Yesterday the dogs and I headed out on a mini-adventure for a nail trim and a romp around my friend’s farm. With my gas tank almost empty, I decided I should stop for a quick partial fill up so that the dogs and I would not have to push the SUV midway through our destination…or so that I would not have to wait for AAA to bring me more gas with two dogs in my car on a steamy summer morning.
I pulled into a gas station, turned off the car and told the dogs to stay. Both of them were strapped into their car seatbelt harnesses but it is important to still give them the command and go through the normal routine in case there is ever a situation when they are not in their harnesses. The air conditioning had been blasting away and the car was nice and cold, giving me a short bit of time to put in just a partial tank before things started to heat up. I did not want to wait for the tank to fill and risk the temperature soaring inside the car. I am obsessive about making sure they are never, ever left in a hot car.
As I got out of the car, both dogs watched me with great interest. Tinkerbell was in her normal front seat and Jackson in the back. With conformation shows and many advanced obedience classes in his past, Jackson has been in the car without me for a few minutes here and there when we have gone to shows or events where I had to carry a crate and other supplies into a building before I could bring him in with me. He always patiently sits and waits and watches for me the entire time and then greets me enthusiastically when I return which is what he did yesterday as I set about the process of paying at the pump and then adding gas to the car.
Tinkerbell, however, went into a full panic. As soon as I shut the door behind me and stepped to the gas pump I heard her shriek-barking her displeasure, pulling and straining to get close to me. She did this the entire time I was outside of the car, howling and shrieking at the top of her lungs, so loud that I am sure the patrons at every pump wondered what was happening inside my SUV. I quickly put a few gallons of gas into my tank and then got back into the car.
As soon as I was back in the vehicle she licked my entire face, cried, and wiggled her entire body, utterly relieved that I was back. I tried not to react to make sure I did not accidentally reward her or give her the impression that she had acted correctly, thereby further creating a problem. As much as I wanted to console her, I knew that to do so would only increase her reaction the next time and confirm to her that her response of utter fear and desperation was right.
As we drove the rest of the way to our destination I thought about her strong reaction and then realized that I had never left her in the car alone before. Not even once. Because I am so protective about leaving them in a hot car or at risk of being lost or stolen, this was a brand new experience for her. She had no idea that I was just stepping a few feet away, that I was not actually going anywhere that I could not see her. In her simplistic world, I was not inside the car and that was far from ok. Period.
I have made a note for myself that after the summer weather breaks and it is safe to leave them in the car without the air conditioner running, Tinkerbell and I will practice this same situation first in our driveway and eventually other places, so that she stays in the front seat and I step outside the car and eventually out of her sight. Until I saw her reaction to the situation, it simply never occured to me that it was something for which we needed to prepare.
I could simply make sure that I always have gas in the car before we go somewhere and avoid a repeat of this in the future, but that would be doing a disservice to her. We could move to my home state of New Jersey where they pump gas for you, but I think my husband and kids would call that a bit extreme.
Instead we will incorporate this into our training and canine “continual education” as I like to refer to the need to practice commands and how to respond to situations throughout your dog’s entire life. As I talk about in my book, Love, Laugh, Woof: A Guide to Being Your Dog’s Forever Human, training your dog means giving them the confidence to live in a human run world. It’s the Love and the Woof in Love, Laugh, Woof. By training her to relax and wait for me calmly should I need to step out of our vehicle, I am giving her mental peace and confidence in case we face that situation again.