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How to take your dog on its first road trip

The author’s Australian labradoodle Tuuli Waffles sits on the luggage in the family car during her inaugural family vacation.Picture: The Washington Post by Nevin Martell

The author’s Australian labradoodle Tuuli Waffles sits on the luggage in the family car during her inaugural family vacation.Picture: The Washington Post by Nevin Martell

Published Jul 2, 2021


By Nevin Martell

I thought I had it all figured out. I was planning our first post-pandemic family vacation, a weekend on Virginia's Northern Neck near the Chesapeake Bay. I was crowing to my wife about the luxuries of the hotel where we would be staying, the activities we would be doing, and the details of what we would be eating at their two restaurants when she put up a hand.

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"But is it pet-friendly?" she asked.

My jaw dropped in shocked embarrassment. Like countless American families, we recently got a pandemic pup, an affectionate and exuberant Australian labradoodle we dubbed Tuuli Waffles. (If you're wondering, her first name rhymes with Julie and means "wind" in Finnish.) She was definitely going to be a part of our excursion. Thankfully, the Tides Inn in Irvington, where we were headed, does allow dogs. Disaster averted!

That clarifying moment was the first of many reminders that for new dog owners travelling with their pets, trip planning and time away from home need to be approached with a completely new perspective. After determining a hotel does allow furry friends, read its pet policy's fine print. There may be a fee, vaccinations and name tags might be required, certain areas of the hotel may be out of bounds, and other stipulations may apply. It is likely that dog owners will need to sign a release of liability, and potentially a waiver stipulating you understand the house rules and agree to abide by them. On a brighter note, the hotel might have special perks for pets, such as an on-site dog park, complimentary treats or in-room amenities.

It is best to have your dog fully vaccinated before you head out into the world to ensure it is as protected as possible from other animals and new environments. Make sure to bring copies of your dog's vaccination record and any other necessary medical paperwork. I scanned copies of Tuuli's and keep them easily accessible in a Dropbox folder. If you have pet insurance, read through your policy to see if it covers your pet when travelling. Some do, some don't.

I recommend your dog wear a collar tagged with its name and your contact information. If your dog has a microchip, make sure all your information is correct and up to date.

Since we were driving down to the hotel, we needed to familiarize Tuuli with being in the car - a must for anyone who wants to road trip with their canine companion. This acclimatisation started two months earlier, as soon as we got her as an 8-week-old pup. At every opportunity, we brought her with us. Initially, she was uncomfortable with the experience. After the first week though, she became a calm passenger, usually shifting into nap mode soon after we hit the road.

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It was helpful to have a travel carrier with a shoulder strap. My wife purchased one made by Sherpa, which clicks into the car to prevent shifting, and we could bring it up to our hotel room. This way, we could keep her crated when she was alone (which a hotel may require).

That wasn't our only new accessory. My wife geared us up for pet parenthood, so we brought a travel bag packed with collapsible bowls, food and treats, favoured toys, and a leash. Another good addition: a stain and odour-eliminating spray to deal with accidents.

With Tuuli vaccinated, comfortable with the car and properly provisioned, we felt we were all ready for our first vacation. My wife, son and I hit the road midday on a Friday in late June for our sojourn toward the Bay. We were immediately glad Tuuli was car-ready, because Google Maps indicated massive amounts of traffic on the route from our home in Silver Spring, Md. What was supposed to be a three-hour ride turned out to be a four-and-a-half-hour slog. We made regular stops, every one to two hours, to give Tuuli a potty break, some water and a chance to stretch her legs. With an 8-year-old in the car and mind-numbing stop-and-go traffic clogging the road, we were all happy for the pit stops.

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Upon our arrival, Tuuli found herself in heaven. Our room was decked out with a large pet bed for her to lounge on, bowls for food and water, a chew toy and a fully loaded pet waste bag dispenser. The staff was probably more excited to see her than they were her human companions - not that I blame them. I was glad Tuuli has a loving disposition and is taking to her training well. When people came up to her, she happily revelled in their attention. My wife had her sitting obediently when we were checking in. Dogs that aren't trained yet, or who spook around strangers, might not be ready for a hotel visit. Consider how your pet will feel and the other guests' experiences, then plan accordingly.

Though dogs were permitted in some areas of the hotel, others were off bounds. We planned our daily schedules to ensure Tuuli could be with us for large portions of the day and would have regular potty breaks and feedings, just as if she were at home. This way, she wouldn't get knocked off her regular schedule. For the times we couldn't bring her - dinner, a landscape watercolour class and a kayaking trip with the resident biologist to learn about the Bay's ecosystem - we made sure she wouldn't be alone in the room for too long.

For all the planning and preparing for the trip, the one element I wasn't prepared for was the number of people we met because of Tuuli. Whether we were passing through the lobby or taking her for a walk out on the lawn overlooking the marina, people seemed attracted to her. They would stop to ask her name or breed. Some crouched down to give her a friendly pat. Others bemoaned that their own pooch was at home. The most moving interactions were with folks who recently lost a pet and seemed to find some comfort by having a moment with Tuuli.

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By the end of our vacay on Sunday, we were sun-kissed and stress-free. Tuuli was in good spirits, full of joyful energy and angling for as many tummy tickles as we were willing to give her. Clearly, she enjoyed her time by the water. As we began the journey back and were recounting our favourite moments from the trip, she lay down in her carrier and promptly went to sleep.

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