Driving Ms. Gracie


GracieInCarSeatOn the Tuesday before New Year’s Eve, we packed up the car with two duffel bags, one cosmetic case, a hanging bag, cooler for snacks, and one Bedlington terrier named Gracie. But before you feel sorry for her, picture a sheepskin lined doggie seat with a safety belt, plenty of snacks, toys, and her water bottle.

Road-tripping from Phoenix to Santa Barbara, our first destination, covered 468.2 miles which included   two brief pit stops. Driving with a dog, rather than a child, has its pluses: they never whine, wiggle, or wheedle for treats. They never smack a sibling or ask every five minutes, “are we almost there.” They need no entertainment other than a few kind words and treats along the way.

But I took the doggie vacation one step further. I admit to being one of those animal lovers who sometimes abuse the law. Gracie’s change of status from pet to an ESA (Emotional Support Animal) came about as a result of researching pet friendly versus upscale hotels and restaurants. That’s why I decided to go undercover as a person with an anxiety disorder (not a big stretch) and drive, dine, and sleep with my service pet.

Before you berate me, take a look around. Did you ever see the French bulldog slobbering over bananas in Trader Joe’s? Isn’t that a St. Bernard sitting in the balcony at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Phoenix? You’ve probably observed an increased number of your neighbors keeping company with their pets in human-only establishments, calling them their roommate in animal-unfriendly apartment buildings, and taking them on airplanes for free—simply by claiming them as licensed companion animals necessary to their well-being.

My service dog, Gracie, fits the bill with her quiet demeanor, the look of a gentle lamb with soft curls. She seldom barks, never sheds, walks on tiptoes, and has a vocabulary of 50 words. Her long face with fancy white tasseled ears cause grumpy old men to smile, young girls to squeal, and homeless people to forget about asking for spare change.


When you check into the pet friendly Fess Parker hotel in Santa Barbara, don’t expect a parade of show dogs strolling along the 24-acre property. The hotel, with its Spanish mission architecture and white painted buildings with archways, wasn’t quite fancy enough for an uppity service dog like Gracie, but we settled in for the night because I had made the reservation two weeks ahead of time—before Gracie’s change of status.

Like parents wanting a break, we fed and walked our dog before tucking her in and leaving to dine at   the Four Seasons hotel. Now, there’s a pet friendly hotel fit for a snobby service animal. But who knew?

The next morning we checked out of the Fess Parker and strolled down State Street looking for a great breakfast.  Temperatures had dipped down to the 50s that morning, so eating on the patio wasn’t an option. We walked into Esau’s café and I asked the hostess if she welcomed service dogs. “Of course, bring her in,” she replied while stooping down to pet her. She sat us in a corner booth by the window so we could people watch while eating.

It helped that Gracie played the part so naturally. She never barked, begged, or bit anyone during the trip, but then again she never does any of those things.

We spent the rest of the day shopping and exploring Santa Barbara. Gracie continued to be welcomed in every establishment, no questions asked, not for proof of service documentation or information about my disability. But then again, I prepared for the worse and read up on the subject before making the decision to go undercover. If I had a struggle being let in somewhere with my dog, I’d come up with a disorder that sounded like a nightmare. I like to be creative.

Our trip continued through Paso Robles, Sausalito, Marin County, down to Santa Cruz, to Palm Springs and back to Phoenix—a total of 1624.6 miles. Over eight days, we stayed at four upscale hotels, dined at a dozen restaurants, and shopped in twelve stores. Although Gracie, our unofficial designated service dog didn’t perform specific tasks, such as pulling a wheelchair and responding to seizures, she became a comfort to everyone she met.







About TRatner

Terry Ratner is a freelance writer, registered nurse, and writing instructor in Phoenix, Arizona. In June of 2004, she graduated with a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative nonfiction from Antioch University, Los Angeles. Writing has always served a purpose in her life, but it wasn't until her son died in a motorcycle accident in March, 1999, that she began to publish her works. What's unique about Terry is the way she balances the life of a nurse with the life of a writer. "Nursing allows me to give back to the community and then write about those experiences." Ratner teaches creative writing in a variety of settings from community colleges to a school for homeless children (Thomas J. Pappas) to wellness communities throughout the Valley of the Sun. In 2004, Terry launched an Arts and Healing program for children undergoing dialysis at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center. She has published numerous personal essays, cover stories, interviews, and book reviews for a variety of national and regional publications. Her manuscript, a work in progress, features a series of twelve essays, ten of which are introduced with black and white photos, dealing with issues of family and identity.
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