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Maybe you've always wanted to take your (sometimes anxious) dog to dog-friendly places but are nervous how your dog will behave or how to prepare to bring him/her. For many dogs, going to a cafe or restaurant may not be the ideal afternoon or relaxing evening like it is for you. It might instead bring on anxiety for dogs, or some dogs anyway.
So how do you know if going to dog-friendly public places will trigger anxiety for your dog or be the best day ever? The trick is to know your dog. Our dogs are a part of our lives and we want to include them in everything we do, but that also means knowing what's best for your dog and for some dogs that means leaving them to relax comfortably at home.
If you're looking to take your dog out in public more often, we'll recap the nine questions we discussed in our live support group in this step-by-step guide to make sure both you and your dog have a great time. To watch our full discussion and hear from other pet parents going through similar issues with similar questions as you, check out the recording above.
Not all dogs love being in a human-centric environment with strange people - and maybe other dogs they don't know - surrounded by so many anxiety triggers. (Dog parks are an example of a dog-centric activity that may or may not be a good idea for your dog. Depends on how your dog reacts to being and playing in a group. Of course, it also depends on how other pets react and how well the pet parents know and can anticipate their dogs.)
As a force-free dog trainer specializing in separation anxiety in dogs and fear-related behaviors, I know all too well the instinct to bring our dogs everywhere. In some cases, this might actually be needed management to set your dog up to succeed with home-alone training* when dealing with separation anxiety. But before you leash up your pup and bring him/her out to the nearest brewery, restaurant or cafe - let’s talk about what makes a successful "patio dog."
First, ask yourself these questions about your dog...
If you're already working on reactivity or maybe treating your dog with prescription medications like anti-anxiety medication to help with new people/dogs, noise phobias, etc., that's a good sign you don't want to subject your dog to cafe/restaurant/public happenings. At least not at this point.
Even if your dog is happy meeting new people, the optimal degree of enjoying people is neutral to good - not anxious, not too excited. A dog who is too happily excited and wants to rush every new person and dog to say hello can also cause a ruckus that can be stressful for other dogs and their people and possibly lead to a negative exchange.
Some dogs love other dogs, some dogs are indifferent to other dogs and some dogs prefer not to be around other dogs. If your dog is on the lower end of that scale of enjoying being around other dogs, you might want to avoid public places.
We're shooting for neutral to good: quietly, gently good around new dogs, no fear or stress. Too much boisterous enthusiasm isn't a good thing - no one wants even a happy dog jumping all over them or their dog.
If your dog's development on the calm co-existence front with new people or new dogs needs work, best to practice these skills elsewhere. You'll want to work in a controllable, safe space to reduce anxiety and build confidence/comfort skills before you jump into a public patio presence.
There's a lot going on in public spaces - clanging glasses and silverware, loud voices, cars going by, people walking into your dog's space, accidental physical contact - even for a dog who's not usually fearful, showing stress and generalized anxiety are not abnormal reactions. Any one or all of these elements as they layer on each other can trigger a dog's anxiety ranging from mild to severe anxiety, particularly for dogs suffering from social anxiety and other common forms of anxiety already.
First of all, resource guarding is normal for dogs - especially when stress is introduced no matter how small. The degree depends on the dog, the perceived value of the resource, and the amount of tension in any situation. Your dog may be perfectly easy-going with resources at home but not so much in an unfamiliar environment that feels tighter and unpredictable.
Think about resources your dog might be likely to have at a patio outing and might feel the need to guard: maybe a little plate of food, bowl of water, a toy, bone, bed or mat, you (yes, you!). All of these and your dog's possible reaction factor into whether your dog is ready to be a good patio dog.
If your answer to any of these questions about your dog was a hard "no," you'll want to work with a certified professional force-free trainer on these things at home with your dog first.
Next, the rest of the questions are about you and setting realistic expectations...
Succeeding in relaxing in public spaces doesn't come without pre-work on our part as pet parents for even somewhat-anxious dogs. Honestly, it takes a commitment of both time and money for quality training that supports your dog and is built on solid, science-based training to last.
Think of it like school - some kids do okay with just attending class and doing the homework, others need extra help. The same is true for dogs and their training: some will take to it quickly, others need more time and patience.
If you're not willing or able to commit to helping your dog learn the skills needed to enjoy hanging out on patios, that's okay. You can still have a great time with your dog and do other things together in less busy settings.
You might prefer that table near the entry with the great view but the corner table in the back might be the happiest, safest spot for your dog with a panoramic view for you of any approaching dogs, people, or other distractions that might trigger stress in your pup.
Know in advance that you'll be willing to pay attention to your dog and be alert to everything around you so you don't put your dog or other people at risk. For dogs, anxiety can appear quickly in unpredictable situations. Always be aware of your dog.
Commit to yourself and your dog that you'll always choose what's best for your dog and put your dog first - an easy call for the privilege of having your pup with you. That might mean leaving early, not being on your phone, or sitting away from your group of friends.
It's the responsibility of each of us as pet owners to always be watching and listening to our dogs when we're out and about (just as we would with human children) and to be ready and willing to do whatever necessary to keep our dogs feeling comfortable and safe. Including leaving friends and fun early to take our dogs home when needed.
Some dogs have a very high threshold for anxiety and can enjoy a patio much longer than most, some have moderate thresholds and may be able to stay out as long as we do but with more frequent check-ins and reassurances, still others have low thresholds and need to check in constantly or leave quickly when their stress starts to climb.
Some dogs need to start small and work up to longer patio hangs while others may do just fine going all in from the get-go. It's our job as pet parents to know what our dogs can handle, not only physically but emotionally, and adjust accordingly.
You may be at a dog-friendly place, but that doesn't mean everyone "knows" their dog. It's important to be proactive - you can't control what other people are doing, but you can anticipate, speak up for your dog, and steer clear of accidents or stresses in the making to protect your pup.
Even for people who don't have dogs with them, keep an eye out for stressors or space invasions about to happen. Not everyone knows how to behave around a dog. If someone is getting too close for your dog's comfort, politely explain that your dog needs more space. If a situation feels off or dangerous, remove yourself and your dog from it as quickly as possible.
Dogs might not be able to say in words they're feeling anxious and fearful, or that they've had enough and would love to go home, but they are always talking to us through their body language. We just need to know how to listen and hear what they're telling us.
One of my favorite, clearest visual explanations of understanding dog body language and reading dog anxiety is the work of artist Lili Chin. You can see my guide on dog body language here along with her graphics.
Some anxious or fear signals can be subtle, some obvious. The more you watch and work with your dog, the better you will know your dog's language, how to read your dog's stress, and be proactive on your pup's behalf to manage the stressful scenario.
(You'll find more examples in my dog body language guide mentioned above.)
Additional note: Just as with separation anxiety and other behavior/anxiety matters, your dog's symptoms of discomfort or stress could be related to medical issues, so you'll always want to check in with your veterinarian if you see behaviors/anxieties that are out of character for your dog to rule out any GI issues, etc that could have your pup off kilter temporarily.
Now that you've learned how to take your dog on dog-friendly outings if he/she is ready for it, learn how to help your dog settle anywhere with a reliable "go to mat" cue in a public setting in the next guide.
Hop over to the Manners Channel if you'd like to ask any of the Dogly Training Advocates who are all certified dog trainers a question in the Community discussion or start any of the step-by-step guides in Food Manners, Basic Manners, Holiday Manners, or Travel Manners.
And if you ever need more personalized training help, please reach out to work with me one-on-one here on Dogly!
DISCLAIMER: The content of this website and community is based on the research, expertise, and views of each respective author. Information here is not intended to replace your one-on-one relationship with your veterinarian, but as a sharing of information and knowledge to help arm dog parents to make more informed choices. We encourage you to make health care decisions based on your research and in partnership with your vet. In cases of distress, medical issues, or emergency, always consult your veterinarian.