Steinbeck had Charley. Dorothy had Toto. Heck, even Waldo had Woof for company as he ventured into the Land of Waldos. Real and fictional, canine traveling companions have a long and celebrated history.
In the past year, I have driven more than 20,000 miles through 36 states with my two dogs, sleeping in the car with them along the way. I can say with certainty that we bonded (sometimes a little too much) and were all better for the experience in the end.
Traveling with my pups made me feel more secure, and they were good company and a huge comfort when the road got lonely. I was healthier for having them to care for; the dogs were warm-blooded reminders to keep the car clean, get out and stretch my legs, and drink plenty of water.
It was good for the dogs, too, to be constantly meeting new people, encountering new things, and smelling new smells.
Bringing fido along on a road trip adds a level of responsibility for any owner. But if your dog likes riding in the car, and you’re up to the challenge, the experience can be invaluable.
Check out these tips for avoiding ruff road with dog as your copilot:
1. Buckle up. Doggie seat belts may seem silly, but there are plenty of good reasons to restrain your pooch. They keep your dog from becoming a distraction, and a danger to you and others on the road. In addition to helping prevent accidents, harnesses keep everyone safer in the event of a crash. A loose dog in a collision becomes a projectile that can injure or kill the animal and the humans in the car. If that’s not enough, some places have laws requiring animals be restrained.
2. Dog-proof your car. I once left coffee in a Styrofoam cup, with a lid, in the front seat of my car when I went into a gas station. When I returned, the cup was in tiny pieces but there was no mess. It seems that my dog had somehow consumed all the coffee and attempted to destroy the evidence. Be aware of anything that might be within your dog’s reach that could be hazardous to them (or that you want to keep in one piece!).
3. Keep arms and legs—and paws and heads!—inside the vehicle at all times. My dog loves sticking her head out the car window, and I love nothing more than seeing her happy. But it’s not safe. Something could get in her eye, and the constant flapping can cause serious damage to her ears. She could hit her head on something, or jump out of the car completely (Squirrel!). If you really want your pup to be able to smell the breeze, you can try using eye protectors (such as Doggles) at slower speeds. But as a rule, whenever I slow the car somewhere new I roll down the windows a bit so my dogs can get a good sniff.
4. Plan ahead. There are few things worse than being dead tired after a day of driving and not being able to find a place to lay your head that also welcomes dogs. Identifying solid sleeping options ahead of time can help a lot. Most big chain hotels (at least in the U.S.) have “dog-tolerant” locations–that often require “cleaning deposits”–but if you look hard enough, you can find truly dog-friendly establishments that will welcome you and your pet with open arms, and without exorbitant fees. Call ahead to see what you can expect.
5. Train your pup to pee on command. In my early days as a pet owner, I took my dog on a walk whenever I stopped at a rest stop. But she became so excited by the chicken-wing bones left over from picnics and myriad scents other dogs had left earlier that she’d spend 20 minutes sniffing every inch of grass and never actually get around to doing her business.
Eventually, I’d give up and we’d get back on the road, but after a few minutes she’d be whining again. I’d stop again and the problem would repeat itself. Perhaps I’m anthropomorphizing, but I think we were both pretty frustrated. Soon, I learned the trick of teaching her to pee on command.
Here’s how to do it: As your dog pees (or poops), repeat your preferred command word (e.g., “go potty” or “do your business”), then be ready with the treats and praise. Pretty soon your pooch will learn to see the command as a signal to take care of business right away; then you both can enjoy the rest of your walk and be on your way.
6. Develop and stick to a routine. Stop often. Try to keep to a regular sleeping and feeding schedule. Try to give your pup stability to balance out the innate weirdness, fast pace, and spontaneous nature of life on the road.
7. Protect your buddy. Be sure to bring along a copy of your dog’s license and medical and vaccination records. Having these handy can save valuable time in case of an emergency, and are also necessary to cross international borders. Kelly E. Carter, author of The Dog Lover’s Guide to Travel, also recommends keeping recent photographs of your dog and a written description of his or her breed, build, color, and signature markings that you can circulate if you become separated.
In addition to documenting what Americans do when most everyone else is asleep, Nat Geo Young Explorer Annie Agnone is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at the University of Alabama. Follow her story on Twitter and Instagram @annieagnone.