Written by Amie Chapman
originally posted January, 2016
Traveling with a service dog in training can be a great experience for the puppy, but can be a little scary for the raiser/trainer. I have done a few trips with a few different puppies, but never a trip so far and long or a trip with just me and the puppy. I have always had Matt or friends along who were willing to help. With that said, I was really nervous about this trip since I was going it alone with Patrick. Patrick has been on two trips before this one and did really well, but both were long car rides and I knew that he would be settled and comfortable. This trip would be a completely different experience for him, on a plane, and across the country. This was a trip for work, and to see family and friends that I haven’t seen in a really long time.
I am required by law to complete 20 hours of continuing education to keep my veterinary technician license current and valid. To do this, I usually attend a veterinary conference where I go to lectures and sometimes to hands-on labs. In the past, I have attended conferences in Las Vegas and twice I have brought a puppy in training with me: Macklin, my first puppy, and Ricki, puppy No. 10. Each time, it was a great training experience for the puppies. This year, I decided to attend the North American Veterinary Conference in Orlando. I have family and friends in Florida, and this was a great way to do multiple things. The big question was, do I bring Patrick with me so he too could benefit from the experience.
There were a lot of things to consider before deciding to bring Patrick. Was he ready for such a big trip? Was I ready to have him with me without any help? Could he stay settled and quiet on the flights? Could he make it to our connecting city for a potty break? What was my backup plan if we were denied access somewhere? (Handlers with service dogs in training have public access rights in some states, but not in others.) What was my backup plan if Patrick was too stressed or needed a break from attending lectures? (Long hours of sitting quietly can be very difficult for puppies.) I couldn’t exactly just not go—I needed the credits!
The best thing I could do was be as prepared as possible and do my best to test Patrick in situations similar to what he might experience on the trip. Patrick is only eight months old and still experiencing many “firsts.” So we took him to crowded areas to help simulate the airport, the hotel resort, and conference. I had him practice laying under chairs that I set up in rows to simulate the seating on a plane. We took him to his first movie in the theater to see if he could sit still for a long period in a small space with loud noises around him. We made him wait longer between potty breaks. He did great in every situation we set up for him.
I waited all the way up to the day of travel to make my decision, and even when we got to the airport, I almost said to Matt “I’m not taking him, I’m too scared.” This was because, despite all the preparing, Patrick seemed to know something was different and started barking and crying with excitement as he got out of the car. But I knew that if I didn’t take him with me that I might regret the decision. And now as I write this, we are on the plane heading back home and I definitely would have regretted not bringing him.
Once Matt left, Patrick settled down and was eager to work. He was patient as I checked my bag and then we went back outside to have one last potty break before heading through security. He was so calm and patient as we waited in line that even I was impressed. Just a few minutes before, he was acting like a crazy puppy. I was really nervous about going through security. I had to leave him in a stay as I went through the metal detector and then call him through. This was one thing we hadn’t practiced before: a stay and recall in a crowded area. But he was perfect. He even seemed to enjoy the pat-down he got from the TSA agent.
We made it to our gate just as they were getting ready to board and we were able to board early so I could get him settled. No problem boarding the plane or getting him to sit under the seat. I did have another moment of “OMG, what did I get myself into” when he would not stop licking the floor for finding things to eat the he shouldn’t: a twist tie, a cough drop, and something I couldn’t identify. But he quickly settled down and went to sleep.
He slept the whole flight, take off and landing too. I had purposely booked a redeye flight in hopes that he would be good. This was his normal sleeping time in his kennel. It didn’t hurt that he had a long walk, multiple play sessions, a trip to the store, and a bath to help wear him out before our flight. I also made sure that our layover for our connecting flight had enough time to run him out to potty and get back through security. Our connecting city was also a little over half way so he was only going about 5 hours between potty breaks. Everything went super smoothly. We got outside with no problems and on our next flight.
Once we got to Orlando we were staying at a Disney resort. The conference had buses running to and from multiple hotels so we didn’t have to worry about getting around without a car. Disney is also usually really good about having service dogs and SDITs at their hotels.
I did have one uh-oh moment the first night at the hotel. Patrick let out a couple of barks when someone in a neighboring room slammed their door and about an hour after the incident someone from the hotel came knocking on the door to check if I did in fact have dog in the room because they had gotten a complaint about a barking dog. Everything was fine and the hotel employee didn’t seemed too worried about it. Patrick didn’t make a peep when he knocked on the door. But I did begged Patrick to not have anymore barking in the room so we wouldn’t get kicked out and he was good after that. Nonetheless, I was a little stressed out the remainder of our stay at the hotel.
Patrick is now a pro at riding buses after this trip, where he rode multiple buses every day for five days. We did however have one major hiccup while going to the conference. Once again, it was barking.
At our very first lecture we sat in the back and just as the speaker asked if there were any questions as people got up to leave, something startled him out of his deep slumber and he barked. He startled a lot of people and I just wanted to hide my head in the ground. Of course I apologized profusely and everyone laughed it off. One of the benefits of being at a conference full of veterinary professionals is they understand that an eight-month-old shepherd puppy isn’t always going to be perfectly behaved.
We made it though more lectures without any problems, but the other dogs at the expo area of the conference were a bit of a challenge. I have been to many conferences and there are usually a couple dogs at booths in the expo area, but there were more dogs than I expected at this conference. We were running into them even outside the expo. We have worked really hard to help Patrick work through his issue of barking at dogs he does not know, and he is improving a lot, but still needs some more work.
My preparedness for a backup plan came in handy. I had signed up for a hands-on lab and had checked with the conference beforehand if Patrick would be allowed to attend it with me. The responded with a yes, if he was a well behaved, quiet service dog. With him having a few barking outbursts already I went ahead and booked him a partial day stay at the Best Friends Pet Care kennel on the Disney property while I attended my lab. I was really worried that he would be stressed out there, but all the practice of being in the kennels at my work seemed to help. He didn’t seem fazed by the experience at all!
The other thing I came prepared for was exercising Patrick. He is a very high energy puppy and needs a lot of physical activity along with mental stimulation. Sitting in lectures and hanging out in a small hotel room was just not going to cut it for his needs. I brought a 50-foot-leash with me and looked at all the hotels beforehand to make sure I could find with an appropriate place to let him play without bothering anyone. The hotel also had a running/walking trail around it.
We made sure to have a good play session before heading out to lectures and another one when we got back. Along with multiple walks, Patrick seemed like we met all of his needs. I, on the other hand, was very exhausted from everything. He also tore his paw pad while playing one day. Good thing we had a little dog first aid kit with and I was able to put a bandage on his foot until it healed enough to not require one.
Once the conference was over, I got a rental car and drove south to spend some time with family and friends. I had dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house along with my cousins. They all fell in love with Patrick. He was super well behaved and went to everyone to see if they would play with him. We then went to see my sister and stay with very close friends. That was a whole different adventure.
My friends have four kids in ages ranging from three to 13 years of age. Patrick hasn’t really been around kids before, and while we were at the hotel he was very interested and distracted by all the kids around. When I got to my friends house, I went in before bringing Patrick in to say hi and give the kids some ground rules about Patrick—and to prepare them for the fact that he would bark at their dog and be a little crazy at first. Pretty much everything I told them would happen, happened. Patrick was very excited with the different energy level. My sister was over with her little dog too, along with three other neighborhood kids. Needless to say, it was quite overstimulating for Patrick. There was a lot of barking from both him and my friend’s black Labrador, Chance.
Once Patrick calmed down, I let him off his leash in the house and he did pretty well. He left most of the kids’ toys alone (there were lots of toys at puppy level), although some of the stuffed animals were a little too tempting. But unfortunately he lost his privilege of being loose when he barked at Chance in a not-so-friendly way. I’m still not quite sure what it was all about, but our theory is that Chance didn’t like Patrick so close to the youngest child and got a little protective, so as a precaution Patrick got to hang out on tie down or attached to me. This was a good learning experience for Patrick, kids, other dogs, and even other cats. By having Patrick on a leash or tie down, I was able to help him be right. So he got more praise and less “Nope, you can’t do that.”
On the flip side, Patrick was really good with all the kids. They were all very eager to play with him. We spent a lot of time outside playing fetch, which Patrick loved. We worked really hard when Patrick was younger teaching him not to grab toys from your hand. He would sometimes miss the toy and grab your hand on accident, that doesn’t feel too good. I taught the kids to tell Patrick to drop his toys and tell him to wait before throwing it. Patrick was perfect. He didn’t try to grab the toys from any of them and even listened to the three year old when she gave him commands. He would even cuddle with them on the floor if they sat next to him. He still wants to run after and join the fun when the kids are running around and playing loudly, but what puppy wouldn’t? I do think he will miss them.
Patrick wasn’t perfect on this trip, but I have to remember always that he is a puppy and still learning. Some people might say that he wasn’t ready for a trip this big because of his age or because we are still working on his barking. I was one of those people at one point. This trip was very stressful and exhausting for me at times but at other times very easy and fun. I’m glad Patrick came along.
He grew and learned a lot. I would definitely say that all the positives Patrick gained on this trip outweigh some of the not-so-perfect behavior. My job as a puppy raiser is to expose puppies to all types of situations that they will encounter as working dogs. Sometimes I may not know if a puppy is ready until they are exposed to that situation. Patrick has lots of time to mature and learn.
I can confidently say that Patrick is ready for any type of transportation. He has handled buses, planes, taxis, and even the Disney Monorail like a seasoned pro. He is pretty darn good in a hotel environment. He can handle crowds even if he needs a little reminding that he needs to focus on me and not the kids running around. He is good and gentle with even young children. He loves to work. Every time I grabbed his leash and puppy coat when we left the hotel room his whole body wiggled with excitement and he practically pulled me out the door. There will always be bumps in the road when training a puppy, and we hit a few this past week. But I will still consider this a very successful trip for everything that we did accomplish. Good job, Patrick: I am very proud of you. But when we get home you will be on Matt’s watch and I am going to take a very long nap.