Saturday, May 25, 2013

Preparing a Service Dog For a Disneyland Visit: Desensitizing a Dog to Costumes


Question: 


My service dog will be coming with me to Disney World in October. One thing I am worried about is how he will react to the characters. Do you have any tips on how to get him used to them so he doesn't panic or get scared? I am planning to take him to Chuck E Cheese a few times so he can get used to Chuck but I was wondering if you know of any other way I can get him used to them? 

Answer:


This is a great training task for systematic desensitization.

Get several masks (from sunglasses to the drama masks to a full face mask, and a larger whole head mask. Also get different materials (both textures and makes different sounds). Try a costume store and explain to them what you are doing or check out second -hand stores for what they may have or ask friends what they have, especially if they have kids.

If at any time, your dog shows discomfort, go back to a where he is comfortable, build a reward history again then make smaller changes the second time through. For bigger challenges, increase the value of the food. This process will probably go quite quickly if your dog is generally confident and resiliant and has no prior history of fear with similar situations.

Have many medium value treats ready. Sit down at your dog's level. Let him sniff one mask on the ground. Lift it up and reward him for looking or sniffing at it at nose level. Move it around and reward for looking at it and staying calm.

For most dogs, it is the covering of the face or eyes that freaks them out. Take it slow. Move the mask near your face (not covering your eyes), reward and move it away. When he is showing no stress signs, move it closer and then briefly pass it between your eyes and him. Reward for staying calm. Repeat several times. Now add a bit of duration with the mask blocking your eyes for a second, two seconds, three seconds etc. After about 10 seconds, put the mask on and take it off. (This may take 10 seconds) and add duration from there. When the dog is good with that, add some motion moving your head first a little side to side, them bumping up and down, then both. Next put it on and sit in a chair. Reward dog for staying calm. Move around in the chair. Stand up and repeat the process.

Repeat the whole process above with each new mask. Each one will probably go faster and faster as you will need fewer repetitions for him to become comfortable.

Next play some music loudly and dance around in the mask.

Next, desensitize to different clothing sounds. Again sit on the ground, have him sniff the clothing. Hold it in your hands and move it around, rub it against itself, other material etc. Sit in chair and repeat. Stand and repeat. Drape the material over you.

Now put the mask and the costume together.

Next play some music loudly and dance around in the mask.

Repeat with a friend holding and then wearing the masks. Then wearing the costume. Then both. Add music.
Repeat with someone the dog is not very familiar with.

Now arrange to meet a costumed friend somewhere away from home and see the dog's reaction.

Practice having the dog pose for photos with you and the costumed character as this is a common event for most people. The more you can prepare for these types of situations that you may do while there, the more unflappable your dog will be.  Do remember that every dog has his or her limits so do give the dog several quiet and relaxing breaks throughout the day as well as an opportunity to do fun exercise (like ball chasing) or other game to get rid of stress.

I would do all this before going to Chuck E Cheese. Don't forget to take a photo.

There is one more key element when the dog is at Chuck E Cheese or even Disney World. Try to avoid the element of surprise where the dog feels cornered by the costumed people. Always be aware of where they are (not paranoid, just generally aware) to be able to place you the dog to see the costume as it approaches. This is especially important the first day or two while the dog is acclimating to the environment.

We would love to see some photos of you and your dog at Disney World!

Good luck!