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Dog looking ahead on open road

Road Trip! Guide to Traveling with Dogs in a Car Long Distance

A cross country trip with a dog should be fun, not stressful. We show you how to travel with a dog in a car.

Depending on your dog’s temperament and experience traveling by car, the thought of taking a long distance road trip with your pal can either conjure up feelings of freedom and adventure on the open road, or instill dread or even panic.  Not to worry.  We have you covered from start to finish of your journey.

Should you take your dog on a cross country road trip?

Your first consideration should be whether traveling long distance in a car with your dog is even a good idea.  Sometimes it’s just not worth the hassle, and letting them stay with a trusted friend or boarding service is the better option.

Some dogs simply hate riding in a car, and if you are unable to help the dog overcome its fears or discomfort on shorter trips, then it makes no sense to try to do this on a long trip.  There’s a good chance it will be a miserable experience for both of you.

Another reason to think twice about bringing your dog along is if your road trip involves lots of stops along the way (other than for gas, food, and lodging) or involves events at your destination where you can’t spend enough time with them or provide them with adequate care and supervision.  For instance, driving cross country to a wedding may seem fine, but where will the dog stay all day during the wedding?

Thinking ahead and anticipating your daily schedule may lead you realize that bringing the dog along will be more complicated than it’s worth.  It also might lead you to solve these logistical problems, and plan ahead accordingly!  More on that below.

Well ahead of your trip, you should:

  • Plan all aspects of your trip that involve your dog
  • Make a list of all essentials you’ll need to bring
  • Prep your dog for the trip.

Planning your trip

Do your homework and have a list of dog friendly hotels, restaurants and other places you plan on stopping along the way.  It’s better to plan your trip more rigidly than you might otherwise and have the comfort of knowing in advance that your pup is welcome.  A late night search for a pet friendly motel is no fun (nor is getting caught sneaking your dog in one where they are prohibited). Fortunately, the number of pet friendly places is greater than ever, and that list is growing rapidly.

Arrange for care of your dog at your destination.  If you are attending an event or visiting a tourist attraction that will take you away from your dog for a period of time, you should locate a day care or boarding service in advance. 

Leaving your dog unattended is simply not an option.  In addition to safety issues, a new environment can stress out your dog, so make sure you have an individual or facility to take care of them.  Lots of information regarding pet friendly resources at your destination can be found online.  You can also ask for recommendations from the accommodations where you are staying, or family and friends you might know in the area.

Create a dog road trip packing list

It’s good to create a master packing list for your dog so that you can use it each time you travel.  You may need to purchase some items to complete it, but once you have them, you’ll be ready in the future to go on short notice. 

Pack a separate travel bag for your dog.  Just like with our own luggage, we find that it’s easier to access what you need when you’re on the road if thing are organized.

Here’s a list of essentials from which to start..  You can modify it as needed.

Adequate food and water

Make sure you have more than enough food for your dog in case you get delayed or there’s an emergency.  The last thing you want to do is have to switch your dog’s food while traveling and risk the upset stomach that commonly occurs when you switch brands or types of food suddenly.

We suggest bringing your own water, either in bottles or larger jugs/container, depending on the dog’s size.  While local water may be easier, water from a new source can upset your dog’s stomach, and can also taste different enough that your dog may be reluctant to drink it.  Water is  as essential as it gets, so no reason to take a chance.

Food and water bowls

You’ll need bowls for both food and water.  There are some great collapsible bowls that take up less space.  You can also get a dog water bottle, which is convenient at rest stops and doesn’t require a bowl.  Just make sure your dog is familiar with it before heading out on your trip.

Leash and collar/harness

Don’t laugh — a leash is commonly forgotten when loading a dog directly into a car from the house.

The collar should have i.d. and license tags attached.  Make sure your dog’s info is up to date on the identification tags, with the correct phone number being that of the mobile phone you are carrying and not a number back home (where you will not be if the dog were to get lost).  It’s also a good idea to add a second number of a friend on the tag as an extra precaution, especially when traveling.

Toys and bones

Just because he’s traveling doesn’t mean your dog doesn’t need his usual items of distraction.  In fact, just like people, he may need them even more on the road to keep him occupied.  Remember, it’s a long trip for them, too, and they don’t have audio books to entertain them.  Also, a favorite security toy or bone can go a long way towards easing any travel jitters.

Medications

Have an ample supply of all of your dog’s medications, including any motion sickness medicine, topicals and supplements.  Like food, have extra in case you get delayed on your trip or have an emergency.  If any of your dog’s meds need to be refrigerated, plan ahead by bringing a cooler.

If you are headed to a different climate or an area with unfamiliar geographical characteristics, check with your vet to see if there are any special medical precautions you should take.  Even though conditions such as Lyme disease, heartworm, and tick borne diseases can be transmitted anywhere, they are prone to occur in some areas more than others, and your dog may need a vaccine or preventative medication.

Note about dog motion sickness:

Dogs are susceptible to motion sickness.  If your dog has ever had issues, or is new enough to you that you’re not sure, check with your vet before leaving on your trip to see if she can recommend an over-the-counter medication or prescribe one if needed.  A sick dog in the middle of a car trip can quickly put a damper on a car trip.

Vaccination records

Make sure your pup is up to date on vaccinations.  Generally, it’s a good idea to have a copy of their rabies vaccination if you’re crossing state lines.  Laws differ from state to state, and a simple photocopy of the record can save you a big hassle in certain situations.  Just leave it in your dog’s travel “go bag.”

Waste bags

Bring plenty to last the whole trip.  No need to tell you that you should always clean up after your dog.  Right?

Treats

Obviously.

Towels

If you run into wet weather, you will want to be able to dry your dog off and clean its paws before getting back into the car.  We find shammies work well because they are super absorbent and don’t take up much space.

Familiar bedding

Whether your dog sleeps in its crate or on the floor, you will want to provide familiar, comfortable  bedding to sleep on.  We like to use the Petspective Pet Mat because it’s waterproof, easy to clean, and rolls up nicely to pack in the car (plus our dogs vouch for its comfort!).

Protective clothing

If your dog wears any kind of protective boots or outerwear like sweaters or raincoats, don’t forget to pack it.

Thunder Shirt

If your dog wears a Thunder Shirt for anxiety (fireworks/thunderstorm induced or just general uneasiness), bring it along.  If your dog does encounter a stressful situation, you’ll be happy you have it to help calm her if it’s something that you already know works.

Stain and odor eliminator

If your dog has an accident, it’s nice to be able to clean it up properly with a good stain and odor remover and not leave a hotel room soiled.  It’ll likely earn you K9 Karma points.

First aid kit

There are all shapes and sizes of medical kits, but you should bring the equivalent of whatever you use at home.  

Take a test road trip with your dog

If your dog has never traveled long distances in a car, you should definitely go for a “test drive” or two well before you plan to leave on your road trip.  Make it a couple of hours so you can simulate the long drive experience.  

This allows you to identify any issues and address them before the long haul.  Make an afternoon out of it and go somewhere fun!  Try to simulate the experience, including having your dog ride restrained (more about this below) and taking some rest stops to let your dog relieve herself and have a drink of water.  It’s a good time to establish road trip rules for the dog.

How to travel with a dog cross country

Exercise your dogs before you load them into the car to leave.  A tired dog is a better traveler than an energetic one.

Don’t feed your dog immediately before traveling.  Try to feed them 3-4 hours prior to departure to avoid an upset stomach from motion sickness.

What is best in a car — a crate, dog car seat, or dog seat belt?

Whatever you do, don’t let your dog loose in the car while driving.  An accident can easily cause them to be launched, endangering both them and you. 

Dogs are also known to easily distract drivers, a leading cause of car crashes.  Just like people, they need to be restrained for safety while driving.

Ideally, your dog will travel in a properly sized crate anchored to the vehicle with a strap or seatbelt.  A crated dog is the safest solution (especially in a crash-tested model of crate).

Dog seat belts, while helping to keep a dog distanced from the driver, are not safe at protecting dogs during a car crash.

If a crate is impossible for reasons of size, then a dog car seat is the next best option, though not ideal.

What NEVER to do with your dog in a car

Never put a dog in the back of a pickup truck, even when in crates.  Amazingly, we still see this occasionally.

Never let your dog ride in the front seat. If airbags are deployed, they can injure your dog, even if they are in a crate. Regardless of how your dog is restrained while driving, it should always be in the back seat or cargo area. 

Never allow your dog to stick its head out of the window, cute as it is and as happy as they might seem taking in all the smells.  Believe us, your dog is smelling lots of new scents with the window closed.

Road rules for your dog

It’s best to maintain your dog’s routine as closely as you can during a road trip.  Stay on schedule for meals, walks, and bedtime.  Dogs love routine, and you’re already altering that routine a lot by traveling, so the more familiar the better.

Rest stops

Make plenty of stops to rest and air your dog.  Dogs usually won’t tell you when they need to relieve themselves until they are near the panic point.  

Provide fresh water and let them eliminate.  Clean up after them, of course.

Always keep them on leash, and with an id tag on their collar.  A roadside rest stop or interstate exit gas station is a terrible place to have a dog running loose or getting lost.  Consider having your dog microchipped if you haven’t already.

We find it best to generally avoid other dogs at these highly trafficked areas.  The risks — aggressive dogs biting yours, transmission of parasites or disease, etc. — are just not worth the brief canine chit chat when traveling. 

If possible, try to travel with another person who can help with the pet.  It makes life easier on the road, especially when you want to use a restroom or get food so you can leave the dog supervised.

Dogs left in hot cars

We shouldn’t have to tell you this, but never leave your pet alone in the car.  NO EXCEPTIONS! The number of reports of dogs getting sick or dying from being left inside a car is troubling.  And it is safe to say that their owners didn’t think they were leaving their pets in a dangerous situation.

We are always inclined to think that it’s “somebody else” that does this, and that we are more careful and prudent than others when we leave our dogs “with the windows cracked open” and “just for a minute.”  

The inside of a car can be much hotter than outside.  A car’s interior can go from 75 degrees to 116 degrees in an hour.  Studies have shown that rolling down windows has minimal effect on the interior temperature.  Even with the windows cracked open, temperatures can rise from 85 degrees to 101 in 10 minutes!

In many places, it is illegal to leave your pet in the car regardless of the weather. 31 states now have laws against leaving dogs in cars.  See a detailed rundown of each state here.

Obviously, there can situations where it is unavoidable, like traveling alone and having to use the bathroom.  If you absolutely must leave your dog alone for a couple of minutes:

Park in the shade and lower the windows just enough to allow air in.  But don’t lower them enough to let someone unlock the door.  Even though it won’t keep your car much cooler, air is better than no air.

Lock your car.  Dogs can be stolen (and so can your car).

Keep your dog restrained. Dogs can easily injure themselves by getting a paw stuck between seats, choking after getting tangled in a seatbelt, etc.  This also prevents them from biting a stranger if they stick their hand in the car to pet.  

It also prevents some “friendly” traveler from offering your dog ood through the window.  We don’t want that.  (I once briefly left my car to register to camp at a state park, only to later find my dog in his crate chewing a rawhide that someone must have offered him through the cracked rear window I had never once given him a rawhide, so it wasn’t me just forgetting!)

Make it as fast as possible. A few minutes to use bathroom or order food.  Ordering food and returning to the car and then picking food up is a good option.  Using a drive-through is an even better option.

Dog etiquette at hotels and motels

Make sure the establishment allows dogs.  Duh.  Confirm in advance whether there are any dog fees and how much they are.  You don’t want surprises.

Also, be accurate when you tell them your dog’s size.  As nonsensical as it is that hotels prefer small dogs to large ones, it’s better to clear that up in advance and avoid any potential problems.  The definition of “large dog” varies tremendously.  If there is any issue, offer to pay a deposit to put the establishment at ease.

Never leave your dog alone in a room.  Even the most well behaved dogs can get stressed in an unfamiliar environment.  Barking and destructive behavior are common responses to fear and anxiety.  

Bring in your dog’s crate or a bed for it to sleep in.  The more you can make your dog feel at home, the better.  If your dog sleeps on the bed with you, make sure to bring a sheet or other cover to separate her from the bedspread (which, as we all have learned from tv investIgative reporting, are rarely if ever washed).

Don’t give your dog a bath in the shower/tub.  It’s a hotel room, not an animal grooming facility.

Do your best to keep your dog from barking.  Many non-barkers suddenly become barkers in motels and hotels.  Everything is new and different, and they are put on high alert.  Be considerate of the guests in the room next to you who paid for a good night’s sleep.

If your dog makes a mess on the carpet, clean it up (remember the stain and odor eliminator your packed?).  If you can’t do so successfully, or your dog damages the room in any way, report it to the front desk when you check out.  Better to resolve the problem with open communication than have the hotel coming after you later.

Crate your dog or take him for a walk when housekeeping comes.  Or just ask that housekeeping skips your room during your stay.  A housekeeper may not like dogs (and your dog may not like housekeepers), and it’s not part of their job to work with and get along with pets.

Finally, don’t use the ice bucket as a water bowl!

Conclusion

As you can see, there’s lots to think about when traveling with dogs in a car long distance.  But with proper planning and foresight, you’ll quickly be able to find a routine and rhythm with your pup out on the open road.  The key is to keep things as normal as you can, and with as few stressors as possible.  Our idea of adventure is much different than that of our dogs.  Keep that in mind and your dog will be an easy rider in no time.

Superb Dog Editor

Superb Dog Editor

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