Road Trip! Motoring with Your Best Friend

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Hitting the road with your best fur bud is not just for famous authors, though I’m sure Jack Kerouac could give us some helpful hints.

I’ve always loved to explore new places with my wife, Susan. The prospect of sharing this delight with Lilly, our Boston terrier, thrills me to no end. My head swims with fantasies of the three of us whizzing past the rolling hills of Ventura County as we crank up Bruce Hornsby on the CD player. I picture sticking my head out the driver’s window to catch those electrifying blasts of air from doing 70 mph - and I see Lilly doing the same on the passenger side while she sits on my wife’s lap . . .

Screech! If you found something alarming about this picture, you’re ahead in the car travel game! Tempting as it is to want our girl to taste the same freedoms as bikers Wyatt and Billy in Easy Rider, it is definitely not safe practice for her to poke her head out the window, much less roam free inside a moving vehicle.

The absolute safest course would be to keep Lilly inside a crate anchored to the seat or fold-down of the hatchback (honestly, we don't do this). At the very least, Lilly should be secured with a harness, preferably in the back seat. This would give her some mobility and keep her out of range of air bag explosions potentially triggered by abrupt stops or sudden impact.

While pet restraints and seat belts also reduce the distractibility of whomever is driving, very few have been shown to reliably protect dogs in a crash. Of course, were we ever to rent a pick-up truck for any reason, you would never see Lilly treading the flatbed as you might see other dogs doing in Podunk, USA. One pothole or speed bump could mean the end of a precious bond (as well as a stiff fine or jail time for the driver).

Restraining our girl may seem contrary to the sense of abandon that vacationing brings. But how good is a vacation spent in an animal hospital? Better to remind ourselves that there will be plenty of time for all of us to roam “free” during planned stops and at our destination.

Common sense tells us that a dog should never be left alone in a car - yes, even with the windows “cracked” an inch or two - because of exponential heat build-up, even on tepid days. But heat also can build up inside a moving car with the AC on. Early morning and late-afternoon rays can be scorching. Shade “filters,” adhered to our car windows with suction cups, have cut down on direct sunlight. Periodic rest stops with water and potty breaks have kept Lilly cool, hydrated and eliminated.

And then, there’s exercise; my wife and I are not the only ones that need to stretch our legs. However, Lilly never leaves the car without her collar, dog tags and leash. Unscrupulous pet procurers have been known to lurk at freeway rest stops - all the more reason we never leave our beloved fur child unattended in the car!

Some dogs won’t get in the car, period. Not even to go on short errands. Lilly never had that issue. If she did, her desire to be with us trumped her fears. If you find yourself with a pooch reluctant to roll on down the highway, try these steps (two humans are required):

  • Park your car in a place where you can leave both rear doors open. For now, keep the motor off.
  • Use a favorite treat to entice your beloved into the back seat. Keep the doors open. Sit quietly with your fur-pal. Reward calm behavior with praise and periodic treats.
  • Have a friend/spouse/significant other hop into the driver’s seat and start the car. Run the motor for 30 seconds. Leave the back doors open. Turn the motor off, then turn it on again after a few seconds. Repeat on-and-off, increasing the idling time. Continue praising and treating.
  • Shut the back doors and have your driver SLOWLY chauffeur you and your dog around the block. If this goes well, go for a longer drive.
  • “Phase out” you presence in the back seat by making it a welcomed place of fun and comfort for your pup.
  • Try a homeopathic stress-reducer if your dog gets anxious or nauseous during the car ride.
  • Revert to the previous step whenever your pooch appears anxious. Like any other training, this is a process!

Over time you may find that your dog enthusiastically “goes the distance,” wherever the road takes you.