6Oct

White Sands: Getting Busy

Sabrina, Ruth, Michelle & Rocky at White Sands

Sabrina, Ruth, Michelle & Rocky at White Sands

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

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

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

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

Rocky on the boardwalk

Rocky on the boardwalk

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

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

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

Curious Rocky

Curious Rocky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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