Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Coffeeshop Dog: First Steps

If Puppy Tao had a mission statement, it would be to help people build positive relationships with their dogs and to spend more time having adventures together.

With that in mind, I'm kicking off The Coffeeshop Dog as a series of articles about taking your dog out with you in the real world. Real world obedience requires some specific, reliable skills on the part of both the handler and the dog, but many people don't realize how attainable and realistic those skills are and how close they might be to having a nice hour on the patio of a coffeeshop with a charming, well-behaved dog between their feet. And if you don't like hanging out in the sun and nursing a coffee as much as I do, there are dozens of other places it's appropriate and fun to bring a well-behaved dog.

If you're reading this and thinking, "Maybe, I could do that with my dog," that's exactly what I'm hoping. Just be sure to set your dog up to succeed. Remember that context is everything to dogs, so if there's any shakiness in a dog's obedience, it'll come out when you bring him to a new and exciting place. And if you're thinking "My dog could never do that," then consider the possibility that if you broke things down to manageable pieces, you could build some skills together that could make sharing a turkey panini with your dog al fresco a real possibility some day.

With that in mind, a good starting point—as it is with so many dog training goals—is exercise. A dog who's had his mind challenged and his body worked out is going to have a much easier time settling down and relaxing or even dozing off in the sun. The well-behaved dogs in that first picture are still slightly damp from the four-mile hike we went on with friends just beforehand. Even though the coffeeshop is old hat for Comet and Jax, they're still high energy dogs, and I prefer to set them up to succeed each time by exercising them well beforehand whenever it's practical.

Being outdoors and off-leash for 90 minutes means they got plenty of running to tire the body and plenty of exploring to tire the mind. I think in many ways, that mental exercise is even more helpful than the physical when it comes to calming a dog down and helping him learn to settle and pay attention. A hike is the most fun, effective way for me to do that with my dogs, but if hiking's not up your alley, just be sure to find something that provides good mental stimulation, not just physical exercise.

The second step is to practice the skills your dog needs. To be well behaved on a coffeeshop patio, a dog needs to know how to walk politely on a loose leash, how to leave it, how to settle, how to greet politely, how to refrain from greeting when asked, and how to be led into a new position with a game like "touch." The handler needs to know how to keep a connection with the dog around distractions and how to represent the dog with good etiquette. Upcoming Coffeeshop Dog articles will cover these topics in more detail, but for now, remember that the practicing needs to happen in more places than just the kitchen. Like with other skills, you can teach them someplace boring, but they need to be proofed and practiced in more and more controlled contexts before you take them someplace where they must be reliable to keep you and your dog safe.

The third step is to control as many variables as possible on your first few tries so you can set your dog up to succeed. If you have more than one dog, just take one at a time with you at first. Try to find a table out of the way so there isn't somebody eating something two feet from your dog. Maybe choose a day that's a little chilly or gray, or go early or late, so you have the patio mostly or completely to yourself. The eventual goal is to be able to go whenever you please and have a mellow, charming dog, but the first visit is when you're going to find the holes in your training, and you're going to want to be able to address them effectively and without stress. Be prepared to leave if your dog gets overwhelmed, and based on what doesn't go well, make a list of things to practice for next time.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember when you're taking your dog to new places is that it is our responsibility as dog owners to be sure that our dogs don't have a negative impact on others' enjoyment of a space.  Good etiquette as a dog owner means not letting your dog greet people or other dogs without asking them first. Even if your dog is friendly and well-mannered, the other dog may be reactive, and not everybody likes dogs and wants to greet them. Good etiquette also means making sure your dog doesn't bother other people by lunging or barking. It means having your dog under a reasonable level of control at all times, and it means leaving if you don't have that control. Disruptive dogs, dogs who scare people, dogs who leave a mess, and dogs whose handlers allow them to greet without asking all result in more restrictions on dogs and their owners. Well-behaved dogs help open more spaces to more dogs. Also filed under etiquette is being sure that your dog is welcome. If you're not sure, call ahead.

One last tip to prevent disaster: don't tie your leash to a table, and if you tie it to your chair, don't get up without untying it first. If your dog moves while tied to patio furniture, he's likely to drag it or knock it over. That sound and motion can be scary, which can cause your dog to try to get away from it, and suddenly he's trying to flee a banging, scraping piece of furniture he's dragging behind him. It can cause a huge mess and traumatize or even injure the dog, so hold the leash in your hand, step on it with your foot, or secure it to something the dog cannot drag.

I've really loved finding more and more ways to integrate my dogs into my adventures out and about. We're lucky to live in an area with lots of dog-friendly areas, and it's a common sight to see people with well-behaved dogs on cafe terraces and other public spaces. I'd love to see even more dogs with even better manners, and I think it's a really realistic goal for most dogs and their owners to be able to spend these hours together, sharing a biscotti and some sunshine.


  1. So excited to see this post. I have a 4 month golden retreiver that I am training. I took her last week to our local community center, we watched a short tennis match and took a short walk on the trails and around the building. She was very excited and I saw lots of "holes" in my training. She is perfect in the kitchen, as you said. So I am really in need of some tips, I want a coffe house dog very badly. Thanks for your help

    Maggie's mom in SC

  2. I'm glad you liked it! It sounds like you guys are on a really good track already with the socializing you're doing. And thanks for the ideas of what to focus on in upcoming articles.