by Pam Mandel
Harley panted and shook. He’s a nervous dog on a good day, but this was not a good day.
We were starting a six-hour drive—Harley’s first road trip. I’d prepared him by bringing him with me on errands for a few months, sometimes in his crate, sometimes clipped into a car harness on the back seat. He’d whine and tremble and I’d feel terrible. He wasn’t carsick, he was just miserable. This would not do. We had places to go—like this trip from Seattle, Washington to Eugene, Oregon.
Sixty miles into the drive, my husband took the wheel. I got into the back seat, pulled Harley onto my lap (he’s a little guy, a Chihuahua-Terrier mix), and that’s how we spent the rest of our journey. Holding Harley made him much calmer, though I emerged from the car covered in dog hair.
I love road trips, new places, adventures. And the Cupid of dog-human matches paired me with a hesitant hound who hates the highway.
For the return trip, we tucked Harley’s bed at my feet on the passenger’s side. He didn’t love it, but he wasn’t a shaking ball of visible stress, either. He rested his fuzzy little chin on my shoes and even went to sleep for a bit.
Road trips, it seemed, were something we were going to have to learn, like sit, stay, and come here. After many months of experimenting, we now have a dog that tolerates the drive and does well upon arrival.
A note on safety:
A secured, well ventilated carrier is the best way to transport your dog. Or, use a car divider to create a space to keep your dog contained. Never allow your dog free range of the car while you’re driving. As fun as it seems, don’t let your pups stick his or her head out the window. You don’t want your friend to take a stray rock or bug to the eyes or nose.
Here are a few tricks that have transformed our timid traveler into a professional pup passenger.
Pack a doggie bag.
We bring a trip’s worth of kibble, poop bags, a dog bed, extra treats, a toy or two, and the ratty old towels we use for drying muddy paws. Harley can be fussy, so we bring his bowl to give him one less reason not to eat when we’re away.
Take a pre-trip walk.
When we’ve planned well, we take Harley for a long walk before we put him in the car. This is the single most important thing we can do for an easy road trip. When he’s walked, he’s tired and ready to chill.
Make frequent stops.
Get off the road every two or three hours. At first, this seemed like a hassle, but now, it’s a pleasurable part of any trip. We like hunting for new parks and dog-friendly cafes. And it’s good for us humans to get out and move around during a long drive.
Provide snacks and water.
When Harley is resting quietly on the back seat, we give him treats. There’s chicken in the back seat? How thrilling! The back seat is great! We offer him water when we stop, too.
Ignore the whining.
Harley’s never been sick in the car, so we know it’s not his belly. He’s making noise because he wants attention. No go, little dog, no go. As hard as it is, we let Harley whine. He eventually realizes it gets him nothing and stops. There is an exception—if he really won’t settle, we take a break. It might be that he needs to poop and we don’t want that in the car.
Play some music.
Our sensitive boy, it turns out, likes Mozart. We have seen him settle calmly into “The Magic Flute,” while Tchaikovsky’s booming orchestrations cause him to look around restlessly. Harley has expanded my road trip soundtrack well beyond classic rock and public radio, and more power to him for doing so.
Walk it off.
We walk Harley as soon as possible upon arrival. I learned this lesson the hard way. I brought Harley inside after a drive to visit a friend, ignoring that he’d been whining for much of the trip. Upon our arrival, Harley pooped in the middle of my friend’s living room. Thank god for indulgent friends, but I’ve learned to always walk the dog first thing upon arriving after a drive that’s longer than a short errand.
Practice, practice, practice.
No trip is too short to bring the dog along. Harley is no fool. He knows that luggage in the hall means a big trip, but for the short ones, he bounces right into the car.
We’re getting there, one mile at a time on.