Thursday, October 17, 2013

Westward Ho! Piper on US Airways Flight 461

Part II - Piper on US Airways Flight 461

Kung Fu Panda and the yawning chasm.
Continuing with the story started in Part I of Westward Ho, Piper and I walk down the jetway from the gate to the airplane. When we get to the plane entrance however, Piper stops cold. Where the tunnel and the plane door meet there is an obvious threshold, with a 1 to 2-inch gap where daylight and fresh air leak thru, and a change in elevation of maybe an inch. To Piper there is something highly suspicious about all this. I imagine a warning sound going off in his brain:  "Ah-oo-ga - proceed with extreme caution!" I step over the threshold, keeping his leash slack. Piper momentarily sniffs the ground then summoning his courage, he soars Kung Fu Panda-style over the yawning chasm, landing on the hard floor of the plane and sliding up to the flight attendant, interrupting her cheery "Welcome aboard!" in mid-sentence. The momentum of his entrance carries him, skittering, to the front of first class, where several passengers raise their heads. Acting nonchalant, I step in front of Piper and lead him down the aisle, past the first class section to Seat 5A in steerage (I mean regular class).

Seat 5A is a bulkhead window seat that US Airways thoughtfully assigned me when I first made the reservation and told them I was traveling with a service dog in training. Way to go US Airways! My new neighbor in the middle seat immediately introduces himself as Steve and asks if he can help me. You know, I have flown close to 30 times with the dogs in training and have always sat next to a friendly or neutral person. What are the odds of that? Steve kindly takes my pack and stashes it for me while I introduce Piper to his new surroundings:  a 2-foot by 2-foot square area at my feet. Piper is still learning how to lay quietly at my feet for extended periods of time, so I know a 5-hour flight in a small space is going to be a challenge for him. But I am confident he can do it!

He lays down, I sit down. Within minutes I look down to see him licking the floor, as if saying "Hey, this rug is delicious!"
"No, Piper, leave it."
He does, then proceeds to lick the adjacent wall below the window.
"No, Piper, leave it."
OK. He stops. "Good boy!"
Moments later, he is licking the seat legs where they attach to the floor. To Piper, his new space seems to be one big lollipop.
"Piper, NO!"
Piper looks at me questioningly. Obviously, he is not generalizing that when I mean Leave It, I mean leave the whole space alone.
I get out his blankie and arrange it rather awkwardly under him, then get him a toy slathered with peanut butter. Now he is quite happy to direct his attention away from taste-testing the airplane.

All is bliss and happiness. The plane takes off. Steve and I chat about service dogs a few minutes. He is a Very Nice Man. After awhile he gets out a thick paperback book and starts reading. Piper finishes his peanut butter treat and pops up.
"Hi, how's it goin'?" he asks.
"Fine. You are a Good Boy, but now Settle."
Piper looks blankly at me. Temporary amnesia has set in.
"Piper, Settle."
The amnesia is the long-term type. Time to up the ante.
"Piper," I say in my Low but Serious Voice, while I point my index finger at the floor. "Settle."
Piper looks at my finger, as if I am condemning him to Hades. And does not move.
"I prefer to Sit," he seems to say.
I am well aware that my neighbor, Steve, just inches away, is probably listening in on this mini-drama. I pull down on Piper's collar. Piper is a stone statue. I pull one of his front legs out. Stone statue. I pull the other leg out. He collapses into a stiff rigid line on the floor, invading Steve's space. I bodily slide him over. I tell him to Wait. I lean back in my seat.
Up pops Piper between my legs. "Hi, how's the atmosphere up here?"
My patience has flown the coop. Well aware that Steve is inches away, and that just minutes ago I bragged on what a great boy Piper is, I up the ante again. I pounce on Piper, wrestling him down and growl, "SETTLE!"
Taken by surprise by my intensity, Piper finally, really relaxes into a nice Settle. He looks up at me as if to say, "Well, why didn't you say so in the first place?"

All is well, Piper decides he was tired anyway and falls asleep. I lean back and relax and soon fall asleep too. Much later I wake up, my neck stiff from sleeping in a chair with a headrest for a bigger person. I lean forward, elbows on knees, holding my head in my hands. I look down at Piper and half-doze. I can see Piper is in a REM (rapid eye movement) cycle and is starting to twitch his paws. Soon he starts emitting little squeaks. Then an occasional shudder along his back, like a horse getting rid of a fly. This is almost as entertaining as the movie the airline didn't show. I wish I had my book, but it is miles away, stashed overhead in first-class somewhere. Sigh. I watch as Steve sneaks a hand over to pet Piper on the head. He thinks I'm asleep - funny!

Now I am really bored. Two hours to go. I order some ice and wake Piper up. We play my idea of a  fun game where I put ice inside a Kong and I hold it while he gets the ice out and chews it up. Piper is sleepy and could easily drift off if I would let him. But I am still bored, so we walk up to first class and stuff ourselves into the telephone booth-like restroom. Piper is very OK with this. Well, that was fun, now what? Piper looks at me with sleepy eyes. I tell him to Settle and he plops happily down. I amuse myself by looking out the window at the myriad twinkling lights as we descend into Los Angeles. Soon I can see the arteries of criss-crossing highways, with blood cell-like cars pulsing along them.

The plane lands. Passengers start to stand up and pull down their luggage. Behind me two children peek over the top of my seat to tell me how good my dog was during the flight. I take their compliments with a smile and thank-you. Only Piper, Steve and I know what really went down in Seat 5A on US Airways Flight 461.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Westward Ho! Piper at RDU Airport

Last Saturday six-month old service pup in training, Piper, reached a special milestone - his first air trip - from Raleigh-Durham, NC to Los Angeles, CA. As his raiser, I would say it was a journey worth writing about. In fact so much happened I am splitting the story into two posts:  Part 1 - Piper at the RDU Airport, and Part II - Piper on US Airways Flight 461.

Part I - Piper at the RDU Airport
Our flight from Raleigh-Durham was scheduled to depart at 4:10 on a Saturday afternoon. Although we left the house with plenty of time to spare, a terrible snarl on I-40 caused by a combination traffic accident / UNC football game made our airport arrival a little too close for comfort. At the parking lot we "parked" Piper, then Frank and I walked in and went thru ticketing and check-in on US Airways in record time. As I started to thread my way thru the maze of ropes and posts at the security entrance, a TSA agent motioned me to a much shorter line for the flight crew. Yes! I turn and wave good-bye to Frank who smiles from the departure entrance and gives me a thumbs up.

In order to pass thru the security check, I decide to keep Piper's leash, collar and vest on (I live to regret this decision). So I put Piper in a Sit/Wait, walk thru the scanner myself, and then call Piper through, which he does like a pro. Piper needs to be checked, wanded and patted down, but first we have to wait till they call Al over. I am guessing Al is the dog-check man. Arriving, Al is a large, friendly security agent whom Piper takes an immediate and serious liking to. However when Piper curls himself into a "C" around Big Al's legs, it definitely makes Al's dog-check job a little tricky. Peeling the encircling dog from off his legs, agent Al next unzips Piper's vest pockets and digs thru the poop bags and rabies certificate stashed inside. As he stuffs them back and zips the pockets shut, Piper reacts with a "Whoa, that tickles!" and twists onto his back, exposing his soft underbelly for scratching and inspection. Thankfully Al has seen (or had) enough and gives us the OK to leave. Piper follows me reluctantly with a backward glance at his new friend while I make a mental note:  next time remove the vest and send thru on the conveyor!

After collecting my belongings, we grab the elevator, and head down the concourse toward our gate. I like the RDU Airport. It is not very big, yet the terminals have high, sunny spaces that make you feel as though you're already airborne. On this Saturday afternoon it is blessedly quiet. Checking our gate, we discover we still have a half-hour before boarding, so I decide to familiarize Piper with the concourse surroundings. Yet I notice as we walk along that Piper's ears are pulled slightly back, his head is just a little too low, and there is not a nice looseness to his gait. Instead of walking with me, he is a little too far in front and staring fixedly ahead. Basically, Piper's body language says "I'm not so sure about all this." So I spend several minutes engaging and relaxing Piper until I see the sweet sparkle return to his eyes, and the flash of his toothy grin reappears. Once again he is enjoying his day at the airport and we're a team as he loosely trots at my side. That's my boy!

I love watching Piper's reaction (or lack of) as we meet odd and interesting airport personalities. There is The Cowboy, clunking along in his 8 gallon hat, with white toes on his boots so long and pointy he could skewer a horned toad. Piper gives him a perfunctory glance. Later my pup observes a little boy dangling a strange doll that looks like a cross between the Phantom of the Opera and a skeleton. Piper's gaze takes in the little guy and his toy and moves on, as if giving his dog stamp of approval that every preschooler should have a cadaverous doll for a best friend. Come to think of it, some of Piper's best playthings are bones....

Soon the loudspeaker blares that it's time to board and off we start on Part II of Piper's journey westward across America.

Monday, October 7, 2013


Every year St Francis Service Dogs puts on an outdoor festival at "The Farm", celebrating dog-lovers and their best buddies. Dogtoberfest is also a fundraiser, with proceeds going towards the running of the school. Frank and I, with 6-month service pup Piper in tow, headed up to Roanoke on a bright October Saturday to check it out and...we had a doggie blast!

What did we find? All sorts of activities for dogs and their owners to try out, including Fly Ball, agility rings, several fun dog games, a doggy day spa, caricaturists, and PawCasso (a matted photo of your dog surrounded by his paw prints).


There was a Parade of the Dogs in costume, a blessing of the animals, a DogGone Good Diner and service dog and police dog demos. Of course there was St Francis merchandise for sale as well as other vendors.

Piper gets a pedicure from a St Francis trainer.

Piper gets a pedicure from one of the St Francis trainers. I usually do his nails, but wanted him to experience having them done in a different setting. I've also done his nails in the back of my car by the grocery store.

We bought tickets and Piper tried out the agility ring. In charge of the two agility rings was Connie, Piper's weekly trainer. Piper recognized her immediately and had no problem going in and out of tunnels, clearing low jumps and trotting along a board-walk. Piper loved it. Then he cooled off under a hose spray.

In a shady spot, we hung out and watched the amazing array of dogs walking by. Everywhere were dogs of every shape, size, breed and color imaginable, some in costume. What struck me was how dogs and people mingled, played, sniffed (the dogs) and explored without so much as a growl or hey-you bark. I guess everyone was too busy taking in the sights and having fun. It was great training for Piper to sit calmly and watch the dog-world go by. I wonder what he thought looking at all those dogs. Did he recognize them as part of his "family"?

Soon we packed up Piper and headed home. Down a country road, I snapped this fall picture of an old farm house "afloat" in a field of tobacco - a perfect day.