“Humans need to be humane for the sake of humanity.”
– Anthony Douglas Williams
“Humans need to be humane for the sake of humanity.”
– Anthony Douglas Williams
The first time that Layla ever rode an elevator was also the last time she rode one. She panicked as soon as the elevator moved, plastering herself to the floor, and shook in abject terror. She refused to eat her favorite treats. As soon as the door opened, she startled at the beep and lunged out of the elevator. She took hours to calm down, pacing and panting. She also jumped at any beeping noise for weeks after (she would later develop a phobia about beeping noises after being trapped in my house for hours with a fire alarm chirping its low battery warning, and I always wondered whether this earlier experience with beeps had primed her to develop a full-fledged phobia with the additional traumatic exposure… but that’s a story for another day).
After this experience, we got a lot of stair climbing in. With patient work during low-traffic times at Clicker Expo one year, Layla got to the point where she could comfortably walk in and out of the elevator on a loose leash and could take food while standing in the elevator, but since it wasn’t an environment we encountered frequently I chose to just manage her fear and work on other things instead. It was easy enough to request rooms on the lower floors of any hotel we stayed at, and climbing a flight or two of steps never hurt anyone.
After Layla’s experience, I started thinking about dogs and elevators. They go into a room. A door closes. The floor moves – a very odd experience for a dog! Then the door opens and they’re in an entirely new place. For dogs like Layla, who have a strong need to make sense of their world through rigid rule structures and hypervigilant scanning, this set-up has all of the variables of a nightmare.
The good news is that most dogs can be comfortably introduced to riding in elevators! Just like any other sort of socialization, this is most easily done while puppies are still under 4 months of age, but even older dogs can learn to feel safe and happy riding in an elevator.
I usually start this process at parking ramps during off-peak hours. Choose times where there will still be a handful people around (for obvious security concerns), but don’t choose a time when there will be lots of people wanting to use the elevator. If someone arrives and wants to use the elevator you’re working with, give it up for them and wait for the next elevator.
Begin by going in and out of the elevator multiple times. Some dogs are weirded out by walking over the little space at the door. Practice your dog’s loose-leash and focus skills while you do this, clicking and treating for moving with and paying attention to you. Remember that you may eventually be stepping into an elevator full of people (some of whom may not be comfortable with dogs), so it’s important that your dog have the skills to follow your direction.
Once your dog can comfortably walk onto and off of the elevator, begin accustoming him or her to the automatic doors. Close the doors, feed your dog, open the doors, and walk off the elevator. Repeat a few times until your dog feels comfortable.
If all is going well, you may want to do a bit of play! Bring out a tug toy and have a game with your dog right in the elevator, or love your dog up if they prefer physical affection to toy play. We want them a little excited and very happy for the next step… movement!
Most dogs do better going up than down. I know some people who feel the same way, as they report that going down always feels like they are falling. So, start with a journey up one floor. Start feeding your dog as the elevator begins to move up, and stop feeding when the elevator stops. Then practice your loose leash skills as you walk off the elevator. If that went well, go down the stairs of the parking garage to the level you just came from, and do a few more trips up. If your dog seemed a little nervous, do some more quick in-and-outs with the elevator before you add in another trip between floors.
Once your dog is happy and comfortable going up in the elevator, it’s time to practice down. Go up one floor, then go back down to the floor your started at. Remember to feed your dog when the elevator is moving, and stop feeding when the movement stops. Continue to reward for focus and polite leash manners.
As your dog becomes more comfortable with the elevator, you can begin to take longer trips between floors. You can also start practicing elevator manners with other people or pets. I find it easiest to put my dog on the inside (between the wall of the elevator and my side) so that I can prevent him from wiggling over to anyone else, and also so that I can protect him from any person or animal who may hurt or scare him. Remember that it is always your responsibility to keep your dog calm and under control in elevators, and that confined spaces can cause stress (in people and animals!). It’s always okay to get off the elevator if something makes you uncomfortable. Perhaps the car is getting crowded and you know tight spaces make your dog nervous, or someone just got on with a frantic, barking dog trying to wiggle out of their grasp. Just leave, and wait for the next car. It may take you an extra minute or two to get where you’re going, but in the long run your dog’s comfort and safety are worth it.
When you’re a small-town lady from rural Minnesota, elevators may not be a big problem. They weren’t for Layla and me. However, having a dog who is comfortable riding in elevators can literally open doors. Being able to bring your dog to hotels and have her greet the elevator happily, getting the better apartment lease because your dog doesn’t mind the elevator (and you love the view), taking your dog shopping at dog-friendly locations because she can ride the elevator in the parking garage or stores, doing therapy dog visits at hospitals and nursing homes to brighten up the residents’ days… the more comfortable your dog is with elevators, the more places he can enjoy. And while doing a few extra flights of stairs never hurt anyone, wouldn’t it be nice to sometimes take the elevator instead?
If I had known…
Oh, if I had known.
You could have had double dinners (and finished Trout’s uneaten kibble too). We would have gone on so many more walks, just the two of us, with lamb lung and all the time to sniff you wanted. There would have been no more diet, and so many more tacos. Cheese, too… you had such a special fondness for cheese. We would play find the squeaky ball all over the house, and I would laugh and clap while you taunted me with the ball. We would snuggle longer in the mornings, under the covers, and I would whisper how I loved and loved you to the rhythmic thump of your tail. I would look into your eyes and tell you how forever special you were, my best and brightest dog. My Layla.
“In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night…You — only you — will have stars that laugh!
“And then he laughed again.
“And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me. And you will sometimes open your window, so, for that pleasure . . . And your friends will be properly astonished to see you laughing as you look up at the sky! Then you will say to them, ‘Yes, the stars always make me laugh!’ And they will think you are crazy. It will be a very shabby trick that I shall have played on you…”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
I thought I heard you tonight. The sweet thunk, thunk of your tail drumming as I walked up the stairs from my office.
For a moment, I forgot.
I looked for you on the couch where you weren’t supposed to sleep. That was one of your favorite places.
The blankets so empty, but my heart full of your memory
and threatening to burst from my chest with the pain of my love and gratitude.
Nothing but my heartbeat, and the shadow of your soft eyes in my memories.
These moments when I can almost Feel you.
“She was gone, and all that was left was the space you’d grown around her, like a tree that grows around a fence. For a long time, it remained hollow.” – Nicole Krauss
ARCHX Layla, BA with honors, Birch ORT, CGC, RL1X2, RL2X, RL3, RLV
October 2005-November 27th, 2015
On Thanksgiving morning of 2015, Layla was naughty. She had been eyeing the beef bone in the puppy’s crate for days, and when his crate door was left open she seized the opportunity. She stole the bone and spent a couple of hours chewing on it contentedly. That afternoon, we noticed that she was a bit lethargic. She didn’t want to go on a walk. Then she started refusing food, something she’d never done before. She didn’t even want her favorite treats, cheese or peanut butter. She collapsed, and we rushed her to the vet. She fought so very hard under the care of a skilled veterinary team, but the hemangiosarcoma that had been silently setting up shop in her body was too much. She died shortly after midnight on November 27th, lying in my arms as I told her everything I had the words to say.
It’s taken me awhile to write this post, as I don’t really have the words to tell Layla’s story. She was my once-in-a-lifetime dog, and the time I had with her has forever changed everything for me, both personally and professionally. In her book “Heart Dog,” Roxanne Hawn describes the special bond that some people and dogs can form as “pathological attachment,” and I think there’s no better description. There was always that little nugget of not-quite-healthy to the relationship that Layla and I had with one another, a codependency that was mutual and deep. I have never been looked at by another living being the way I was looked at by Layla, and while she accepted a handful of “her” people into her life, the truth was that she always wanted to be with me more than anything else. I have cried every day since her loss, and I accept that this level of sadness is a healthy response to such a sudden and devastating change in my life.
Rather than focusing on Layla’s death, I try to focus on her life. Through my stories about living with her, she helped so many students and readers enjoy better lives with their dogs. She’ll continue to do so.
Layla and I had a special ritual every night, after everyone else in our house had gone to bed. She had some muscular issues that made her sore, so I would meet her in the kitchen and pull two or three bags of dog treats out of the cupboard. She would choose which treats she wanted that night, then we’d go into the living room with a handful of treats to do her physical therapy exercises and stretches. After her stretches and snack, she’d snuggle on my lap, her head in the crook between my neck and shoulder. I’d bury my face in her sweet neck. Our breathing would gradually come in sync. She’d sigh deeply (and often fall asleep), and I’d hold her. We’d sit like that for five or ten minutes, just Being together. I’d tell her I loved her, every single night, before we both went to bed.
Good night, sweet Layla. I love and love you.