an account, as that is the company that Rocky is listed with.

I logged into my 24PetWatch account, to see if I could just add an animal. I was baffled to find that although my info was there, it showed I had no pets. There were no animals under my account. Because Rocky is my service dog, I had even decided to make the extra expenditure, and had signed up for the lifetime support, at $65, for their full package. I had done this only in September, when I officially changed Rocky’s records from American Service Dogs over to my personal ownership. But she wasn’t there.

I figured I was merely looking in the wrong place on the website, so I called customer support. When I reached the representative, I explained my dilemma. He said, “Oh. Rocky was transferred to a new owner in October.”

I said, “What?”

He said, “Yes, we received a transfer of ownership. So she was taken off of your account.”

I said, “That’s crazy. She’s my service dog. She’s sitting in the room with me right now.”

He said, “Oh. Let me look here.” (Pause) Do you know anyone named Alyssa?”

“Alyssa? No.”

“Let me look into this. I’ll call you back.”

About fifteen minutes later, he telephoned. “The number was incorrectly assigned to someone else. It has been corrected. It should be listed again now on your account.”

I checked to make sure, thanked him, and hung up. But, really? What if I hadn’t gone onto 24PetWatch that day? What if I hadn’t happened to look at my account for months, and, worst case scenario, Rocky had gotten lost? And someone scanned her microchip, and then they would call some woman named Alyssa, who would have no idea who I am, or how to reach me?

So, I am feeling much less confident in microchip companies right at the moment. All it takes is a keystroke for them to erroneously assign your number to someone else. Lesson learned – periodically check your accounts, and make sure your dog or cat is still registered to you, regardless of how many promises the company has made.

 

25Nov

Open the Pod Bay Doors, Hal

rocky-2016-11-25-72pxAnybody passing by our house over the last week has heard a lot of what my American Service Dogs trainer Jared Latham calls “the Barbie Doll voice.” Especially when teaching a dog a new skill, it’s critical to get really, really excited when the dog does it right. I not only reward the behavior with a treat, but I get downright silly with praise. And that means switching my voice to a not-everyday high-pitched tone, to differentiate from the usual tone I use to give the commands. Hence, “Barbie Doll.”

And what have we been working on? Something well worth all the squeaking. Rocky is learning how to push a button to activate an automatic door, like the ones they have for handicapped access.

Let’s backtrack, and I’ll walk you through what we’ve been doing. First, the need. When I’m out in public, I usually use a cane. I don’t always need one when I leave the house, but I never know when that may change, as my episodes can come upon me very quickly, leaving me either weak and unsteady, or unable to walk at all. Holding Rocky’s leash in one hand, and a cane in the other makes doors tricky if I am out on my own, plus doors are often heavy. Some doors, like at grocery stores, are operated by sensors, so that’s no problem. But others have handicapped access buttons. The idea is to train Rocky to push those buttons, so that I don’t have to.

How do you train a dog to push a button that’s up on the wall? At American Service Dogs, there is a practice button, so I knew I would work up to this gradually. I watched another client one day, Katie, with her dog, who is quite large. He knew full well how to do it, but wasn’t really in the mood for training. When Katie insisted he go through with the exercise, he finally walked up to it, and slammed it so hard that the button fell off the wall and onto the floor. Then he looked at all of us as if to say, “There. Button pushed. Are you satisfied?” We couldn’t help breaking into laughter.

The basic command you use is “Touch.” Jared started me out on that, showing me how. He knelt in front of Rocky when she was in a sit position, with a treat in one hand, and he cupped his other hand in front of her, low to the ground. He said, “Touch,” trying to get her to put her paw in his hand. When she didn’t, he tickled the bottom of a paw gently with one finger until she placed the paw into his hand, and then rewarded her. After a few tries, she began to respond to the tickle fairly quickly, placing her paw in his hand.

I tried that at home, and within a couple of days, Rocky responded to “Touch” by putting her paw into my hand, with me kneeling in front of her. I then made it a little harder, standing up, so she had to lift her paw higher to get her paw into my hand.

We haven’t been to the kennel in a couple of weeks, and I was feeling guilty about not introducing any new training. I thought, “How can I go to the next step with ‘Touch’ and have Rocky respond to a button?” Well, first I needed a button. After I little brainstorming, I came up with the idea of using a furniture coaster – you know, the round plastic discs you use to slide heavy furniture around easily? It was the right size and shape. I attached it to our glass side entrance door with adhesive velcro strips, and voila! A practice button! (This impressed Sabrina, so I felt pretty pleased with myself.)

Now, how to transition Rocky from touching my hand, to touching the button? Enter Pup Peroni  training treats and “Barbie Doll” voice. For the next several days, I gradually focused Rocky’s attention from my hand to the door, then to the button. I tapped the button, rewarding her just for looking at it. I rewarded her for lifting her paw in the general direction. And finally, she made contact with the glass! Huge squeals on my part! The next day, she actually touched the button, at the end of the training session. And today, on leash, we walked toward the button, with me giving me the command just as we neared the door, and six times in a row, she touched that damn button with her paw. I don’t know who was more excited, Rocky or me. She was wiggling back and forth, so proud of herself. We went inside to brag to Sabrina and talk all about it, and everybody (all the dogs) got cookies.

Then, of course, I realized I needed a picture for this blog post, and hadn’t taken one. So I took her back outside, and asked her to do it again. Tricky – trying to offer the treat, give the command, and hold my cell phone steady to take the photo. She successfully touched the button twice, and I got two shots. It wasn’t until I was back inside that I realized something really interesting: up until this point, every single time Rocky has responded to the “Touch” command, she has used her left paw. Jared had even commented on that first day, “Oh, she’s a lefty.” So what do I see in the best of the two photos, the last one I took? She touched the button with her right paw. Go figure. She’s ambidextrous.

 

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.

 

17Nov

The Trouble with Having a Smart Dog

It’s great having a smart dog when you’re training her to do what you want her to do. It’s not so great when she’s getting into trouble all on her own.

Rocky’s latest trick? I walked into the kitchen and found the cupboard under the sink wide open, the kitchen trash can lying on the floor, and a trail of garbage, including coffee grounds, leading through the kitchen and out the dog door, through the garage, the next dog door, and into the dog yard. Sabrina had eaten meat that evening, so I thought maybe it was a one-time thing. But about three days later, Rocky did it again, this time with a near-empty trash can, the only thing of interest being the plastic wrap from my marinated tofu.

kitchen-trash-72I found her right after the act the second time, and scolded her soundly; she looked heartily guilty, and I would like to think that alone will keep her from doing it again. But, we can’t take the risk that she might get into something dangerous in the garbage. So, for now, we have the kitchen cupboard below the sink latched shut with a small dog collar to keep her out. A royal pain for us, because it means we have to unclasp the buckle every time we want to throw something away – but, better safe than sorry. (And we won’t even talk about the uncooked chicken thigh she stole out of the pan on the kitchen counter a few weeks ago a couple of hours before our dinner guests arrived. At least we still had enough left for the rest of the dinner.)

Now, the good thing is this shows Rocky is able to open doors. That could be put to positive use in future training. It’s all a question of appropriate time and place, and making sure she is safe.

Here’s another example of smart (and useful) behavior: When a door is closed but not latched, the other two dogs won’t generally push it open. We have a laundry room, and when I go in there, the door usually swings shut, without clicking all the way closed. Rocky likes to keep tabs on me. If I am in the laundry room for more than a minute or two, she shows up on the other side of the door, and nudges the door open with her nose and enters the room. This is actually great service dog behavior. She is keeping track of me, knows my whereabouts. If by chance something were to happen to me, she would know where I was, and how to get to me. She could potentially lead someone to me if I were incapacitated in any way. So this is something to be encouraged.

If you remember, when she first came to live with us, she was an escape artist. She was leaping over our lower rock walls  in the front yard and on our patio, and going under the dog yard fence. We had to put up a higher fence, and also had to install an electric fence line at the base of the dog yard. That stopped all escape attempts. Ideally, however, we would like her to be able to have access to a door and not run away, because she might need to open a door for someone – say, emergency personnel.

Today, I accidentally tested that. I was out on the patio, talking on the phone to my uncle. Usually when I go back in, Rocky is very quick to re-enter with me. Because I was distracted by the content of our conversation, when I went back inside, I failed to notice that Rocky was still on the patio. I went to the living room, and talked with Sabrina for fifteen to twenty minutes about the phone call, then got up to go to the kitchen. As I did, I looked toward the glass door – and saw Rocky sitting there, with the most pathetic expression on her face, waiting to be let back in. I went outside and apologized profusely, and brought her in. Only at that time did I realize – she did not try to escape. She didn’t jump the rock wall, didn’t attempt to gain access in another way. She remained right where I left her, and waited for me to come back. It is a testament to the bond we have been forming, and the training we have both been undertaking.

Good dog, Rocky. But no more unapproved kitchen snacks, OK?

 

6Nov

Road Trips Are for Junk Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

21Oct

Rocky Has Issues Too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
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