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1Aug

What is she being trained for? HUH?

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

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

“What is she being trained for?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

19Dec

Microchip Mayhem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I said, “What?”

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

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

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

“Alyssa? No.”

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

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

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

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

 

22Nov

Kitten Conditioning

hey-dilly-72We have a new member of our household – introducing Dilly Pickle, the rambunctious, fearless, three-legged kitten.

Now, as you may remember, if you’ve been following this blog, Rocky had had no experience with cats prior to moving into our household. On the day we first met Rocky in May, at the American Service Dogs kennel, we brought in Dozer, our most easy-going cat, to see how Rocky would react. We wanted to make sure she would be able to adapt. She seemed curious and eager to play, but with no bad intentions. When she finally came to our house for an overnight visit in August, it became clear that Rocky was a bit more focused on cats than was comfortable. She spent her entire first twenty-four hours skittering around, wanting to lunge after every cat that came into view. (We had four.) Ah, more work needed. So we then brought Bailey, our oldest and grumpiest cat, in to the kennel, and worked with trainer Jared Latham to try to desensitize my dog. Between Bailey’s body language and a squirt bottle, we managed to get the message across that cats were to be left alone. It still took a while for Rocky to calm down completely at home, but eventually she made peace with the cats. Just as with our other two dogs, canine and feline co-habitate without incident.

During all of this time, my wife Sabrina has been fostering kittens for ACTion Programs for Animals (APA). A total of thirty-seven kittens have passed through our house this year, on their way to new homes. Sabrina’s office is kitten central, with two big kitten condos set up, so she can keep two separate litters at a time. She lets them out to play during the day, but only in her office, with the door closed. The great thing is that all of our dogs have been exposed to the little ones, without anyone being in danger. Rocky has had lots of opportunity to be around kittens, in a safe way. It has also let the kittens get used to dogs.

dilly-water-dish-72But Sabrina finally succumbed, and became an official “foster failure” with Dilly Pickle, meaning that with this one kitten, she simply couldn’t give him up. So he’s staying with us. About three months old, he was the runt of the litter, all of them polydactyl (having extra digits – it looks like their paws are mittens!), and Dilly himself is missing more than half of his back left leg – an injury that occurred before APA got him from the shelter.

His first weeks in our house, Dilly was with his litter mates in a kitten condo. But after the others were old enough to be adopted, and we made the decision to keep him, we moved his condo into our bedroom. Kitten season is over, so he is now the only little guy in the house. It took a few days for Sabrina to feel brave enough to let him run around, and at first he was closely guarded. However, it soon became apparent that this little guy has no idea he is disabled. He began climbing up to the top of our cat trees, scrambling up every piece of furniture, leaping off of bureaus. He is fearless. And, having grown up with dogs coming in and out of his room, Dilly thinks they are just one more option for playtime.

I was pretty cautious with Rocky initially. I’m still working on her reaction to rabbits on our walks outside. That prey behavior, which triggers something instinctual. I didn’t want this small creature, running quickly, to spark a bad reaction. But I needn’t have worried. From the beginning, she has been wonderful. She will be half asleep on the bed, and Dilly runs right over her body, and Rocky barely even raises her head. Once Rocky ran from the front door towards the kitten, who was across the room, just to say hi. The kitten was startled, and did a Halloween cat all-fluffed-up-and-hissing greeting. Rocky immediately stopped right in front of him, and lowered her head, as if to apologize. “Sorry, little guy. Didn’t mean to scare you!”

Wagging tails are huge fun, of course. Ripley will eventually give warning snaps, because Dilly has sharp teeth, and he bites down hard on those tails. The warnings are good, as Dilly is beginning to learn some boundaries.

Overall, of the three dogs, I had worried about Rocky the most, because she is the youngest, and has never had a kitten loose in the house. Yet, surprisingly, she has been the best with Pickle. I think Ripley is getting grumpier in her old age. And Malakai doesn’t like having his favorite spot in the bed taken.

So, good girl, Rocky. Because believe me, this will not be the last kitten in the house. You might as well enjoy them.

 

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.

 

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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27Sep

Asking an Animal Communicator for Help

I am not a woo-woo person. By this I mean usually when someone starts talking about past lives, I start edging towards the door. I tend to avoid palm readers and fortune tellers. I have a fair number of friends who use tarot cards, and others who rely heavily on astrological charts. While I appreciate the art work of the different decks, and have at times found tarot readings to be entertaining, I don’t put much stock in them. And yet, at the same time, I don’t dismiss all of this out of hand. I have run into too many examples of weird things that don’t fit into the purely rational. So I guess you could say I’m somewhat skeptical, but not entirely a disbeliever.

Malakai in our California backyard

Malakai in our California backyard

So last winter, when our dog Malakai was exhibiting troubling behavior, and my good friend Ruth Thompson recommended an animal communicator, I was willing to go there. We had already tried everything else at our disposal. What could it hurt?

Here’s what was going on. We were in California and had put our house on the market in the early fall, getting ready for a move to Las Cruces. It was now January. Over those months, our lives had become completely chaotic. First we got the property ready for showing, with landscapers cleaning up our one-and-a-half acres, and spray washing the house, while we spruced up the inside. Then we had our realtor over, and started showing. We ended up in escrow two times, only to have it fall through. We decided to go forward with a January move date anyway, and began serious packing. We made weekly trips with items for donations to the local library, to Goodwill, and other locations.  The entire house was in boxes; we were emptying out the garage and storage shed, had a Pod in the driveway for temporary storage, and haulers came twice to get rid of the stuff that wasn’t salvageable. Finally, as we neared the date that our moving van would arrive, we sent off our five cats to our local veterinarian’s for boarding, so nobody would get lost in the shuffle during that last week.

Malakai is normally a sweet tempered, social, easy-going dog. He suddenly developed a morbid fear of riding in the truck, an activity he used to enjoy. He would pant like crazy and drool whenever he was in the vehicle with us. At first we brought him with us everywhere, thinking it would help with his discomfort, but that only made it worse. We didn’t want to leave him alone at the house, but didn’t have any other options, as our other dog at the time was Ripley, my service dog, who always accompanied me when we left to go anywhere. Malakai also became clingy and anxious at home. He loved having all the people visit, but became inconsolable, pacing the house. We had no idea what to do with him, and were dreading the three-day drive to New Mexico.

Then Ruth gave me the name of Kathleen (Kat) Berard, an animal communicator in San Antonio, Texas. I contacted her via email. She asked for a good photo or two of Malakai, a close-up, which showed his eyes, and one that showed his whole body. She gave me a questionnaire to fill out. The questions included basic info (his age, breed, weight, height, favorite activities, main job) plus our primary concern, and any message we wanted to communicate to him. She also asked what his living environment was like, and who else lived in the house with him (people and animals). We set up a time for the “consultation.” I’m not sure what I was expecting; I guess at first I thought we would be on speaker phone or something. But then it became clear this was to be a psychic connection. Kat is a former court reporter; her services include a complete transcript of the conversation she has with your animal.

malaki-portrait-72

Malakai’s expressive ears

So then we waited for the day. Malakai simply seemed to be relaxed, resting. A few days later, Kat sent us her transcript. The thing that convinced me immediately was that Malakai SOUNDED like Malakai. I don’t know how to explain this to you, but it was his voice; the way I would have expected him to talk. He said we were all so busy now; it wasn’t like before. Kat explained that the busyness was temporary. He didn’t know where the cats went, and he was worried about them. Kat told him where the cats were, and that everybody would be making the move together. One of the things we often did when we were leaving the house was to say, “Malakai, watch over the house. We’ll be back soon.” That stressed him out; he didn’t like the responsibility. Hearing that, it made perfect sense. We immediately changed our language. She also told us to start talking to him, like we would to a human, each time we left the house, telling him where we were going, when we would come back. That comforted him a great deal. He said the truck anxiety was because someone had banged on the truck window when he was alone in the truck, threatening him. We used to say, “Guard the truck,” when we would leave him there. It scared him; he didn’t understand about the windows, that he was safe inside. It took a while for the truck anxiety to dissipate, but with all the other anxiety, we noticed an almost immediate lessening.

Mostly, we felt as if there was an avenue of communication. That he had been listened to, and had had a chance to express his fears. I know, it sounds a little crazy. But I became a believer.

So this is one more thing in our tool belt now. I have been meaning to call Kat, because I feel that despite the fact I have been trying to talk to Ripley about her new role in the household, now that Rocky is here, she doesn’t completely understand. This weekend, we are going away for our first overnight trip with Rocky. We will be gone for three nights, a road trip up to Jemez Springs to see an art show by Sabrina’s sister-in-law. Kat will be talking to Ripley while we are away. It’s time. I can’t wait to hear what Ripley has to say back to me.

*Feature photo credit, Wendy Dayton

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23Sep

Lost & Found

So I’ve told you before about Rocky Houdini, my service dog with the tendency to escape. For a couple of weeks at the start, we were at our wit’s end, because she kept getting out of the yard. But she never went far. She always showed up at the front gate, as if to say, “Hi! I just found the coolest short cut!”

But we thought we had resolved all of that. We added extra chain link fence to the section by the low rock wall, ending that escape route. When Rocky was still managing to get out, we knew she was either going under the fence, or squeezing through gaps near the gates. (She has a weasel-thin body and is shameless about using it to her advantage.) So Sabrina, my wife, went for broke and put in a line of electric fence just off the ground all around the perimeter. We had done this at our last house for our small Catahoula-cross, Houla. When she hit the fence for the first time, we heard a little “yip,” then it was the end of the problem. Rocky is a bit more of a dramatist. We heard a huge “YIP-YIP-YIP!” and she came tearing into the house with her tail between her legs. She wouldn’t even go into the backyard for about three days after that. However, we had no more escaping dog. She now keeps a very respectful distance from the fence.

Well, a couple of weeks ago, we had two work projects going on, getting things ready for a friend arriving from out of town for a week’s stay. Miranda Otero had finished laying tile in the bedroom, and was due to arrive in about an hour to complete the painting of the hallway, and John Marble was in for the final day of the atrium project, finishing the new shade structure. All three dogs were in my writing studio with me. John started using a pneumatic nail gun for the final touches. Rocky hates that damn gun. I looked up at one point, and realized – no Rocky.

I went to Sabrina’s office. Rocky was not there with her. “Bri, Rocky’s missing.” We both went into high alert. It didn’t occur to us at first she could be outside of the house and fenced yard. We had closed all the loopholes. I started searching all over the house, and Sabrina went to the yard. Since we have been doing all of the work, there are not a lot of places to hide in the house. I looked in the living room, behind chairs, and under the futon couch and one piece of furniture she could possibly squeeze under. I checked the kitchen, then the bedroom, looking under the bed. I went back to my office. She wasn’t underneath my desk, or under the altar.

I heard Sabrina out in the yard, calling her name. Rocky was not in the yard. The other two dogs stood at the door, looking at us expectantly. Sabrina went out into the front, and started searching the neighborhood. Our next door neighbors were just pulling out of their driveway. They immediately volunteered to help, offering to drive one way down the loop, looking for her. Another neighbor heard the calls, and volunteered to go the other direction.

John got into his truck, and joined the search. Sabrina came back to the house, and looked through every corner of the garage. Still no Rocky. We were still incredulous that she had gotten out of the yard. Sabrina said, “Search the house again; I’m going to get in the truck and start looking.” So now there were four vehicles driving through the neighborhood.

I went back to the house, and started over. I opened every door: the kitchen pantry, the laundry room door, the linen closet in the second bathroom. I looked under the bed again. Two cats were there, staring at me, obviously hiding out from all the fuss. I said to them, “Well, you guys. Where is she?” Then I stood up and turned around. The walk-in closet? I opened the door – and there sat Rocky, with woeful eyes. She’d been in the bedroom closet the whole time. How she got in there, I’ll never know. The door opens out; it must have been ajar just enough for her to paw open to go in there to hide, and then someone else (as in another dog) pushed it closed.

Rocky Found

Rocky Found

I gave her a huge hug, and then went running for my phone. I called Sabrina’s number – and heard her ringtone two feet away. She had left the phone behind. So we had a whole posse of people out looking for Rocky, and I couldn’t tell them she had been found. Right at that moment, Miranda showed up, so I asked her to help me call off the search. She drove back out until she found one of the circling cars, and within minutes, Sabrina and John were at the house, and all our wonderful neighbors were back at their original tasks. The neighbors said only, “Glad we could help; this is a great outcome.”

Last time Rocky escaped, Sabrina was annoyed as all get-out. This time, Sabrina fell to her knees when she saw Rocky and started to cry.

This dog. She’s officially part of the family. No more tests of affection, though, OK?

 

 

8Aug

White Hat Hacker aka Rocky

Yes, Rocky is in training to be a service dog. But we think she may have another inborn talent. It appears she has the capacity to be an ace White Hat Hacker.

For those of you not familiar with the term,  Technopedia.com defines a White Hat Hacker as:

a computer security specialist who breaks into protected systems and networks to test and asses their security. White hat hackers use their skills to improve security by exposing vulnerabilities before malicious hackers (known as black hat hackers) can detect and exploit them. Although the methods used are similar, if not identical, to those employed by malicious hackers, white hat hackers have permission to employ them against the organization that has hired them.

What leads us to believe this could be Rocky’s line of work? Well, it isn’t that she has mastered computer code. But she is an expert in assessing the security of a fenced dog yard.

Rocky's escapes thus far

Rocky’s escapes thus far

Remember in my last post, when I said  she had managed to jump the four-foot rock wall bordering our front patio, because we had left the front door open? That was on her first overnight at our house. The following Saturday, she came for her first weekend visit. She sat calmly with me in my office, as I worked online, ordering her new collar tags and other items. All at once I heard Sabrina say, “Rocky! Hey, Rocky’s in the front yard!”

Yes, thanks to only a few moments of inattention, Rocky had managed to go out to the dog yard, wander around to the far corner, and come to the one section that is bordered with four-foot rock wall instead of six-foot chain link fence, landing in the front yard (which is completely enclosed by rock wall). Relieved that this was as far as she had roamed, I opened the front door and called her inside.

We kept the dog door locked the rest of the day, realizing  we now had an escape artist to deal with. That night, before bed, I let all three dogs out to pee. I sat in the large open area with all of them, with the outside light on. Rocky disappeared into the mesquite for a few moments. When I called for everyone to come in, she didn’t appear. I panicked. I ran to the front yard, but she wasn’t there. I immediately knew what happened. “Hey!” she must have thought. “Hurdles!” Hop one rock wall, then another. I grabbed a flashlight, and ran out the side patio door. Sure enough, there she was, running towards me from the driveway. OK, definitely need to take care of that rock wall issue.

Chain link fence, waiting to be installed

Chain link fence, waiting to be installed

We had to make a quick five-day trip to California to see my grandmother, who had fallen and broken her hip, so Rocky went to the kennel, and we promised to come back for her upon our return. This Saturday, we kept that promise, picking her up for another long weekend. On Sunday, our handyman John came over to troubleshoot dog yard solutions, and we decided to extend the chain link fence all the way to the house on that escape-prone side. Until he can get the poles in on Tuesday, John and Sabrina simply leaned the fencing along the wall, to keep Rocky from gaining access. We figured we had a secure backyard for the time being, and could once again open the dog door.

Then I’m sitting out on the patio today, and look up to see – Rocky on the other side of the rock wall, coming up to the gate, tail wagging. Gawd!

Sabrina and I just finished walking the perimeter of the fence and have found there are spots where the bottom is raised just enough that, with a bit of digging, Rocky and her slender little body can squeeze right under.

May have to hot wire the whole perimeter. Damn.

Now why do I see her as a White Hat Hacker as opposed to a Black Hat Hacker? She doesn’t actually run away. She comes right to the front door afterwards, as if to say, “Uh, guys? You have a security issue here. Just thought I’d let you know.”

Thank god for that.

12Jul

New Challenges for Training Days 7 & 8: My Cane and Movement Work

This past week, on July 5 and 7, we upped the ante a bit in my work with Rocky. Part of it was planned, and part of it happened because of my own body.

Let’s talk about the body part first, since that was the first to occur. On Tuesday, when I came to class, I wasn’t doing too well. We’ve had a run of quite a few days now with heat over 100 degrees, and extreme temperatures are one of the triggers for my episodes. I don’t always have full-on paralysis attacks. Sometimes what happens with prolonged exposure to triggers is that I have overall body weakness. I just get wobbly. I have a hard time walking in a straight line, and I need to rest a lot. When that is going on for me, I use a cane to help with balance and support. So on Tuesday, I used my cane in class with Rocky for the first time.

Ripley is, of course, very used to my cane, since I use it almost every time we go out on errands. I bring it as a precaution, because even if I feel strong at the outset of a trip, something might come up while we’re in the middle of a store (fluorescent lights are a trigger) or while eating in a restaurant (certain foods are triggers, and I never know when they will affect me), and then I need support to be able to walk back out of the building.  Or any number of other things. You get the idea.

But Rocky had never seen the cane before during training, so I wasn’t sure how she would react. We used to have a little dog named Houla, and she was first adopted from a shelter to be a companion dog for Sabrina’s dad. He was elderly and used a cane. And it turned out she was terrified of canes, for some reason – something from her earlier life. So Sabrina ended up with Houla instead. Since Rocky is also a rescue dog, we really had no idea how she would react.

Luckily, I had nothing to worry about. Rocky acted as if the cane had been there all along. We went through a usual class with no problems. In fact, the only issue we had at all that day was towards the end of the class, when we were working on straight line heels. With this command, I was supposed to give Rocky a heel command, walk three steps, then stop, and she was to sit at my side without being told. Initially she was doing great. Then she began doing all her sits backwards – facing Jared, the trainer!

I scolded her and said, “Ignore him. He’s not important.” He laughed and said, “I know, they all do this. They only pay attention to me, and then later they shift all their attention to their handlers, and forget all about me.”

On Thursday, I returned, thankfully with a bit more pep, and Jared said it was time to advance to movement work. Up to this point, most of the training has been incremental; give a command, stop, next command. That’s important in the beginning, but Rocky has all of this down pat, and she is starting to get bored. Now it was time to put it all together into movement, so I spent almost the entire hour of training walking with Rocky heeling at my side.

We walked in a circle around the training room, and Jared gave me these commands: circle right (turn in a tight circle towards the right and then keep walking in the same direction), circle left, and (drat! can’t remember the exact command! but — ) turn 180 degrees right and begin walking the opposite direction, or turn 180 degrees left and begin walking the opposite direction. Each time Jared gave one of these commands, I would say, “Rocky, heel.” At first, she bumped into me when I turned. But as the class progressed, she began to watch me, and pay attention to which way I was about to turn. Remember when I said in a previous post that Ripley never runs into me, no matter how erratically I walk? That’s what this is teaching. Training Rocky to look at me, focus on what I am doing, so when I change direction, she changes direction, too.

Throughout these exercises, Jared would occasionally call out another command, such as “Sit” or “Down/Stay.” And wherever we were, we would execute that command. Then we would continue with the circle heeling exercise.

Imagine that you’re in the grocery store, walking down an aisle, and you think, “Oh. Right! I need milk, too.” And you suddenly make a U-turn, to go back to another aisle. Or you walk into a restaurant, and find that there is a crowd of people, and you have to make an abrupt stop, and wait for a table. Your service dog needs to be able to react as quickly as you do, turning, stopping, sitting, waiting, then starting up again, without running into you or anyone else, without getting her leash tangled up, always paying attention.

What was fun was seeing the progress – watching Rocky rise to the challenge, listen to my voice, catch my minor corrections, and by the end of the night, become focused on me with her full attention.

We celebrated by collapsing on the floor when we were finished for a well-deserved selfie session, followed by kisses for Sabrina and Ripley.

Good dog.

13Dec

Dogs in Literature? Yep!

I can’t believe it’s December – mid-December at that. How did three months slip by?

Well, here’s what’s been happening in our world…we’ve been teaching! The team of Michelle/Ripley have been in front of a classroom since September, and we just finished our last day with students on Wednesday. Not just any group of students, though. We had the absolute privilege to be in a room with 20 human students and, on any given day, at least 10 dogs!

Bergin Group Shot-web

I taught a class to the undergraduates at Bergin University of Canine Studies in Rohnert Park, California, a school where students come from all over the county to get associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in cynology – the study of dogs. While attending Bergin, each student has a dog assigned to them – actually, more than one, as they rotate every few months throughout their time there, so dogs don’t form strong attachments to a particular student. The students take classes in things directly related to dog handling, like basic obedience and more advanced skill training, and also learn about things like genetics, breeds, canine psychology, sociology, and disability studies. And, believe it or not, they take liberal arts classes – dogs in art and dogs in literature.

Which is where I came in. Yep, the Dogs in Lit prof! I had every good intention of telling you all about the class as we went through the semester, but somehow that didn’t happen. Damn. So let me just cover a few highlights.

This was my first real teaching gig. I learned as much, if not more, than my students. There were challenges every day, in presenting the material, meeting student needs, and adapting my initial expectations to fit the reality of what I found up in front of the classroom. But I loved it. There were so many positive moments, times when things clicked, when something I had figured out as a new approach worked, when a student got it. It made everything worthwhile.

Ripley at BerginI loved having Ripley next to me, and looking out into the classroom to see ten more dogs lounging around underneath desks. It was such a pleasure to be on a campus that was devoted to dogs, and also to spend an entire semester reading books about dogs, talking about dogs: ethical issues, training issues, social issues, and how all of this could or would affect the students’ lives.

We watched dog movies (Wendy and Lucy, Best in Show), and saw an original short play performed (“A Dog’s Tail,” by Sonoma County playwright Scott Lummer). A local author, Amanda McTigue, came in to speak about her novel, Going to Solace, and ended up handing out autographed copies to the entire class. And when we wrote to the author of one of the novels we read, The Mountaintop School for Dogs, Ellen Cooney responded with individual answers to each student.

I read a lot of dog books! Our class reading list, besides Mountaintop, included A Dog’s Life: Autobiography of a Stray (Ann M. Martin) and excerpts from  Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles (Jeanette Winterson), as well as the short stories “The Boy from Lam Kien” (Miranda July), “The Chain” (Tobias Wolff), and “Dog Song” (Ann Pancake). We also spent two weeks on poetry, particularly focusing on Mary Oliver and Billy Collins.

But that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Students had to choose a book for their final project, so I had to come up with a recommended reading list. They covered a huge range of styles, from serious drama to mystery, romantic comedy to thriller, young adult fiction to memoir. Among the other books I have read in the last few months:

And it has been an inordinately fun romp through dog-land.

But after listening to each student in the class give their final presentation, and then spending about twenty hours over the past week working on writing up evaluations and grading, I have to admit this: Much as I love dogs, I think I’m ready to read a book about something else next week!

 

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
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