Zen and the Art of Dog

How to Travel With Dogs – Making Road Trips With Agitated Dogs Possible

My wife and I grew up in Chicago and have lived here almost all our lives. For 15 months in our late 20s, we lived in Denver, Colorado. At the time, we only had one dog –apropos that he was a husky mix named Denver. He had only been adopted about a year prior to our move. We knew Denver was absolutely terrified of riding in cars and we decided to schlep him a thousand miles in a moving van.

Spoiler alert, it was a disaster.

We split the journey into two days thinking it would be easier on him (and us) if we got to stop for the night. His high-pitched, terrified cries filled the small cabin of the moving truck from Chicago to Omaha. When we finally reached our AirBnB, we were greeted by a spectacular summer thunderstorm that lasted throughout the night.

The next day, we were all exhausted and dreading the long drive ahead. When we reached our destination, we still had to unload a moving van. We gave him a nice long walk and loaded him into the moving van hoping that the second day would be easier. He was a total wreck and by the end, we were all in tears.

Over the course of the 15 months we lived in Colorado, we logged over 5,000 miles in the car with Denver. We took him back and forth to Chicago twice, drove to Utah, and made numerous trips into the mountains. Here are our tips for surviving a road trip with our dog.

Every Dog is Different

When we adopted Denver, the shelter had run out of dog leashes and had given us two flimsy cat leashes to handle a 50 pound dog. He jumped willingly into the backseat of the car with my wife. When I started driving away, that’s when his car terror emerged. He started shrieking and scrambling all over my wife as we sat in the seemingly endless Chicago traffic. When we finally got back to our condo, I opened the door and grabbed the cat leashes. He bolted from the car, nearly pulling the thin straps out of my hands. 

Denver was our first dog and we did not imagine his trip home to be so painful (figuratively and literally for my wife who had bruises on her thighs from his mad scrambling). We had pictured the image of the happy dog with its head sticking out of the car window and tongue flapping in the breeze.

We anticipated Benji’s freedom ride to be similar to Denver’s and were prepared for the worst (we brought treats and toys to distract). Turns out, Benji loves being in the car and will happily curl up and fall asleep in the backseat. You will forget he is even there. 

We met Chloe when we were volunteering at a local shelter. She had been in some form of shelter environment for over 2 years. She just wanted OUT of her kennel and was all frantic energy. She scrambled everywhere – down the hallway, out the door, and into the car. It would take her a little while with lots of loud panting, but she would eventually calm down though not to Benji’s level of cool.

Travel Tools

If you have a calm dog like Benji, safety is your primary concern. In the car he wears a harness and a seatbelt that clips into a metal ring at his back. This keeps him from sliding off the seat if we have to brake suddenly. It can also keep a dog like Chloe from trying to get into the front seat. This doesn’t work for Denver because he gets too worked up and gets tangled in the seat belt. Keep in mind, these seatbelts for dogs aren’t crash test rated, this method just keeps the dogs from becoming a distraction while you’re driving.

For a moderate dog like Chloe, we use a car barrier along with the harness and seatbelt combo. She is restrained from pacing along the backseat which just causes her to lose her balance and creates more fear of the car. The barrier is also a deterrent from her putting her front paws on the center console (the seatbelt gives her just enough length to do so). That way we have a clear view from our rearview mirror. The barrier doesn’t work for Denver because he will try to squeeze through any opening, no matter the size. A car barrier is also not crash test rated so next we’ll discuss the only option that is crash test rated.

For your severely fearful dog like Denver, you need the big guns. If you are able, use a crate. This obviously won’t work in every scenario. It depends on the size of your dog, the size of your car, and what you’re packing for the trip. If you have room, crating makes all the difference. This is also the safest way to transport your dog. If you really want to pull out all the stops, check out my review for this crash test rated crate

A wire, plastic, or fabric crate just can’t compete with a crate like that one but they can still be helpful if you have a dog that creates a dangerous situation for himself and for you, the driver. Now the crate takes care of the scrambling but it does not stop the whining, crying, and downright shrieking that Denver would do. The only thing that helps with his vocalization is the e-collar. Others might suggest using treats or toys as a distraction but that doesn’t work for all dogs. Denver is not toy motivated at all. He is food motivated but on a long car ride – say 14 hours from Denver to Chicago – this means a LOT of treats. A lot of treats usually means diarrhea or other stomach issues.

Above all, this takes lots of patience and lots of practice. Don’t be like us and throw your dog in the car for a thousand mile road trip if the longest he’s been in the car is 30 minutes. It will take time and lots of trial and error but having your dog with you is like having a little piece of home when you’re traveling. So no matter how far you’re going, try out some of these tips on your next road trip! Let us know how they worked out for you or feel free to share your road trip must-haves in the comments below!

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