10 tips for road-tripping with your dog

There are rules for the road and there are rules for the road if you’re on the road with your canine friend and so, I present to you, 10 tips for road-tripping with your dog. My husband and I returned to Austin a few days ago after spending 38 days straight on the road. It was just us, our new loft-bed-outfitted minivan, and our 6 month old puppy when we took off from our house on November 21st. This was our first time taking our dog, Fiona, out of town. She had never spent more than 30 consecutive minutes in the car prior to this trip and we weren’t sure how she’d take to the road. Fortunately for us, she seems to have taken after us. Apparently a bit of a wanderlust herself, little Fiona braved the road (and the cold snow for the first time) during those 38 days. She turned 7 months old and then 8 months old while we were, largely, living out of our van. She did so admirably and I have come home with 10 solid tips for those of you who love road-tripping but also prefer to take your dog with you when you travel.

%Gallery-142850%1. Visit the vet before you go.
It’s important that your dog is in good health if you’re going to expect your dog to behave well and enjoy a road-trip, particularly if it’s a lengthy one. Take your dog to the vet before you hit the road. Make sure your dog has all vaccinations he or she might need, depending on where you’re traveling to on your trip. A Rabies vaccination is an especially important one. Not only will you be stopped from crossing borders without proof of an up-to-date Rabies vaccination, but you put your dog at great risk if he or she doesn’t have one or is due for a new shot. While you’re at the vet, purchase any medication your pet may need. As a courtesy to dog-friendly hotels as well as to your dog, it’s a good idea to get a new batch of flea and worm preventative medicine going before your dog is on the road with you. If your dog hasn’t been spayed or neutered and you’re open to the idea, this is a good time to move forward with the procedure and save yourself and other dog owners from the hassle of an unexpected doggy pregnancy. The vet can also insert a microchip under your dog’s skin. Our dog was a rescue and the rescue company inserted one of these before we adopted her. While having her on the road, continually in different cities, this little chip certainly eased my mind.

2. Take a trip to the pet store.
Depending on where you’re going on your trip, your dog may need all sorts of things that you wouldn’t ordinarily have around. Make sure you have a supply of food large enough to last through your entire trip. Complement this with a healthy snack for your dog, which you’ll find handy if your dog is feeling anxious from the road or simply deserves a treat. We bought our dog a robust rope toy for the road to give her something new to focus on while spending extended hours in the car. If you don’t already have a car crate for your dog, consider purchasing one. It’s important that your dog’s riding situation is as safe as it can be–for both you and the pup (if you slam on your brakes and your dog comes flying toward the driver’s seat, it’s likely to worsen the incident and perhaps cause an avoidable accident). Consider the climate of where you’re going. Since our dog is a short-haired Whippet/Catahoula mix who had never seen snow before this trip, we bought her a warm coat. She hated it, but it kept her from shivering while we walked her around the bitter cold in Minneapolis. While at the pet store, you can also consider buying a new leash, collar, doggy first aid kit, nail clipper, dog Valerian Root, a bright orange vest if you’ll be out in the woods during hunting season, and, my personal favorite, the FURminator (it’s a relatively expensive dog brush, but it will keep the upholstery in your car and luggage more hair-free than any other brush or technique I’ve found).

3. Prepare a comfort zone for your dog.
My theory was this: Fiona is going to be exposed to countless new places, people, and experiences on this trip. She needs a comfort zone, a safe place, that is just for her–somewhere she can go to feel calm and relish in the familiar. We made this place her car crate, which is, I think, the most practical thing to do. We filled the crate with a blanket from home we no longer needed, her favorite toys, and, admittedly, tons of treats at first (hey, we wanted her to love it). We even had a battery-powered night light near the crate at first so that she wouldn’t be in total blackness throughout all of the hours of driving through the night we did. The main point here though is that your dog feels as though he or she has a place in the car–a familiar zone.

4. Pack your car wisely.
If you’re getting ready to go on a road-trip, especially a long one, you know as well as anyone that there’s only so much space in your vehicle for your belongings. As for us, our car was packed to the brim when we set out. To complicate it further, we had a bike and bike rack on the back of our car (we were bringing a bike to a friend as a favor), which made it difficult to open and close the back door without careful consideration. You’ll need your dog’s go-to items nearby–not packed deep in a piece of luggage beneath piles of luggage. Items to keep near you: a supply of plastic bags, towels for dirty paws, food, water, food and water dishes, leash, any medication, papers, nail clippers, brush, and anything else you deem important. As a general rule of thumb, if it’s out of reach, you probably won’t bother using it. We wound creating an entire ‘Fiona’ bag and keeping it at the edge of the car’s trunk area.

5. Evaluate your route carefully.
Many factors go into road-tripping with your dog and a big factor is location. Where are you going? If you’re crossing the border in certain parts of Ontario, any Pitbull-looking dog can not only be refused entry into Canada, but I’ve read that this breed can actually be taken from owners and euthanized. Read up on Pitbulls in Ontario. Pitbull owners need to be especially careful because of Pitbull bans like the Pitbull ban in Denver, Colorado. Where you’re going on your trip will also determine which vaccinations are necessary and what kind of climate you can expect. While traveling with your dog isn’t usually complicated by regional jurisdictions, it can be. Make sure you know the laws of the land for you and your dog before you travel.

6. Research your destinations.
Once you know where you’re going, you can further research the area. The Yelp iPhone app on our helped us get through our road trip with Fiona immensely. When we needed to take her to a vet in Minneapolis, Yelp pointed us in the direction of a highly rated but still affordable vet just a few miles down the road from where we were staying. He was great with her and with us and the experience certainly could have been more sour had we simply taken her to the nearest vet without doing any research. The app also helped us to locate dog parks as we traveled and other dog-friendly areas. We kept her exercising and socializing along the way because of this, which helped her to sleep more soundly when it was time to jump back in the car. A little bit of research can give you a go-to mental or actual list of vets, dog parks, pet stores, and pet-friendly hotels and other destinations.

7. Avoid stressing your dog out.
A stressed out dog is, often times, a difficult to manage dog. Try your best to avoid stressing your dog out. Turn off the speakers in the back of your car if your dog is back there. Remember that sounds affect dogs much more acutely than they do humans. If your dog is naturally anxious in the car, consider giving your dog doggy Valerian Root. It’s all-natural and can be crushed up into your dog’s food for a calming effect. Make sure your dog can sleep in his or her environment (ie, if you dog vomits inside the crate, by all means, clean up the mess before expecting the dog to go back in the crate and soundly sleep). Do not leave your dog unattended in the car for a long period of time. Do not leave your dog unattended in the car at all if the temperature outside the car is anything other than ideal. A warm day will mean a very hot car interior. If you need to leave your dog in the car unattended for a few minutes during cold weather, be sure to jack up the heat and let it blow for a while into the car before turning off the car. And I reiterate: do not leave your dog unattended in the car for extended periods of time and only if it’s absolutely necessary (take-out from restaurants is a fine alternative to dining in if you ask me). Avoid sporadic changes in your driving when possible. The fewer times you slam on the brakes, speed up quickly, honk your horn, etc., the better.

8. Exercise your dog.
Many problems I hear about between dog owners and their dogs are simple cases of lack of exercise. Your dog needs to be exercised to be happy, fair and square. Just like humans, dogs need regular exercise. If you don’t regularly exercise yourself, it’s still your duty as a dog owner to regularly exercise your dog. This is even more important on the road since your dog will be spending much of his or her time cramped up in the car crate. Stop at rest stops. Most of them have a pet area and some of them even have elaborate trails for dog walking. Instead of standing still, waiting for your dog to do his or her deeds, jog with your dog. It will get your heart racing and help your dog to travel well in the car if you do this every 2-3 hours at rest stops. On top of this, locate dog parks when you can. An exercised dog is a happy dog, remember that.

9. Keep a consistent schedule.
It’s not always easy to keep a consistent schedule while road-tripping–it was difficult for us. Road-tripping is unpredictable. Accidents, traffic, bad weather, the sudden urge to drive all night, the coming and going of new people and places–by definition, your schedule probably isn’t very consistent while you’re on the road. But dogs love consistency and familiarity. If you can only consistently do one or two things a day, do them! Feed your dog at the same times or walk your dog for 15 minutes every morning. Whatever it is, give your dog something to rely on as a standard part of everyday life and, I’m just conjecturing based off of our experience, your dog will have an easier time adjusting to the road.

10. Reward your dog.
Being a well-behaved road dog, especially during the first road trip, is no easy feat for any dog. Use positive reinforcement to encourage your dog’s good behaviors. Have treats around to give your dog when he or she has behaved well in the car. Use the phrase ‘Good boy’, ‘Good girl’, or ‘Good dog’ every time they are appropriate. Dogs generally understand the word good and they like it. Why? Because dogs want to know when they’re doing a good job. Let your dog know when he or she is behaving well through treats, exercise, and positive reinforcement and your dog will want to continue behaving well.

Have you road-tripped with your dog? What are some tips you have from your own experiences? Share them! We’d love to know.