Saturday, May 7, 2011

Takin' It To The Streets

We love taking our dogs to new places. After all, aren't we supposed to expose our dogs to as many different people, places, and sounds as possible?

"My dog gets SO excited when we go places!" We interpret our dog’s obvious energy and excitement as evidence that he is not only learning how to operate amongst crowds, but is also enjoying the experience. But is he? What about the dog who becomes very still and quiet in public? Is he calm or so afraid that he is shut-down? Do you know how to gauge your dog's level of anxiety? Did you know that there is a simple test that can help you determine your dog's mental state? What should you do if your dog is overwhelmed by the crowd? Just what does "socialization" mean, anyway?

"If I take my dog everywhere, he will be well socialized!"

 When people say this, I think what they really mean is "My dog should be comfortable and friendly around strange people and dogs, well mannered and not too afraid when in public." However, this is not accomplished by merely wading into a crowd of people. In fact, one of the surest ways to make your dog afraid of crowds and people is to force him to interact while afraid. More importantly than just being exposed to people and crowds, he needs to feel safe when around them. 

Plan, plan, then plan some more

If there is a predictable behavior pattern to fall back on during unpredictable circumstances, you stand a much better chance of having a dog that not only behaves in a way that is acceptable to you, but has some coping skills and therefore a better chance of building his confidence around strange people and other dogs. 

See the event through your dog's eyes (and ears and nose)

We love social events (most of us, anyway). Dogs, while also social beings, might certainly enjoy being with you at public events. They do not, however, understand giant strolling bears or men on stilts or magicians walking through the crowd pulling large bouquets from their shirtsleeves. Hot, crowded venues with loud music may be particularly stressful for your dog - if the music is loud to us, what must it be like for our dogs? After all, they can hear a mouse rustling in his nest!

If I take my dog out enough times, he will get over it! Buck up, Pup!
 Maybe. Maybe not. If you live in an apartment right on a busy street, you may eventually stop "hearing" the cars whizzing by ("habituation" is the scientific term for this). On the other hand, if cars backfire sometimes, causing you to jump out of your skin, you may become so on-edge (" sensitization") that a less strong but similar noise may then cause a reaction as intense as the backfire from the car did (or, where I come from more colorfully described as " You're as jumpy as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs!")

"My dog loves being at the Street Fair! (or Shakespearean Festival or Tree Lighting Ceremony...or...well, you get it)"

Are you certain? How can you tell? Here is an easy test:
  • Can your dog respond to simple cues? If he knows how to "sit" for example, can he do it now, here? If not, the environment may be too much for him.
  • Can he eat? If, under normal circumstances your dog snarfs treats happily, and now, here, only spits the treat out is a very reliable indication that the environment may be too much for him.
  • How is his mouth? If he is taking treats and eating them, is his mouth "harder" than usual? Is he taking the treats more roughly than what is normal for him?  If so, the environment may be too much for him!
Here's that planning thing again...Before you venture out into the world, decide what you want your dog to do (and have a back-up plan!)
  •     Is it okay to sniff every post in his path? How will you redirect him?
  •     How will you manage him when other dogs approach?
  •     How about greeting people? What would you like them to do, first?
  •     What will you do if the venue proves to be too much for your dog?
Be prepared to think on the go when you take your training on the road and always choose the course of action most likely to keep your dog under threshold. Do not let others dictate your choices. If you have decided you wish your dog to sit while being petted by people, be firm when explaining to them how to approach your dog. 

"Oh, I don't mind if he jumps on me, I love dogs!"  As well-meant as this is, you should respond with a smile yet remain firm. Why? If your dog prefers to greet humans by jumping on them and is reinforced for this behavior 'sometimes', you will have a very difficult time getting rid of it. There is nothing stronger than a variable schedule of reinforcement-just go to any casino and watch the slot players if you need more convincing.

"I'll just be a quick sec!"

When you use a leash to tie your dog out while you run inside a store "for just a second" or to enjoy a leisurely meal at a restaurant, it is extremely stressful for your dog. It leaves him vulnerable to strangers and also to strange dogs.

While you may have the most even-tempered dog known to mankind, he is still a dog! Under the right circumstances, any dog can bite or become panicked.

Sorry to be a wet blanket, but this is a really BAD idea. Instead, choose an outdoor restaurant that allows pets, or ask someone to go into the store for you. 

Which is more important to you-that face or the venti-quad-iced-upside-down-Americano?
Hot Enough To Fry An Egg?

Even on cool days, black asphalt can heat quickly in the sun. Place your palm on the pavement. Can you hold it there for  10 seconds? If so, it’s probably safe for your dog to walk on. Check the temperature periodically if you are out for the entire day-your dog may have tough pads but they are still vulnerable to heat (and ice!)
Finally: Dogs and Pick-up Trucks

If you must transport your dog in the back of your truck, place him in a crate and secure it. Do this for me, if for nothing else. Your dog may be 100% reliable in the back of your truck, but seeing your dog pacing back and forth in the bed of your truck with the road whizzing by under him  makes me hyper-ventilate! So please, give a girl a break and secure that dog.

Give him protection from the elements as well. Come to think of it, if you are reading this article, you probably don’t need to be told most of these things! Okay, then go out and spread the word to those that do!

Happy Training! 


  1. Chris, FABULOUS! Just excellent. So glad you mentioned the heat factor. One big reason I like pint-sized service dogs is because I live in the middle of the Mojave Desert, and the seemingly endless sizzling summer days of 110 degrees means service dogs have to wear boots or be small enough to hop up in my lap in my wheelchair. I no longer have the hand facility to put boots on and take them off. But as a wheeler, I have more options with a smaller dog--who can sit in my lap while waiting for lights to change, or for me to get the ramp down in my van. Thanks for writing this important essay.

  2. Absolutely super article... you are right.. probably those reading are already familiar with most items touched on. I wish this was posted in The Bulletin and The should submit to them. We were just at the Cinco street fair and even though signs where posted to not bring pets there were so many dogs tied to posts shivering and shaking from anxiety. We are a dog friendly community but many of these well intentioned owners NEED some educating. Also the law should be changed re dogs riding in the back of pick ups. Texas has done wonders with outlawing this....we should start here in Oregon.

  3. Great post! I wish more people would consider the pavement temperature before taking their dogs out in the heat. As a dog walker, I have a policy that if it's over 85 degrees, dogs are exercised in their yards. The dog will choose the cool grass over hot pavement every time, and I don't blame them!