Training Service Dogs at Universal Studios

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

Service Dogs in Training

We’re settling into a routine, trying to fit in a big-outing Public Access training with our Service Dogs in Training every week or two. We try to fit in small-outing Public Access training almost every day, which might be an hour of grocery shopping or 10-15 minutes popping into a store or a mall. For our big-outings, theme parks are really convenient, and today we went to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. That’s largely because we live about an hour and a half away from Orlando/Kissimmee and have Florida resident annual passes, which includes free parking. Otherwise, this would be cost prohibitive. Since it’s not, theme parks mean we have dependable access to crowds (and because of the pandemic these crowds are manageable, which makes training easier), loud noises (including triggers like fireworks, gun shots, thunder, and wild animals roaring – even if they’re mostly fake), year-round inside/outside casual/fine dining, food dropped on the sidewalk (for practicing “leave it”), endless public restrooms, other dogs (notably only those who are also well trained so we can practice ignoring other dogs), lots of forms of public transportation (dogs don’t differentiate between a real train and the Hogwarts Express), elevators/moving sidewalks/escalators/stairs, public crates, and endless flooring changes, door styles, and corridors. We’re clearly not alone in this choice because one park employee told us that we were her third group with Service Dogs in Training today.

service dogs at universal studios
Service Dogs in Training at Universal

Generalization stage for training service dogs – Green Eggs and Ham

This wide array of distractions, temptations, and triggers (oh my!) is perfect for the stage of Public Access training that we’re in with our Service Dogs in Training, Pumpkin and Phin. We’re past the acquisition and automatization stages – they know their commands and are pretty consistent with them in a controlled and familiar environment. Now we’re in the generalization stage or what some trainers call (fittingly and thematically for this particular blog post) the Green Eggs and Ham approach to generalization. Dogs don’t generalize as well as humans, so just because a dog heels and sits well on a sunny day doesn’t mean they will do so on a rainy day. Just because they maintain their down-stay for three minutes in your living room doesn’t mean they will do so on the ET ride’s bikes. We use this approach diagnostically to identify what our dogs still need to work on, that perhaps never even occurred to us before because it hadn’t come up, like a 40 foot animatronic gorilla. So throughout the day we asked ourselves:

  • Will they do it on a train? (The Hogwart’s Express.)
  • Will they do it in the rain? (It started to drizzle toward the end of the day.)
  • Will they do it while children pet? (A family with three young children crawled all over them.)
  • Will they do it under a net? (The Cat in the Hat ride has a net that goes over the dog.)
  • Will they do it while they spin? (The Spiderman car spins.)
  • Will they do it while within? (Every building is a new environment.)
  • Will they do it while it’s loud? (You don’t realize how loud a ride is until you are on it with a dog.)
  • Will they do it in a crowd? (Sometimes the bottlenecks cause tight walking spaces.)

I could go on and on but I’d drive everyone crazy and I’ve made my point.

Phin say cheese
Phin say “cheese”!

Lesson plan for training service dogs

As always I had a “lesson plan” going in and as always I knew that was subject to change. My initial goals had been building on previous experiences: at least one dark ride, at least one shared crate, at least one meal at a table, at least three public bathrooms, and adding some new experiences: at least one show in a theatre-type environment, and possibly the moving walkway from the parking garage into City Walk. I had already asterisked this in my mind because escalators and moving sidewalks are a bit of a debate in the industry and I’m not sure yet where I stand. I’m hoping Pumpkin will lead the way and I can just “trust the dog”. As it happened, we did have success with the moving sidewalks but by the time we got to the shows we wanted to see, we had missed the last performances so we’ll save that for another trip. We also rode so many dark rides (with much more success than on previous trips) that we didn’t take the time for any crate rides.

Moving Sidewalks with Service Dogs

service dog on moving walkway
Pumpkin walking and Phin sitting on the moving sidewalk at Universal.
dog exiting moving sidewalk
Pumpkin walked off the moving sidewalk easily.

After the long drive in during which Phin did not vomit (!), we stopped to use the restroom at a fast food restaurant (and their grass outside) so that we didn’t hit the park all needing to go when we knew our first challenge, the moving sidewalk, would be before any of us had the chance to relieve ourselves. That strategy worked well for us. Upon leaving the car with Service Dog in Training vests and necessary equipment, we encountered the temperature check and then immediately our first moving sidewalk. Luckily, it was afternoon and the crowds weren’t pouring into the park so there weren’t many other guests around and none of them were hurrying to rush into the park. Dan hung back with Phin while I let Pumpkin approach the moving sidewalk and investigate it. I was waiting to see what she would do and was prepared to just walk away from it and around it to security. I was impressed that even though she dropped down to her almost-army-crawl, she kept creeping forward even though I wasn’t encouraging that with words or movement. Since she didn’t pull back or turn to leave, and even put out her paw to touch the moving floor, I decided one of us was going to need to commit so I stepped on, which meant she got a little tug to pull her over the threshold. It actually took very little and I was pleasantly surprised at the lack of drama. Dan had a similar experience with Phin needing just a little tug at the last moment and then both dogs sat and rode it to the end. Pumpkin was a bit shaky and panting, which is normal when she’s experiencing something new, but wasn’t bolting. I asked her to heel as we approached the end, in order to get her on her feet, and she instinctively added a little hop at the exit, where there was absolutely no drama. 

Security with Service Dogs

Next we approached security. At Disney, I hadn’t been asked about the dogs but at Universal, a guard who was clearly still training asked, “Are they Service Dogs?” and I said, “Yes, they’re Service Dogs in Training.” He followed with the expected, “What tasks are they trained to do?” and I hesitated a bit and then said, “Well, they’re Service Dogs in Training so they are still training the tasks they will do.” He tilted his head, not unlike my dog, and looked over his shoulder where his supervisor gave a thumbs up. I smiled and thanked them both and was given a cheerful, “Have a great day!” Side note: I found the Universal park employees to be just as pleasant and helpful as the Disney cast members on our recent excursions and have not had even one unpleasant or stressful exchange with any of them.

After this, but before any park entrance, there are two more moving sidewalks in a row. I approached the first with more confidence and needed to slow as Pumpkin did and give her that last little tug but then she walked on the moving sidewalk with no show of fear at all and hopped off the end like she’d been doing it her entire life. Phin did the same. The third one is right beyond the second and this time Pumpkin didn’t even slow but just needed that little tug. Phin needed just a bit more of a tug. They both walked and hopped off and all was good.

Spiderman and the Cat in the Hat

We went into Islands of Adventure first and headed straight to The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman. After the queue, Pumpkin walked right onto the ride vehicle (a static entry) without balking at all and sat right down between my legs. What an improvement! Phin had some issues, but mostly because he wanted to follow Pumpkin and me into our row but he had been assigned to the one in front of us and Jack gave him a bit of a push from behind to speed things along. Both dogs handled the noise and rough ride very well and didn’t need any recovery time afterward. Next we went to Seuss Landing where we rode The Cat in the Hat. Again, both dogs walked right on the static entry and didn’t mind the noise or the roughness. Pumpkin investigated the net that she sat under but didn’t seem to object to it. 

Random Children Assisting our Training

After the ride, we stopped for hydration and popcorn. A nice family of tourists from Colorado stopped and the dad asked politely if their three children (I’m estimating their ages between 3 and 8) could pet the Service Dogs in Training. We welcomed the practice (especially because they were teaching their children that they must ask first) and said, “Yes, they’d love that. Give us just a minute to get them ready.” Phin was already sitting and Pumpkin was in “down” so we let them stay like that and said “make friends”. We explained to the children that the dogs must stay put but they could now approach and pet them. While we kept a close eye on the dogs’ reactions but also chatted up our nonprofit with the parents and grandmother, the children pet the dogs, stretched over the dogs, and basically treated them like their own pets. Again, it was great training and we were unsurprised but very pleased to see the dogs not mind at all.

Service Dog Relief Area

On our way out of Seuss Landing, we found the Service Dog Relief Area. We were very impressed. It was actually outside of the guest area so we enjoyed the backstage peek and it was a lovely little grassy park and was easier to use than Disney’s tiny wood chip strip. They also provided everything you could need (even though we obviously travel with our own poop bags) and had a trash can right there. (At Disney we had to carry the poop bag until we found a trash can.) It’s always a relief (pun intended) when the dogs go where/when they are invited so we don’t worry about any confusing accidents in public areas of the park. We used another area over by The Animal Actors show and it was even lovelier, like a city park and not outside the guest area but part of the California-style set. 

service dog relief area at universal
The cute little park even had poop bags and a trash can.

Hogwarts Express

After Seuss, we moved through the park to the back and got on the Hogwarts Express for the trip to the other park, Universal Studios. We took the elevator up without any fanfare. Neither dog balked at entering the train car or the cabin and didn’t notice the ride. As we left, Pumpkin walked right down the stairs but Phin balked at the top of them and took a bit of cajoling to take that first step but then he walked down them in heel just fine.

service dogs on Hogwart's Express
The whole gang riding the Hogwarts Express

Leaky Cauldron

We ate at the Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley and weren’t surprised that the dogs handled that just fine. Like public bathrooms, the dogs have enough exposure now that they just do what they’re supposed to do without nerves or breaking commanded stays. Two different servers offered us water for the dogs, which was very kind, but we declined because the standard is that service dogs should not eat or drink in a restaurant. We bring a portable water bottle/bowl with us and we give them drinks throughout the day. When we came out of the restaurant, it was drizzling and the pavement was wet but the dogs didn’t seem to notice. 


We knew by now that we had missed the last performances of the shows we wanted to see so walked to The E.T. Adventure with a bit of daring. Things were going so well that we decided to try out this dark ride we hadn’t intended to. It’s a static entry, but the ride vehicle is made to look like bicycles that take flight. The ride attendants were a bit confused about their procedures but decided that we needed to ride in two different vehicles so Pumpkin and I went first on the vehicle designed to accommodate wheelchairs so there was more room for her to lie down. They insist that they maintain the down position for the four and a half minute ride, although most rides they are allowed to sit. Phin sat in the next vehicle with Dan on one side and Jack on the other to ensure he didn’t have access to jump off but Pumpkin was on her honor. OK, not really, because I kept her leash so snug she couldn’t sit up much less jump off. This ride not only came off the ground but had some steep up and down inclines and of course loud noises. It was definitely the toughest ride of the day and I’m glad it was our last. No one was any worse for the wear once we were off. 

Starbucks Pup Cups

We headed toward the exit and used the three moving sidewalks going the other direction. Neither dog needed anything but that last little tug to get over the threshold. On the way home, we stopped to treat them both to Starbucks’ pup cups and they slept all the way home.

starbucks pup cups
Pumpkin and Phin enjoying their post-Universal pup cups from Starbucks

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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