Rocky

18Sep

Rocky hobnobs with authors at the Branigan Library

When you have a service dog, meeting with the general public in situations where conversation is encouraged can bring up some interesting interactions.

On Sunday afternoon, Rocky and I joined 23 other Southern New Mexico writers for the “Celebrate Authors” event at the Thomas Branigan Memorial Library in Las Cruces. From 2-4 p.m., over 80 lovers of all things literary came up to the Roadrunner Room on the second floor to chat with authors, buy autographed copies of books, and munch on a alarming amount of delicious food prepared for the event.

The event was sponsored by library staff and Friends of the Library, and we authors couldn’t have been more spoiled or well taken care of. Each of us had our own table, a nice blue table cloth, a name plate, a bottle of water, note pad and pens, plus a library book bag filled with cool swag waiting for us when we arrived. Visitors were handed a guide sheet that had all the authors’ names with a list of our books and brief descriptions, a mini-road map, as it were. Really, I’ve never been to a more well-organized event, start to finish.

It was great for me, because of those 23 names, I didn’t know anybody. The last author event at a library I attended in Sonoma County, California, I knew everyone on the list. Sabrina, my wife, was with me on Sunday, which allowed me to leave my table periodically to wander around.This opportunity to meet both local writers and readers was a real boon. Rocky, of course, is always up to new venues and people, so we were ready for a good day.

But I’m never completely prepared for some of the questions.

As I was talking to author Pierre Nichols, a woman writer at a nearby table, obviously looking at Rocky’s vest, said, “I’ve always wanted to know – why does it say, ‘Please don’t pet?'” I guess that’s an honest question, even though the answer seems so obvious to me. I explained, “A service dog is working. If someone pets her, it’s a distraction, and she can’t focus on her work. She said, “Oh! That makes sense!”

Moments later, I asked another gentleman whether both of his books were for young adults. As he explained that one was for a YA audience, the other for adult readers, he said, “So, how long were you in the service?” Puzzled, I said, “I’ve never been in the service.” I wondered what about my appearance or behavior made me seem military. Then he said, “But it says, ‘service dog.'”

Whoa. That’s a first.

I again went into education mode. I told him that service dogs helped people with disabilities, that she was “in service” assisting me. “Oh,” he said. “All this time I’ve misunderstood that.” He was a kindly soul, and well-intentioned, so I went further into my explanation than usual, telling him a little of my personal history, and we ended up having a very nice chat. He said he thought I should write about my disability, and I could probably make it humorous, too. Then he wasn’t sure if I would take that the wrong way. I laughed, said, “Don’t worry! My close friends and I all have jokes about it. It’s the only way to deal, sometimes.” Which led to him telling me some very funny stories about when he used to work at a cemetery. You never know where a conversation is going to take you.

Later, back at my author table, despite my special sun glasses, I began to feel overwhelmed by the banks of fluorescent lights (one of the triggers for my paralysis episodes), and realized I needed to get out of the building for a few minutes, and quick. I told Sabrina, and stood up, using my cane because I was already a bit unsteady. Right at that moment, a woman approached and wanted to talk about service dogs. I’m standing there, flushed, getting light in the head, wobbly, and she wants to chat. Luckily Sabrina was there, so I simply pushed past her and let Sabrina take over. It’s hard because my “nice” self doesn’t want to appear rude, but my survivor self doesn’t want to fall on my face onto the floor in front of 50 people.

We managed to get outside, and the natural light and air helped me revive. When Rocky and I came back in 10 minutes later, Sabrina and the woman were still talking. Good thing I hadn’t tried to be polite.

Other than that, the only issue was the man who showed up with a dog. Now, I’m almost positive you can’t bring dogs into the library. But somehow, because this event was on the second floor, he thought, well, no one will mind. In pranced this little dog – no service vest, no purpose. I convinced Rocky that he was not there to visit her, despite the fact that he was clearly not on the job. Just out for a stroll, I suppose. And a little light reading.

All in all, it was still a good day.

Rocky is getting used to this dog-and-person show, I think.

6Sep

Rocky passed her test!

It’s official! Yesterday Rocky became a bona fide, full-fledged service dog, complete with an ID badge and a certified letter stating she had successfully completed training and passed the test conducted by American Service Dogs.

This is a first for both of us. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not have a set standard for the testing of service dogs. It does require that the person using a service dog have a disability, and that the dog must perform specific tasks to assist with that disability. It is completely legal to train your own dog to assist with your disability; you do not have to use a professional trainer or agency. Ripley and I did our training on our own, with guidance from some in the field, and some very good training manuals. But when it was time for her to retire, I knew I wanted to use a professional agency, because I didn’t have the luxury of starting off with a puppy – my disabilities were now more severe, I needed a dog to step in more quickly, and I wanted help in the transition process from one dog to the next.

American Service Dogs, and in particular their head trainer, Jared Latham, gave me everything I needed to make that possible. The training was supposed to take 20 weeks, or about five months. We took quite a bit longer. That was due to a number of factors. In June last year, I left for a month to go to California, and although I worked with Rocky in those summer months, she didn’t actually come to live with me until August, after another short trip to California. Then we were involved in a lot of home remodeling, which sometimes interfered with our training schedule at the kennel. And I was also managing the tough process of easing Ripley out of her role as my service dog. But by December, Rocky had taken over all service dog duties. And despite the fact that we didn’t always make it to class, she was getting a major education in public access, going everywhere with me. She not only accompanied me on the little day-to-day outings (dining out, store runs, doctor appointments, etc.), by the date of her test, she had flown to California and back twice, taken a Greyhound to Albuquerque, and gone on several long car trips. I had no doubts about her ability to be out in the world.

Still, as we headed out for our test yesterday, I was nervous. I’m a perfectionist, and I wanted everything to go just right. Last week, Sabrina and I went to Mesilla Valley Mall and did a practice run, and Rocky was perfectly in sync with me, acing everything. But she sometimes acts differently in front of Jared, because he used to be her trainer, and she’s not sure who to look at – him or me.

We went to the Barnes & Noble at the university campus for the test. First thing on the list, we tested “touch,” and Rocky nailed it, pushing the button to open the front door. Then we went inside to the cafe, and I gave her the command “under” as I sat down at a table. She went underneath and laid down, again right on cue. So far, so good.

We did a few more quick commands downstairs. “Handle and massage” – the dog should be able to be handled, her paws inspected, mouth opened, tail tugged, etc. “Get dressed” – stand at attention while the handler puts on the dog’s service vest, eager and ready to go to work. “Calm” – get the dog excited, then give her a command to go into a calm mode. Again, all no problem. Then, she got to ride the escalator to go upstairs, which she loves. Lots of tail wagging.

I won’t go through the whole test. There are about 35 commands, including long-term (10 minute) sit-stays and down-stays at a distance of 100 feet, a final down-stay that is even longer, and numerous moving commands at heel, with variations such as “hurry,” “easy,” an automatic sit when you stop, etc. There were only two that she hesitated on. Initially, she didn’t respond to “lap,” when I am sitting and she is supposed to put her front feet into my lap – which was crazy, because it’s one of her favorite commands. But I think it was because the chair had arms, and it threw her off. I tried it again on a bench, and she aced it. And we flubbed the “sit,” “come,” ‘stay” using hand signals only, because I hadn’t practiced that; I do use hand signals, but always in conjunction with voice, so we need to work on that.

Jared gave us a pass. Hooray! This by no stretch of the imagination means that the training is over. Ripley and I grew as a handler/service dog team throughout our years together, and it will be the same with me and Rocky. Passing this test means we have our foundation laid; the basic and advanced obedience skills are all there, and Rocky has a firm handle on public access. Now we can move forward with fine tuning behavior, and start teaching her more and more skills to help me directly with my disability.

Yay, Rocky! Rocky the Rock Star!

1Aug

What is she being trained for? HUH?

(I haven’t made a post in a really long time. Sorry! Jared Latham, I know I owe you one!)

So, I have this dilemma. Lately, when I am out with my service dog Rocky, I keep running into people who ask me this question:

“What is she being trained for?”

And it has me stumped. Because I can’t figure out the thinking behind the question. Here’s why. The question, to me, implies that I am a trainer, not a disabled person. That I am training her for someone else. Someone with a very visible disability, someone who is blind, or in a wheelchair, or something like that. Because usually, right after the question, the person says something like, “My dog would be jumping on the tables in this environment,” or “She’s so well behaved, I didn’t even realize she was here at first.” So I don’t think that it’s the person’s way of saying, “Wow, she must be IN TRAINING, because she’s obviously not fully trained yet.”

Rocky wears a very visibly marked service dog vest. One patch says “service dog.” Another says “Please no petting.” Still another says, “Working dog, do not distract.” Nowhere does it imply that she is “in training.”

Rocky is my second service dog. I worked as part of a team with Ripley first, who retired last year at the age of eleven. With Ripley, I was more used to some confusion, because my disability was even more “invisible” in those earlier years. But now, as my genetic disorder has progressed, almost every time I am out in public, I walk with a cane. I can no longer drive, and use a handicapped placard in the vehicles I travel in, because I never know how far I will be able to walk without difficulty. I also frequently have to wear totally geeky-looking tinted glasses to help protect myself from fluorescent lights, since they can be a trigger for some of my paralysis attacks. I certainly do not feel as if I look completely able-bodied anymore.

So, again, back to that question. Some people are even more specific when they ask. They say something along the lines of “How long have you been training dogs?” which obviously implies that I am a dog trainer, not a disabled person who is using a service dog for my own benefit.

In response, usually I simply say, “She is in service with me,” and leave it at that. Or “She helps me with my disability.” I really don’t like getting into my personal medical history with complete strangers. Still, I’m a bit flummoxed by the question. Part of me wants to say, “What exactly do you mean by that?” and just hear what they are thinking, what prompts the question in the first place.

You would think, with all the news about the amazing things dogs can do, that people would have a bit more open-mindedness about this. Almost everyone has heard about how dogs help our disabled combat vets suffering from PTSD. Most have heard of seizure alert dogs. C’mon, people, use your imagination!

In the meantime, I guess I simply have to try not to get irritated. It’s not worth it, right? Rocky’s doing her job, and that’s all that’s important.

 

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?

 

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
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