Sunday, September 5, 2010

10 etiquette tips for dogs at church

In honor of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, which is now welcoming “well behaved dogs” at all services, I’m offering this blog entry on the subject of what constitutes a well behaved dog in a church setting.  This is offered with a special thanks to the spiritual community that welcomed the service dog puppies (Nika and Glenna) we raised while members at this church.

1.  Does the dog lay down and stay down despite the presence of other dogs and people, for at least 20 minutes at a time, until signaled by you to get up?  Practicing a very long down that teaches your dog to withstand boredomis important (no offense to the sermon, but staying down for so long IS boring for a dog). You can put your foot on the leash, but make sure you leave about 12” of slack so you’re not putting constant pressure on your dog’s collar.

2.  Will your dog lay in a position that minimizes the space he takes up?  If the chairs are conducive to allowing a dog to lay under them, work at home to teach your dog to go under the chair. (I don’t believe the chairs at SGN are conducive to this, though, unless the dog is kind of small).  Otherwise, you can seek out a seat before the service at the end of the aisle so your dog is not blocking people’s ability to take a seat (ie, they don’t have to step over you and your dog).

3.  Can you exit discreetly if your dog is suddenly restless, which may be a signal that he has to eliminate?  Sitting at the end of an aisle is helpful for this.

4.  Bring great treats in a fanny pack, and quietly and periodically reinforce your dog for good, calm, quiet behavior.  Reward that, and you’ll get more of it over time.

5.  Keep your dog on a very short leash at all times.  In other words, if your dog is on a 6 foot leash, don’t allow him to zoom to the end of it to greet another dog or child or person or whatever.  You lose a lot of control that way, and take up a LOT of space.  Have your dog sit and stay at your side, and if you have to, step on the leash so your dog has to stay close to you (this allows you to relax a bit, by “parking” your dog like this).  Teach your dog quiet, polite greetings, and give people a treat to give to your dog.  If your dog is laying down, encourage people to offer the treat low, at the dog’s head level, so the dog doesn’t have to pop up to get it.  Obviously, teach your dog to take treats gently.

6.  Pay attention to what your dog is doing at all times.  Don’t take this for granted.  There is a lot of beautiful, valuable stuff at SGN (or anywhere you take your dog) and if you don’t pay attention accidents can happen.  I once saw a very well-trained service dog (not mine, thank goodness) lift its leg and pee on a library bookshelf.  The owner completely missed it, and I had to alert her.  Dogs are not perfect.  So be vigilent about what’s going on – if a toddler is approaching your dog, intervene to supervise the interaction.  If it’s a quiet time in the service (like the blessing around the table before communion), stand on the periphery, where the kids won’t be tempted to play with the dog rather than pay attention to the service.  If you see a kid honing in on you, feel free to discreetly move to a different spot to discourage the interaction at the moment.  In other words, the dogs aren’t there to turn church into a dog park—they’re intended to be quiet, well mannered companions to a spiritual experience. 

7.  Tape the tags on your dog’s collar so they won’t make noise as your dog moves and shifts during the service.  If your dog is boney and won’t be comfortable laying on the floor, bring a folded-up towel for him to lay on which will help reduce his need to shift around a lot.

8.  Potty your dog before you come, and don't use the beautiful garden in the front of the building to do it.  Bring an extra baggie with you in case your dog has to eliminate-- pick it up immediately and find an outside trash can for disposal.  If you see another dog owner who needs a baggie, offer one.  If your dog is new to being in crowded settings like a church service, he may have to pee again sooner than you would normally expect, so pay close attention to his body language, and if in doubt, zip outside discretely and take care of it.

9.  Train your dog using positive-reinforcement methods, and I especially recommend clicker training.  You can discreetly click with your tongue in a church setting and it won’t be noticed.

10. Be sure to thank the staff who has created this policy of welcoming well mannered dogs to church, which is a wonderful policy.  Let’s not blow it.  Let’s make sure all the dogs have very impressive manners, manners so wonderful that if there was more room on the Dancing Saints mural, your dog would be up there, too!

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