Hanging out with your dogs somewhere beautiful is pretty awesome. Getting them there, particularly if that beautiful spot is a long way away, is less awesome. Because three large dogs follow me around everywhere I go, this is a problem I frequently have. Here’s how I make road tripping with my dogs a reasonably stress-free experience.
Get Your Dog Comfortable with Car Rides
As with all things dog, raising a canine capable of calmly riding in a car is going to be easier the earlier in their lives you start acclimating them to it. From four to twelve weeks of age, puppies go through a crucial socialization period in which they soak up new experiences, learn their place in the world, and adapt to different environments—and car rides are no different from learning not to be scared of loud sounds or to be cool with children. Begin with small, highly managed experiences, and scale them slowly over time.
To start, enlist the help of a friend, and ask them to drive you around the block a couple of times while you cradle your puppy in your arms. Give the dog treats and praise in an effort to connect the experience with positive reinforcements. Once your pup is able to ride around calmly for, say, five minutes, try ten. You get the idea.
The connection between positive reinforcements and an experience clicks super fast in a puppy. It takes older dogs longer to feel comfortable with new things, but the method remains exactly the same.
Give Your Dog a Spot of Its Own
Keeping your dog calm and confident will be easier if you give it a regular place in the car. You can introduce that spot with a familiar blanket, bed, or toy, and over time, your dog will come to understand that, for example, the right rear seat is where it belongs. That will also help keep your dog from hopping around the car or feeling like it’s doing the wrong thing.
How much space does your dog need? Probably less than you might expect. I pack three large dogs into the back seat of my midsize Ford Ranger without issue. Wiley lies on the floorboards, Teddy takes up the entire back seat, and both growl at Bowie if he tries to sit in either area. See? No problem.
In all seriousness, just plan out a space in your car that’s about the same size as whatever kind of bed the dog sleeps on at home. When in doubt, go smaller rather than larger. Tight confines help the dog stay stable, which seems to make them happier.
Provide Food and Water
I try to keep my dogs on the same rough schedule they’re on at home. That means I feed them once, around midafternoon. This helps keep the timing of their energy spikes, poops, and complaints about nearly starving to death as predictable as possible.
I feed my dogs a healthy raw-food diet composed mainly of chicken drumsticks, along with some extra supplements, organs, and vitamins. It’s actually really easy to keep that diet consistent on the road. Just freeze the meals in individual serving-size baggies before you leave, then pack those individual meals into a cooler or portable fridge-freezer. Since you’re feeding them human food, you can restock at grocery stores along your route. A container of Lysol and a little bottle of hand sanitizer will help you avoid germs.
There’s a variety of supposedly spill-proof water bowls out there, but I’ve never found one that works, especially given the off-road nature of most of my road trips. So I just try to offer my dogs a fresh bowl of water every time we stop. If they empty it, I refill it until they stop drinking. A couple of reusable gallon jugs are the easiest, cheapest way to carry water for your pups.
Time Bathroom Breaks
A puppy needs a bathroom break at least once an hour. An older dog might be happy going four hours or more without stopping. You likely already know the rough frequency your dog requires from all those walks you give it. Just be aware that time spent in unfamiliar environments, with unfamiliar stimuli, can make even the most regular dog unpredictable, so monitor them for signs of pacing, excessive panting, or whining that may indicate a need to visit a roadside bush.
You’re going to stop at gas stations, so those might seem like convenient places to give your dog a bathroom break. Unfortunately, all the gasoline, oil, antifreeze (which is both poisonous and sometimes tasty to dogs), and other chemicals tend to spill over gas station forecourts. Either keep an eye out for that stuff—and keep your dog’s paws away from it—or wait until you’ve finished filling up and move your car adjacent to a grassy or wooded perimeter to give them a safe place to go to the bathroom.
The other big danger on road trips is heat. We all know dogs die in hot cars, but a lot of us are still guilty of underestimating how fast that can happen. If your vehicle can be left locked while running, you can safely leave your dogs inside it with the air-conditioning going. Just read your owner’s manual to find out how long it will run before turning itself off, and make sure you return to your car well before that time is up. Even then I wouldn’t leave my dogs unattended in a locked car for longer than a quick run into a store.
Any time they’re around traffic, dogs are also at risk of being run over. For this reason, I always keep my dogs leashed while they ride in cars. I’m also careful to keep the windows raised enough so that the dogs can’t squeeze out, and that all doors shut whenever they aren’t in use.
I explored restraints, barriers, crates, and other dog-safety devices at length in this article. Please don’t ever carry a dog in the open bed of a pickup truck; it’s estimated that at least 100,000 dogs are killed falling from pickup beds each year in this country. And even inside a capped bed, dogs can be subject to extreme temperatures.
Find the Perfect Place to Stay
Because I like to take my dogs to faraway places, I’ll drive, rather than fly, even on long trips. That means I often find myself with the need to crush highway miles for days at a time. My formula for maximizing those distances with dogs in tow is to drive until I’m tired, then find a Motel 6 to crash in. All Motel 6 locations are universally dog friendly, with no extra fees. And you’ll find one at most major highway exits in America.
The site Bring Fido can help you track down other options, either along your way or at your destination. Note that just because a hotel has some dog-friendly rooms listed, that does not mean a dog-friendly room will be available. It is always a good idea to call ahead. I’ve also written more about the responsibility a dog owner takes on when bringing their dogs to hotels.
The best way to travel with dogs, though, is simply to camp. By driving down dirt roads into a national forest or onto BLM land, or by visiting other types of public land, you can find a pretty place to spend a night, often in an area where your dog is welcome to run around off-leash. And, man, do dogs like to camp. (I explained how you can freely camp across the 640 million acres of public land we all own.)
This is probably the place to note that most national parks are not great places to take dogs. Even those where dogs are allowed only tend to allow them in front-country areas and developed campgrounds. National parks are special, uniquely fragile places. I leave my dogs at home when I visit them.