Taking Your Dog to Public Events

The more I’m learning about dog behavior, the more large-scale dogs events make me cringe. I can now pick up on stress signals, signs of discomfort, poor social skills, warning signs, etc. – and I’m realizing that these behaviors, as you can imagine, are widely prevalent at events with lots of dogs and people.  Even though most of the dogs that attend these events are dog friendly (because they’d be kicked out in an instant if they weren’t), doesn’t mean that all the dogs present are having an easy time.

In order to keep dogs and people happy at big events, it’s important to stay in tune with your dog. I recommend reading up on dog behavior and stress signals before braving one of these big events. That will give you some tools to recognize issues as they arise, before they become a bigger problem.  After watching others attend these events and going to many myself, here are some tips I think are helpful for big public outings:

Come prepared with appropriate equipment. Make sure you bring everything you need to set you and your dog up for success. I cannot stress enough how important it is that you do not take your dog to big events using retractable leashes. There is hardly any control with these leashes, and in high activity environments you need all the control you can get. For the sake of all other dogs and owners at the event, I encourage you to stick to 4′ or 6′ standard leashes. Many events, especially if run by a humane society or rescue group, have policies against using retractable leashes.

Bring lots of TREATS!   I understand that shoving a bunch of treats in your dogs mouth won’t solve real problems, but it can sure help manage some when you’re out in a distracting environment. Often times when there is an overwhelming amount of stimuli, your dog will only pay attention to you if you’ve got something they want: yummy food. In new environments it is essential to be able to capture your dog’s focus. Treats will help enormously for this, especially if they are high value.

Don’t test at big events. An easy way to set your dog up for failure is bringing them into a high stress situation and having the “they can sink or swim” mentality. Socialization doesn’t come in the form of mass interactions with lots of people/dogs/things at one time.  Socialization should be controlled, positive experiences. Events can be so overwhelming for dogs – to the point that instead of learning proper social skills they just shut down. It is much better to work on your dog’s reaction to new people, dogs, etc. at a threshold where they will still be able to learn and progress.

Understand that dogs are dogs. I think the worst thing we can do for our dogs is to anthropomorphize them. This leads to all sorts of unrealistic expectations: Fluffy should like all the dogs, Fluffy should behave all day because this is fun, Fluffy should listen to me when we’re here just like at home, etc. We have to be understanding that these events are so high stress and different for most dogs that they might not act like they do normally, or they might act differently than we expect or want.

Know your/their limits. It does not help anyone to overdo it with your dog. Dogs are extremely sensitive and can go from being fine to absolutely not fine in a matter of minutes. It is essential that you stay in tune to how your dog is reacting to other dogs or people, and the minute things start getting hairy, you skedaddle (like I mentioned – don’t use these big, unstructured events as tests or “learn to deal with it” situations!).  Your dog might not necessarily need to leave all together, but a time out away from all the hubbub can really help a dog’s mentality.  Baxter behaved perfectly for over an hour at the Nationals game, and we listened to him when he told us he’d had enough. We distanced ourselves from the crowd and hung out together at a separate table. We knew that was the best way for Baxter to finish the afternoon off successfully, so we made it happen. We didn’t push him, and we ended the afternoon on a great note.

There are the lucky few out there who have dogs that are game for anything and everything. But there are also a large number of dog owners who don’t realize what they’re putting their dogs through when they bring them to these tough situations. I’m not saying your dog will never be able to attend these sort of dog friendly events, I just want dog owners to be aware of how their dogs are handling situations. That makes for a happier and safer environment for everyone, and who doesn’t want that?

Instead of these large scale events, I am always a supporter of smaller ones that are more controlled, like B-More Dog’s walks where the dogs aren’t allowed to meet each other, and Pittie Trails where we work specifically on skills around other people and dogs. I like to live a life of always setting my dogs up for success!

15 thoughts on “Taking Your Dog to Public Events

  1. Teresa

    I wish we could take Fozzy to stuff sometimes but he gets too stressed out. So when he’s stressed out we stress out so it’s safer for all involved that he stays home and is happy. I don’t like putting him in an uncomfortable situation. He’s just the type of dog that loves his home and that’s it. I applaud people who can have a dog that enjoys things like that. Very good tips though we’ve been to events where some people just can’t control their dog then issues happen.

  2. I’ve definitely had mixed experiences with mine at big events with lots of other dogs – usually better than you’d expect because other dogs actually seem to relax Monster, but it’s the people. For instance, Monster only seemed to start to get anxious toward the end of Paws in the Park, but when I foolishly once took him downtown, not so good. Now whenever people say “Why didn’t you bring Monster?!” I just laugh. Yeah right.

    Also I wish I lived in Baxter’s family. His mommies are awesome and his siblings are adorable.

  3. Thanks for sharing this. I have often thought that as dog-related events continue to grow in popularity, there could be trouble. For all of the reasons you outline above, I was incredibly cautious with my foster dog last weekend during the festival that followed a dog-friendly 5K. We kept to ourselves, on the fringes and didn’t stay long.

  4. Thank you for this post =) It totally reassured me that I made the right decision to not sign us up for Strut Your Mutt which is being held this weekend in our city. I just don’t think that Athena is ready for so many people and dogs and I didn’t want to set her up for failure! As much as the big event sounds like a blast, it wouldn’t be much of a blast for our dog if she was majorly stressed out the whole time!

  5. Jmillsy

    Great post! We have booths at some of these larger events the SPCA march, Barcstoberfest etc. And there are a lot of great, well behaved dogs in attendance, but there are also many very stressed pups who’s owners don’t seem to notice the anxiety that their dog is experiencing and that’s when accidents happen. Always important to know your dog’s limitations and to find safe and healthy alternatives for helping them grow and expand their confidence!

  6. I haven’t tried to bring 2 of my 3 dogs to these types of events. With excitability and reactivity issues between the two, I know I would push them so far out of their comfort zone that we may have a recurrence of some issues we’ve worked really hard to get over.

    On the other hand, Hurley is a champ at these events! He gets a little barky at first but soon settles down. The key is to keep him moving and keep his eyes on me (more accurately, on my treats). I’m hoping he’s at the point, with Strut your Mutt coming up this weekend in Portland, that we can do more browsing at tables and less move, move, move.

  7. So glad you mentioned the retractable leashes! A few times we’ve been dive bombed by a crack dog whose owner couldn’t stop their leash, which could have ended badly with another dog. I’ve said “yeah, that’s why we don’t use those” as the owner tries to reel in their dog. If they ask why, I’ll say that I don’t trust the locking mechanism and don’t want rope burn trying to grab the leash. Makes it less about them. :)
    Both of our dogs love being around other dogs, but they’re nervous around new people. We definitely have to pay attention, keep them at the edge of crowds and make sure they’re not getting too stressed.

  8. I am a therapy dog handler and someone who used to volunteer full-time for a rescue group and attended many an adoption event and public event with dogs. There is no way to overestimate the importance of the message in this post. People who claim to work in animal welfare, or who care about their dogs, have got to learn to properly assess their dog’s comfort level and responsibly advocate for them. The dog comes first, not all the other folks you’re trying to impress or please.

  9. Pingback: Taking Your Dog to Public Events « willowwonderbull

  10. cj

    Thank you for such an informative post! I’ve worked so very hard with Rose to get her where she is today- I can take my chocolate boy just about anywhere, but with Rose, I’ve gone slow, slow, slow so that she always experiences success! Now I’m glad I have. Maybe we can work up to one of those; but if not, I’m happy that we can now navigate the drive-through at the bank without Rose going ballistic at the teller. :)

  11. Exceptional post. Glad to know I’m not the only one who cringes at those events. Although lately, I’ve just been avoiding them altogether. It is unbearable to watch owners who are oblivious to their dogs’ comfort level.

  12. TOTALLY. To add on to Jen’s statement, seeing the stressed dogs and the owners who don’t notice is really frustrating. It’s also hard to know when to step in and when to let it go.

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