Rocky

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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11Oct

Rocky Hits the Road: First Over-night Vacation

Rocky and I were scheduled to take a four-day trip to Massachusetts about a month ago. I was a little nervous about it, because that’s a pretty big trip for a first over-nighter. First of all, it involved air travel, which is always a little nerve-wracking in the beginning. And it wasn’t a short jaunt. We would have been flying from El Paso to Chicago, then on to Boston, plus an hour’s car ride to our destination. Ripley’s first over-night trip was by car. Her first airplane trip was from San Francisco to San Diego – short and sweet, a nice practice run. But, it all ended up not happening for Rocky, because I caught the fever/weird illness from Hades, and stayed in bed for two weeks. Trip cancelled.

As luck would have it, an opportunity came up this month to take a much more manageable first trip. My sister-in-law Kristen Mendenhall and Sabrina’s brother Edmond Temple were up from California to visit their old stomping grounds, Jemez Springs. Kristen had been invited back to do an art show of her new paintings at the Jemez Fine Art Gallery, and we decided to drive up for the opening reception last weekend, turning it into a mini-vacation.

The Laughing Lizard Inn in Jemez Springs

The Laughing Lizard Inn in Jemez Springs

Jemez Springs is in Jemez Canyon, at six thousand feet elevation, a gorgeous place any time of the year, but right now, simply stunning. The red rock bluffs are gorgeous, some of the trees are changing leaf color to golden tones, and everything is lush and green. It’s tiny, with only about four restaurants to choose from (not all of them open every night), but a tourist destination for its mineral water pools (Jemez Hot Springs), scenic drives on Highway 4 which run through it, the Santa Fe National Forest that surrounds it, and various connections to Native American sites and connections to the nearby Jemez Pueblo.

We stayed for three nights at the Laughing Lizard Inn. I think it was the last room available in town – we only booked a week ahead, and everything else was filled (and there are, believe it or not, quite a few B&Bs, guest houses, inns, etc.). We lucked out and got the “Sunflower Suite,” which meant we not only had a big bedroom, but also a front sitting room and a full kitchen. Cool. The art show was great, we had a good time, la de dah.

rockys-four-poster-bed-72

Rocky’s four poster bed, with special dog sheet

OK, enough about all that. What about the dog? How did Rocky do on the trip? It was almost five hours of driving one way, with pit stops, her longest car trip ever. We stopped a couple of times for “dog relief.” She peed, no problem. But once again, the pooping was a bit of an issue. We finally pulled over at an RV park, and I got out with her determined to wait as long as it took. We must have walked for fifteen or even twenty minutes, but she eventually relieved herself. Success! Once we got to the Laughing Lizard, she seemed to recognize that we were “home,” if only temporarily. One signal: when I travel, I always ask for an extra flat sheet, or if car travelling, bring one of my own, to place on top of the quilt or bedspread, to minimize dog hair impact. Then I invite Rocky (as I had always invited Ripley) to jump onto the bed. “OK, then! This is my place!” (By the way, she loved her very high four poster bed.)

So from there on out, it was a simple task. I just took her outside the front door to a patch of wildness, or down the nearby stone stairs to another larger area of mowed-down stubble, and Rocky took care of business.

Problem number two: She went on hunger strike. Rocky is used to eating twice a day, first thing in the morning and around 4 p.m. The thing is, she always has company. Ripley and Malakai eat in the same room with her. She would have nothing to do with the collapsible rubber bowl I brought – too weird. I used a bowl from the kitchen, and she took a couple of bites. Then she drank water and walked away. That was it the first day. The second day, again, nothing. However, since there were no other dogs around, I was able to leave the bowl of food on the floor. Sometime in the middle of the night, she got up and licked the bowl clean. That became her routine. She only ate when I wasn’t looking, and she only ate one meal a day. Oh, well. I figured if she was really hungry, eventually, she’d eat.

Rocky is a champ at outings. She’s great at being invisible underneath restaurant tables, waiting patiently at art  shows, lying at my side while I am deep in conversation with someone. So that part went well.

Rocky and Sabrina

Rocky and Sabrina

We needed to pick up some groceries – half and half for coffee, coffee filters, apple juice, sodas, snacks. There’s only one little grocery store in town, really just a convenience store, The Trail House. There was a sign outside (buried among many signs) that said guide dogs were welcome, another larger one that said, “No pets.” When Sabrina, Rocky and I walked in, the woman behind the counter immediately said, “No dogs.” I said, “She’s a service dog.” She said, “Well, we can’t have them here, because we have food service,” pointing to a sandwich area in the back. I was insistent. “She is a service dog, and by federal law, she is allowed to be here with me.” The woman did not look happy with me, and scowled at us as we walked around the store. Sabrina’s response is to try to get people to lighten up by chatting with them. I had a moment’s hesitancy as I wondered if we had crossed the border between Jemez Springs into Jemez Pueblo (I couldn’t remember if I had seen the sign on the way), and wondered if federal law applied on tribal land. What do I know? But, we stayed, and bought our groceries, and even got a begrudging smile out of the woman before we left. Maybe because we bought so much.

We had a couple of stupid people encounters. They happen everywhere. Here’s my favorite. It was our last morning, and we were almost done loading up the car. Our room was up an outdoor stone staircase from the parking lot, separate from the other four rooms of the inn. I had just taken Rocky down the stairs to the little stubble field to pee before we headed out on the road again. She was off leash; as there were usually no people around, I had been working with voice commands, having her follow me around the inn property. Rocky was standing next to me when a man appeared from the parking lot. Sabrina was by the car, which was between us, and he approached her. Rocky, ever inquisitive, started to walk towards him. The man asked Sabrina if she knew when the inn manager would arrive. I was trying not to interrupt by giving an abrupt command to Rocky to return – she was simply wandering a bit, and was still only about six feet away from me. But when she neared the man, he turned to her, and read aloud the patches on her vest: “Working dog: Do not pet. Service dog.” He said, “Is this your service dog?” I said, “Yes.” Then, absolutely ignoring what he had just read aloud himself, he began petting Rocky. Not one pet, not two. But full-on repeated petting. I had no idea how to respond. I could have abruptly recalled Rocky, but somehow that seemed rude. I could have walked over and snapped on her leash and taken her away, saying, “She is a service dog. Don’t pet.” But that seemed even ruder. Why is it that when clueless, stupid people do clueless, stupid things, I’m the one who ends up feeling like I am being rude?

But, all in all it was a successful first trip, and Rocky passed with flying colors. Go, Rocky!

 

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14Aug

Rocky Out on the Town

Rocky and I have now officially been set loose in Las Cruces – watch out! We have advanced to the part of training that focuses on public access, meaning it is time to introduce distractions of all kinds, getting Rocky ready for life out in the real world. But is the world ready for us?

Brief overview of the hard parts: I said “Heel” approximately two thousand times. Working outside means walking in the sun, which means I get tired, and have to use my cane, so in addition to getting frustrated with Rocky when she is so excited that she’s ignoring me (usually because she’s trying to keep up with the other dogs in our group), I get a little cross because my shoulder starts to hurt from the sharp corrections, and it’s difficult to keep up with some of the other dog handlers, who are more able-bodied than I am. And then there’s the attention: When people see service dogs moving in a pack, or going through exercises, they stop to stare, or come up to ask questions, and I get it, really, I do, but that’s just one more thing to deal with when I’m doing my best to stay upright.

Here’s how the day started. Rocky suited up for the first time in her new service vest on Saturday, and seemed to immediately know we were headed out for real work. It’s funny – that’s exactly how Ripley acts. When I put her vest on, she knows she’s on the job. Now, don’t get me wrong. Rocky still had quite a few instances today when she momentarily forget she had the vest on. But when I say, “Get Dressed!” she stands stock still, and lets me buckle the vest onto her. She is ready.

We headed to American Service Dogs to meet up with the rest of the group at 9:30 a.m. There were eight handlers with dogs. After some brief business, we all loaded back into our cars and headed off to the day’s destination: the Farmers and Crafts Market of Las Cruces. This huge market, held on Main Street each Saturday from 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m., features nearly 300 vendors. Hundreds of adults, children, and dogs come each weekend to stroll, shop, listen to music, and enjoy the New Mexico weather. It’s the perfect place to bring a working dog that needs to learn to ignore distractions.

At the Farmers and Crafts Market

Michelle & Rocky at the Farmers and Crafts Market

First we met on a corner and ran through training basics, things we would be working on at home for the rest of the week. The commands include: “Handle & Massage” (getting a dog used to being touched all over), “Get Dressed” (put on the vest), “Calm” (calming a dog down), “Name” (saying a dog’s name and having them look you in the eye), “Off” (get down off of person or furniture), “Load” (get into vehicle), “Easy” and “Hurry” (varying the pace of a dog), “Place” (sending dog to lie down in a certain area), “Gotcha” (allow someone to grab dog by the collar), then come from 10 feet away, sit/stay at 10 feet and down/stay at ten feet. All of this went great.

Then we were off to walk the market. Really, Rocky did remarkably well. She did not react to any people, didn’t try to pick up food, or go into any of the food vendor stalls, didn’t respond to any of the dozens of pet dogs that were present, not even the two that lashed out at her in snarling, barking frenzies. The only thing she did that made it hard for me was tug at her leash, walking slightly ahead of me instead of staying in a relaxed heel position. And, again, this was mostly because I was with other handler/dog teams who were walking slightly ahead, and she wanted to keep pace. Still, that constant tug can be exhausting. And frustrating.

After an hour at the market, Sabrina, Rocky and I headed back to the truck and home.

But the big day wasn’t over yet. We decided to take Rocky out to dinner! The original plan was to head out to Habanero’s, our favorite Mexican food restaurant in Las Cruces. But for some reason, they were closed. So we went right next door to the best Vietnamese place in town, Pho a Dong. It turned out to be a perfect choice. Even thought it was Saturday, there were only a few other patrons – maybe three tables occupied. We chose a four-top table in the corner, which gave us lots of room and privacy.

Robert, one of the owners, came over immediately to wait on us. He knows us, and has met Ripley before, so was surprised to see Rocky. I told him it was Rocky’s first night out at a restaurant. He turned to her and said, “Well, hello, Ms. Rocky. Thank you for joining us this evening.” Pho a Dong has great food. But Robert is part of the fun of dining here. He is a relentless comedian, who is so quick with the one-liners that it makes your head spin. He broke into a Rocky Balboa mimicry, and started asking my dog about Paulie.

Again, restaurants have their challenges. A dog must stay still for a relatively long period of time. She should not respond to the smell of food by getting up and putting her nose near the table, or by trying to pick up food scraps on the floor. She should be quiet. It’s stimuli, yes, but almost more demanding of the dog when she is out walking; it requires absolute passivity, while still maintaining attention and focus on the handler.

Dinner at Pho a Dong

Dinner at Pho a Dong

I had a feeling that Rocky would ace this one, and she did. She laid at my feet throughout the entire dinner without making a sound. She did not once try to get up, not when our waiter came, not when the food was served, not when the dishes were cleared. The only time she moved was when I asked Robert to take a photo, and I accidentally scooted my chair back slightly. She had been directly underneath the table, and it startled her, and she sat up. So, the photo here shows me with my hand on her head, as she got back down on the floor, behind my chair.

Otherwise, she was a complete rock star. Which has become her new nickname, ‘natch, when things go well. Rocky the Rock Star.

29Jul

Bunnies, Cat Food & the Great Escape – Rocky Spends the Night

The long-awaited event finally arrived: Rocky’s first sleepover!

Rocky has been so excited for the past few weeks, wanting to come home with us. Each time I leave her at the kennel, it gets harder and harder, because she so clearly wants to get in the truck with me at the end of our training session. So I’d like to tell you that thanks to all these hours of work, the entire experience went off without a hitch. But that would be more than an exaggeration. It would be a bold-face lie.

OK, parts of it were fantastic. Really fantastic. Rocky and Malaki got along great. No animosity at all. They were both off leash the entire visit (Tuesday 7 p.m. to Wednesday 1 p.m.), and had not a single incident. She and Malaki raced around in the dog yard, and it appears they may become buddies. Won’t that be grand?

But as soon as we arrived, Rocky went into cat obsession again, despite our training session with Bailey. It wasn’t quite as bad as before, but she was jacked up and fixated. Part of it is that this is all so new. She’s been living at a kennel. So I thought, “I know. I’ll take her for a walk to burn off some of that excess energy.”

Open the door, please?

Open the door, please?

Good idea, but not completely thought out. She was thrilled to go for a walk. But as soon as we hit the road outside our house, I realized our nemeses: bunnies. We live in a subdivision where each house has over an acre of land, so it feels very rural. Within a few feet, the little desert rabbits that abound here started popping out left and right. On our twenty-five minute walk, we must have seen at least two dozen, maybe more. Rocky went crazy, straining at the leash. To save my left shoulder from being wrenched out of the socket, I had to pass the leash behind my hips, and brace with my full body to stop her pulling. We also had quail, doves, and lizards to contend with. It was a marathon session of “AHHT!” “Leave it!” and “Easy.”

The good news is that Rocky did not respond at all to the barking dogs we passed, or the cars, or the people. Which lets me know that this is about exposure. She has been exposed to dogs, cars, and people. But not to bunnies, quails, or lizards. More walks ahead.

Back at the house, exhausted, I got water for myself, and watched Rocky tank up on water. Laurie at American Service Dogs had told me that Rocky hadn’t eaten much of her dinner, so I tried to offer her some of her dry food, but she wouldn’t eat. I eventually offered her some from my hand. She ate a couple of handfuls, but that was all.

We continued to keep an eye on cat interactions. Dozer strolled around in Rocky’s presence throughout the visit, and batted her whenever she got pushy. Kenji also allowed close contact, and bopped her on the nose when Rocky was a little too inquisitive. Little Bit hid the whole time – but that’s Little Bit. It takes her a while with everyone. There was one incident in the dog yard, late at night, when Rocky was way out in the distance, and she spotted Dozer and took off in pursuit. Dozer ran full out for the dog door. I grabbed Rocky right at the entrance and slammed her down, with a huge, loud “AHHT!” I’m hoping the message got across.

Resting in Studio-72

Relaxing in the writing studio

She also had some really nice moments of being relaxed and calm. We all sat in the living room and watched TV for an hour, Rocky lying peacefully right at my side. She spent some time resting beside me in my writing studio. Yes, very good.

And at bedtime, believe it or not, Rocky was in a pile of bodies on our king-sized bed:. me and Sabrina, Ripley and Malaki, and Rocky. And then who comes prancing into the mix, but Dozer! Rocky became alert, then realized, “Oh. I guess it’s just that cat.” She went back to sleep. We’re going to be able to work this out.

The next day, I tried to offer her breakfast, and she again refused to eat. Then Sabrina said, “Ha! No wonder she’s not hungry! Did you look at the cat food bowl?” Last time Rocky visited, we discovered she is slender enough to go through the cat door into the bathroom where we were keeping the cat food. So we were in the process of moving the feeding station. I thought Sabrina had already moved all of the food. But she had left the large bowl of dry food in that room. And sometime when we were not looking, Rocky had gone in and eaten the entire bowl!

Since she had no need for breakfast, I took her for a second walk. It was essentially a replay of the day before, except I remembered to add in some of the movement work heeling techniques, doing right circles, left circles, right abouts, left abouts, which forced her to pay attention to me periodically instead of the bunnies and birds.

At 9 a.m. a workman came over to give us an estimate about repairing the trellis in our atrium. We were sitting with the dogs on the front patio area of our house when he arrived. The patio is bordered by a four foot rock wall. As he pulled up in his truck, Rocky leapt up onto the top of the rock wall! Sabrina stood up and yelled, and Rocky jumped back down, on our side. OK, now we know she can jump over. Great. (The dog yard has a six-foot chain link fence.)

I thought the workman was only here to talk ideas and give a quote. I took Ripley and Rocky into my writing studio, and left Sabrina with him. Both dogs were relaxing quietly with me, while I did some work. I vaguely became aware of a drilling/sawing sound, but it didn’t fully register. Suddenly Sabrina came to my door, and said, “Where’s Rocky?” I said, “What?” She said, “The front door was open.”

The workman had actually started to take down the trellis, using an electric saw, and the sound frightened Rocky. Sabrina and he were removing lumber through the door, and had left it open. I hadn’t noticed that Rocky had left the studio. I started frantically searching first the house, and then the backyard, while Sabrina went out to the front, both of us calling her name. When I fully realized she was not in the house or in our yard, I panicked. She wasn’t wearing any ID tags or anything. I ran out the front door, and heard Sabrina yelling for her. As I got to the end of the driveway, Sabrina said, “Rocky! Come here!” I could tell by her tone of voice that she could see Rocky. I looked up and saw my dog, two houses down the road. I yelled, “Rocky! Come!” She ran straight to me, and I knelt in the dirt, embracing her. Oh my god. I can’t even tell you.

We’re hoping that her next visit won’t be quite so thrilling.

 

 

25Jul

Distractions, Distractions – Training on July 19 & 22

Ripley patiently waiting

Ripley patiently waiting

It’s funny – the more I work with Rocky, the more I realize how I have come to take so many things about Ripley for granted. I’ve mentioned before that Rocky is learning how to heel without running into me. Well, she also loves riding in the truck – GOING places! What that means is that she has a tendency to push ahead when a gate or door is opened. At her second home visit, which was last Friday, I wasn’t anticipating it. When I opened our front gate, she bolted through. I dropped my water bottle, wrenched my shoulder, and my cane went crashing to the ground. I had a brief flash of anger, before calming myself with this thought: “OK. Something to work on. Walking through gates and doors.”

Because, you see, I haven’t had to do this for years. Ripley waits calmly at every door, every time. It’s hard to remember those first months, when she was trying my patience. I have to remind myself there is a learning curve. That Ripley, just like Rocky, screwed up in the beginning.

Rocky really does want to please. She wants to do a good job. I’m the one who needs to stay centered, and remember that each lesson must be repeated multiple times in order for her to have success.

Harper-sm

Harper the puppy

Jared, the head trainer, went on vacation last week, so we worked with a different trainer for the first time – Luke Nail. The unofficial theme of the day was distractions. First, we had classmates. Lately, Rocky and I have often been the only team working. But on Tuesday, we were joined by puppy Harper, a squirming little five-month-old bundle of excitement with her two people, and Fling, who we’ve hung out with before. (And I should know the handlers’ names by now, but I still don’t. I’ll learn them!) Fling and Harper worked on their commands, at their levels, while Luke upped the ante a bit for me and Rocky.

We were mostly focusing on sit/stay and down/stay. But instead of just extending either time or distance, Luke added some extra challenges. While I stood at the end of the leash with Rocky in a stay, Luke had me pace back and forth. Then he had me walk past Rocky, until I was behind her, leaving her in the stay. Finally, I gave a “Rocky, come!” command from behind. All of this she executed beautifully.

Fling and her handler

Fling and her handler

Now came the really creative part. Luke asked me to put Rocky in a down/stay, and then walk away and drop the leash while keeping her attention. First he threw a couple Pup-Peroni sticks near her. She didn’t budge. Good dog. Then he grabbed a small plastic bag, and started tossing random things in her vicinity: bolts, glue bottles, other clunky metal pieces. She glanced at them, but didn’t break position. Luke picked up a hat, lofted it through the air, and it landed near her. No startle response. I was impressed. Then he came up behind her, and clapped his hands loudly. Rocky jumped to her feet. Whoops.

Luke said, “OK, that was a fail. Let’s bring her back to a success.” I put her back in down/stay, and we did a couple more dropped objects, then a softer hand clap, which she was good with.

Now, why is this all an important part of training? Let’s say I’m in a restaurant, and my service dog is under the table. My cane is leaning against my chair, and it slips, and crashes to the ground. If my dog startles, she might jump up, and knock against the table hard enough to upset drinks. You get the idea. A dog should be able to respond appropriately. Real danger – react. Loud sounds or nearby objects that are not danger – stay calm.

On Friday, Jared returned from vacation, and we did more movement work. But once again, distraction training entered into the picture. This time, instead of simply having me walk in a circle and ask Rocky to focus on heeling appropriately, Jared stood in the center of the room and tossed out small treats in our path. So as I attempted to keep Rocky’s gaze on me, I also had to check each downward glance towards one of those tempting Pup-Peroni pieces. We were pretty exhausted that night, because we had done cat training earlier in the day, and then had gone home to test our new skills for three hours, before returning to the kennel for the evening’s class. So neither of us were in top form. I have to admit – Rocky ate quite a few of those treats.

We’ll do better next time.

 

23Jul

Bailey the Cat Kicks Some Dog Butt

So what do you do when your service dog in training shows an unhealthy obsession with felines? You enlist one bad-ass cat to show her some manners.

After hearing about our first home visit last week, where Rocky spent the entire time straining at her leash and on tiptoe, cat hunting, trainer Jared Latham at American Service Dogs said, “Bring me a cat.” Well, we have several to choose from. Dozer isn’t a good option, because he simply doesn’t care; too nonchalant. Kenji is equally unfit, because he’s smart enough to freeze; a cat that doesn’t move won’t stimulate enough interest. Little Bit is certainly pissy enough. A little too pissy. Neither one of us wanted to lose a limb in the process. She also has a bad habit of peeing all over you when she’s stressed, and we didn’t really want to add that to the afternoon’s agenda. So Bailey seemed the obvious candidate.

Bailey is the same age as Ripley; well, actually her senior by about two months. She turned eleven in March. So she’s the grande dame in the household. She has always been regal and rather aloof, not much into the whole petting, lap-sitting thing. In fact, she’s not very interested in humans, except for their obvious usefulness as providers of food. There are only two instances where she asks for human touch: one, when you are sitting on the toilet, and she rubs against your legs, asking for head scratches; and two, when you are in bed, and she cuddles against your feet. Be warned, though – if it gets hot, and one has the audacity to stick one’s feet out from under the covers, Bailey does not hesitate to bite your toes for that rude disturbance.

She does, though, like dogs. She was completely enamored of our little Catahoula-cross, Houla, who passed away a few years ago. Now, she is infatuated with Malaki, our pit-boxer cross. She rubs up against him, cuddles with him, loves to groom his face.

New dogs are a different manner. Especially new dogs with no manners, who come charging across the room at her like Rocky did last week.

We arrived at American Service Dogs with Bailey in the cat carrier, and went back to Jared’s office. Rocky, Sabrina, Jared, Bailey and I were all in the small room, ready for cat training. At first, Jared had us leave Bailey in the carrier, and I had Rocky on leash. My job was to walk Rocky around the room and correct her whenever she looked at the carrier. One time Jared used a spray bottle as a correction. After that, it was just me, “AHHT” voice corrections, and leash tugs. Rocky’s eyes kept going back to the carrier, but eventually I managed to convince her this was off limits, and she went into a down/stay right in front of the carrier, eyes averted.

Then we brought the carrier out into the large training room, and practiced walking in circles around the carrier, where I again corrected Rocky each time she strayed towards the cat. This brought up all the initial behavior at first, but after about ten minutes, Rocky began to listen to me, and ignore the cat in the box.

We went back to the small office, for the real test. Jared let Bailey out of the carrier. Of course, as I knew she would, Bailey immediately went under the sofa. Since we wanted her to stay visible, Jared got down on the floor and reached underneath to grab her. Even as he did it, I thought to myself, “Oops. This is not going to end well.” He pulled back his hand suddenly and yelped, “Hey! She bit me!” One of the rules with cats: When they are hiding, do not reach underneath into said hiding place bare-handed to grab. You don’t know what end you are going to get, and they have a much better turning radius than you do. You are going to lose.

When we are trying to flush out a cat, we use either a squirt bottle, or a stick (broom stick, yard stick, etc.) I handed Jared my cane. “Try this.” He swept it underneath the couch, and Bailey popped out the other side, coming up to the top of the couch. Now she remained in our sight, and I was able to work more with Rocky, who was interested (OK, very interested), but managed to stay in her down/stay position with some effort.

Bailey took control at this point. Parading her diva self around the room, she made it very clear that she was in charge, she would not be intimidated, and this dog had better learn some manners. She strolled right past Rocky at one point, and sat just inches away from her.

By the end of the session, I was able to let Rocky off leash, and she walked slowly over to Bailey, without aggression, and gave her friendly, respectful face licks. Just a couple. Then she retreated. No one got clawed or hissed at. No one got chased or terrified. Bailey returned to her carrier with dignity.

A highly successful training session. Whew.

 

16Jul

Kennel Break! Rocky’s First Home Visit

Rocky came home on Thursday for her first official home visit, and I can sum up the experience in one four-letter word: CATS!

So let me confess. I had a little fantasy going on. I had really been looking forward to this day. Since I first met Rocky in May, I’ve been waiting for the moment when she could come to our house, thinking about what it would be like for her, building up a little dream image. We’d come in, she’d look around, it would feel like home. She’d feel relaxed and safe. We’d lounge around, letting her get used to things, and I’d take a gazillion pictures. It would go so well, that our next visit would be an overnight one. I had it all planned.

Well, it didn’t quite work out that way.

See, we have four adult cats in the house, and four foster kittens in a kitty cage in Sabrina’s office, and our whole house must smell feline, and obviously, to Rocky, this is entirely new. Because from the moment she walked in the door, she was on alert. Her ears were perked, she was leaning forward, she was practically standing on her tiptoes. Where are these mysterious creatures?

She paraded through the entire house, with me at the end of the leash. We got to the atrium, and there was Dozer, our most nonchalant cat, half asleep in a corner. Now, she met Dozer once, at the kennel, back in May. But that was two months ago, and apparently erased from her doggy brain. Rocky approached, fascinated. She got a little too close, poking her nose right into him. He turned into hissy cat for a moment, and scooted out of the way. Rocky strained at the leash while I tried to correct.

We went into the living room for a time out. Dozer leapt up to the top of the cat tree in the same room, just a few feet away, curled into a ball, and fell asleep. Rocky sat at my feet, intently watching. I decided a short walk was in order. We strolled through the house again. I stopped in my writing studio. Kenji, the white and black cat, was asleep on a dog bed there. I let Rocky approach. Kenji didn’t move. That went fine, because a still cat isn’t nearly as interesting as a moving cat. Kenji blinked twice, I let Rocky sniff from a distance of about 18 inches, and we went back to the hallway.

Then Bailey, our grey cat, happened to wander by, unaware. Rocky lunged for her, and Bailey turned into a fuzzed up ball of spitting frenzy. This time, I didn’t kid around. I yelled out a huge “AHHT!” and gave a stern leash correction. Rocky sat at my feet immediately, subdued. Okay. That was better.

We went back to the living room to sit for a break. Meanwhile, Malaki, our pit cross, was chilling out with Sabrina. He had been our major worry; Sabrina had him on a leash the whole time, to ensure that he was behaving during the visit. He, of course, was looking like an angel, resting quietly, while Rocky was the one that was behaving like a maniac.

Ripley was in the bedroom on the bed. I brought Rocky in there to say hi, coaxing her up, not sure how that would be. They had no trouble lying next to each other. But then, a sound. CAT! Sure enough, that’s where Little Bit, our tawny cat was hiding – under the bed. Rocky jumped off and went to the side, peering underneath. OK, this isn’t a good spot either. Exit bedroom, to the sound of yet another hissing cat.

 

Rocky and I went in search of Sabrina and Malaki, who were now in Sabrina’s office. With the kittens. I came in and sat in a chair some distance from the kittens’ cage, and placed Rocky in a down/stay on the other side of me, so she was away from the cage. Malaki loves the kittens, and they are used to him. This is a new batch of fosters; they have only been with us a couple of weeks, and are rather feral. As soon as Rocky entered the room, they went crazy. Even though she was lying down, they turned into spluttering hissy balls of fur, and began dashing around the cage in a frenzy. We didn’t stay long.

We went out to the atrium, Rocky now a hyper, excited mess. Malaki was lying down next to her, on leash. Rocky was also on leash, but pacing. She kept stepping back and forth, over Malaki. He finally had had enough, and he snapped at her. Rocky immediately chilled out, coming over to lie down at my side.

A three hour visit, that’s all it was. I was exhausted. We were exhausted. Then we left to go to the kennel for an hour of training. Rocky and I were both so tired we were loopy during the training exercises.

Not to worry. All part of the process, right? Next Friday, Bailey the grey cat is coming to the kennel with us. To teach Rocky to respect cats. Wish us luck.

 

13Jul

How Slow Can You Go? Training Day 9 & A Bit About Jared Latham

(I am finally caught up! Well, practically. This post is for last night’s training session. From here on out, we’ll be in REAL TIME!)

Training Day 9

As 6 p.m. approached, time for our training session at American Service Dogs, I almost called to cancel. I was feeling that rotten. But then I thought, no, that doesn’t make sense. Rocky needs to see me when I’m at my best – and at my worst. Because that’s what she is going to have to learn how to do; read my body language, and know what I need from her. I can’t teach that if I only show up on good days. So Ripley, Sabrina and I got into the truck and headed out.

Jared Latham, our trainer, could tell right away I wasn’t at the top of my game. But he said, “That’s OK. We’ll go ahead with the movement work, and just take it at your pace. Let me know when you need to rest.” He also said it would be good for Rocky, because she would have to learn to adjust her pace to mine.

I began to walk around the room in a circle, as I had done two days before, this time using my cane. I was feeling very weak, so I was walking incredibly slowly. It was like watching super slo-mo, a grandma shuffle. Rocky was at heel on my left. At first, she had no idea what to do. The pace was so much slower than what we had used on Tuesday that she was completely thrown off. She couldn’t tell what her role was. I would take a step, and she would sit down before I took my next step. So she was bopping up and down between a step and a sit, in between my shuffles. Then she did downward dog stretches between a couple of my steps. After that, once or twice she simply laid down, waiting for me to catch up.

Jared told me to keep giving her the command “Easy,” reminding Rocky to hold back, stay in step with me. At the beginning, we were the only ones in class. But then the little shepherd Fling arrived, with her handler. They stepped into the center of the circle, and started working on basic commands.

We interspersed our glacial walking with right circles, left circles, and U-turns, and occasional sit/stays and down/stays. Gradually, Rocky fell into step with me, got into rhythm. Now her biggest problem was when our circle passed one of the other dogs in the room – Ripley or Fling. Rocky likes dogs. She’s social. She wants to veer out, say hi. Jared helped me to do small corrections, keeping Rocky’s focus on me, adjusting her attention, while at the same time keeping her pace at my pace.

I would like to say at this point how much I appreciate Jared, and how much I am learning from him. That’s Jared, the photo up top. I hope at a later date to interview  him to find out more details about his background. For now, I can tell you he received his initial dog training from his service in the Army, where he worked with bomb dogs. He left the service because a bomb went off too close to him, and he has TBI (traumatic brain injury). It affects  his short-term memory (among other things), and he compensates by keeping everything written down, logged, relying heavily on his iPhone, iMac, etc. (He’s a Mac guy, through and through.) The Army used to be very focused on more punitive dog training: choke collars, adverse conditioning. But they learned in more recent years that wasn’t so effective, and have moved towards more positive reinforcement. In addition to training service dogs, Jared helps many people in Las Cruces deal with aggressive dogs. He uses that combination: strictness when necessary, lots of rewards and praise when that is enough.

As I work with Rocky, Jared often walks quietly along beside me, and at just the right moment, tells me when I can give a slight corrective tug to the leash, or reminds me to give a verbal command, so Rocky knows what is coming next. He also acknowledges the times I have done something correctly, noticing when I catch Rocky just before she breaks out of her sit during a stay, or starts to wander, which reinforces my self confidence. I feel as if every day I am adding tools to my kit, building my knowledge base.

 

One last thing about this night: When I arrive, Rocky almost always runs to greet us. But it is usually Ripley she goes to initially, not me. She loves other dogs, and has included Ripley in her circle of friends. Then she’ll turn to me and say hi. At the end of training on Tuesday, though, something different happened. I was exhausted. Laurie, the kennel helper, asked if I was done, and I said yes, and handed her Rocky’s leash. Laurie turned, and she and Rocky walked all the way to the door of the training room.

Then Rocky spun around, and ran to the end of her leash to come back to me. As if she wanted to say goodbye. My heart melted on the spot.

 

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
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