Training

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!

 

21Apr

Once a Service Dog, Always a Service Dog

We just returned from a five-day trip to San Diego (more about Rocky’s first plane rides and other adventures in upcoming posts!). Ripley, my now officially retired service dog, and Malakai, our pit cross, along with the four cats, stayed home with our pet sitter Ashley.

Ashley has stayed with our animals several times now, although only a couple of times with Ripley, as Rocky has only been “in service” and going on trips with us since last fall, and we haven’t gone out of town that often. As both a hyper-organized person and a Capricorn (can I blame it on that?), I leave detailed notes for her whenever we leave town, including:

  1. a statement signed by both of us giving her permission to make veterinary decisions during our absence
  2. a pet emergency sheet with our cell numbers, our vet’s contact info, the emergency vet’s info, and local friends to contact
  3. a feeding and care instruction sheet
  4. notes which include our itinerary, where we will be staying, any additional pet behavior notes, household notes (trash, laundry, location of essentials. mail, how to use wifi, TV, Netflix, etc.)

In other words, I tend to cover all the bases. Because Ashley has become a regular pet sitter/house sitter for us, much of it is now routine, but I still update all the data, and make sure everything is in order.

Upon our return, we check in to make sure everything went well. All the animals were fine – happy to see us, but clearly they had been well fed, cared for, and loved. Ashley came by to pick up some things and return our key, and that’s when we heard the funny part.

When Ashley stays over, she sleeps on the pull-out couch bed in the living room, and Malakai joins her, but Ripley prefers to sleep on our bed in the master bedroom. Apparently, one morning Ashley set her alarm clock, thinking she would get up early, but then decided she didn’t really need to, so she hit the snooze button. Seconds later, there was Ripley, standing over her. Ashley tried to roll over and go back to sleep. But the clock went off again, and Ripley wouldn’t let it go. She stood over Ashley until she got up. Then Ripley followed her to the kitchen, and wanted a treat.

I started laughing. “Oh, no!” I said. “That’s one of her jobs!” It had never occurred to me that along with all my other notes, I should warn Ashley that Ripley has been trained to alert me for alarms. The medication I take at night can be heavily sedating, and I used to have a hard time waking up when I needed to. I also have to take medications twice a day, and I have an alarm set on my watch. The alarm goes off, and if I am distracted, I don’t respond. So it has been Ripley’s job to come and get me, and harass me until I get up out of my chair and go take my medication. And, she gets a treat as a reward. Rocky is learning this skill, but she currently has backup all the time – Ripley and Rocky alert together, usually with Ripley leading the way.

Now that Sabrina is retired, sometimes she sets her alarm to wake up early, and then decides to sleep in. I hate it, because Ripley ignores Sabrina, and comes to wake ME up!

So, despite the fact that my official service dog, Rocky, was in San Diego, Ashley still had a service dog in the house…once a service dog, always a service dog. And there will be no sleeping through any alarms!

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.

 

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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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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6Oct

White Sands: Getting Busy

Sabrina, Ruth, Michelle & Rocky at White Sands

Sabrina, Ruth, Michelle & Rocky at White Sands

A few weeks ago, when our friend Ruth Thompson was visiting, we decided to take a day trip to White Sands National Monument, part of the National Park Service. We had been meaning to go for months, and it was a perfect day – overcast with dramatic cumulonimbus clouds, making the sky varied and beautiful, which also brought the temperature down to a heavenly 75 degrees, instead of the 100-plus degrees the park can soar to with its desert landscape.

The park is only about an hour from our home. Ruth, Sabrina, Rocky and I loaded into the car a bit before noon, and headed out. Now, Rocky has been to El Paso a couple of times, to the airport and once for a medical appointment with me, but this would be her longest road trip so far, since we ended up being gone about six hours. Not that long, right?

Rocky was fine for the drive. An hour? Piece of cake. Once at the park, we stopped at the visitor center, and took a human bathroom break, and I also immediately brought Rocky out to let her stretch her legs and take a potty break. Here’s one of the things you don’t often talk about in service dog training: teaching your dog to pee in a timely manner (preferably on command) when you are out in the world. See, the dog is working. You are doing things, and taking potty breaks isn’t always convenient. Say you are attending an all-day conference. When there is a coffee break, you need to be able to bring your dog outside, tell her to pee, and wrap it up quickly, so you have time to get back inside and actually use the bathroom yourself, and maybe even have a cup of coffee. As anyone knows who has a pet, some dogs love to take their time. They want twenty minutes in the backyard, or a half-mile walk before anything happens.

Rocky has become fairly adept at taking care of pee breaks. She peed right away at the visitor center. But sometimes you run into snags. When I was working with Ripley, all was well until the first time we traveled to New Mexico. The problem? Ripley is a complete tenderfoot. She only liked to pee on grass. Suddenly there was none. The hotels were landscaped with rock and gravel. Same with the highway rest stops. Even most homes had desert landscapes. When I tried to bring her onto what looked somewhat grass-like (i.e., scrubby plants), we discovered the cursed goat thorn. After that, she began walking on pavement and curbs, and wouldn’t even step onto the rocks. I finally went to a pet store and bought her a set of dog boots. She tried to kick them off at first, but then I led her onto the rocks at a roadside rest stop when I knew she really had to go, and she realized – oh! My feet don’t hurt. It saved our vacation. Rocky, at least, has tougher feet.

Rocky on the boardwalk

Rocky on the boardwalk

We piled back into the car, and drove into the center of White Sands. What an amazingly gorgeous place! We stopped at the boardwalk, and took the short nature hike with signs saying that the sand comes from gypsum, talking about how the dunes form, and explaining various intricacies of the plant and animal life in the region. Ruth and I were busy with our cameras, and Rocky was busy with her nose, peering down through the bars of the fence at everything. I gave Rocky another pee break opportunity, and we loaded up again.

We drove the car all the way through the park, to where the huge pure white dunes are, and saw people sledding down them. Although it looked incredibly fun, we decided that me with my cane and Rocky probably didn’t quite make for a good sledding combo that day. There were so many great photo ops though. We weren’t disappointed in the least. I hadn’t had my camera out in ages – my real camera, the Nikon, not just my phone – and it felt wonderful to be using it.

After we had oohed and aahed our way through the entire park, we stopped back in at the gift shop/visitor center. OK, being blunt now: I was pretty sure Rocky needed to poop. Poop is an entirely separate issue. “Hey,” the dog says. “That’s private! I only do that at home!” Coaxing a dog to poop in an unfamiliar area is ten times more challenging than encouraging a dog to pee on command. So while Ruth and Sabrina went inside, I took Rocky to the pet relief area. In training, we are supposed to use the command, “Get Busy!” However, I use “Go Potty!” with both Ripley and Malakai, so by default I have kept using that command. There I was, walking back and forth with her for ten to fifteen minutes. She peed. She had a very, very busy nose, and explored everything worth exploring. There were signs to watch for rattlesnakes, so I was being insanely alert, and getting impatient. Finally, I decided nothing was going to happen, so I joined Ruth and Sabrina in the gift shop.

Curious Rocky

Curious Rocky

Rocky madly enjoyed that as well, trying to sniff everything within her reach, so I spent the whole time saying, “Leave it!” Obviously something else to work on. Very curious, this dog. After buying a few postcards, it was time to head back, and just as we got in the car, it started to rain. A nearly perfect day.

That is, until we were about ten minutes from home. Rocky and I were in the back seat. She was standing up instead of lying down. She began to get very agitated. I tried to calm her, but nothing was working. When we were about five minutes away, she made as if to jump into the far back. I couldn’t figure it out. Then I saw she was holding her tail tucked all the way up to her stomach. Oh, god. NOW she needs to go, I thought. Now. I told her, “We’re almost there, baby. We’re almost there.”

Sure enough, as soon as we pulled into the driveway and I opened the car door, she ran to the gate. I let her into the house and she bolted out through the dog door. Relief!

The next day, we took Ruth to the El Paso airport for the next leg of her journey. After the one hour drive, while Sabrina accompanied Ruth inside to check her bag, I took Rocky to the airport’s pet relief area. It took a bit, maybe ten minutes, and some encouragement. But she pooped! Away from home! I went into the airport to see Ruth off, and as I went to hug her, I said, “Rocky pooped!”

Like the true friend that she is, she was ecstatic.

*Feature photo credit, Ruth Thompson; Group photo credit, a kind young woman visiting the park from San Diego.

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Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
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