Keeping Your Dog Safe When Terror Hits When Abroad
With terrorist attacks in cities that we’ve considered safe, political turmoil, and natural disasters wreaking havoc, it’s easy to feel like the planet is increasingly dangerous and hate is on the rise. And although these events may impact the how, when, and where of our trips, they won’t stop us from travelling.
It is important though to be prepared. But what does that really look like?
Safety Runs in the Family
Mom has worked in emergency and crisis management for over 16 years. She is a certified business continuity planning (BCP) expert and trained in three levels of incident command (a standardized management system used to organize and manage a scalable response to emergency incidents of any magnitude). She’s also the daughter of a diplomat, so spent her formative years being debriefed on local issues. This sensitized Mom to world issues from a very young age.
With that background, we thought it would help to share some pointers and actionable tips for coping with increased risk and unexpected events when travelling with your dog.
For that matter, our pointers and tips can be used anywhere, at any time, not just for travel. Incidents can occur anywhere and at any time. Even our notably safe Ottawa has had its share of tragedy. And hazards come in every shape and size, natural and manufactured. So we’re going to use an “all hazards” approach, helping you to be prepared for anything—be it a terrorist attack in a big urban city, an earthquake at your beach resort, or a flooded city at home.
The first step is to take actions that can stop an emergency or disaster from occurring, or at least minimize the damage if an emergency or disaster does happen.
When travelling, advisories and media reports are the first thing that comes to mind when we think of prevention. It’s important not to read these with fear or you will never travel anywhere! But advisories do allow you to make informed decisions about whether you should be going at all. Not travelling somewhere is an option.
Consider the following:
- Political/religious stability
- Weather (Is it tsunami season, for example?)
- Cultural attitude toward pets (How pet friendly is it?)
- Pandemics (Has there been an outbreak of dog flu?)
Vaccines are prevention as well. There may well be rabies, Lyme disease, or some other virus causing chaos for the canine population in the location you plan to visit, but the odds are good that there is a vaccine available to protect your dog. Your vet may not be familiar with what is going on in your destination country, so do some research!
The next step is to take actions to reduce the adverse impacts of an emergency or disaster. This is where planning comes into play.
I’ve talked about being ready before, but it’s worth repeating my Top 10 suggestions. (There are many more.)
- Do NOT leave your pet behind. You may not be able to return to the area
- Be familiar with pet evacuation policies for your town and accommodations
- If leaving your dog behind at a hotel or apartment, make arrangements for staff, a neighbour, or the person you are renting from to contact you (or you them) and/or your pet’s guardian if something has happened to you, to the building, the neighbourhood or city
- Identify your pet. Always microchip when travelling overseas. Add a tag that includes a local telephone number people can use AND another contact that is not yourself (or your partner) should you have been a victim as well
- Identify a legal guardian for your pet. I can’t stress this enough. Ensure funds are available to the guardian right away in case they need to fly to your location to collect your pet. Make sure all paperwork includes the guardian as an owner for border crossings
- Never leave without a copy of your pet’s documents. The embassy may figure out who you are but they will not have your pet on file
- Have your vet assist you in creating a useful first aid kit for your pet. Always have 2–3 days of medication (if needed) on you when you leave your accommodations
- Never leave without water and a little food for your dog, no matter how short the stroll
- A sling bag for small dogs can save your pet and you if you have to do a scoop and run. Test and take with you a sling bag, backpack, or some other bag that will allow you to scoop and carry your pet quickly
- TRAINING! (More on that below)
This involves taking action before an emergency or disaster to ensure you can respond effectively.
Some emergencies you see coming. They are what we call a “slow boil.” It could be flooding or civil unrest. We like to stay where it’s comfortable, but do not wait for a mandatory evacuation order before leaving or you may be told to leave your pet behind. Leave early if possible.
Most often, however, incidents occur out of the blue. This is why situational awareness is vitally important. Many travelers (in particular, solo female travelers) have developed this skill but honestly, we all should be alert and aware from the moment we leave the house. It’s not paranoia and we don’t want you to live in fear but, here are the main points to keep in mind:
- Observe. Be aware of your surroundings. No matter how often you have crossed a bridge, gone to a market, or visited a square, do not allow yourself to zone out. Your dog needs you to remain focused. You may only have a few seconds to make a decision. And watch your dog: many times, your pet is the best alarm you’ll have. Don’t ignore your pet trying to tell you something with body language, unusual growling, etc. Dogs are very sensitive to changes in energy and mood, to what’s in the air.
- React. Within seconds of an incident, you will have to decide what course of action to take: hard, soft, or passive. Responding in a passive way is hiding, or talking or walking your way out of the situation (diplomacy). This can be tough to do if you don’t speak the local language. Responding in a soft way is using your reaction to dilute a potentially dangerous situation. This is easier to do, often putting your hands up, stepping away, making soothing sounds in any language, and running away. Whenever possible, ALWAYS RUN. Finally, hard action is using maximum force to save yourself from a life-threatening situation. It is better to progress your response—start with a passive response and only escalate to soft and hard responses if required. You can always step up your response, but it is very difficult to reduce it.
- Control. Be confident in your actions and see them through to the end. If you are indecisive, your reaction may fail and this could make things worse for you and potentially for your dog. Appearing to be in control may put an element of doubt or fear into the perpetrator’s mind. It may be enough to stop or at least slow things down enough for you to run.
It’s important to take action prior to an emergency or disaster to ensure that your planned response is second nature.
Practice, practice, practice! Having plans and techniques are of absolutely NO use to you if you do not practice them to the point of not having to think about how you’ll respond. This is true both for you and for your dog.
What should you practice? I was asked by our friends at City Dog Expert what I would recommend for terrorist attacks and I was happy to share what I would do for any type of attack. Let’s remember that although terrorism attacks are heinous, you are actually more likely to be mugged, stalked, or caught in a rampage by a crowd after a sports game or concert. In the end, although these responses can certainly be used in a terrorist attack, they are suitable for ANY attack.
Run. Most people who survive an incident did so because they high-tailed it out of there. When out with your dog, we highly recommend that you train him or her to know a specific command for “running like mad.” We use the expression, “ZOOM! ZOOM!” We practice this on every . single . walk. We practice this to cross streets, in a park, and up a sidewalk. It’s short, as fast as you can, and all out! And be prepared to run: your dog runs faster than you may think!
Hide. In a shooter situation, and if you can’t run without becoming a target, your next option is to hide. The challenge here is that your pet may be very stressed and feeding off your fear. It’s important to take a deep breath and calm yourself down before expecting your pet to do so. What we train is a command for total silence AND for unnaturally close, tight, snuggles. Our command is “Shhhh, zip, zip,” whispered in the ear while hiding in a tight spot. We practice this at home, in hotels or apartments we rent on AirBnB, and even if there is no one around, in public spaces. Once we did a practice run at an outdoor event, with loads of crowds and fireworks. The idea is to work your way up to that.
The hardest task in training to hide is to get your pet to hide away from you—as in letting go of the leash and sending your dog to find a safe spot and stay there. This is heartbreaking just to type, but the caretaker may be injured or even dead, and sometimes your pet’s survival depends on its ability to get out of harm’s way and remain there. We practice this at home: Mom or Dad lies down on the floor and tells me, “Go hide!” Then I run to the spot we’ve picked as my hidey place. The idea is to make it tougher and tougher for your pet, moving the game outside to the park and finding a bush or something to identify as “Hide HERE!” Practice, practice, practice. It’s all you can do.
Fight. Many countries (including Canada and the United Kingdom) have shied away from using “fight,” and use, instead, “tell” (as in RUN — HIDE — TELL). Don’t get me wrong, if you can tell, then yes, I agree that’s a great option. Do dial your local emergency number. (In Canada, the emergency number is 911, but the code is different in each country. Make sure you know the emergency code in the country you are visiting.) But keep in mind that if the incident is large enough, the lines will be overwhelmed. And, of course, the priority of emergency response will not be your pet.
I would never advocate teaching a dog to fight, and at 3.5 pounds, I’m not going to be the best bet in a fight anyway. (I win in my dreams though!) But I do highly recommend that humans take some self-defence training. (We don’t advocate weapons, and in any event, they are never a good idea when you are a foreigner in a country.) Self-defence classes for basics such as avoiding a punch, a shock, or a knife can truly be one of the best investments a traveller can make.
The work doesn’t end when the emergency ends. Recovery means taking actions after an emergency to ensure better response in the future by implementing lessons learned and quality self-care.
Don’t forget to take a moment after an incident to give your pet and yourself some love. Make sure to acknowledge what happened to you and reach out to professionals for help; your need for care may be physical or psychological. Take the time you need to recover physically and emotionally. Remember that your pet may take longer to re-centre. You have the advantage of being able to think about and mentally work through what happened; your pet, however, will only remember the incidents without understanding. You and your pet may need some new training.
Once you aren’t feeling shaky anymore, revisit what went well and what didn’t. Make a list of your lessons learned and apply them to your practice routines on your walks. Make the practice fun and playful. In the end, it may be just that: fun and games. But should you need more, you’ll be ready.