Travel

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!

 

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.

 

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.

 

*If you would like to sign up for email notifications for future posts of this blog, click on the black button with three grey stripes on the upper left hand corner. Thanks so much for reading!

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!

 

*If you would like to sign up for email notifications for future posts of this blog, click on the black button with three grey stripes on the upper left hand corner. Thanks so much for reading!

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.

**If you would like to sign up for email notifications for future posts of this blog, click on the black button with three grey stripes on the upper left hand corner. Thanks so much for reading!

8Jul

Ripley Takes Off: Airplane Stories

Ripley and I just returned from a three-week vacation to California, a journey that included four plane rides, two three-hour airporter bus rides, a taxi cab trip, several Uber rides, and a whole bunch of hopping in and out of various vehicles driven by friends.

The biggest travel challenges are always negotiating airports. Ripley and I have flown quite a bit, but still, things tend to get a little interesting. I always contact the airline ahead of time to let them know I will be flying with a service dog. She fits underneath the seat in front of me (where a bag would go), so we don’t get special treatment in that way. Airlines do usually ask that we not take an aisle seat, to guarantee that Ripley does not accidentally impeded traffic, with a tail or paw getting run over by a flight attendant’s beverage cart, for instance. But this time around, I decided to ask for more assistance for the first time ever.

Hanging out at the airport

Hanging out at the airport

I was flying from El Paso to Phoenix, then San Francisco (SFO) on the way to California, then from SFO to Los Angeles (LAX), ending in El Paso on the way home. Both ways, I had only an hour for my connecting flights, and the airports in Phoenix and LAX are large. Travel is hard on me, and my body is unpredictable in these circumstances. The last thing I needed was to find myself either weak or partially paralyzed, because I just coming out of a paralysis attack as I was attempting to make that connecting flight. So, at the urging of a friend, I requested a wheelchair escort.

I flew American Airlines. The agent I dealt with was fabulous. As soon as I even hinted about my nervousness, she said, “Let’s get you that wheelchair.” All I had to do was get on the plane in El Paso, which is a small airport. In Phoenix, I would be met by an airline employee with a wheelchair, who would take me to my next flight. Then at SFO, another employee would meet me again, and take me to baggage claim. The same arrangements were made for me for my return trip. It all worked beautifully, and I am so grateful, especially since we had delays on the trip home, and I would have been hard pressed to make my connecting flight.

But, there was still some humor along the way, both because of my wheelchair, and simply because traveling with a service dog always keeps things interesting.

I was using my cane, to assist with walking. At the security checkpoint, they took my metal cane, and gave me a wooden one. Ripley and I were sent through the metal detector, and it went off. They asked if it was possible for me to go through alone. “Of course,” I said. We walked back through, I asked Ripley to sit and stay, and then I walked through on my own. No alert. Then I called Ripley through. The machine alerted. I knew it would, because of the metal on her tags and collar. The guard asked if he could pat her down. He did so, while she waited patiently. Then he dusted my hands for bomb-making material (which almost always happens), and we were cleared. I picked up my own cane, and all our other stuff, and we were off.

On the first leg of the trip, the El Paso to Phoenix flight, I was seated next to a large Latino man. As soon as I tucked Ripley into her space, he looked at me and said, “Does she bite?” I reassured him that he was safe, and that Ripley would not bite him. After landing, I forgot my book at my seat, not realizing it until I was at the front of the plane. Apparently, once you reach the front of the aircraft, you can’t go back. The young woman with my wheelchair was waiting for me just outside the door of the plane. She asked me to take a seat, and the flight attendant went back to retrieve my book once all the passengers had deplaned. While we were waiting, the pilot approached us. He took his cell phone out of his pocket to show me a picture of his dog. Then we were off, Ripley trotting along beside me as I was whisked to my next gate in the wheelchair.

Flying-sm

Ripley checks in before take-off

I got to board first, in the Number 1 category. From Phoenix to SFO, we were in a window seat, next to a very slender woman, with a older man in the aisle seat. We had to wait a bit before take-off, and Ripley got bored of sitting under the seat, and popped up, placing her head on my lap. The man said he loved dogs, and asked if he could take a picture. Then the woman said, “Oh, I want a picture, too!” General oohing and aahing all around.

On our return flight at SFO, when I approached my gate, they called my name, asking me to come forward to identify myself before boarding. They told me they had changed my seat, putting me in the bulkhead, so Ripley and I would have more room. Nice! Again, I was in Category 1, because of my “wheelchair” status.  When pre-boarding started, a man approached me, and he said he was going to escort me to the plane. He walked down the gangway with me, and he kept saying things like, “It is slightly lower here,” and “There is a turn to the left.” I was puzzled, but didn’t figure it out. As we got to the plane, he said, “She is in Delta 8.” Then the flight attendant took over, and led me to my seat. As I helped Ripley to settle in, and turned to lift my bag, she looked at me with some confusion and said, “You’re not blind?” I said, “No.” She said, “Oh. Sorry! That’s what they told me!” Well, that was a first!

I was seated next to a nice young doctor from Hong Kong, here doing research. We were delayed, waiting nearly half an hour before take-off. He and I were having a nice chat, when I felt a paralysis episode coming on. I managed to say, “Uh, sorry,” then my head dipped to my chest. He said, “It’s fine. Don’t worry.” I felt lucky to be sitting next to a doctor. He didn’t panic, or call a flight attendant over. Just let me have my time-out, and acted like it was perfectly normal. Whew. Also grateful that it happened while I was on the plane, and not while I was trying to get to a plane.

We waited out one final airport in Los Angeles, and the only incident there was this – I was sitting and resting, with Ripley at my feet, when I heard an odd sound. I looked up, and sure enough, someone several feet away was actually making kissy noises, trying to get Ripley’s attention. Seriously? Here we are, in a completely busy, crazy, loud environment – and this clueless person is purposefully trying to distract my dog?

Sigh. It felt really good to get home.

 

 

6Jun

Like an Old Married Couple

Since I last wrote, I’ve been thinking about what I said about me and Ripley, how we communicate. Working with Rocky, my service dog in training, I am noticing I need to focus on being precise with commands and signals. Consistency, above all else. Of course, all dogs want consistency. Try changing a dog’s dinner time, and you’ll see that right away.

Ripley and I seem to operate at a place beyond language. The more I thought about it, the more I realized we’re like an old married couple. It’s like when your wife says, “I can’t find my coffee cup,” and you say, “Did you look in the pantry?” Because you happen to know she has a tendency to grab things out of the pantry for the dogs when her hands are full, and sometimes puts the coffee cup down on one of the shelves, then closes the door and loses the mug. Or you say, “That guy came by again, about the whatchamacallit,” and your wife knows you mean it was the repairman coming to replace the filter in the swamp cooler.  You also know when her “No,” is a kidding no, and when it is a serious no, not only by the tone of voice, but by the body language that goes along with it.

Sabrina and I have been together for twelve years; that’s one year longer than I have been with Ripley. We’ve also had a lot of space in our relationship. Sabrina, up until she retired in December of this past year, worked four ten-hour shifts each week on graveyard, with a one-hour commute in each direction. So , four days out of the week, we spent about an hour together each day – and that was over a brief cup of coffee as she was waking up.  I’m not complaining. We both love having time to ourselves, and even now, living together full time, we manage to create a good deal of separation in our days, because it is what we are comfortable with. It makes us appreciate the moments when we are truly together. Vacations are always an absolute hoot.

Let’s compare this, though, with my relationship with Ripley. When she was younger, not yet my service dog, she was with me except when I was at work, which was four days a week. Also in those years, she was still my solitary companion most nights. Since 2011, she has been with me 24/7, never leaving my side except for a few rare occasions. When I was hospitalized for surgery for four days, she stayed with me at the foot of my bed all day, and Sabrina took her home at night. When I have certain medical procedures, such as mammograms, CAT scans and other imaging procedures that might be dangerous to her, she has to wait outside of the room until I am finished, and this past February, she was not allowed to accompany me in an ambulance. (I couldn’t speak at the time, or I may have insisted.) But other than that, she has been with me every moment of every day. She accompanied me to work until I could no longer work. She rides in cars, on golf carts, on buses, and on airplanes with me. She goes to concerts and movies and restaurants with me, shops with me, and sleeps with me. She has been on the gurney with me in the ER, laid at my side on the bed when I was having EEGs performed, and is right at my feet for every blood draw. I am never a single unit walking down the street. I am two – Michelle and Ripley.

No one knows me better than Ripley. Sabrina jokingly complains that I never walk in a straight line; she’s always inadvertently bumping into me. Ripley never misses a step, and we never bump. She knows exactly when I will wobble, how I will meander and turn. I don’t have to give her commands to pay attention. If someone tries to distract her, asking to pet or interrupt, she either assesses the situation on her own from my body language, can tell I am saying to ignore, or if it’s not quite clear, she stops and makes direct eye contact, waiting for direction. I say, “Yes,” and she will allow one pat. She can tell when I’m tired, when I’m sad, when I’m happy, when I’m not well, and all of that is mirrored in her own behavior. Of course, many of you have a dog that does this to some extent, yes? Imagine this same thing amplified, by a well-trained dog who is at your side every moment of the day. Here’s how close – when I visit the house of a friend, I sometimes forget, and go use the bathroom, closing the door, without taking Ripley with me. Big no. She is scratching on that door in two seconds flat. Not on her watch, she says. No closed doors.

I just finished reading A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler. As he explored his own growing connection with the rescued dogs, Kotler began digging into scientific research for answers. One question he had was about how dogs and humans seem to be able to communicate so well. It turns out that human emotions are not evenly distributed on the face – the left hemisphere of the brain handles emotion, controlling the right side of the face, so for figuring out what someone is feeling, we tend to look to the right side. This is called “the left-gaze bias.”

In 2007 in the U.K., some researchers did an experiment with dogs, showing them images of other dogs, monkeys, inanimate objects, and people. When the dogs saw  the first three things (dogs, monkeys, objects), their eyes worked evenly across the image. But with the images  of people, guess what? They had the “left-gaze bias.” Their eyes moved immediately to the right side of the face. They were trying to figure out what the people were feeling! I actually saw this experiment being carried out in a PBS documentary, Dogs Decoded. 

Taking it another step – back to my opening statement about being an old married couple – Kotler talks about the fact that we learn to communicate with our dogs by face reading and face mimicking. Here’s a quote from his book:

The skin is elastic, but only to a point. Any action repeated over and over again will eventually leave a mark. Wrinkles, creases, and smile lines are those marks. The reason couples who have been married for a long time start to look like one another is because couples are emotionally resonant. They tend to feel similar things at similar times, so their faces wear in the same way. And the same thing happens between humans and dogs. In the process of trying to understand one another, we’re slowly reshaping our faces to resemble one another’s. (p. 244, A Small Furry Prayer)

So not only do Ripley and I understand each other – we’re starting to look alike.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
%d bloggers like this: