Training to Make Outings to Dog-Friendly Patios More Successful

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dog-friendly patios can be successfully navigated with your dog with preparation and practice

With practice and preparation many dogs can be successful at dog-friendly patios and events

Summer is here!  Along with warmer weather and longer days, there is also the abundance of dog-friendly patios that are open.  Milwaukee has really grown in the number of dog-friendly patios and venues that are offered, making it easier than ever to bring our canine friends with us when we go out.  One of our most popular classes this year has been our Patio prep classes, in this blog post, we will share some of our tips to have a successful and stress free outing with you and your dog.

Preparation is Key:

First of all, it's important to know that if you want to have a visit to a local beer garden, park, or dog-friendly patio, preparation is key.  Dogs thrive on predictability and consistency.  Helping your dog be able to predict what to expect at a dog-friendly patio or event helps reduce your dogs stress level.  By preparing a little ahead of time, your dog will be able to relax and enjoy the experience as much as you.

Preparation also helps you determine if your dog is going to be comfortable at an outdoor event or dog-friendly patio.  You will learn what your dogs thresholds are and be able to make a decision on whether to bring your dog or will they be more comfortable at home.  You will have tools in your pocket to be able to handle unexpected situations as well, making you more confident and relaxed.

By reducing your dogs stress level and helping them be able to predict what to expect, your dog will be more relaxed and will enjoy the experience more.  This will help to keep others safe as well.

Supplies You will Need For a Successful Trip to Dog-Friendly Patios and Events

While none of us want to have to bring a lot of extraneous items with us, having a few basic items will definitely help set you up for success.  This goes along with preparation- knowing what you will need to bring and having a game plan for unexpected situations is key.

A comfortable mat:

mat training for dogs helps them relax

Mat training is a great way to encourage relaxation while in public

Teaching your dog to relax on a mat is the first step to successful outing.  Mat work training goes by several names- relaxation station, mat work, magic carpet, etc- but the principle is the same, building a positive association with the mat that encourages your dog to relax.  We won't get into all the specifics here on how to do this, but here is a wonderful article by Sarah Dixon, CDBC in the IAABC Journal to get you started.

I wrote about the benefits of mat training when we traveled to Colorado a few years ago.  Having a reactive dog with some anxiety, I have found that mat work has been tremendously helpful for us when traveling.  We teach all of our students in our Patio prep classes to do mat work.  It helps your dog relax because they already associate the mat with a place of relaxation- similar to when you walk into a spa and begin to release tension before even receiving any services.

Choose a mat that is comfortable for your dog, but also easy to move.  You don't need to bring a dog bed or large mat, often a towel, small blanket or even a bath mat work great!  Several of our clients also choose to use a yoga mat that they cut to their dogs size!

Treats to bring to the dog-friendly patio

Just as you are going to enjoy refreshments and maybe a bite of food, your dog will also enjoy the experience more if you bring tasty treats with you.  Using treats to reinforce behaviors and emotional states you want to see like calmness, relaxation, not barking, four paws on the floor, etc, is a great way to encourage your dog to repeat them!  The fact is, what is reinforced, is repeated and for most dogs, food is the best reinforcer.  Some tips on selecting the treats to bring:

  1. Select treats that your dog will enjoy- not just their kibble.
  2. Treats should be smelly and small- consider cutting treats, we cut training treats in half or quarters.
  3. Consider how messy the treats are, if you have treats that are sticky and messy, your hands will be sticky and messy and you will be less likely to use them as reinforcement.  Instead consider cutting treats ahead of time, using freeze dried or air dried treats etc.
  4. Bring more treats than you think you may need, you can always take the extras home, but you do not want to run out

A fixed length leash and comfortable collar or harness

using a fixed length harness is safer than a retractable

We know, some of you love retractable leashes, but a dog-friendly patio or event is not the place to use them.  To ensure the safety of your dog and others, we recommend using a leash that is fixed in length (typically 6-8ft long).  This allows your dog to comfortably relax and change positions but does not allow them to wander up to other dogs or people when you are distracted.  Remember, not every dog at a dog-friendly patio is dog social.  Some dogs are able to relax and hang out with their humans, but they have no interest in meeting other dogs or people; so, be courteous and keep your dog close to you!

Harnesses and collars should be well fitted but comfortable.  Not too tight, but also not so loose that your dog can slip out.


Tips for a successful dog-friendly patio outing:

There are a few things you can do ahead of time to help your dog be comfortable.  We already talked about mat work, and that is one of the first things you should teach your dog.  We believe that every dog should know mat work. At Canine-Einstein, we also use a variety of pattern games.  Pattern games help dogs relax by being predictable and fun for them.  Below our best tips that we share with every client in our patio classes.

  • Spend the time to help your dog learn to relax on their mat and bring it with you
  • Bring plenty of tasty treats- also bring a variety
  • Use pattern games to help your dog relax and to navigate situations that are harder for them.
  • Start small and build up slowly
  • Remember to advocate for your dog
  • Have fun

Pattern games and other items to know at dog-friendly patios:

Pattern games work by creating patterns that your dog can reliably predict and participate in.  They are easy to learn and provide your dog with the comfort of the familiar- remember dogs thrive on consistency and predictability.  Dog-friendly patios and events are fun, but they tend to not be predictable. Bringing pattern games on the road with you offers your dog something that is predictable and familiar.  Practice the games at home before taking them to a patio.

  • Up/Down: simply drop a treat on the ground, when your dog eats it (down), wait for them to look at you (Up), then mark and drop another treat.  Do this a few times to help build focus on you and to help your dogs brain slow down a bit.
  • Get It: Use this pattern game if there is more space and your dog needs to move a bit.  Say "get it" and toss a treat 2-3 feet away. Be aware of other dogs/people when doing this game.
  • Ready?: For this, simply say "Ready?" and toss a treat in the air.  Your dog can catch it and you can repeat it.

There are many more pattern games you can use, but this a good start!  In addition to pattern games, teaching your dog to politely greet other dogs and people is a must.  Your dog should be able to politely approach other dogs and people without pulling or jumping.  It is important to teach your dog to focus on you and to be calm as others pass by.

Some dog-friendly patios allow dogs to sit on chairs at the table, others do not. Know what the expectations are before you go.  For example, we often train dogs to do 2 paws up on an item.  Our clients will then give their dog a cue of "Paws up" or "Spot" and the dog can put their front paws on the counter.  This trick requires a dog to focus, helps them to get desired attention and is novel for them.

Agency, Advocacy and Body Language:

allow dogs to greet only if every dog is comfortableOne thing that every one of us at Canine Einstein stresses is the importance of agency, advocacy and body language. Honor what your dog is telling you through their body language.  By doing so, you build a stronger bond with your dog and begin to have overall better experiences with them!  Your dog will grow in confidence and often will be more relaxed as they learn that they can count on you to meet their needs.

Agency at dog-friendly patios:

Agency is the ability to have some control over your environment and the ability to make decisions that result in a desirable outcome.  Giving our dogs agency is key to building a strong relationship with them!  Dogs are sentient beings, not robots or toys.  They have preferences, feelings,  thoughts, emotions  and want to have some control.  Far too often, well meaning dog guardians will control every aspect of an experience for the dog.  We tell them where to go, to sit or lie down, to wait calmly until we are ready to leave.  We expect our dogs to be perfectly well behaved without stopping to consider what is that they want.

Some dogs want to move to the edge of the patio, or away from the crowd, others want to be right in the center of the action.  Some dogs will want to be approached and petted, others will not.  Allow your dog to tell you what they want and give it them as often as possible. We are not suggesting that you should not have any expectations for your dog and that your dog should be allowed to do whatever they want; none of us can do whatever we want whenever we want to. We are saying that the more control your dog can have in the situation, the more comfortable and happy they will be.

Advocacy at dog-friendly patios:

As we mentioned, not every dog is social. Some have very small social bubbles, and that is ok.  Learn to advocate for your dog.  If your dog does not like being pet, or approached, learn to get comfortable telling people no.  If you have a dog who needs more space, move to a spot where they can have more space and ask others to respect that by not sitting too closely.

One of the best ways you can advocate for your dog is to learn their body language and be prepared to leave the patio if your dog is getting stressed or overstimulated.  telling your friends you need to leave to take your dog home may not be easy, but it is huge to your dog who may be struggling.  While we are on advocacy, this is something that needs to happen every day- one day your dog may be relaxed and do great at a patio,  the next day they may be feeling less social and that is ok. Advocating for your dog means, if they are having an off day, leave them at home and do not put them in a situation to fail.


The importance of body language:

understanding your dogs body language is key to success

knowing your dogs body language helps set you both up for success at dog-friendly patios and events.

Learning your dogs body language is so important to give them agency and in advocating for them.  While there are generalities that we teach all owners about dog body language, each dog is a separate being and getting in tune with your dogs language will help you understand them better.  Start by learning the basics of dog body language from a reputable source, then focus and pay attention to your dog.

Try to notice how they react when they are nervous, playful, relaxed or unsure.  If you have a dog that is reactive, what signs do they give you just before reacting? Is it a hard stare? A lean forward? Raised hackles? These cues are essential for success in everyday life, but especially on dog-friendly patios, where the margin for error is small.  If you learn that your dog paces when they are getting restless, and your dog starts to pace when you are at the patio, you can help them by removing them and going for a short walk.  If you see your dog body language is relaxed and calm, you can feel comfortable staying for a second cocktail.

Dogs communicate through their body language, some are obvious like a loose wiggly tail wag, others are more subtle like a tight lip when stressed.  I often share with students in our classes that my personal dog will give a hard stare for 2-3 seconds and tightens a lip on one side of his mouth before he reacts.  His signs are subtle when he is unsure and it took us a long time to learn them, but now, I focus on him and look for those when we are out.  I know that when he is relaxed, he will lay on his side and happily watch the world go by. If he is sitting or changing position often, we leave because we have learned that he is nearing his threshold.

Taking the time to learn the intricacies of  your dogs personal body language and how they express their feelings will create a stronger bond and better allow you to advocate for your dog or allow them the privilege of agency.


In Summary:

With Summer here and the warmer days getting longer, dog-friendly patios are a great way to spend a balmy summer evening.  However, it does require some preparation before going to maximize success.  Teaching your dog to relax on a mat, bringing the needed supplies and using games can all help.  No dog-friendly patio outing will be successful for you and your dog without considering agency, body language and advocating for your dog.

If you need help learning your dogs body language, reach out to a positive reinforcement trainer for guidance.  We are all happy to help clients and are more than willing to share our observations and knowledge with pet guardians who are looking to do the best for their pets.  Most of all, remember to have fun with your dog whether you are at a dog-friendly patio or doing another activity!


Our first patio class students at Salty Paws showing off their skills!