Recently I learned that my life is perfect.
There are many things that I’ve worked hard to achieve, but still, this came as a surprise to me.
I told my friend that I could take the train to visit her, and that Ginny could ride along in her bag.
“Omg, dream life. Taking cute dog on train in bag,” my friend texted back.
That’s right. My divorce, my long physical and mental health battles, and even online dating cannot get me down. I’ve never taken half a pint of ice cream to bed, had an evil landlord, or sobbed in the shower because someone I loved moved away. I’m living a dream life.
And I thought, as long as I have unlocked the secret to the perfect life, I might as well share it with other people.
Bag training basics
When I moved downtown and decided to adopt a dog, which I would leave home alone as little as possible, I knew that unless I planned to radically change my budget and my lifestyle, she would need to travel with me on SEPTA, Philly’s public transit system.
The first step was to get a dog small enough to be really portable. And this is important: not as a fashion accessory, but because her size was well suited to my life: renting in a big city, not owning a car, and having some physical limitations that could make handling a larger dog difficult. At her adult size, Ginny weighs about eight pounds — as much as the average purse. I think she’s a Yorkshire terrier mixed with a Dachshund, but she’s a shelter dog, so who knows?
The second step was to bond with the dog so that she always trusts me as a source of safety, comfort, and good times.
I consulted with a professional dog trainer early on and appreciated her advice on two styles of learning apparently common to all mammals: learning by consequence and learning by association.
Dogs learn by consequence when they perform the behaviors we want and receive rewards for it (ideally, learning by consequence should be done with positive reinforcement): I sit, I get a treat. I sit, I get a treat. But when your dog goes bonkers as soon as you pick up the leash, she has effortlessly learned by association. Leash = WE’RE GOING OUTSIDE !!!
I thought learning by association would make the most sense to get Ginny started on the bag. I knew I wouldn’t be able to just buy a dog bag, put her in it, and board the bus. Before I found the right travel bag on Amazon for her size, I started to use a big open-topped canvas bag I already had. At first I didn’t do anything but pick up the bag at the same time I picked up her leash, and walk her with the bag over my shoulder.
I figured that after a couple days, she would start to associate the bag with going outside, just like she does with her leash.
Meanwhile, I was getting her accustomed to one blanket: I put it on my bed for her sleep on, and padded her crate with it when I was away (yes, she is crate-trained, which, practiced humanely, is a good stepping stone to bag-training). I wanted her to associate the blanket — her blanket — with resting in a safe place.
I began to get her used to just sitting in a bag (the canvas bag I began with). She likes sitting in my lap. I began putting her blanket in the bag and putting the bag on my lap, and then lifting her into it, and having her sit on my lap in the bag.
She didn’t understand at first. She tried to squirm out of the bag. I gently kept her in for a few minutes and then let her hop out. I didn’t want her to build up stress about it. After a couple of days she accepted it and sat quietly for longer and longer stretches of time, with lots of praise.
Next I practiced standing up with her in the bag, with its strap over my shoulder, and then walking around inside the house a little so she got used to the view and the motion.
The great outdoors
Then I began to carry her onto the front porch in the bag, wearing her leash.
For a couple of days, every time I left the house to walk her, I picked up the bag and leash at the same time, leashed her, put her in the bag, and walked out the door with her in it before letting her down on the sidewalk.
Then I began to walk around the block once with her riding in the bag, and then make another circuit while she walked. She began to associate the bag with leaving the house and she didn’t struggle to get on the ground — she seemed to enjoy looking out of her new perch and maybe she was learning by experience that her chance to walk was coming.
She was already accustomed to cars, and I began to take her in the bag for car rides, first with friends, and then in Ubers (with the drivers’ permission).
At first, she tried to squirm out of the bag when I got into a car, but I kept treats with me and praised her for staying in when she did. Soon she learned that sitting in the bag on my lap in the car was pretty much the same as sitting in the bag on my lap at home.
The advent of the bag
But to bring her on SEPTA, I needed a sturdy, well-ventilated bag that zipped shut. I initially bought one at PetSmart, but it proved to be a little too small for her strange, long little body. I ordered another one on Amazon that looked like the right size: a boxy black rectangular bag with front and top zippers, ventilating mesh sides, and hand and shoulder straps for carrying. I wanted her to have space to lie down comfortably in it. It was perfect.
When the bag arrived, I didn’t hurry to make her ride in it. She’s a wary little dog and regarded the new bag with suspicion. I started out by putting it on the floor, unzipping its front entry flap and its flap at the top, and dropping tiny treats into the interior from above.
She watched me drop them and nosed her way in to eat the treats, and back out again. In and out, in and out.
I did this on and off for a day or two, with the simple first goal of giving the bag a positive association. There are treats in the bag. I can come in and out and eat them and it’s fun and tasty and not scary at all.
When she seemed comfortable enough, I started back where we’d begun with the first bag, putting her blanket in and having her sit in the new bag in my lap. The next step was zipping it closed while she was in there. She didn’t like it at first, but I kept her zipped-in stints brief and praised her when she sat longer and longer over the next few days.
The next steps were easy because we’d already learned them with the first open-topped bag: walking outside in it, riding in cars in it.
One night, after we took an Uber to my then-boyfriend’s apartment and the three of us where sitting around with the bag unzipped on the floor, Ginny walked back into it of her own accord and took a long nap in there.
At this point, I’d been working with her on riding in the bag for almost a month. Clearly, if she was choosing it on her own for a nap-cave, she felt comfortable and safe in it.
I decided to try the next step.
The real tests
I chose a very short subway ride for her first public transit foray — only about four minutes on the train (not counting a few minutes of underground wait time), and she was completely quiet.
I chose a bus ride for a longer test, because if she got agitated or began to act up, it would be easy to step off anytime.
During her first ride on the bus (from South Philly to West Philly), she kept quiet all the way until the end of the ride, when she began to scratch at the mesh and whimper a little. I put one hand in through the zippered flap at the top and petted her and talked to her, and she quieted down until we got off a few blocks later.
From there we just began to practice more and more rides, always making sure to take a walk on the way. After she mastered bus and subway rides, we tried the trolley, and then a very short regional rail train ride. Then we tried longer train rides — working up to about forty minutes, not including the time spent waiting at the station.
In all her public transit rides, she has barked only once: on a regional rail train where some unsupervised kids were yelling and running up and down the aisle. I think the noisy hurtling bodies agitated her but she quieted down quickly when I talked to her in a soothing voice and covered her view of the kids.
I think the culmination of her transit success so far was riding the subway during the recent Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia without a peep. I don’t think any of the delegates in their lanyards even noticed there was a dog on the standing-room-only train.
But generally, I keep her off of rush-hour transit. Her bag takes up space and if she’s going to get bothered for any reason I’d rather not be in a crowd. Even with good training, there are limits to what I think is fair to the dog and to human riders.
Our flawless life
Now, she loves it when I pick up the bag, just the same as when I pick up her leash. She wags furiously as I put her folded blanket in. She often jumps on it, scratches at the sides, or tries to get into it before it’s time to go. Though I started acclimating her to the bag with treats, she doesn’t need them now. She associates it purely with that peculiar canine joy of GOING SOMEWHERE WITH MY PERSON.
I typically carry the empty bag on my shoulder and walk her to the transit stop so she can get in one more pee. Then I put it on the ground, unzip it, and say, “Get in your bag.”
She does. And away we go.
The weeks of working with her on this bit by bit have paid off with some really flagrant rule-breaking on my part, as she’s gotten so good at riding in the bag that I take her into places where pets aren’t allowed. I try to give her at least one longish walk per day (ten blocks or more), weather and health allowing, and now I can combine this with running errands in the city. Other dogs get leashed to bike racks outside the store and wait desperately for their human to reappear, but Ginny goes into her bag and comes with me. We get train tickets and sandwiches; pick up prescriptions or grab a few things at the grocery store. She comes to psychotherapy appointments with me. She rides escalators and elevators. If someone asked to me to leave, I would without complaining. But no-one seems bothered.
In the future, I’m hoping we can work up to longer train rides of an hour or more, and then airplane rides in the cabin on domestic flights.
These aren’t tips from a professional trainer. I’ve never trained a dog to do this before now, and maybe real dog trainers would have better advice than mine — feel free to speak up in the comments if you have a technique or feedback to share, or if you have tips from your own experience of traveling with small dogs.
But the bottom line is still this: I didn’t train Ginny to ride in a bag because she’s a pretty accessory. (Her bag is not a stylish item. It’s a sturdy, plain carrier that that zips securely closed, and you don’t notice her inside unless you look carefully.) I trained her to ride in a bag because I wanted her to be out with me, enjoying life’s sights, smells, and company, instead of being home alone listening for the front door.
Plus, my life has been perfect ever since I started riding the train with a cute dog in a bag.
Can’t get enough of Ginny? You aren’t alone. Follow her on Instagram @yorkieyoda.