For most of the organization’s history, Patriot Service Dogs has made an annual training trip to Disney World. Because we are based in Central Florida, Disney is an easy location for our trainers to convene. In 2020, we skipped the trip due to health concerns, but this year, we are restarting the tradition! Julie Sanderson, PSD President will be leading a team of former inmate-trainers and weekend-raisers with a collection of our older dogs in training (sorry puppies, you’ll have to wait your turns).
At first, the Disney trip often sounds like a getaway for the trainers, but it really is more like a boot-camp for the dogs. So, before we load up the dogs, vests and Mickey ears ready, we are taking a moment to explain the trip and training that goes on in more detail.
All aboard? Let’s go!
Do the Dogs Really Need to Meet Mickey Mouse?
Is it critical for a service dog to meet Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, and Goofy before placing with their veteran? Not exactly, but the environment of Disney World provides excellent training opportunities. We usually divide the Disney trip into two days--the Transportation Day and Park Day--both allow us to test the dogs’ training and expose them to situations they may not otherwise encounter in their two years of training.
Many visitors' least favorite part of Disney World is getting to and from the parks, hotels, and endless parking lots, but we spend a whole day outside the Magic Kingdom gates riding Disney transportation. In a single day we can expose the dogs to modes of transportation they don’t often encounter in Central Florida like monorails (good stand-ins for subways), trains, and trams. We can also test them on modes they might have already tried like boats or buses. Because we don’t know what a dogs’ life will look like once they match with their veteran, we try to make sure they have experienced as many modes of transportation as possible.
Put yourself in the dogs’ shoes, or paws, and imagine the difference between riding in the back of a car and taking a train, tram, or monorail. In a car, you jump in and find yourself tucked into a back seat or kennel with familiar people sitting in front of you. You may or may not like their musical choices, but there are rarely unexpected sounds. In a train, tram, or monorail, you step with your person over a gap in the ground and onto what looks like another floor, until a loud whistle blows and that ground starts to move. This moving floor thing is wide open and makes stops where strangers get on and off. You have to figure out how to balance, ignore the children pulling to pet you, and stay focused on your person. It’s a very different experience for a dog! A weekend at Disney world gives PSD the opportunity to expose the dogs to a wide variety of transportation methods and to work through any hesitancy they may have.
PSD is not so cruel that we ask our dogs and trainers to walk up to the gates of the Magic Kingdom and tell them they cannot go inside. Our training trips usually include one Park Day. Most years we have planned the trip to align with one of Disney’s evening holiday celebrations like Disney’s Not So Scary Halloween or Very Merry Christmas. These events require special tickets, so the park is less crowded and they start in the evening which means it’s not so hot for the dogs. This year, we will be attending the Not So Scary event!
Inside the park, the dogs are again exposed to things they’ve likely never seen, like an eight-foot-tall mouse in a suit and gloves. And while it isn’t important that they have met Mickey, it is important that they have the confidence and training to encounter something or someone unusual without breaking their training. The veterans who are matched with our dogs live in the world with their families and they might go to a sporting event and see a mascot or take their children trick or treating in costume, or buy a car from a dealership with those weird, inflatable tube men who flop around. We can’t have our dogs disrupt those situations by pulling away or barking, so they need to see that strange things appear in the world and learn to stay focused.
The park also tests skills the dogs have been practicing, like “leave it” when the floor is covered in kettle corn, “load” onto the boat at It’s A Small World, and “make a friend” with a princess. We can’t promise no dog has ever tried kettle corn, but we can promise that they all have princess friends.
What It’s Like Doing Disney With a Dog:
As dog lovers, many of us have imagined taking our own dogs to Disney World. Wouldn’t the photos be adorable? Yes, they probably would, but even with service dogs, it’s a different experience.
Beyond the wait time for Space Mountain or getting a good spot for the parade, when we have the dogs with us, our number one concern is heat. Going to the special evening events like Not So Scary or Very Merry Christmas allows us to spend time in the park while missing the brutal afternoon hours of the day, but many years, it’s still been warm in the evenings. And anyone who has been to Disney knows how much work it is; it’s a lot of walking on asphalt at any time of day. We are constantly checking the temperature of the floor and strategically plan breaks inside air conditioning.
For their own safety, service dogs also can’t go on every ride. Any ride with single person seats, like Space Mountain or the Astro Orbiter are a no-go for service dogs. We also don’t do roller coasters like Thunder Mountain or Barnstormer. And we definitely don’t do the Teacups. Instead, we stick to the gentler rides with room for the dogs to sit like It’s A Small World. We do take the most confident dogs on Pirate of the Caribbean. That way, they get to experience a little bit of an adrenaline rush with the small drop at the beginning of the ride and some exciting action scenes! Usually, they are so exhausted, they just fall asleep.
Luckily, Disney is pretty service-dog-savvy. They have designated potty areas and the cast members are usually very welcoming. Over the years, we’ve taken amazing pictures with the characters and we’ve even had a dog “accidentally” take a stuffed animal off a shelf and be given it as a gift by the cast member.
The Disney trip became a PSD tradition for a reason, it’s great for training and it’s great for our human community. Training service dogs is a ton of work--it requires our raisers to dedicate their time and their hearts when they know they won’t get to keep the product of all that effort. To continuously return and restart that process with a new puppy is a lot for an organization to ask of volunteers, so we treasure opportunities when our community can come together and work as a team--and we won’t complain if Cinderella’s castle is in the background.