We had plans to go to a Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony in Kingsford last week, but it was freezing cold and I had a migraine so those plans were cancelled. Then Friday we went out of town for the weekend. We did some late evening Christmas shopping Friday and enjoyed some great Christmas lights in the bigger towns surrounding my daughter's house. Azul & Forrest enjoyed looking out the windows.
The next night we saw some more lights on our way to an event that had both inside and outside activities that proved to be a bit overwhelming for Azul. Azul knew the reindeer at the event so that didn't bother him, but the goat was a new friend we gave a wide girth to. Inside was hard because just inside the door was a long line of kids with balloon animals. (Azul is fine with balloons, but kids with balloon animals are dangerous, often leading to frequent head bopping.) Then a hallway of flashing, strobing, multi-colored lights. Then the straw that broke Azul, was the crowded gym filled with people and kids with balloon animals. Ten feet in the door and Azul told me he was done. We waited in the hallway for Violet to get her cookies and then went back outside. Ten minutes later Azul tried to hide from more scary balloon animals so I let him spend the last 20 min chillin in the car.
I didn't think any size or type of crowd would overwhelm Azul but I was wrong. This goes to show that even Service Dogs are individuals with desires and preferences. While Azul does awesome at taking care of me, I never want to make him stay in an situation that is uncomfortable for him. With our strong relationship and trust in each other, we can sometimes push each other gently to step outside our comfort zone but we need to be careful not to take advantage of that and push too hard. While Azul did nothing wrong towards the crowd, he told me that he was uncomfortable at the event and that makes it my job as dog handler to help Azul find a way to get to a safer environment. If I didn't listen to his pleas to leave, he may have lashed out at me or someone in the environment. Azul has never done this, but any dog or human that is pushed too far out of their comfort zone can be forced to attach.
We stopped at a light display on the way home and let Azul do some decompression sniffs. While he sniffed, I got some great picts of the lights.
I would have liked to stay longer, but it was cold and my phone battery died so I couldn't take any new picts. It was a shame too because there was a cool sleigh in front of a Christmas Tree that was a great place for pictures. I took a few of the grandkids first, but then by the time I got Azul in the sleigh, my phone had turned off and my daughter had taken Forrest back to the warmth of the car.
By the time we got home, Azul was ready for dinner and bed! After warming up with some coffee and cookies, I was ready to join Azul as well.
The next morning we went out for breakfast at a packed restaurant. Azul was not happy walking out through a maze of people, but thankfully no balloon animals in sight.
After a run at the farm and a nap for Azul, we headed out to walk the Woodstock Square. Here we saw Santa and did photos with the grands. Azul mostly enjoyed the sniffs. He wanted to greet some dogs, but we gave them space and instead greeted some friendly people including Santa's elves. We ended with splashing in the mud puddle under the gazebo, then went to the car to warm up. Azul was happy to be headed home and even happier to be home.
Tips for Taking Your Dog to Community Events
It's important to remember that not all dogs enjoy going out into the community with us and even dogs who do love going out in the community, may not enjoy certain types of events. Our goal should be that our dog is enjoying the event as much as we are, or perhaps more than we are.
We are not going to discuss all the ins and outs of where your dog can and cannot go with you. Of course the rules are different for family pets and service dogs. In the situation above, Azul went as a Service Dog and we called ahead to get permission since this event was at a church. For the most part, these tips will be applicable to both pets attending pet friendly community events & Service Dogs attending non-pet friendly events.
The first thing to consider when trying to decide if you should take your dog to an event is what is their previous experiences?
- Have they been to this event previously or events in this location?
- How many people would be expected at the event?
- Does your dog have the skills to safely navigate the event with you?
- Can you leave the event or take your dog out to a safe space if they show signs of discomfort?
The location or environment the event is taking place in is very important to your dog's comfort. If they've never been in that location before they are going to need to do a ton more sniffing. Arriving early before the event starts and allowing your dog to walk around the area sniffing can really help. If that is not possible, walking around the outskirts of the event before moving in to participate in activities can be really helpful.
The amount of people in the area can also be huge. If you're attending an event that has 100 people in a space the is designed for 500 people is way different then an event that has 100 people in a space designed for 25. Your dog might love people, but most people don't enjoy being in a standing room only crowd and neither will most dogs. Also consider what people will be doing. If your dog doesn't like sudden movements, an event with dancing or lots of kids games might not be the best however a winter concert where most people are generally sitting/standing still might be ok. In the case above, I had no idea there would be balloon animals in the environment and this is only the second time Azul has shown any discomfort around them so I didn't anticipate the problem. This is why it's super important to be able to leave if your dog is uncomfortable. Azul has been conditioned to stay in the car for short periods of time and relax which allows me to use that as a safe space if he needs to escape.
The time we have spent developing teamwork with our dogs and training basic skills will have a huge impact at special events. Leash manners is always one of the first skills to consider! If your dog pulls you down the sidewalk most of the time, it stands to reason they will pull you all over the event too. If your dog generally walks nice but pulls towards other dogs, that might not be a deal breaker however you need to be able to redirect that back to you and be prepared to keep an eye out for other dogs. If you will be sitting down to watch an event such as a parade or concert, can your dog settle nicely at your side. How does your dog do when strangers walk passed you? Do you have time to pay attention to your dog's actions while they are settled beside you. Preparing for these outings by doing refresher training at home in the days leading up to the event can be helpful. Touch up your teamwork walking together with pace changes and u-turns. Practice a relaxed settle in the park around distractions days before the event. Or in my case, in the cold climate where outdoor activities are limited, do some training sessions at local pet friendly stores such as hardware stores, farm stores, and craft stores.
And most importantly, consider your role, responsibilities and desires for the event you are going to be taking your dog to. This is a huge one that I can't stress enough! Some people like to use the term, "my dog is bomb proof" to describe a dog that seems to handle just about anything. We've all known people that seem to excel in most environments. Just like people, our dogs have emotions and can have a bad day or simply be overwhelmed in certain situations. We need to be prepared to help our dogs in those situations by either taking them to a safe space, leaving the event, or leaving them home from the start when we know an event will be too much. This is very situational for most people and dogs so here is an example:
It's time for annual Christmas parade and you take your dog with you. You and your dog enjoy seeing the lights, hearing the music, and the general excitement of the event. You might be meeting up with a friend or two that your looking forward to. But you have no responsibility to anyone and can leave if suddenly your too tired, too cold, or get hungry. This is the perfect situation as you are more likely to be aware of your dog's comfort levels during this event and leave if they are becoming overwhelmed or struggling in some way.
It's time for the annual Christmas parade and you take your dog with you. You're meeting up with Grandma & Grandpa and various other family members so you can all watch your daughter march by with band or some other family member ride by on a float. Perhaps you've loaded up your car full of people because parking was limited and you had access to close spot. After the parade you are all going out for a warm beverage or dinner together. The event might be the same, but the situation is entirely different! You can't or won't leave the event if your dog is uncomfortable because you will put the other people's needs and desires above your dog. That's totally natural, but this is an event that you may want to leave your dog at home instead of bringing them with you.
- Allow your dog to sniff the environment and become comfortable before approaching the festivities.
- Choose a safe space at a distance your dog can be comfortable to watch the activities, even if that means you remain on the outskirts of the event.
- Allow yourself to enjoy the activities but don't become so distracted that you won't notice your dog struggling to follow your lead or listen to your cues.
- Leave early enough that neither you or your dog become overwhelmed or uncomfortable.
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