Outdoor Adventures with Your Nervous Dog

posted in: Consulting | 6

Time in the car has a way of connecting us back to our grief. While traveling in Wisconsin recently, I was reminded that I really miss my dog. By this trip, it had been about nine weeks since he died. Quill, a fear-aggressive German Shorthaired Pointer, spent close to nine years hopping in and out of my car (although in the last year we mostly lifted him in). His fear aggression was limiting in that he wouldn’t let others into the house to care for him, so we just took him with us most places we went. He had been to 12 states and provinces in the time that we had him! Since then, I’ve felt the occasional twinge of surprise in looking to the back seat and not seeing him there. And there was the time in the home stretch of a solo work trip. For a few seconds I expected he’d be part of my greeting committee when I walked through the front door, only to realize he wouldn’t.

This is grief. As has been said, it’s the price we pay for loving so deeply.

Something else occurred while in Wisconsin – back-to-back news stories on dogs that had died from exposure to toxic algae…a fun day at the lake or local swimming  hole suddenly turned tragic. It was hard not to think of our own trips to Lake Erie. We would drive up for a day trip that included beachcombing, lake splashing, and a deep sense of contentment. We tossed the tennis ball in the lake dozens of times and, I suppose (given last week’s news), were lucky to return home with healthy, worn out dogs.

With this, I share my tips on adventuring with your pups. Some of these are specific to anxious or fear-aggressive dogs, but not all:

  • Above all, know your dog. For us, we knew what kinds of things scared Quill and did our best to keep him out of potentially frightening situations: large, noisy crowds; people reaching into the car (fast food was okay, but park rangers in a booth, absolutely not); strangers asking him to sit (that’s a vulnerable position and he could grow suspect); thunderstorms and fireworks; and sudden movements near him, like someone reaching for his head or a travel buddy dropping his duffel bag right next to the dog. “Know your dog” isn’t just good advice for the owners of fearful dogs, it’s good for anyone who keeps a dog.
  • Regarding algal blooms, take this seriously. It’s absolutely toxic. Watch for posted signs, check with your state’s Department of Environmental Protection for alerts, and if in doubt, play it safe and avoid water you’re just not sure about.
  • This is common advice that bears repeating: travel with a doggie first aid kit. And, if your dog is aggressive in any way, keep a travel muzzle in the car. We never needed to use the car muzzle in 8+ years, but it was good to know it was there. (Quill was a dog who wouldn’t let you put the muzzle on at the vet. By then, he was too scared and it was too late.)
  • Manage your own personal expectations. If you are traveling with your dog, but are accustomed to being constantly on the go during your trips, maybe that has to change. We often stay at an Airbnb because we can always find dog-friendly accommodations. Our trips always include downtime with dogs. Particularly if we have some human-only outings, we want to be able to go back to the place between our excursions and give our dogs some quality time and reassure them that, just like at home, we always come back. There are other ways of managing expectations while traveling with dogs (e.g., eating sandwiches outside in a parking lot – or a park – instead of dining in some place). Traveling with dogs is sure to include workarounds and compromise.
  • Carefully vet your lodging. I think we’ve become experts in looking at Airbnb photos and descriptions! Is there a screen door? Are the steps into the house closed or open (super scary for some dogs)? Is there air conditioning or are there fans to keep the dogs cool on a hot summer day? We actually ended up traveling with a small fan after a few incidents of the promised fan or AC not being there. We also would make sure that no one else would be entering the rental – owners, custodians, etc. Despite our best efforts, there was a time that a work crew entered our rental in Detroit to install a window unit, only to be faced down by a growling Quill and turn right back around. “That’s a good guard dog,” is what one of them told me the next day. I had told them not to enter, that our dog “couldn’t be trusted alone,” but sometimes people are unwilling to hear you when it comes to your dog’s needs.
  • Not into staying indoors while adventuring? Do a trial run with your dogs to see how well they handle sleeping in a tent. If they’re reactive or protective, they may bark at every sound (camping in a remote area might be best). If they’re scaredy-cats (er, dogs)…you may have trouble leaving them, even for just a few minutes. If your dog doesn’t fall into either of these buckets, that’s great! You’ll have a canine cuddle buddy to keep you warm. Get ready to make room in your bag!
  • Dogs can sometimes get lost while road tripping. They’re in and out of the car, near interstates, and in an unfamiliar environment. If you recently adopted, be sure that your dog’s microchip is in your name. And for any dog, have an ID tag with your cell phone number on it. For anyone with fear-aggressive dogs, you might do what we did for the opposite side of the tag. It said: “QUILL – FEAR AGGRESV”; we never ended up needing that, but if he had been lost that could have been important information for someone trying to help or reach for him.
  • Even if your dog is well-balanced in everyday life, know that they can act differently when out of their routine and their typical environment. Enough said.

Other stuff (you probably already know all of this):

  • Never leave your dog in a hot car (or an extremely cold one). If you have to, ask someone at a rest stop to hold your dog while you use the restroom.
  • If you’re hiking or camping with your dog, consider what gear they need and how long of a hike they can handle. There are good lists out there to help you with this.
  • If you’re exercising your dog, whether in the woods or not, always do a tick check and follow local leash laws.
  • If possible, know where the local vet and emergency vet is. I never actually practiced this, but it can be good to know.
  • Our pack list always included towels for drying off wet, muddy dogs; a clean blanket for when they inevitably jump on the couch at our rental; travel water bowl and water; any of their regular medications; a toy or two; and something for upset stomachs (Quill, in particular, was prone to that).

Still reading and wondering what states and provinces Quill had been to? Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Ontario, Kentucky, West Virginia, New York, North Carolina, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Indiana (+D.C.). He was a well-traveled dog and a great companion wherever we were. We miss him dearly!

6 Responses

  1. Diane

    Wonderful post showing an innate understanding of the supportive care of our four legged family members. Thank you!

    • cycleforward

      Thanks so much, Diane! I know this is true for you as well. I’m thinking of that sweet set up you had for Charlie when I saw you last. 🙂

  2. Emmy

    Thanks for posting! We were just discussing taking our shy, reactive dog to Lake Michigan. And we’ve discussed tent camping eventually, but for now, rentals & AirBnb are best. It’s good to know you’ve been there, done that with all of the planning and compromises. Your memories and lessons with Quill live on. Hang in there.
    -Thank you!

    • cycleforward

      Thanks for commenting, Emmy! Oh yeah, we’ve been there, done that for sure (and have so many memories as a result). Wishing you many happy adventures with your dog!

  3. James Camp III

    Very nice article Amy. Tears in my eyes made it hard to read.
    Love Dad