Braille Monitor                                                                                 May 2006


Top Ten Tips for a Successful Convention Trip with a Guide Dog

by Melissa Riccobono

Melissa Riccobono and her guide dog Fanta are pictured beside the relief area in front of the NFB Jernigan Institute.

From the Editor: The following article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2005 issue of Harness Up, the publication of the National Association of Guide Dog Users. Melissa Riccobono is an exemplary guide dog user. She has slightly revised her article for publication in the Braille Monitor in preparation for the 2006 national convention. It contains valuable advice for all of us, guide dog and cane users alike. This is what she says:

The NFB national convention--there's absolutely nothing like it! The energy, the meetings, the people, the late nights and early mornings... I can honestly say it's the busiest, craziest week I'll spend all year. I've been going to the NFB national convention for the last seven years, and every year I swear I'll try to get more sleep and eat meals more regularly so that I won't get so exhausted, but somehow that never works out. And actually I wouldn't have it any other way. I wouldn't feel as if I was at convention unless I was a part of the crazy, chaotic convention experience.

Yet in the midst of the chaos and the hectic schedule, I need to stop and take the convention experience of someone else into account. That someone is my nine-year-old black lab, Fanta. Fanta has been coming to conventions with me from the beginning, and I know it's a hectic, stressful week for her. But over the years I've learned a lot about Fanta at convention, and I've realized some things I can do to make this week in July as easy as possible for her. I'd like to share my top ten tips with guide dog users in hopes that some of them will help to make convention easier for your dogs. I'm sure many of you already do some or all of these things, but I hope you will read this article to the end, because it never hurts to be reminded of the small things we can do to make our dogs' convention experiences more enjoyable.

Tip 1. Decide if Convention Is the Right Place for Your Dog.

This seems obvious, but I encourage you to take a few minutes now to think about whether the national convention is the right place to take your dog. I believe you should do this especially if you've never taken your dog to convention before. Ask yourself the following questions.

Is your dog extremely stressed in big crowds of people?
Is your dog afraid of canes?
Does your dog get along with other dogs, or does he or she tend to be aggressive toward them?
Is your dog easily distracted by other dogs?
How long have you and your dog been together?
Are you confident in your ability to work well as a team?

Bear in mind that convention is full of crowds of people, many of them swinging long white canes back and forth, as well as many other guide dogs. If your dog exhibits extreme stress in large crowds; is afraid of canes; or is aggressive toward, afraid of, or distracted by other dogs, convention is probably not a good place for him or her to be. In my opinion convention is also not likely to be a good place for a new guide dog team. I would recommend a team be together at least four months before attending a convention, but of course this varies from one team to another. Some teams jell after only a month or so, while others might take a year to really settle down and work their best together.

Think about how well you and your dog work together and how stress makes you act and react toward your dog. If you become upset and stressed in crowded, noisy situations and you transmit these feelings to your dog, convention would probably be a good place to brush up on your cane skills.

If you're wondering whether or not you should take your dog to national convention, I suggest you talk with someone who takes or has taken his or her dog to convention. Such a person can give you many more details about what convention is like than I can in this article. In fact, perhaps talking to two or more people would be helpful since everyone's experience is slightly different.

Tip 2. Treat Your Dog for Fleas before You Leave Home.

So, you've decided to take your dog to convention. Now it's time to pack and get ready to go. I would suggest treating your dog for fleas before you get on the plane. This will insure that you won't bring any unpleasant little critters to the hotel with you. It also means you will not pass fleas on to other dogs, and your dog will be protected in case someone else isn't as considerate.

Tip 3. Orient Yourself to the Hotel to Make Life Easier for You and Your Dog

OK, so you've decided to take your dog to convention, and you've treated your dog for fleas. Now you've arrived in a huge hotel, and you don't know where anything is. I recommend devoting some time to orient yourself to the hotel as soon as possible after arriving. I always bring a cane with me to convention, and often I heel my dog and walk around with my cane a bit. This helps me get a better feel for the hotel, and it helps me give Fanta clearer, more confident directions. Walking somewhere with my cane also allows me to point things out to Fanta. This may help her remember where something is later. I find that the more I wander around, trying to find something, the more confused both Fanta and I become. This doesn't help either of us. Do I still get lost, even after walking around the hotel with my cane a bit? Absolutely! That's unavoidable, but I believe that using my cane a little in the beginning is still helpful.

Tip 4. Remember Your Dog's Needs as Well as Your Own

Convention is a busy time for everyone. It's one week out of the year when I usually don't eat regular or healthy meals. But I always try to keep Fanta's food and water needs in the back of my mind. I suggest trying to keep your dog's feeding schedule as normal as possible. If that means leaving a meeting a little early or getting somewhere a little late, at least you'll have a happy dog who has been fed to take with you. Keeping a regular feeding schedule also helps with relieving, as I'm sure all of you know.

If you know you're not going to get back to your room to feed your dog, bring the food with you when you leave your room in the morning. This way you can always feed your dog in the rest room if necessary.

Convention meeting rooms can get warm. I usually carry a water bottle and a portable dog dish with me so that I can give Fanta water in case she gets thirsty before we return to our room. I usually look at food and water at convention this way. Am I hungry? How late is it? Is Fanta hungry too? Has she gotten all of her food today? Am I thirsty? Is Fanta thirsty too? How long has it been since she's had water?

Tip 5. Relieve Your Dog Often.

I cannot emphasize this tip enough. During convention your dog does a lot of walking. He or she is also relieving in a strange place with lots of distractions. Even if I don't think Fanta has to go, I usually take her to the relieving area at every opportunity. Over the years she has surprised me more than once by relieving even when I didn't think she would have to. Giving your dog as many opportunities as possible to relieve means you will be less likely to have an accident to clean up. Remember, both stress and activity cause dogs to relieve more often, so my advice is to relieve your dog even more than you ordinarily do at home.

Tip 6. Clean up after Your Dog

Cleaning up after your dog in the relief area is your responsibility. If you do, you leave the area clean for the next team who uses it. I also find it useful to clean up after Fanta at convention because that enables me to keep track of what she does and how often.

Convention is a stressful place. When Fanta has gotten an upset stomach, it was helpful for me to pick up after her and realize what was happening. I could then watch her carefully and pay attention even more closely to her relieving needs.

If your dog does have an accident of any kind, do your best to clean it up yourself immediately. Always carrying extra plastic bags and paper towels for this purpose is a good idea. Never just walk away from a mess because you’re embarrassed it happened and hope that no one will notice that you were responsible. If it happens late at night, when few people are about, you should request assistance from a member of the hotel staff. If you are faced with this problem during the day or early evening, try to find a passer-by to ask an NFB staff member with a two-way radio to notify the relief-area staff to come to your assistance. Alternatively someone could go to the relief area for you and summon help. A volunteer could also stand over the problem area, protecting other people from stepping into it while you go to find a relief worker. To preserve our good relationship with hotel personnel, we must always try to prevent accidents whenever possible and to deal with them within the organization whenever we can.

Tip 7. Keep Your Dog Out of the Way.

This can be tough, especially with a big dog in a relatively small space, but do what you can to keep your dog out of the aisle. Your dog will be much happier if he or she is not stepped on, and people who are trying to get from place to place will appreciate having a free space to walk. Fanta has actually become accustomed to curling up as tightly as possible at convention. When I'm sitting, I push her as far back under my chair as she'll go. At times she's even positioned herself sideways under my chair so that very little of her sticks out. Of course she has an advantage because she's a smaller lab, but even big dogs can be slid under a chair at least a little.

Try also to keep your dog out of the way in your hotel room, especially if you're sharing the room with other people. I usually try to designate a corner for Fanta in my room out of the way as much as possible. If need be, I can put her on her tie down or leash in that corner and know she won't be stepped on and can relax.

Tip 8. Beware of Food.

Convention is a place where many people raise money by selling candy bars, peanuts, crackers, and many other snacks. People also bring food into general sessions with them to eat if they get hungry. Inevitably food drops on the floor, which is at the least distracting and at the worst dangerous for your dog, especially if chocolate is involved. Keep track of what your dog is doing when you walk. If he or she is sniffing or has stopped to pick something up, investigate right away. When you're sitting in meetings, make sure to hold onto your dog's leash at all times and keep track of what he or she is doing.

I learned this the hard way. I once gave Fanta's leash to a friend for a few minutes, got up, and ran an errand using my cane. When I came back, my friend told me apologetically that Fanta had turned herself around, crawled on her stomach completely underneath my chair to the row behind me, and eaten a muffin that someone had in a bag under her chair. This was very embarrassing because I felt really bad that my dog had eaten someone's breakfast. I offered to buy the person a new muffin, but she wouldn't let me. Luckily she was a dog lover and didn't seem too bothered by the whole thing. But I was embarrassed. I was also worried that Fanta would get sick from the muffin. This experience taught me to be more careful of whom I leave Fanta with or whether to leave her at all. Am I saying that Fanta would not have gotten the muffin if I had been there? No. I might have let my guard down and stopped paying attention, so it might have happened anyway. But, let me tell you, this lesson has taught me to pay attention to where Fanta is during meetings. If I can help it, I never want her to get a muffin or any other unintended food again.

One more word about food. If you're fundraising yourself or sharing a room with someone who's fundraising, make sure that whatever you're selling is kept out of your dog's reach. This is only common sense, but it's easy to forget about putting food out of reach when you're unpacking and thinking of a million other things. And the person you share a room with may not be used to dogs, so a gentle reminder from you to keep food in a drawer or on a high closet shelf won't hurt.

Tip 9. Give Your Dog Breaks.

Convention is a stressful place for dogs and people alike. Make sure you give your dog breaks from the hustle and bustle whenever possible. Even fifteen minutes in your room off leash or on tie down can be very helpful for relieving your dog's stress level. Make sure you pack some type of toy for your dog to chew or play with during these breaks. Fanta loves her bone and her Kong, and I make sure they are both in my convention suitcase. Don't leave your dog alone, however, when you are giving him or her a break. Dogs left alone, especially those who may be under some stress already, are more likely to chew, bark, whine, etc. Also hotel housekeeping staff will often refuse to clean a room with an unattended dog inside. So, if you really feel your dog needs a break and you can't take a break yourself, try to find someone you know and trust who wouldn't mind keeping your dog in a quiet place for a while.

Tip 10. Listen to What Your Dog Is Telling You.

One of the best things about dogs is their ability to communicate. This is very helpful during guide work and makes me feel great when Fanta says she loves me. This communication is especially important at convention. Listen to what your dog is telling you. As much as possible try to be patient with your dog as he or she navigates big crowds. If he or she seems hesitant, don't just urge or correct him or her forward without checking whether or not your dog wants you to avoid something. This can be challenging, especially if you're lost or in a hurry to get somewhere, but it will make convention easier for both of you.

In meetings make sure you pay attention to your dog's behavior. Is he or she panting, whining, or restless? Is this normal behavior? If not, pay attention to that behavior. Does your dog need to relieve? Is he or she thirsty? Does he or she need a break? Be a detective and try to figure out and take care of your dog's needs. It will make him or her, you, and those around you more comfortable.
As I say, these ten tips are common sense, but I appreciate your taking the time to read to the end of this article anyway. I appreciate the fact that you care so much about your dogs that you will do all you can to give them a positive convention experience, and I hope to meet many of you in Dallas.