In November, I went to a seminar about dog behavior and training and, for the first time in my life, brought a dog so I could participate in a “working dog” spot (take a turn having the instructor teach us something). The experience entailed two full days in the car and five nights in a hotel.
I have previously taken 4-year-old Woody for long road trips, camping trips, and to stay at friends’ houses. But he’s never stayed at a hotel before, and it presented him with a few new experiences. By and large, he was terrific: He was never tempted to pee on anything, he didn’t chew anything up or eat out of the trash, and he was happy to meet people who greeted him and calm about walking past people who didn’t. The most challenging thing for him at the hotel was hearing people walk down the hall past our room at night and not growling or barking; he seemed to be anxious about the strangers he could hear and smell but not see.
To make sure my large, block-headed dog felt as relaxed and happy as possible about the whole experience – so that he looked obviously friendly – I had a treat pouch with me at all times, so I could mark and reinforce all of his good behavior. I also looked for spots in the hotel where we could get a little distance from the things that made him nervous and deliver enough treats to help change how he regarded the stimuli. At one point, for example, I wedged our hotel room door open, so he could see people walk by the open door; every time we heard a person coming or saw people walk by, I started delivering treats; when the people were out of view (or earshot), the treats stopped. After only a few passersby, he was looking to me eagerly when he heard or saw someone.
Anyway, I was thinking about the work I did with Woody when I was recently at an airport for holiday travel. I stepped out of a long line for coffee because I was actually afraid of a dog who was accompanying a man in line in front of me – a big, muscular, intact male dog with “fighting cropped” ears and wearing a choke chain. The dog looked uneasy and overstimulated (tightly tucked tail, panting, ears pinned back) and his owner was not only oblivious to the dog’s discomfort, he also was completely distracted with his coffee order and seemed unconcerned about the apprehensive looks that people near him were casting at him and his anxious dog. In my opinion, subjecting an unhabituated dog to such stress is not fair to your fellow travellers – and certainly not fair to the dog.
It’s a lot of work to habituate your dog to new experiences, but it is a critical responsibility if you are going to subject other people to them; no one should have to be afraid of your dog in public.