I am frequently asked how I “manage” traveling by myself with four dogs on these roadtrips. Hopefully, this page will answer this question and inspire you to take your best buddies along with you.
Firstly, you want to make sure your vehicle is a happy place for your canine companion. Start small: feeding meals inside, taking short trips to the grocery store, etc. Build up to a weekend trip. You and your dog want to know just what to expect before you head off on some travel marathon. Some dogs are content to snooze or just calmly watch the passing scenery while others are stressed-out screamers.
To Crate or Not to Crate
Sensible people crate their dogs or use doggie seat-belt type restraints while driving. I’m not one of ’em. Yes, in the event of an accident, if your dog is loose, he/she may go hurtling through the windshield or at your head. Your then freaked-out dog may end up running down a busy road — collarless and lost. All of this is pretty terrifying to think about. But for me, having my dogs loose is worth those risks. If they were locked up in the back, I’d be bored out of my mind which would be hazardous in itself. Also, their antics and reactions to what they see out the windows add tremendously to my own enjoyment.
I also think being crated for most of the day can’t be good for their bodies. But if your dog jumping about and barking is going to distract you, then you probably want to lock or belt ’em up. Or maybe just for city driving. Most dogs snooze on the interstate.
I actually do bring crates along on my roadtrips. They are disassembled and nested in the back of the van for emergencies. One is used as a storage bin for their dry food, favorite toys, and my snacks. Other “temptations” are locked away in bins (toys) and coolers (perishable snacks, drinks & doggie treats). I keep the coolers up front with me since I have one genius that can figure out how to open just about anything. Remember to be extra careful with such items as gum, chocolate, raisins, medications, etc. which are all toxic to dogs.
If you are going to travel with your dogs loose, you want to make sure that they aren’t going to go near the vehicle’s pedals or controls. Common sense prevails: know yourself, know your dog(s). The number one rule in my pack is that they should never, ever, never, jump out of the van until I say the magic word “okay!”. When I’m getting stuff out of the van or putting leashes on everybody and that big side door is open, I don’t want to worry about any of them hopping out.
Collars / No Collars
I usually don’t have collars on my dogs when they are in the van. I have a friend who went into a convenience store to get coffee and came out to find her dog had gotten her collar stuck on something and strangled herself in less than five minutes. So since I’m popping in and out of the van all day to take photos, I don’t want to risk that happening with my dogs. Most of the time, outside of the van, they wear collars. I often remove them when I’m posing them for photos. They just look sexier without them (my opinion). I think it’s smarter to have your cell phone number rather than your home phone number inscribed on their collars or tags just in case they get lost. All of my dogs are microchipped which means they have “internal collars” as well.
Packing for Dogs
Of course, you want to bring along all of your doggie essentials: their regular food, favorite toys, etc. I’ve heard of some dogs getting sick from drinking, or refusing to drink, water that they’re not used to. However, I’ve never had this problem. I usually fill up both of my gallon water jugs at gas stations or hotels and that’s good enough. If you’re in a remote area, you might ask if the water is safe to drink. Or you can hit those water vending machines if you like. One jug is for drinking water and one is for quick dousing from running around in the heat. It’s also good to have extra water on hand for an impromptu bath in case your dog(s) decides to roll in something stinky. I’ve found human shampoo works better than dog soap when something like that happens. Nothing much worse on a long trip than an interior reeking of dead fish.
An extra leash or two is good to have in case you lose a leash — or find a stray dog. Some people like to bring along marrow bones or Kongs to fill with peanut butter to give their dogs something to do. You might want to assemble or buy a doggie first aid kit if you’re the type that likes to be prepared for anything. Benedryl is good for dogs that like to snap at bees. Flea and tick stuff might be in order if they will be in the areas you’re traveling to. I’m sure there are lots of good recommendations on-line for doggie travel kits. I don’t obsess about things like that myself. My emergencies are more likely to be losing a favorite squeakie toy or frisbee. So I always have a backup supply.
If you’re traveling across the border (Canada or Mexico), you’re going to need a health certificate from your vet that shows dates & serial numbers of rabies and other shots. You might want to have these certificates on hand even if you’re not leaving the country just in case your dog gets into a fight with another dog or bites someone. Some dog parks (see below) will ask to see these records and licenses before admitting you.
Off With the Leash
The most important thing in maintaining your sanity on roadtrips is to get your dogs lots of exercise. I get my dogs out for at least two good runs each day in addition to pee-breaks every couple of hours. I usually coordinate pee-breaks with gas fill-ups. Their morning run is absolutely essential to take the edge off. And if you’re traveling in summer, it’s the coolest and best time for a serious romp. Three of my dogs are very active so we play lots of retrieving games. My senior dog is happy just to sniff around and get treats for her three foot retrieves and other low-impact tricks. If your dogs have good recalls (coming when called), you can get by with big lawns or dirt lots just about anywhere.
Room to Run
On the road, look around for semi-funky school grounds or business parks on weekends, church properties on weekdays, neglected cemeteries, big vacant lots behind gas stations off the interstate, etc. Avoid pristine ballfields, golf courses, and places with big “No Dogs” signs. I have been all over the country in all kinds of rural and urban settings but I have never had to drive more than ten minutes to find an acceptable spot to cut ’em loose. Show some caution though since “funky” places usually have discarded fast food wrappers & fistfuls of French Fries, sticker bushes, and sometimes broken glass, nails, etc.
If you’re into nature, you might want to do a little pre-trip research for off-leash or on-leash trails. Before unsnapping that leash in a remote area, you want to consider how rock solid your dog’s recall is when encountering wildlife. Since my dogs are basically terriers, my recall is pretty useless when it comes to rabbits, squirrels, deer, etc. so forest-y & long grass situations are not appropriate for us. On the other hand, they have gotten loads of exercise in dirt fields full of ground hogs. No harm to the ground hogs who call to each other and then duck into their tunnels. There’s no hope of my dogs catching them but it doesn’t stop my guys from full-out running and the euphoria of the pursuit.
My dogs, like most, love any kind of beach so I try to include lots of ocean, river, and lake pit-stops during my trips. Legal, off-leash beaches are rare so you need to use your judgement. If you find some slightly skanky, remote, sunbather-free spot, it will probably be okay. Consider the likelihood of fish hooks, gators, etc. Many beaches on the East Coast permit off-leash dogs in the off-season. Even dogs that don’t like to swim can be encouraged to wade in and cool off by tossing tasty kibble, small bits of bread, or Goldfish crackers a foot or two from the water’s edge. Eventually, even the wimps will often suck it up and start to swim past the tippie-toe stage if the treats or toys are worthwhile.
If you don’t trust your dogs off-leash, you might want to check out fenced dog parks. Most of them are free of charge and these days just about every city in the country has at least one. But some are small and some have nothing but skanky, hard-to-run-on mulch. Some have water and kiddie pools to cool off in. Some have holes in the fencing big enough for a small dog to get out. Some of the private/members-only places offer a cheap day pass as well. Some of the bigger, nicer dog parks have lakes, picnic tables, and plenty of room for dogs that need their space. Many have a three dog limit (seldom enforced). Some don’t allow toys or treats (so, no point in being at those for us). You might want to do some research on-line before your trip.
Most dog parks have separate big and small dog areas. I often take my small dogs into the big dog area since it’s sometimes more spacious and my guys are well-socialized. Use your judgement since it can be dangerous for small dogs if the big dogs there are not well-mannered. If there are just a couple of large dogs in the Big Dog Area, you might ask the owners how their big dogs are with small dogs before you take the plunge.
If your big dog is laid back and isn’t appropriate for all the commotion of the Big Dog Area, you might want to use the usually more subdued Small Dog Area if that’s okay with the other folks there and you’re confident that your big dog will remain calm. Know your dog and study the other dogs inside any area before you enter. Once inside, watch what’s going on all around so you can avoid a negative experience with your dog. Sometimes the owners are clueless and just as bullying as their dogs. If your dog is not having a good time or is not acting appropriately, then it’s time to leave! There are a number of excellent on-line videos by Sue Sternberg about dog behavior in dog parks that you might want to have a look at:
There’s also a “Dog Park Assistant” app for your iPhone that has lots of videos, etc. that will help you decipher your dog’s and other dogs’ playing styles and behaviors at dog parks:
Since dog parks can be dangerous and unpredictable places, it’s well worth the time invested to train your dog to reliably come to you so that he/she can get lots of off-leash time in other places. That freedom will make roadtrips much more enjoyable for both you and your dog(s). And a solid recall is the single-most important thing you can teach your dog anyway — for both home and the road. You will never be “done” teaching your dog to come and you should always reward it highly. Coming to you is something your dog should WANT to do not something he/she should or must do.
To start out, I recommend a lightweight 50 foot leash. You should also bring it on the road with you. Start training in a quiet and familiar environment (backyard, public place that you always go but that doesn’t have distractions). You never let the dog get more than 10 or 20 feet away from you when you are training. That extra length of leash is just to give you time to step on the leash if you dog starts to take off. Starting with your dog just two or three feet away and rewarding frequently is the best way to start getting that head snap, change of direction, and running towards you that you are seeking.
Call your dog’s name when he/she is just a couple of feet away and run away making happy/silly noises to induce your dog’s prey/play drive. Reward each and every time your dog comes to you — pour on the praise and give the treat immediately — with no extra “sit” or “down” between the coming and the treat. You want to reward coming — not the submissive sit/down behavior. Make it exciting, fun, and worth coming to you. Never chastise a dog for NOT coming to you. You will only be making yourself less fun to be with and make coming to you less desirable with an unpredictable outcome.
Processed dog treats are pretty boring and they’re not healthy for your dog either. Instead, I recommend cheddar cheese, roast beef, kielbasa, lasagna, tuna salad — a variety of stuff mixed in with plain old tiny kibble (to cut back on the calories a bit). Think gooey, stinky, and tasty. This variety makes every reward slightly different and interesting. I don’t care that those scientists say dogs don’t have a highly evolved palate — mine sure do! Make sure your roadtrip treats are just as delicious and interesting as the ones you use at home — or better. Maybe add a little regional cuisine in the mix (shrimp, tamale, buttermilk biscuit). Give teeny, tiny pieces as your rewards — and cut back on meals so that you don’t fatten up your dog. The secret to effective dog training is not the size of the reward but the frequency. And if you are doing your job, the “task” will be easy so the frequency will be high. So, if you are doing a lot of training, your dogs’ meals will be miniscule.
When training your recall (or anything), gradually work up to more distracting environments (other people around, other dogs around, noise, water, etc.). Learn what is do-able for your dog and work on improving your recalls every day. Adding a “down-stay” and/or a “sit-stay” to your recall training can make it a fun game. It is also useful for building focus for all those photo-ops that you’ll want to take advantage of on your roadtrips. Again, start small and reward highly with great treats and sincere verbal praise. The goal is to have the dog stay while you walk or run away from then. At first, you are simply rewarding your dog for staying when you take one baby step backwards. You then take the baby step forward and give you dog the treat while they are still in their sit or down. Gradually, you add more distance. Eventually, your “come!” or “here!” will be his/her release to run full-tilt to you for some super duper treats. If the dog breaks his/her stay during the training, just set them back up where they were (do not scold or act negative in any way!) and use shorter distances for awhile. Once the game is clear to your dog, you can change the simple “come!” command to a “1…2.. 3…….. OK!” or “ready…. steady…. GO!” to make the anticipation more exciting and recall faster. You can also throw the treat or a toy ahead of you — or have an all-out tugging session when the dog reaches you.
In open, safe places, I play the “van game”. I walk a good distance away from the van with the side door wide open and the dogs inside. Then, I call all the dogs to me with a loud “okay!”. That sends them flying to me for treats. Often, I’ll just throw a handful of kibble on the ground so they can all quickly scavenge. Very exciting. But — know your dogs — if they are at all food possessive, this would not be good.
Then I send them all back inside the van with a “go get in!”. Then, I can release them all again for another frenzied run to me. Sometimes, I’ll stand right next to the van to play this game so I can hand-feed each one in the van for getting in the van and staying there. Ultimately, it’s more important to make staying in the van more highly rewarded than jumping out — even if it’s for coming to me. If you have multiple dogs, you can call just one dog out at a time by his/her name. And then give treats to all of them since they all have to listen and staying is just as important as coming. Dogs like thinking! Mental exercise can be just as good as physical exercise for tuckering out your beast and creating a happy traveling companion.
Dog Friendly Hotels
I’d love to support mom & pop motels but it rarely works out that way. Most of them have a no-pet policy. It’s usually just easier to pick out a place from my handy-dandy Red Roof or Motel 6 books. Both chains are pretty cheap and not only welcome pets but they don’t charge extra for them. Although both chains have a one-small-pet-only policy, 99.9% of the time, it’s not enforced. Many of the other chains (Days Inn, Comfort Inn, Super 8, Holiday Inn, etc.) usually accept pets but it depends on the location and they often charge $10-$20 per pet per night. That’s not within my budget since I’m traveling with four dogs.
Basic motel courtesy. Pick up poop, of course. If you’ve got a shedding type dog, cover the bed with your own blanket or sheet. Never leave your dog(s) alone in the room since they may get into mischief (barking, chewing, digging, eating the soap, etc.). Check under the bed for anything edible or disgusting that your dog might find there. Some dogs would prefer to sleep in their crates at the end of a long day on the road than to sleep on the bed with you. So, give them the option and don’t be insulted if they’d rather be alone!
I hope you have found this info useful in preparing for your next trip. Happy travels to you and your dogs!