We took the family to Disneyland to celebrate my son’s 8th birthday. We also took our service dog Raven with us. We had a fantastic day, and Raven was amazing. Stella did the handling all day and Raven earned her keep with several low alerts. (The excitement of the amusement park tends to burn off blood sugar)
Based on a compliment we received from another SD handler and just how crowded it was yesterday, I realized I have never discussed how important it is or what is meant by protecting your service dog while out in public.
For public access work, distractions, obedience, and crowd control work, I can’t imagine there is any place more challenging than Disneyland on a gorgeous Southern California Saturday. The park was jammed full of guests making it hard enough to traverse the park with kids, let alone a teenager handling a dog.
Disneyland is a feast for the senses. The first thing you must understand when bringing your service dog to the park is that it is not a place people expect to see a dog. Unless it’s a Disney character 🙂
Disneyland is a very visual place. There is so much to see all around you, so you have to keep an eye on everyone. People are looking up and around, and not down at their feet, making your dog a tripping hazard. It is also shoulder to shoulder crowded in some areas. Compound that with a darker colored dog, and it makes it imperative that you take a few precautions when handling to assure the safety of you, your dog, and the other guests.
The first thing required is excellent heeling. The dog must be able to stay in a nice tight heel by your side. No wandering off at the end of the leash. At the same time, being able to keep a nice short lead is imperative. There is a serious lack of recognition for personal space at a crowded amusement park (or mall at Christmas time, or Costco on Saturday) so you can’t expect to be granted a 5 foot space bubble around you. People will bump into you, and they won’t see your dog. Having your dog under control at all times is rule #1.
This also helps prevent unwanted ground surfing. Disney is really good about keeping the park clean, but there is still popcorn, churros and other potentially dangerous things for your dog to try and ingest. And having a dog shoot out to grab a stray food item can create a tripping hazard. working and understanding leave it and good heeling goes a long way to preventing issues.
We also like to create a shield or a bubble around the dog whenever possible. Staying close and surrounding the dog prevents unwanted ninja petting, tripping, or worst of all, bumping from behind with a stroller or dangling purse. When walking through a crowded area, the dog heels on the left. So there is a person to the dog’s right. One of us will walk on the dog’s left. and one of us will stay in back, behind the dog. (this is the most important position. Having something bump into your dog from behind can really spook them) When it gets really tight, we walk single file 1 person infant of and 1 person behind the dog.
When we have meals, the dog goes under the table, out of the way of passers by. Especially when those people may be carrying trays of food and drinks and can’t see what is below or in front of them. Again, this is just good dog obedience for an animal that is out in public. It protects the dog and the general public. And no one wants to drop a $7 coke. 😉
When we are resting for a second, again we try to keep the dog under the bench, or if it is too dirty/narrow/filled with popcorn, at least out of harms way by putting them under our legs so someone would step on us before stepping on the dog.
And if that isn’t possible, we will use the dog as an armrest or end table. 🙂
Along with all of this, you also need to think about the dogs needs for the day. Making sure you carry water, a collapsible water bowl, boots for a really hot or really cold day, treats if used for training scenarios, waste bags, and in the case of a full day at Disneyland, food. It is easier to prevent a dog from ground surfing if after a 10-12 hour day full of activities, your dog has a full, content belly from her regular kibble.
It also pays to know your dog, and to be able to tell when your dog is comfortable with something or is stressed by a situation. While Disneyland allows service dogs on many rides, it doesn’t necessarily mean your dog will be comfortable on the ride. The people are often belted or braced into a ride, while the dog is on the floor. If the dog gets scared and decides to bolt on a dark ride, it can be very dangerous. Pay attention to your dogs body language and signals. And if you happen to have a dog with some gun dog training, know that when you are on Pirates of the Caribbean, there is a a part of the ride that has canon fire from a boat, and a splash. To a dog, this sounds a whole lot like a gun shot and a duck hitting the water. If you want to stay dry and be allowed to stay in the park, hold on to your dog that may want to go get that duck (you’re just gonna have to trust me on this) 😉
Just as a reminder, I want to caution you. Disneyland is no place for a dog that hasn’t had a tremendous amount of work and training in public access. Without that base of training, a crowded day at Disneyland could be enough to ruin an otherwise perfectly fine dog. If you aren’t an experienced, assertive handler, or know how to properly read and assess your dog, leave them home for the day.