Before you load your pup into the car, let’s look at some tips to help ensure your road trip with the dog is awesome.
Everyone must be so excited about the upcoming adventure, even more so because this time you’re bringing the dog. Hang on a minute, have you done this before or is it your first time? Please don’t wait until the car is packed to put the dog in and hope for the best.
First things first, does your dog like the car?
If the answer is yes fantastic, scroll down to the next relevant section but if the answer is “no” or “I don’t know” keep reading.
Helping your dog love the car
You can get him used to the car and hopefully even enjoying a ride using a technique called desensitisation. It means creating positive associations between one thing and another. In this instance, the use of tasty treats/toys/praise (whatever motivates him) to teach him something really good always happens when he gets in the car.
Obviously I have no idea at what stage your dog is at – is he fine in it until you’re driving more than a few minutes, or does seeing the car send him screaming into the night? For the sake of this article I am going to assume it’s the latter so here’s what you do.
Grab some food he will do anything to get his paws on, the kind he only gets on a rare occasion, and cut it up into small pieces. Keeping them in a pouch attached to your belt or pocket will make it easy for you to access. If your dog is not food motivated, perhaps rewarding him with a favourite toy or praise is enough.
Start at the point where your dog is still fine. For example, I’ll say he’s fine when he sees the car in the driveway as long as it’s through the window of the house. Great, so while he’s looking out the window give him a treat. The next step is opening the front door for him to see the car more clearly (keep him on a leash!). If he’s still fine, give him a treat. Take a step forward, still fine, another treat. Another step, another treat, by the car door treat, open the door treat, sit in the car in the driveway treat, turn the engine on with him in the car… You will take baby steps until he’s in the car while it’s moving and he’s fine.
If you reach a point that causes panic, the slightest hesitation, or uncertainty that’s okay – don’t say anything, don’t give him any treats, go back in the house and be cool, like nothing happened. Try again later, starting from the point where he was still fine, and slow down the speed at which you move from step to step. You may have gone too quickly.
How long will this take?
As long as it takes! Every dog learns at a different pace, and level of anxiety will factor into it as well. It is important to take it slowly even if it’s frustrating, because moving too quickly can set his training back.
That’s all fine and dandy but we’re leaving in two days!
I would still start the training right now for two reasons – you can never go wrong teaching your dog something new, and he may get used to the car pretty quickly.
How about trying a CD called Through a Dog’s Ear – it is bioacoustically designed classical music, proven to help calm dogs with anxiety. Start playing the 13 minute sample on Youtube until it arrives, and if you won’t get it in time use the taster during the trip. An important point – the first time you play it make sure he’s relaxed, because it will build up the association between the music and feelings of calm. It is not guaranteed to work on every dog, nothing is, but the success rate is around 80% and it works for mine!
Rescue Remedy is a combination of 5 Bach Flower Remedies formulated to relieve anxiety, and Valerian is another natural option to help with stress. Alternatively your vet can recommend something mild to help take the edge off. Whatever you choose try it before the big day to see if it works.
Ingress and egress assistance
My fancy way of asking if your dog needs help getting in and out of the car. Getting a small dog in and out is one thing, but a big one? That’s where pet steps and ramps come in handy. If you already use pet steps in the house try them for the car, if not a ramp should do the trick. They come in different sizes, some are adjustable and fold so they take little room in the car.
The next question is – will your dog use it? Let him have a go before you’re packing up the car. If he’s hesitant you can try my trick (well, not mine but something I’ve done that worked) – put a delicious treat at the bottom of the ramp. If he approaches the ramp and eats it no problem, put the next treat a little higher, then the next one a little higher. If he hesitates at any time leave it and try again later. Start at the bottom again, and very slowly work your way up. More effective if you keep all training sessions short.
If you’re running out of time and he’s not yet ready to use the ramp, you may consider bringing it with you and practicing on the trip.
In car safety for the four legged and two legged passengers
It is not safe to let a dog of any size have free run of the car or sit on anyone’s lap, especially the driver’s. He could not only hurt himself, but could distract the driver enough to cause a serious accident. Even if he is perfectly behaved and sits still better than your kids, it is advisable to restrain him in some away, whether that’s with a doggie seatbelt or a crate. If you have to brake suddenly or are, heaven forbid, involved in a fender bender, your dog could get seriously injured. All humans are strapped in for that reason, why not your dog. He is a member of the family!
If you are interested in seeing what kind of products are available that can help keep your dog safe in the car, read my article on dog safety products.
Don’t let your dog sit in front of an airbag.
You often see dogs with their heads stuck out the window, wind in their fur but it’s not a good idea. He can get hurt by a passing car or flying debris. Nothing wrong with leaving the window open a bit for the breeze though!
Car seat covers/protectors
Spilled food, wet and muddy paws or even car sickness can do a real number on your seats. A sheet or blanket are options in a pinch, but a cover made specifically for cars is better.
Vet and emergency numbers
Whether you’re traveling to the next state or another country, prepare a list of veterinary practices and emergency hospitals in the area. The last thing you want to do is wait until you need one to start looking.
Don’t eat and run
Feed your dog a light meal at least three hours before you leave. You don’t want him getting sick in the car.
What to pack for your dog
What, you thought you were the only one that needed to pack a suitcase? Even on our day trips the dogs have a bigger bag than we do!
- Health and vaccination records, including rabies certificate. Even if you’re staying relatively close to home, you never know when they’ll come in handy.
- Food, especially if your pup is on a special diet, and always pack more than you think you’ll need
- Bowls – regular or collapsible. On our two day road trip to Spain I used disposable for the convenience
- Good supply of poop bags
- Leash/harness – even if your dog doesn’t typically wear a harness it’s safer in a new environment and on the road
- Favourite toys
- bed/blanket – good for the car, hotel…
- Flea/tick medication
- Motion sickness/anti anxiety medication
- First aid kit – assemble your own or buy one ready made but do have a pet first aid kit handy. It may be an emergency that can’t wait until you find a vet, or you’re off on a hiking trail in the middle of nowhere, be prepared. For advice on what to do in an emergency this article will help. Print it out and put it in your first aid kit.
Your dog should be microchipped and wear a collar with a tag – both with up to date contact information. In the unlikely event he goes missing, you want to make sure you do everything you can to ensure his safe return. An up to date photo isn’t a bad idea to have either.
Tire him out
Before you strap yourselves in, take your dog for a long walk, hike or run. It will burn off energy so he’s calmer in the car.
Dog friendly resources on the road
You might have done the research, booked the dog friendly hotel and know where every dog park and vet are, but we all know when on a car trip it’s not hard to veer off course…and off schedule. If you find yourself doing just that these will help.
During the journey
Keep your dog hydrated throughout the journey, particularly if you are travelling in warm weather and don’t have air conditioning.
If you have been allowing your dog to jump out of the car as soon as the door opens, you might want to stop that. It could be dangerous, especially on a road trip in unfamiliar territory and hectic rest areas. Before any doors are open he should be attached to a harness, but having said that he should be restrained in the car so jumping out wouldn’t be an option. If he isn’t restrained…teach him to “wait” when the door opens, only allowing him to jump out on your command, after the leash is clipped on to him.
Stop often enough to allow your dog to take care of business, and get some exercise. He’ll need to burn off some of the energy so he continues to be well behaved.
Designated rest stops have plenty of light from gas stations and restaurants if your journey is taking you through the night. If you find yourself pulling over in a dark area have your dog wear a high viz vest so he can be clearly seen. A flashing dog collar and light up leash are also handy, as is a flashlight for obvious reasons.
When stopping for a break for the humans in your group never leave the dog alone in the car, even if you think it will only be for a few minutes. It won’t take long for your dog to suffer heatstroke and die in hot weather, or freeze to death in cold. You also never know who spots him alone and snatches him.
Dogs have very sensitive hearing, so don’t blast the radio or movie player.
How to ensure your road trip with the dog is awesome – conclusion
By following these helpful tips on your next road trip with the dog, you’re ready for an awesome adventure.
Safe and happy travels!
Do you take your dog with you on car trips? How do you keep them calm and safe during the drive? Sharing helps others so let us know by leaving your story in the comment section below, or on my Facebook page if you’re traveling with a senior dog.