I recently took a trip to Disney and took my service dog in-training. I knew I would be taking her with me when we booked the trip, so I scoured the internet for articles, videos, blogs, or vlogs that would help guide me in the right direction while preparing her for this big trip. Alas, I could not find much helpful information other than what to do once you are already at Disney with your service dog--mostly information on what rides they could go on, and where different relief areas are in each park....unfortunately not the helpful information I was looking for. After talking to other trainers and teams who had previously visited Disney with their service dogs, and brainstorming my own ideas, I began preparing my girl for he first Disney trip. Now that we are back, and I can proudly say all of my preparation efforts worked out wonderfully. Here is a post that covers EVERYTHING I did to prepare my service dog for this trip. My hope is that any other teams with the aspiration of going to Disney (or a theme park in general) with their dog can use this article to help your SD be as successful as possible taking on the environment of theme parks!
Preparing for Crowded Spaces
In order to prepare my service dog for crowded spaces and navigating crowds, we visited several public locations and events, including malls, local concerts, museums, college campuses, and community events. These places had an abundance of people of all ages, providing plenty of exposure to all sorts crowds, from screaming children to drunk adults. We started in less crowded spaces like malls and museums and worked our way up to the more crowded areas like concerts and community events.
Preparing for Moving Walkways, Elevators, and Escalators
Moving walkways were one of the most important things I wanted to work on. I knew we would come across moving walkways getting onto rides at Disney. I took my SDiT to the airport (the only place I could think of that had moving walkways) to teach her how to get on and off of the walkways. To teach this, I used a prong collar--I applied pressure as we stepped on and released once we were on the moving walkway. This method was recommended to me by another trainer who had little success with counterconditioning and encouragement. It worked very well for me and my SDiT shows little stress signals now when we enter and exit moving walkways. As for escalators, if I'm being honest, my dog is terrified of them and I did not put much effort into training her to use them. We tried once but it was stressful, so we placed our focus on elevators. When using elevators, I taught my service do to "cover"-- a task that has her tuck behind me. Usually this task is used for crowd control but I doubled it to work to make her comfortable in the elevator by using contact comfort.
Preparing for Rides and Long Wait Times
Preparing my girl for rides was the trickiest and hardest form of preparation I did. In order to imitate rides, we worked on riding in the car with doors open. This exercise does require two people: one to drive the car, and then you to sit with your SD. I had my fiancé drive my car while I sat in either the passenger seat or the backseat. I had my SDiT sitting at my feet while the car door stayed wide open and my fiancé drove slowly over bumps, sewer grates, and any other bumpy areas we could find to imitate any turbulence on rides. As for waiting in lines, the closest thing I could find was waiting in lines for food at food trucks and quick casual dining places like burger king, chipotle, smoothie shops, etc. My dog had the easiest time waiting in lines in the parks because it was a nice time to rest and get out of the heat. Make sure your dog can stay in a tight heel and auto-settle. A strong leave it comes in handy here as well if your dog tends to try and sniff other people.
It is also important to practice having your dog crated around other distractions outside of your home. On some rides, your dog cannot ride with you and will need to be crated. Every ride is different with the location of the crate: some have a whole private room while others are out near the loading areas for the rides. To work on this, I took my dog to another training facility owned by a friend and practice crating her while I worked in front of her with other dogs, and then left the room. I also brought chews with me when we went to the park so i could give her one to keep her occupied in the event she needed to be crated.
Preparing for Characters and People in Costume
I was lucky that when we started prep, spooky season was in full swing and there were an abundance of halloween stores and props for us to practice around. I took my fiancé with us to a halloween store one day and had him try on everything from masks to a full blown gorilla suit. Luckily my dog did not need much counterconditioning towards costumes and was generally unphased by characters, although we did not get a chance to meet any costumed characters besides Ariel while we were at Disney. If your dog is easily alarmed by people in costume, I highly recommend taking many trips to your local party store with a friend and SD to work on counterconditioning.
Preparing for Loud Sounds (rollercoasters, fireworks, etc.)
Two words: desensitization exercises. To prepare my girl for loud noises, I worked on sound desensitization. I played several different sounds on my TV at increasingly higher volumes and rewarded my dog for remaining calm. The sounds I played include rollercoaster sounds, baby crying sounds, children screaming sounds, thunder sounds, adult screaming sounds, hydraulic sound compilations, drone and buzzing sounds, and a variety firework sounds. My dog handled all the sounds very well with the exception of fireworks. Real-life fireworks were hard to imitate, since you can feel the vibrations as they pop in the air. We avoided staying at the parks late enough to see fireworks.
Preparing for Park Transportation (monorail, buses, ferry, etc.)
Luckily in my city, we have a metro rail. We rode this one day all the way to a museum and back. I used the same "cover" method as I did on elevators. This was our main way to practice using transportation. The only thing we had a hard time preparing for was the ferry to Magic Kingdom. My SDiT was definitely a little stressed going on the ferry but settled down after a little bit. I would recommend taking your dog on a boat (if you have access) and driving the boat slow. No waves and turbulence, just the rumble of the engine.
Preparing for Restaurants and Eateries
This was another more difficult one. If your dog is like mine, they are food obsessed. My SDiT used to whine at me if I wasn't feeding her (for the record, I never fed her from the table, she would just see me with food and be upset that I wouldn't give her any). I did have to reward her for staying in a down when we were in restaurants and slowly weened her off rewards in the situation. We eventually worked her up to just an auto-settle without any rewards. I would also work on a strong "leave it" command as there is almost always food or something on the ground under tables in parks. We went to Harry Potter World (not at Disney) during our trip and I was so proud when there was a piece of ham sandwich under the table that my girl did not eat. She definitely tried to sniff it a few times but after a few "leave its", she threw in the towel and auto-settled.