by Zan Raynor, certified dog trainer and CEO of ELLAS Animals INC
Public Access training is always a bit more challenging than other types of training because you have to leave home to do it. That usually involves a car ride and packing of some supplies and planning around feeding and potty break schedules. You have to factor in the time to get somewhere and get back, rather than just the 15 minutes for the formal training you do at home. You’ve got the added cost of gas and sometimes parking. In order to achieve everything on your lesson plan, you have to find facilities with the obstacles you need. Do you want to work on stairs, elevators, or escalators? Do you want to work on automatic doors or revolving doors? Do you want to target specific flooring, whether tile, wood, or cement? You’ve got to find a location that has these to work with. By its very nature, Public Access training means you need other people, diverse unsuspecting bystanders including rowdy children, for it to be effective. You’re also always just a bit more tense because if training isn’t going as well as you want at home, there’s no one to see it. During Public Access training, all of your (and your dog’s) imperfections and growing pains are on display on what can sometimes be a politically-loaded stage.
Public Access Training during the Pandemic
During the pandemic, it’s gotten even harder to do Public Access training with our Service Dogs in Training. For a while nothing was open and then capacity was so limited that we felt guilty taking up valuable “head count” just to train our dogs, when we didn’t really need to purchase anything. Now that most places are open (at least in Florida) and capacity isn’t so limited that people have to wait in line outside for their turn, we still feel guilty because we’re taking unnecessary risks with our health and the health of those who live with us, including my 70-something mother. On the other hand, whether due to limited capacity or personal caution, most places aren’t crowded and that’s nice when you’re working with dogs who are new to Public Access. Training to lie under a table while the handler eats in a restaurant is much easier when the tables on either side of you are empty.
IKEA for Public Access Training
So recently IKEA has become my one-stop-shop for Public Access training. It’s the ultimate training playground, laid out so carefully for my purposes that I think of it like a military training field or a paint gun course. It has all the sections and all the challenges my dogs need and I don’t have to travel all over town to fit in my entire lesson plan. Although my closest IKEA is still quite a drive from my home, it’s worth the trip because I can fit in so much in that one place.
IKEA’s facility itself is a good fit because it’s pretty wide open. It’s nice to start in areas with plenty of space and distance between us and other guests but then we can also practice in tight spaces by going into their tiny house mockups. The floors keep changing, from cement to wood to tiles to carpets. For Pumpkin, our 15-month-old Great Pyrenees/Australian Cattle Dog, floors are a particular challenge so we can practice lots of them in one place. We also aren’t working through a line or procession so we can circle around and keep entering the challenging flooring over and over again until her comfort level increases and she doesn’t balk when we cross the threshold. IKEA also has an elevator, an escalator, wide slippery stairs, and automatic doors to practice with. The IKEA employees for the most part ignored us which is exactly what you want for your Public Access training. There are no pets allowed, so the only dogs we encountered inside were other well-trained Service Dogs, which is much different than meeting barely-controlled, loud, and aggressive dogs out on the street or in pet-friendly stores who tend to intimidate our 12-month-old Staffy/Boxer/Eskimo/Chow mix, Phin.
Tiny House Mockups
Speaking of those tiny house mockups, they are one of the best features for Public Access training because they have fake bathrooms. Public bathrooms are one of the hardest things Service Dogs face because of all those scary smells and loud noises and tight spaces. At IKEA, we can practice in bathrooms that don’t have those smells or noises. Then we can increase the challenge by using a real bathroom with the smells and noises. Then we can work on generalization by using both the upstairs and the downstairs bathrooms as well as the family and companion bathrooms. It’s like they designed this as a training course just for this purpose!
Practice Dining while Public Access Training
IKEA presents a similar progressive system for dining. First, we can practice in the showroom where they have many different styles and sizes of table and chair sets. In this showroom, there are no food smells or other diners to distract the dog. We can practice “under” at so many different tables of different heights with varying amounts of room underneath for dogs. We can practice “under” from each side and from between chairs, and all without making a spectacle of ourselves in an actual restaurant. Then, when we are ready, we can move to the IKEA restaurant, walk through the cafeteria line with all the other diners to choose and pay for our food and then walk through the forest of diners with food at tables until we get to ours, where our dogs can lie patiently for the length of a meal that isn’t as long as going into a restaurant and ordering food and waiting for it to be prepared. It’s all about stepping up gradually to set the dogs up for success.
Finally, the best Public Access training provides unexpected challenges for you and your Service Dog in Training to deal with. For us, it was the herd of children who came running and squealing through the bedroom section, jumping from bed to bed. While I may question their parents’ child rearing choices, I appreciated the opportunity to help my dogs sit calmly during the tirade, just throwing smugly superior glances in the direction of the unruly children. Similarly, we had baby strollers (and a toddler’s arm snaking out of one of them to snatch a dog’s tail), wheelchairs, shopping carts, walkers, canes, and hats (often a challenge for dogs).
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Note: We live in Florida, where state law extends the federal public access rights from the ADA to Service Dogs in Training. Click here to check the state laws where you live to see what public access rights Service Dogs in Training have before you head out to any no-pets-allowed stores or restaurants.
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