What are your best practices for vacationing in a car with a dog?
July 21, 2015 11:52 AM   Subscribe

We're headed on a family vacation next week that will take us down the east coast from Connecticut to Florida and back. The trip will last about 14 days and we'll be in a Mazda5 (micro minivan with a 3rd row) with 2 adults, 2 kids (8 & 10) and our adult rescue dog, Henry. We've never traveled with a dog before and so are looking for suggestions on how to make this process go as smoothly as possible.

Henry is our 8-year old 30-lb rescue terrier mix that we've had for 2 years. He's very mellow most of the time but can be a bit unpredictable/reactive around other dogs. He's been fine at the groomers and doggie daycare in the past but we've started having problems when we're walking him in the neighborhood on leash. Now I just cross the street if I see a dog coming so I don't have to worry about conflict. We are in obedience training classes to help us with this behavior.

I have no idea what to pack or what we'll need when we're on the road with a dog. Should he be in a crate or should we put him in a seat in the 3rd row with a seat belt. Do folks that travel with dogs just eat in the car, or picnic or are there restaurants that let you bring a dog inside? We'll be staying along the way with friends that have dogs. What's the best way to handle the initial introduction of the various animals? Our vet gave us doggie Xanax and suggested we give him that twice a day but I worry about doing that for 14 days. He's a very mellow lap dog (usually) and I worry that the medication will turn him in to a zombie dog. We'll probaby be speading at least one night in a hotel in the NC/SC area so feel free to make dog-friendly hotel/motel suggestions.

Thanks so much for any advice you can give me. Really, no idea is too small or too obvious since we're complete newbies.
posted by victoriab to Pets & Animals (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Check out http://bringfido.com for restaurants and hotels, I was hipped to the site from here a year ago, and it's a great site.
posted by kellyblah at 11:55 AM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

My wife and I moved cross country with our mini schnauzer a year ago.

We kind of planned it so that we stopped every night at a place with a Motel 6, which allows pets, but there are quite a few hotels that will allow pets for an extra fee, so you don't have to limit yourself. No hotel will allow you to leave the dog unattended, though.

For breaks, we stopped every couple hours for gas and took the dog for a short walk during that time. Our dog is leash-aggressive with other dogs as well, but it was never a problem.

At one of our breaks every day, we'd just eat PB&J sandwiches at a gas station, and get chips and drinks or whatever at the mini-mart. For dinner, one of us would go out and grab something and bring it back to our hotel room.

Our dog was 4 years old, and pretty much slept the whole trip. I wasn't entirely comfortable with the situation for her safety, but we just had her dog bed in the car and she slept in it. Without a crate, I don't know that a seatbelt would actually be a good thing.
posted by LionIndex at 12:01 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

You probably know this, but don't leave your dog in the car for any length of time. Even with windows open, it can reach dangerous temperatures in the interior of a car in minutes in the summer.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:01 PM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

A few thoughts:

Put him in a seat, not crated while in the car. Lots of dogs love car trips, they just mellow right out. They sell blanket things that hook over the backs of the seats to create a nice spacious dog area (good for keeping dogs out of the floor space, if that's an issue, but what my brother (two dogs 50+lbs) and I (one dog 20lbs) is just put down blankets so they don't get the car all dogged up. The crate will rattle around too much (which can be scary) and be a hard slammy thing to be in if you have to break quickly. No need for a seatbelt unless your dog is a wanderer.

Don't be worried if your dog doesn't eat much or regularly while you're on the road. Travel is stressful (for humans and dogs) and messing with their regular routine can sometimes confuse them. He's an animal. Keep offering him his regular meals, he'll eat when he needs to.

For water, my biggest discovery lately has been TUPPERWARE. Get a container that seals really well (I like lock and lock brand, never once had a leak), fill it with water, and keep it in the top of the cooler. Every time you stop the car, open up the tupperware and stick it on the ground near the car so the dog can get an easy drink. (You should start putting the tupperware full of water out by his regular water bowl a couple days in advance so he can learn how to use it. My dog is confused by new bowls sometimes.)

Best thing to do is to let your dog get out of the car, walk a bit, stretch his legs, sniff the ground, and pee before meeting the new dogs. When my dog first met my brother's dog, my brother's dog bounded right up to the car, terrifying him, and my dog peed on me a little bit. (They became fast friends, but the initial meeting could have gone smoother.)
posted by phunniemee at 12:04 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

For the car seat blanket, I'm talking about something like this. My mom got my brother a knockoff brand one (much cheaper) last year for his dogs. He doesn't use it much because his dogs are great about staying put in the car, but it might be a good idea for you.
posted by phunniemee at 12:08 PM on July 21, 2015

I've done many long roadtrips with dogs over the years!

We don't crate the dogs. They're extremely mellow in the car, especially when they realize we're going on a road trip, and generally just sleep most of the time. They'll be excited at first, but calm down quickly and settle in. We have an SUV, and we fold the seats down and toss the dog bed and blankets back there.

At rest stops or gas stations, we always take them out for a decent walk. Make sure your dog has time to drink water when you stop.

For pet-friendly accommodations, we've had the best experiences with Best Western and Travelodge hotels. We like those because they usually have rooms with microwaves and mini-fridges available.

For meals, we usually bring food with us (cooler with sandwich stuff, fruit and veggies, bread, etc) for picnics or get fast food while we're on the road. When we stop for the night we get take-out or go to a grocery store with a deli, and eat in our hotel room. You're not likely to find many restaurants that allow dogs, but you can always search ahead for restaurants with patios that might allow it. On one very long roadtrip, we brought along a small microwave rice cooker/veggie steamer, and we got pretty creative with rice-and-veggie dishes for dinner in hotel rooms (Near East and Zatarains make easily-packable couscous and rice things).

Our dogs tend to not eat much for the first few days of a roadtrip. We once made the mistake of trying to supplement their lack-of-eating with too many dog snacks, which resulted in a car full of dog farts. Don't make this mistake!
posted by erst at 12:12 PM on July 21, 2015

The La Quinta hotel chain also routinely accepts pets; always good to call the specific one you plan to stay at to see if that particular franchise is funky, though.
posted by charmedimsure at 12:12 PM on July 21, 2015

We'll be staying along the way with friends that have dogs. What's the best way to handle the initial introduction of the various animals?

Get trained by a trainer on how to do this, and also how to end a fight without humans, at least, needing medical attention. You should be prepared to pay vet bills if the situation created by bringing a strange dog into another dog's home ends badly.

This is an extraordinarily bad idea when you have not done at least half a dozen day trips and overnights to assess the dog's ability to handle even the travel, or train the dog how to travel like that. You already know your dog is iffy with other dogs, you don't know how he is on the road, and you are unprepared for the hardest part of travel with a dog: you cannot leave them alone ever, not in hotels, you can't leave them alone in the car, and you can't leave them alone uncrated* in a strange house even without another pet present, much less with an unfamiliar dog on its home turf.

*And you don't know if, even crated, the dog's going to be terrified. You can't leave them in the yard, either, as you don't know what the dog will do.

Safety best practices are for the dog to travel crated, but that's largely for the safety of first responders and other drivers in an accident. Putting a dog in a canine seatbelt harness all day every day for two weeks is not conscionable, at least in a crate they can move around a little. Out in the open in the car cabin, they can make themselves a little more comfortable though a serious accident will have serious repercussions for the human occupants.

Unless your dog absolutely adores road trips and is an excellent guest in other people's houses already, I think the best practice is for him to stay at a really good play-and-stay facility while you're gone.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:13 PM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]

My wife and I have done thousands of miles with our dogs. We've crossed the country twice with them.

They are crated when we take her car. It is safer for them, by far, because of the restraint. In my truck, I have removed the back seat and made it into a sort of crate for them, though it is not totally enclosed, it is small, and they aren't thrown around by an unexpected maneuver. Point is, dog safety is a real consideration, so you should think about how stable they will be in the car.

On the road, the dogs are very mellow. We have a routine down - I put gas in the car, she takes a leak and grabs a snack. Then I go in, and she takes the dogs for walk and whatever. This way, the dogs are never unattended.

La Quinta takes dogs, and are usually OK nice. They vary a lot, though.

We usually eat in or near the car. Again, I don't like to leave the dogs unattended if I can avoid it.

Have a couple spare leashes stashed in a few places. Also, collapsible dog bowls are the best thing ever. If you climb any hills/mountains, having some doggie treats on hand can help them pop their ears.

Tired dogs travel better than non-tired ones - so plan to get the pooch some good exercise. Its good for you, too!
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 12:23 PM on July 21, 2015

We introduce dogs all the time because we foster. We do it by meeting on neutral territory, like on the pavement outside the house, both dogs on leads, with a parallel walking introduction.

You should plan to stop several times a day to exercise and potty break the dog. For meals, one adult goes in with two kids, one sits in the car. The adults trade off halfway through. You must never leave the dog unattended in the car. A dog can over heat and die even in mild weather.

Pack his bed, his bowls and his crate. In a situation where a home visit doesn't seem like it's going to go well, you want the option of being able to secure the dog.

Make sure your pooch is chipped and tagged before you go, with a mobile number on the tag, in case the worst happens and he bolts 5 states from home.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:30 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

We use a dog hammock in combination with this dog zipline and harness thing from Kurgo to keep him in the back seat* My dog is small and squirmy and would totally scramble to the front if he could. The tether keeps him back but has more freedom of movement than a seatbelt harness. It also helps stop him from flying in case of sudden braking. We don't trust this as an in-case-of-major-crash safety measure but as a stopping-the-dog-from-distracting-the-driver measure.

Bring a roll of paper towels, plastic bags (I mean you should be bringing poop bags anyway), and a squirt bottle of Nature's Miracle in case of carsick accidents... or pee accidents in new and unfamiliar locations.

We also really liked having a little red LED flashlight on hand if we were driving in the night. We could twist backwards and shine the light on him to see how he was doing without ruining our nighttime vision.

+1 to NEVER leaving the dog unattended. At every rest-stop/ gas station, park near a quieter grassy bit so your dog can go for a sniff and a wee.

*We actually hook the ends around car seat attachment points rather than safety belt buckles as shown in the picture.
posted by kitkatcathy at 12:32 PM on July 21, 2015

Bring the Xanax just in case. My last road trip of a week had one dog sleeping the whole way, the other went through two(!) bottles of Xanax.

Do shorter trips beforehand, taking him around with you for at least a few hours at a time.

Never alone in the car, but also never alone on the hotel room. They don't know where they are or why they are there by themselves. That can lead to stress and anxiety. (Unless you have previously worked with your dog on this)

Remember that taking your dog out for walks during gas fill ups is great, but the ground around gas stations can get super hot and burn their feet. Always do a hand test first.

I've traveled with my dogs many times. It's fun, but it does become all about the dog, as they need so much attention during travel.
posted by Vaike at 12:50 PM on July 21, 2015

We have one of those dog car hammocks for the back seat. It's great because it covers the foot well so it gives her more room for lolling around (she is a big dog.) Also it is easy to sponge off if your dog gets sandy or dirty or wet.

She wears her padded harness vest which is clipped to the seatbelt with a carabiner. This allows her enough freedom to lie down or to sit up but keeps her safe.

Finally, we don't feed her in the car or even on the road but do give her as much water as she wants. She has a collapsible water bowl that she is used to and travels easily.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 12:57 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Crating is highly recommended because dogs can become projectiles in an accident. But that's a do as I say, not as I do suggestion. My 86 pound dog prefers to claim the whole backseat as his own.

Bring lots of bottled water, a bowl to drink from, a food bowl, food, bribery treats, and any medicines.

Dogs can get carsick or sick from anxiety too, so be prepared for throwing up, especially after eating or after too much water. An old towel and a roll of paper towels is helpful.

Bring poop bags.

Bring a comforting toy or bed if you have room.

Many hotels these days cater to animals. I tend to turn down the complimentary treats the ones we go to offer to avoid the unpleasantness that can come from new foods.

Take lots of potty and leg stretching breaks.
posted by cecic at 2:31 PM on July 21, 2015

We travel a lot with our dogs. It can definitely be done and sometimes it's really fun -- some of my best memories with our older dog are from trips we've taken him on.

But, it's also a lot, lot more work, mainly because you pretty much can't take dogs inside anywhere, and you also really can't leave them alone, especially not in a car or a hotel room. You don't actually realize how inconvenient it is to always have a human standing outside with the dog or staying inside the car with the dog until you're in the thick of it. One of our dogs can't stand much heat so we have to take frequent rest/water breaks whenever we're exploring on foot. Like Vaike said above, it often does become all about the dog, so you have to be prepared for that.

As far as I know, there aren't any restaurants that will allow a dog inside -- I think it's a health code thing. But anywhere with a patio is usually good, or a place that has seating on the sidewalk. Or, fast food in the car. Or, stop at rest stop and make sandwiches -- we do that a lot.

I am a big fan of La Quinta because they take pets for free at every location. It helps my stress to know that I can always depend on that if we can just get to a La Quinta on the route.

Our dogs don't travel in a crate or harness, we just make a sort of nest for them in the back seat and they stretch out and mostly sleep. The harness would be safer, I guess I've always been more focused on making sure they feel relaxed and comfortable though.

If your dog usually eats dry food, bring some cans of wet food along too. If he's too worked up to eat on his normal schedule, a bit of the wet food can make the dry food more tempting.

The biggest challenge for us has been visiting friends or relatives who said upfront they were okay with the dog visiting, but then ended up being unprepared for the reality of a dog's needs. In one memorable instance, a volatile relative decided after we arrived that our dog couldn't come inside their house. Unfortunately this was the dog that doesn't do well with heat... and it was summer in Texas. So basically, also be prepared to change plans at the last moment if it turns out that the hospitality you're expecting to receive from friends/relatives doesn't completely extend to your pup as well.
posted by the turtle's teeth at 2:43 PM on July 21, 2015

Oh, also, you may have already learned this in training, but it's good to introduce new dogs to each other by taking them on a short walk. Keep them separate at first but walking in the same direction and gradually let them get a bit closer to each other and sniff if they seem comfortable. This takes away the confrontation of meeting nose-to-nose and I've heard it encourages that sort of pack mentality where they feel like they're working together on the same team.
posted by the turtle's teeth at 2:48 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I travel with my dog and it does tend to become about them and what they need. I have his crate in the car and he goes in and out of it on his own. I do use it when we stay with other people cause my usually housebroken dog will mark in another dogs house. It also gives him a familiar safe place to hangout if I do go out without him. I put it in my room with the tv on and the door shut. I never do this in a motel room, just a room at someone's home. In a motel he will just cry and cry. Not good.

Another thing is make sure his ID is up to date. I add a temp tag made of a yogurt cup cute into a tag shape with the local contact info on it if I am staying for more than a few days.

I hand feed my dog due to car sickness. He eats more at night when we stop than during the day while driving around.

My dog loves to be with me and loves the car but it is work. He hates being boarded no matter how small the place is so I suck it up and deal with the hassle.
Enjoy your trip.
posted by cairnoflore at 2:54 PM on July 21, 2015

If you want to harness your dog to the seat belt for safety you can actually get a tether that runs across the back seat from the car seat buckle on one side to the other. It means the dog can move around from window to window, sit up & lay down but still not go flying if you have to stop suddenly etc.
posted by wwax at 3:51 PM on July 21, 2015

Just as another data point, my dog crates when he rides any further than 20 minutes. I thought, the first time that I road tripped with him, that he was going to be able to ride in the front seat with me (Travels with Charley running through my head), but he is an anxious mess (seriously, he's on puppy prozac), and he wanted to ride in my lap and whined endlessly. Crated, with a water bowl and a couple of toys, he's happy and chill (unless I'm trying to eat and not sharing).

I also drape a towel over the top and sides his crate so that it's shaded, but arranged so that he can see me - he rides in the back of the hatchback, and you don't notice how much sun it gets until you've got a little dude stuck in the back who can't go anywhere.

I think much of the morale of this thread is that no plan survives first contact with the enemy; be prepared for things to take longer than expected, puppy to have to stop more often than you expect, him to want to be crated if you planned on him not being crated or vice versa, etc.
posted by joycehealy at 5:28 PM on July 21, 2015

Do you know if your dog gets motion sick?
I always worry about safety when walking my dogs on car trips, especially at night. Dogs may not be visible to hassled or distracted drivers while being walked to/in the narrow strips of ground suitable for potty breaks at gas stations or fast food places. I've got orange bandanas with reflective strips that they wear on road trips. There are collars and harnesses with reflective strips, and various reflective or lighted things you can hang with their tags, and it's probably possible to buy something like the bandanas somewhere (I made mine).
Before any car doors are opened for any reason, leashes are clipped on and someone is holding the dogs. Dogs can back right out of collars when startled, even if they fit well, and end up loose without ID. For excusions outside fenced areas I prefer a harness. There are collars that won't slip off if you prefer a collar.
If someone brought a dog to my house for a brief visit, especially if the dog had any history of aggression to other dogs, I'd welcome the dog but with caveats. He wouldn't interact with my dogs. My suggestion would be that the guest dog and my dogs take turns being crated behind closed doors, while the uncrated dog(s) wandered house/yard.

It isn't that I haven't had strange dogs in the house before; I used to foster rescue dogs, so my dogs got to meet a new dog every time one was adopted and we brought home a new foster. It's because of the many dog introductions I've managed that I would not briefly introduce a tired, stressed dog and then expect them all to happily get along, in my dogs' home. I'd prefer caution and inconvenience and no interaction at all.
Eating & water for dogs & people:
Even if your dog doesn't want to eat, he should absolutely get enough water, possibly more than usual. Despite being pretty comfortable with road trips mine won't drink while the car is moving.

So we usually find it most convenient to stop to eat; person one goes inside somewhere fast food to order food, person two walks the dogs then sets them up in the car with a water bowl. People eat the fast food in the car, dogs hopefully settle for long enough to get some water.

We do something similar in hotel rooms; person one acquires food while person two manages dogs.
Thinking of hotel rooms, I also bring clothing I can throw on in a hurry to walk dogs in the middle of the night, since being in a strange place makes them anxious and wakeful... and they really should go out every time they wake up, if we don't want damp spots and damage fees.
If your dog won't drink enough you can at least get some moisture into him with canned food. Abrupt food changes + stress are a bad combination though (a stomach upset bad enough can wreck your plans, if you have to stay somewhere unexpected for extra time while the dog is hospitalized to get diarrhea under control and rehydrate). If you don't feed canned food it'd help to select a variety and give some to the dog each meal for a couple of weeks beforehand.
Walking dogs in strange places may involve too-hot pavement or unfriendly vegetation (sticker plants in FL, for example). Mine have shoes in case of unfriendly terrain, and we acclimated them to wearing the shoes on walks at home. (Unhappy dogs may be too distracted to pee, then--of course--pee inside later.)
I pack a luggage bag for the dogs, which has their food/water bowls, meds, food, toys, chewies & crunchies to keep them occupied while in the car/in the crate, shoes, and anything else we might need for a trip.

This bag also has a sheet with emergency numbers, including their regular vet and our family members who are prepared to make pet decisions if we're incapacitated. It may be a good idea to carry a copy of your dog's vaccine records. And also note contact info for emergency small animal hospitals in areas where you'll be staying. This last is probably less important in the era of the smartphone :)
posted by galadriel at 6:13 PM on July 21, 2015

I transport dogs for rescues and have handled probably thousands of dogs over the years. Just never ever ever ever let your dog out of the car unless he's leashed. Just because he's never run away from you at home, doesn't mean he might get spooked about an unfamiliar smell or sound or sight, and bolt. And then what? Search this very site for stories of dogs lost while on vacation.

Make sure he's got his shots and is chipped before you leave. Make sure the chip info is up-to-date. Take good clear pictures of your dog from all angles, and put them online where you can get them printed while on the road, or carry them with you. Make sure his tags have a phone number on them for a phone you will have with you. Tags are cheap - go get ones specially made for the trip if necessary. Take along your vet's phone number, and maybe try to look up some 24-hour vets in the areas you'll be headed through, and keep that info handy.

These are great slip leads, although a harness he can't back out of would be even better. Even if he's never tried to wiggle out of a leash before - leash him up! Use two! Don't take any chances.

That's not to say you should be anxious and worried and on high alert at all times (because of course he'll sense that), just use caution and common sense when handling him outside of the car.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:46 PM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

Thanks for all of the great advice. I promise that
- we won't leave any living things unattended in the hot car
- he'll never be off the leash unless he's in secure area and we'll clip the leash back on BEFORE opening the car doors.
- he's already microchipped with updated info on file
- he's up to date on all vaccinations just in case we have to board him in an emergency
- I'll take some good photos of him on my phone before we head out
- I'm going to buy him a reflective vest or collar for when we walk in unfamiliar areas

Taking him with us wasn't our first choice but we've let everyone we're staying with know that he's a bit unpredictable around other dogs and have offered to have him stay in a kennel overnight, but they've all encouraged us to bring him. We've talked to his current trainer and the rescue organization about what to do and they think it would be better for him to come on the trip since he's so attached and they think 2 weeks is just too long for him to be away from his people. They have recommended the parallel walking idea for the initial intro but we might just have everyone crated in their own rooms to make it easy for everyone.

Thanks again and feel free to add anything else you might think of!
posted by victoriab at 8:49 AM on July 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

Quick update on the trip...it went great. We didn't give him the Xanax at all. He was very mellow in the car and just flopped down and went to sleep. We didn't crate him because we didn't have room, but luckily it wasn't an issue. We did keep a leash on him most of the time just in case he tried to bolt out of the car.

We stopped every few hours for a quick walk and some water...those collapsible water/food bowls were pretty handy. We did parallel walking with new dogs whenever we arrived at a house with other dogs and everyone seemed to handle it just fine. Thanks so much for all of your advice!
posted by victoriab at 7:39 AM on August 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

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