Lately I’ve been looking for more opportunities to relax and unwind. (Or at least that’s what my therapist, husband and basically everybody who knows me have suggested.) So naturally, I thought it was a fabulous idea to take Peaches to the Karen Pryor Clicker Expo in Dearborn, Michigan last week. Because taking a sensitive, inherently fearful dog to a large, sensory-intense hotel with hundreds of people, 150 other dogs and one small horse is a very zen-like activity (insert hysterical dog owner laughter here).
Most folks who know me though, and who know Peaches and her story, know that I am ridiculously concerned with my dog’s comfort and care at all times, almost to a fault. Well, not even almost. And I don’t do things that are likely to cause her more discomfort than pleasure. And so last Thursday, the night before the expo started, I found myself obsessively weighing the pros and cons of taking Peach to the event.
- Taking her to the event and spending the night at the hotel would be a great bonding experience for us.
- Peaches is highly people-motivated and getting to go hang out with hundreds of dog-savvy people eager to say hello would be quite a treat for her.
- It’s a great training opportunity in a safe, supportive environment.
- It’s 40 minutes away from home. Worst case scenario, it doesn’t go well and dad has to come pick her up.
- All of my friends coming into town who expect to meet her won’t be mad at me.
- Peaches gets to sleep in her first hotel bed.
- She might not enter the hotel because the entrance is scary, and we have to go home.
- She might not cross the lobby because the floors are scary, and we have to go home.
- She might not get in the elevator because sitting in a moving glass box is scary, and we have to go home.
- She might not do well in the session rooms because loud speakers and microphone feedback are scary, and we have to go home.
- She might revert to her old submissive peeing habits when seeing other dogs and having pee-stained carpet damage added to my hotel bill is scary, and we have to go home.
- She might fear bark at noises in the hallway when left in the hotel room while I’m at the bar, and interrupting mommy’s cocktail hour is scary, and Peach has to go home.
In all seriousness though, I had three primary concerns about her attending: 1) The elevators. Peach has been in elevators before because it was part of therapy dog training and work at the hospital. But it’s been a couple years since she’s been in one and I had a feeling that the hotel elevators would be more than she was used to; 2) I was a wee bit concerned that she might be overwhelmed with all the other dogs and might submit and pee if another dog rushed her at any point; and 3) I was pretty confident she’d bark at noises in the hallway if I left her in the room while we weren’t there.
As it turned out, the elevators were the only legitimate problem. She got in them twice on that first morning–once because she followed friendly people in not knowing where she was going. And then again when she followed a dog in, forgetting where she was going. But by the third time she was on to me and she hit the brakes before we could even get close enough to push the button. So after I allowed her to flee from the crime scene (aka the mobile chambers of death), I found myself on a grassy knoll outside the hotel letting her sniff her anxiety away while I considered the very real possibility that we’d be sleeping in the lobby or the car because we couldn’t get back up to our fourth floor hotel room.
At lunch time, with the help of my band of merry, sympathetic, dog-devoted friends and another, less anxiety-prone, dog, we coaxed Peach into the staff stairwell and took the stairs up to our room. Once in the room, she milled around with her doggy roommate for a bit and then happily took a Kong. Success.
Sadly, our attempts to return to the stairwell later in the day were met with Peach perplexity as well, and I ended up just having to hold my big 50 pound baby in the elevator whenever we had to go to or from our room. (So glad I went to Pilates class last week.)
Despite the trials and tribulations of traversing different floors of the hotel, Expo with Peach was a blast. She gave me no signs of distress other than in the elevators and when within ear shot of the bone-chilling screech of the coffee counter’s espresso machine, and she recovered quickly after each event. She happily moved in and out of different sessions and to and from our room. She had no problem just chilling out during presentations while I popped her the occasional treat, and she even made a brief appearance at the hotel bar.
She hugged new friends, and said hello to familiar faces. She sat on new laps. She perused the treat and toy tables at the expo store and took home more than a few goodies. She discovered the magic of freeze-dried bison treats. And she happily passed out butt-to-butt with her new buddy, Turbo on the hotel bed at night. (Don’t tell hotel management.)
And, perhaps most importantly, I took her home at the end of Day 2 and was smart enough to let her stay home and rest rather than drag her back for Day 3.
I am an imperfect dog owner–to say the least. I get frustrated with my dogs and get overwhelmed with the need to provide them with adequate exercise, care and enrichment on a regular basis. There are plenty of days when none of my four dogs get walked and they eat their food out of bowls (god forbid!) and that’s just the way it goes.
But, one of my greatest sources of pride as a dog owner has always been my commitment to making smart choices about my dog’s welfare, particularly when it comes to things like therapy dog visits and attending events. And that’s why, as much as I would’ve loved to bring Peach back for the last day of the Expo, I knew it wasn’t good for her. Two days at an event like that is a lot to ask of a dog, any dog, and deciding to bring her that day would’ve been a poor choice.
And sure enough, Day 3 of the Expo proved to be the breaking point for most of the dogs in attendance. All those fabulously quiet, content and relaxed pups who successfully attended on Friday and Saturday were frustrated and spent come Sunday. There were frequent moments of dog-dog reactivity, vocalizations and stress signals sprinkled throughout the hallways and session rooms that day. I even sat in on a wonderful session on training frustrated dogs and watched another attendee in front of me ignore the actual presentation because she was so distracted by her own very frustrated dog who probably should’ve just been left in the hotel room to rest that morning.
So, returning to some pros and cons, here are a few of the pros and cons to attending Clicker Expo with your own dog, for those who are considering it in the future:
- Safe training space. If you have a well-trained and well-socialized dog who enjoys working, settling and being in the company of other people and animals for long periods of time, Expo is a fabulous chance to bond with your dog in a safe, supportive environment with like-minded dog folks who are equally happy to offer you a helping hand or give you and your dog space when needed.
- Bitchin’ presenters. There are some fabulous speakers and trainers who present each year. Highlights for me were Emily Larlham‘s Trick Training and Frustrated Dogs presentations (I think I actually squealed with delight when Emily showed the videos of how she taught her two dogs to stand up and hug each other on command), Irith Bloom‘s talks on the Power of Choice, Kathy Sdao‘s presentation on older dogs and Susan Friedman‘s Critical Client Conversation Skills session (this last one is worthy of a blog post of its own).
- Looking normal. At Clicker Expo, you’re almost guaranteed to not be the craziest dog person there. It’s a great opportunity to feel normal in comparison to those around you, or at the very least feel like you’re among “your people.”
- Cheap Kong toys. The Expo store had majorly discounted Kong items. We stocked up.
- Friendly people. Everybody is thrilled to see you and your dog.
- Drinks. Dog people love a good cocktail hour.
- Cost. It ain’t cheap. My biggest beef with Clicker Expo is that it’s totally cost-prohibitive when you factor in the hefty registration fee, the hotel room (keep in mind you’ll probably have to pay for extra nights if you want to use the room for your dog before check-in or after check-out) and food. I was lucky enough to live just 40-minutes away from the venue. Any additional travel would make it even more costly.
- Competing priorities. If you bring your dog, you’re inevitably not going to get as much out of the sessions as you could were you not focused on managing your dog. Even if your dog is great at just settling at your feet for long periods of time, you’re still responsible for staying aware of your dog’s needs at all times, and that includes leaving sessions when your dog needs a bathroom or water break and devoting a portion of your overall attention to their physical presence and body language.
- Pee breaks. I mean for you, not the dog. Attending with people you know is kind of essential, mostly because you’ll really wish you had someone to hold your dog’s leash while you run into the restroom to pee in between sessions. (Thank goodness for texting capabilities, Katelin Thomas and Kelly Shutt Cottrell.) I saw lots of folks just taking their dogs into the restrooms with them and patiently waiting for the handicapped stall. But to be honest, none of those dogs looked too happy to be there and it seemed like a real hassle.
- Planning. Bringing a dog to Expo means you have to bring a lot of crap with you too. A crate, blankets or towels as needed, Kongs, treats, treat bag, poop bags, leashes, toys, water bowl, a mat for the session floor, food, water, Nature’s Miracle (just incase) and then all of your own crap too. In a nutshell, it can be a real pain in the ass.
If I do ever decide to attend Expo again with a dog, I’ve promised Buster Brown I’ll take him. Since those type of events are totally his jam. And since he’d happily hop in an elevator and offer up a decent Steven Tyler impression if it meant an extra hot dog or two. And since Peach is just as happy cuddling at home with Pickles as she is schmoozing with dog folks.