by Zan Raynor, certified dog trainer and CEO of ELLAS Animals INC
We took our Service Dog in Training for her first Public Access training trip to Disney World! We chose Animal Kingdom as our first park, largely because during the pandemic Disney is requiring reservations to use your annual pass tickets for admission to the park and it’s easier to get reservations for this park. It also seemed like a good choice because the crowds are lower, the paths are wider, and there is a lot more open, green space like a dog is used to.
We took one of our Service Dogs in Training, Pumpkin, a 15-month-old Great Pyrenees/Australian Cattle Dog mix, who has eased into Public Access training over the last few months after roughly six months of Foundational Obedience training. She started with 10 minute trips into pet-friendly stores like Rural King and Petsmart. She moved up to 30-60 minute trips to pet-restricted, but big and open, spaces like indoor malls and IKEA. She practiced her restaurant skills (“under” a table) at home, then at an early-morning empty food court at the mall, then at IKEA (so many different tables and chairs to practice at in the showroom where there is no food or diners!) in the showroom and in their restaurant. She was ready to graduate to a day at a theme park.
Lesson Plan for the Service Dog in Training
As always, I had a “lesson plan” for our training excursion. We were using the day largely as “diagnostic assessment” to see what she managed easily and what we will need to target with her training to improve for the next trip. Elevators are easy for her so I wasn’t worried about that and we’re not ready to work on escalators yet. Animal Kingdom doesn’t have those tricky moving sidewalks so that was on the agenda for another day. My Service Dog in Training goals for this day were public bathrooms, a ride or two with a static entry (not stepping into a moving ride car), using a crate at an attraction she was not riding but we were, and a public meal at a table. Like any good lesson plan at any level of education, this lesson plan was flexible to account for whatever we discovered about Pumpkin’s skills and comfort levels as we progressed.
Disney Cast Members with a Service Dog in Training
I need to pause here to jump to the end and give you a “spoiler”. The Disney cast members, a group of people about whom I am not typically gushing with praise, were absolutely amazing and they surpassed my expectations with both surprise and delight. I’ll touch on some of the details as I recount our day but this was worth a big shout out early in this article. Thanks to Disney for having their cast members so well-trained that they gave us a positive and truly *magical* day.
We have an accessibility pass for parking, so we didn’t need to park way out in the lot and ride the tram as our first experience of the day. We parked, dressed Pumpkin up in her Service Dog In Training vest, loaded ourselves up with a treat bag (with poopy bags tucked away inside), and walked right up to the entrance. I’m grateful that the turnstiles are a thing of the past because that makes it easier to walk in with dogs, strollers, wide hips, whatever. Once inside, we paid a visit to the Guest Services where a cast member was able to answer all of my questions, especially which attractions the dog could ride and which one would have a crate for her. I had done a lot of research before coming but I wanted this information first hand once my feet were on the ground. He was very knowledgeable and encouraging, understanding that this was not only Pumpkin’s first time as a Service Dog in Training, but also our first time bringing a dog into a Disney park.
Service Dog (in training) Relief Area
After this, we headed toward the first Service Dog relief area that was marked on the map. I had intended to find them all throughout the day but found this was a challenge. Animal Kingdom has far fewer than the other parks. The only one in the first half of the park was listed on the map but I couldn’t locate it. I went to ask a cast member who was not too far away. She apologized for not knowing where it was and asked me to wait while she went and asked her manager. She returned quickly and again apologized and explained that the manager was also confused about where it was, thinking perhaps it had been moved. Nevertheless, the cast member was very gracious about it. I already knew that Disney rules allow a Service Dog to relieve themselves on any natural ground they find, not just in the designated areas, providing the handlers leave the area clean. So that’s the approach we used for the rest of the day, although it was admittedly tough to locate a patch of natural ground that wasn’t so loaded up with vegetation that the dog could fit. When Pumpkin finally was able to relieve herself in Pandora’s wilderness, we all cheered and high-fived. The other guests probably thought we were crazy.
Public Bathrooms with a Service Dog in Training
The next challenge was relieving myself. Public bathrooms are tough. They have such threatening smells, if you’re a dog, and such loud, scary sounds (toilets flushing, doors crashing, air dryers whooshing), and so many people in tight places, and then the handler closes you into an even tighter area! We have practiced at many places (IKEA even has fake bathrooms where you can practice without the smells and sounds), and it’s getting better, but it’s still the toughest thing we do on any outing. Pumpkin is a skittish dog about new experiences. For example, a new command takes 5-10 repetitions but to overcome an established fear, Pumpkin needs 50-100 repetitions. So maybe once we have 100 public bathrooms under our belt, Pumpkin will find some peace. At any rate, we used 3 bathrooms during the 3 hours we were in the park and she survived each experience, if it wasn’t quite positive yet. After our second trip, one of the cast members on the janitorial staff followed us out and said she noticed it had been pretty tense in there and wanted us to know we could always use the family restroom if that was easier. I thought that was very kind and helpful and she handled it with panache. I explained we were using the public bathroom on purpose to overcome Pumpkin’s fears and she encouraged us in our endeavors. It was another positive interaction with a cast member.
A Service Dog in Training’s First Ride
Now that we were all more comfortable, we decided to tackle our first ride: Pandora’s Na’vi River Journey. The queue was no problem because Pumpkin’s got loads of experience with walking and waiting.
We thought this was a good choice because it’s a static entry and we anticipated that a boat would put Pumpkin at ease since she paddle boards several times a week with me. We were wrong. She balked at getting on the boat. You’ve only got so much time to load, because they’re keeping the line moving, and I can’t physically lift or push the stubborn 65 pound dog onto the boat, so we didn’t make it in time. The cast members were very kind and told us not to worry and we could try again. In fact, they suggested we move back a couple spaces to the accessibility entrance to have more space and time. It didn’t help much, but between Dan and I, we got the dog onto the boat and onto the floor (she’s not allowed to sit on the seat). She shivered through the ride, which was suddenly much louder than I remembered, but she didn’t bark or bolt. She got off with much more enthusiasm than she got on, but it took her a good 10 minutes to settle back down into the calm and reserved dog I’m used to. In retrospect, a “dark ride” may not have been the way to dip our feet into this pond.
Riding the Safari
After she had settled again, we tried another ride. This time we went for Africa’s Kilimanjaro Safaris and it was a much better experience for everyone involved. Again the queue was no problem and we were invited to use the accessibility loading area. Pumpkin walked right on that truck like it was our van. We hooked her to the built-in leash and she sat down to enjoy the ride. It was outside (not inside like a dark ride) with fresh air and a bumpy ride like her van. She felt right at home. Because Pumpkin is used to meeting manatees, flying mullets, diving pelicans, otters, dolphins, and even monkeys on her paddle board rides, she was completely unphased by giraffes, lions, and ostriches. She eventually just lay down and took a nap.
After the ride, we went to find an outside table and have a snack. This was old hat for Pumpkin by now and we felt like we should have upped the stakes with a sit down, inside restaurant.
Our last stop was Asia’s Expedition Everest. Dan doesn’t ride this because it makes him carsick but Jack, our 13 year old, loves it so I usually ride it with him since he doesn’t want to ride it alone and we don’t want dad to throw up (again). We wanted to see how Pumpkin would do with a crate that isn’t hers or in our house but we wanted a rip cord if it wasn’t going well for her. So we waited through the line and then waited some more while the cast members found a member of the janitorial staff to clean the crate after the dog right in front of us (I guess they’re not all trained on this) but they were very apologetic about the wait and it wasn’t a problem at all. I gave Pumpkin the command for entering the crate and she walked in like a pro. Jack and I rode the roller coaster while Dan stayed close enough to rescue Pumpkin if need be, but it wasn’t necessary. The crate was within 10 feet of that loud, fast coaster but she didn’t care at all. Maybe it’s all the walking we’ve done along the side of the highway in town with the big semi-trucks. By the time we got off the ride, Pumpkin was sporting a Disney “1st Visit” pin on her Service Dog In Training vest for being such a good sport. The cast members were apparently charmed by their visitor.
By this time we’d been in the park for about 3 hours and had accomplished everything on my lesson plan (some with more success than others) and we were all pleasantly exhausted from all of the new experiences. We walked back out to the van, loaded up, and drove through Starbucks as a reward for a job well done. Pumpkin is addicted to those “pup cups” with whipped cream that they hand through the window like magic. She slept all the way home.
Thanks again, Disney, for making our first theme park Public Access Training such a positive experience.
ELLAS Animals INC specializes in supporting a network of volunteer trainers to develop rescue dogs into Service Dogs, Emotional Support Animals, and Therapy Dogs. If you’re interested in exploring ways you can Join Our Cause by fostering a puppy, training a dog, or making a donation, please visit our website, ellasanimals.org.
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