Sometimes There Are Less Successful Dog Training Moments

by Zan Raynor, certified dog trainer and CEO of ELLAS Animals INC

We’ve been slowly working our way through the Disney and Universal theme parks in Florida as we do Public Access training with our Service Dogs in Training and we have gone to all of them except Magic Kingdom because we were working our way up to this, what we consider the more challenging park. We went to Magic Kingdom this week to tackle a park with tighter “bottlenecks” that make the crowds feel larger even if the numbers aren’t much different. It’s also an older park with a more dated infrastructure so we anticipated it providing more challenges. As a whole, the day was something of a mixed bag, with some notable successes and some less successful dog training moments. I feel it’s important to document both, because if you’re training a dog, some days are going to be better than others and you have to keep your confidence up that good training comes around as a success in the end. When you’re a Service Dog trainer, you’re playing the long game.

less successful dog training
Standing in queues has never been a challenge for our dogs and it’s nice to have a guaranteed success on a day like this.

Early Successes and Signs of Less Successful Dog Training Moments to Come

The first win of the day was that Phin didn’t vomit in the car during the hour and a half drive in. Actually, Phin hasn’t vomited in a few weeks and we are cautiously optimistic that we may have helped him through his car sickness and eased him into becoming a good car dog.

Even on the walk in from the parking lot, I could tell Pumpkin might have a less successful dog training day because her heel wasn’t really on point. She was walking a bit more forward than I want her to and, while not exactly pulling on the leash, at least keeping some pressure on it, while I prefer a completely loose leash.

The second win of the day was riding the Monorail from the Transportation Center to the Magic Kingdom. Both dogs walked through the automatic gates and automatic doors, right onto the vehicle without any drama. They both went into “sit” and “down” on command and rested comfortably for the trip. This success makes me feel like we’ll be able to handle any subways we meet as public transportation because the experience will be so similar and familiar to the dogs.

service dog in training disney world monorail
Phin “under” Dan’s bench on the Monorail

A Hot Mess at Haunted Mansion – definitely less successful dog training

After a water break inside the park for the dogs, our first ride was the Haunted Mansion. We knew this was going to be a challenge for the dogs because it is a dynamic ride entry – a moving sidewalk onto a moving ride vehicle. It is the first time we’re putting this together. Up to this point, we’ve only done static ride entries or moving sidewalks that we merely step on to and off of. We planned this early, while the dogs were fresh, but then wondered if we should have started off with a soft pitch instead.

The cast members directed us around the regular line and to the back accessible entrance. The pre-show in the stretching room has been unavailable since the pandemic started so we weren’t missing anything. However, as they funneled us into the main crowd, it was very dark (so dark I couldn’t see where I was going and what I was bumping into) and way too crowded with people shoulder-to-shoulder jostling each other to move forward from a clump into a single file to board the moving sidewalk. This was my least favorite aspect of theme parks before the pandemic and now it adds germophobia and existential dread to an already unpleasantly aggressive experience. Pumpkin and I were a hot mess because I couldn’t see where I was going and no one else could see that there was a dog down there that they were stepping on. Neither Pumpkin nor I could see where the moving sidewalk began moving and so we both stumbled when our feet hit it and the people in the lemming line behind us did an imitation of Keystone Cops as they bumped into us and each other. 

I found out later (because I was a bit preoccupied) that Dan and Phin experienced just the slightest balk as they stepped over the threshold of the moving sidewalk and then again just the slightest balk before stepping up into the ride vehicle. Pumpkin and I, however, continued to be a hot mess, but this time rolling down the assembly belt like a bad version of I Love Lucy and her chocolate fiasco. I commanded Pumpkin “through”, to step into the ride vehicle in front of me because I’ve learned this is more effective for her than commanding her to “follow” and dragging her behind me. She balked heavily, though, and I couldn’t get in front of her or behind her to either push or pull. You feel the time pressure strongly here because the end of the moving walkway is approaching and you know you’re going to run out of time. I decided to call an audible and change the game plan. I started to turn away from the ride vehicle so we could bail out and just step off the end and wait for Dan, Phin, and Jack to get off the ride. At the same moment, Pumpkin found her courage and stepped onto the Doom Buggy on her own. So I changed tactics again and stepped in behind her just as the opportunity was about to end. We were both a bit shaken up as the Ghost Host lowered our safety bar and we both panted our relief.

I know dogs don’t understand the scary ideas on a ride like this and she’s mostly used to the loud noises by now. Nevertheless, Pumpkin was having trouble settling down after the less successful dog training moment and I had to keep reminding her to sit. Then the darn car turned around and tipped backwards to lower us out of the attic of the mansion and into the graveyard. Pumpkin thought we were dying but settled again pretty quickly. When it was time to get off the ride, we both managed to get out of the vehicle and off of the moving sidewalk without incident, but Pumpkin’s enthusiasm to exit had her pulling on the leash and making it hard for me to walk. We definitely looked like rookies.

service dog in training magic kingdom
Sometimes you need a cute picture of a great dog to remind yourself that dog training is a marathon, not a sprint.

More Successful Crate Experiences

We took a little break after this to settle with some popcorn and soda, and water for the dogs. The next ride was the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train where the dogs would just share a crate so we thought this familiarity would award us another success. It did and it felt good to be back on track. I think it restored everyone’s confidence after the less successful dog training. 

service dog drinking water magic kingdom
Dan giving Phin a drink of water from our nifty bottle/bowl.

From this, we did Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in quick succession. I don’t like to get wet, so I kept the dogs while Dan and Jack rode Splash Mountain. Pumpkin stayed “down” quite sedately but Phin decided to let loose a bit. Although he stayed “down”, it was with some stretching and rolling and by the time he was done, he was covered in dirt and something grassy. He even rolled in something sticky that was now matted in his stomach fur. This is when a family with four children asked if they could pet the dogs. I said ok, even though I knew I was a little understaffed with two dogs and one trainer. The encounter went very well, but I was definitely aware of how disreputable Phin was looking with his dirty and sticky fur, the scab on his eyebrow from some rough yard play last week that makes him look like a bruiser, and his frayed martingale collar because the puppy, Bean, got it off him and they chewed on it together. (A new collar has been ordered but it takes a while to ship.) 

less successful dog training rest
My view of the dogs resting, before Phin started rolling around and getting dirty

Dan and Jack rejoined us and we went to the queue for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad but once again they pointed us toward the accessibility entrance. When it was our turn, I was surprised to see a much smaller crate than we have used at every other ride at every other park. The dogs did fine, but I felt a bit bad because it was really too small to share, unlike our previous experiences.

Pirates of the Caribbean

From here, we took the short walk to Pirates of the Caribbean. Both dogs walked “through” (in front of us) onto the boat and sat down. There was no drama or balking at all and it was very encouraging. Just a little over a month ago, Pumpkin went on her first ride, the Pandora boat ride at Animal Kingdom and it was a real struggle. Now here we are walking onto a similar boat like we do it all the time. That kind of progress is very encouraging. The ride itself was smooth, with both dogs relaxed and settled, even during the short drop. When passing the dog with the keys outside the dungeon cell with the pirates in it, Phin carefully checked out the animatronic pooch and just rolled his eyes at Dan.

service dog in training pirates of the caribbean
Pumpkin on Pirates of the Caribbean

Carousel of Progress

In addition to the dynamic ride entry, one of the experiences on our “lesson plan” today was watching a show. The dogs haven’t really had a theatre experience as such and a 20 minute show is an easy step to get started. Boarding the Carousel of Progress was no problem and neither was “down” between the rows. Pumpkin was on alert when the theatre started moving but she didn’t get up or get worried. She also raised her head every time the animatronic dog barked (which happens much more often than I remembered!) but neither dog barked or got up, so that was a definite win. 

service dogs in theatre
Phin “under” Dan’s theatre seat at the Carousel of Progress
theatre service dog in training
“Hey, did you hear that dog bark or was it my imagination?”

Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin – another less successful dog training moment (at least for Phin)

Our last ride of the day was Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin. It is another dynamic ride entry and after the Haunted Mansion fiasco, I was feeling some stress as we approached. Pumpkin didn’t even balk at the beginning of the moving sidewalk and stepped on by herself without even the tiny tug on the leash. Then I commanded “through”, thinking to myself “right – as if”, but she stepped right onto the vehicle without any balking and I stepped in behind her. She sat for the ride without moving or panting at all and it was a pleasant experience for all. Except for Phin, whom I found out later had experienced his own less successful dog training moment. According to Dan, while Pumpkin and I were performing like pros, Phin was balking at the moving sidewalk, then at the vehicle, then tried to turn and leave, and Dan had to give him a strong pull to get him on the ride vehicle in time. Phin rode the ride just fine, though, bringing balance back to our day of ups and downs.

service dog riding buzz lightyear
Pumpkin riding Buzz Lightyear

Service Dog Relief Areas

We were in the park for about 6 and a half hours so we did periodic water and potty breaks. Early in the day, we went searching for the Service Dog Relief Area near the Hall of Presidents in Liberty Square and found it, laughing at the tiny little patch of grass and joking about how it was too small for Pumpkin to turn around in. Honestly, these are really hard to find. They are marked on the maps, but in such a vague way you have to search for a needle in a haystack. Also, the cast members never seem to know where they are, which may reflect a pattern we’ve noticed of them getting moved from time to time as well as the fact that the signs designating them are so small that you can walk right by them over and over without seeing them, even when you’re looking for them.

Later we looked for the one by Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and couldn’t find it so we used a patch of grass we found. I do very much appreciate that Disney makes it clear it’s fine to use anything you find rather than insisting you use the designated areas. We had the same problem back in Tomorrowland. This time, however, when Pumpkin and I stepped into a ground-level planter, we were surprised that it actually went much lower than ground level and the plants were as tall as Pumpkin and past my knees. Pumpkin didn’t care and went poop, but then I had to dig around in the deep bushes looking for the treasure to pick it up in the plastic bag and I was once again thinking that the day was marked with successes and less successful dog training moments like this. 

service dog relief area less successful dog training
Can you see Phin’s head sticking up above the deep vegetation?

Public Bathrooms

While I’m detailing successes, I’d be remiss to not mention public bathrooms. They were never a challenge for Phin, but they were a huge challenge for Pumpkin. Not any more. We used at least 4 throughout the day and we are now a well-oiled and dependable machine.

Dinner at Bahama Breeze

By the time we got back to the car, we were all exhausted and a little high strung from the day of highs and lows. Our lesson plan had one more item, which was a full length meal under a restaurant table. We chose Bahama Breeze to treat ourselves. The dogs both went “under” and settled well. Phin even stayed looking proper rather than stretching and sprawling like a teenage boy as he sometimes does. We even earned the coveted “I didn’t even realize there were dogs under there” award.

starbucks pup cups for service dogs
Jack held Pumpkin’s pup cup and I held Phin’s

After dinner, the dogs got their hard-earned Starbucks pup cups for the ride home. Once at home, both dogs collapsed in utter exhaustion, as did the humans, all sharing the couches in the living room while watching an old episode of The Good Wife to unwind, because murder charges are nothing compared to Public Access training at a theme park.

tired working dog
Phin crashed at the end of the day!
less successful dog training tongue out
Look at that tongue!

If you think you might want to Join Our Cause, please check out our opportunities for fostering puppies, training dogs, and donating to our nonprofit, ELLAS Animals INC, which supports a network of volunteer trainers developing rescue dogs into Service Dogs, Emotional Support Animals, and Therapy Dogs.

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.

Nothing in ELLAS Animals INC’s website or blog is intended as medical, legal, or financial advice. We receive no compensation for recommendations or reviews.

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