5 Tips for Full-Time Travel with a Four-Legged Friend

In the flurry of deciding to travel full-time, our beloved dog Odin was the variable that introduced the most complexity. When we left the Midwest, he was almost three, somewhat well trained, and enamored with the sound of the garage door which told him one of us was home from work. Our initial concern was whether the quantity of pet-friendly Airbnbs was large enough to sustain continuous travel. But after a bit of online research had subdued that worry, we were left with more fundamental anxieties. We didn’t know how well Odin would handle full-time travel and its constant carousel of unpredictable stimuli. And we worried that the additional strain of bringing Odin could take a nomadic lifestyle that might be feasible and push it over the edge into something untenable.

This potential roadblock, like so many that crop up while exploring life-altering possibilities, sat at the junction of uncertainty and fear. Everything we didn’t know combined with everything we knew enough about to fear stoked the doubt we already had. More than once, we were lured into pronouncing dog travel an impossibility, without recognizing the claim as an excuse to retreat back into our comfort zone. Out loud, the logic sounded blatantly flimsy. If we didn’t have a dog, we’d definitely be brave enough to quit one job, start doing the other remotely, sell half our stuff, and live full-time in Airbnbs. But we do have a dog, so we’ll just have to stay right here.

The key was to breakdown this nebulous, perceived barrier into tasks that were too small to be daunting or emotional.

The key was to breakdown this nebulous, perceived barrier into tasks that were too small to be daunting or emotional. Buy Odin a bed that can fit behind the passenger seat. Ask the vet to print his complete vaccination history. Research seat belts for dogs. This to-do list approach propelled us forward until eventually we found ourselves driving to Saskatoon with Odin strapped in the back. Now, many months into our travels, there isn’t a doubt in our minds that traveling with a dog is possible. Just as he was before this adventure, Odin is our most perpetual source of joy. For anyone considering full-time travel with a four-legged friend, here are 5 tips for you.
our dog Odin laying down at a park in Saskatoon Canada

1) Add a Dog Clause to Each Plan

The transportation we take, the items we pack, the Airbnbs we book all depend on Odin. Each leg of a travel journey has to be dog-friendly, and we’ve found that spontaneity can get squashed pretty quickly by a canine in the back seat. Set yourself up for success and add a dog clause to each travel plan you make. A bit of research upfront can save you a boatload of stress, and oftentimes money, once your adventure is underway.

Each leg of a travel journey has to be dog-friendly, and we’ve found that spontaneity can get squashed pretty quickly by a canine in the back seat.

One of the biggest dog clauses we’ve created was bringing Odin into another country. We researched Canadian dog and border laws until knew how much kibble we could pack and which provinces had the strictest breed laws. In addition to his vaccination history, our vet also examined him for a certificate of health, which she said can ease international travel. Finally, we carefully assembled all of Odin’s gear for the trip, down to the collapsible silicone food and water bowls to his favorite toy and bone. (Check out the full list of our favorite dog-friendly travel gear here!)
Erin and Odin at Banff National Park at the continental divide sign

The border crossing kicked off the second day of our trip. Within moments of telling the U.S. Agent that Saskatoon, Canada was indeed our three-week destination, our exquisitely packed car was plucked out of line for an in depth search. Massive motorhomes bound for Banff were waived right through, but we were shepherded inside for additional scrutiny. Despite all our preparation, it turned out that we, not Odin, raised concerns.

A quick glance from the agent, an off-handed comment of, “Awh, he doesn’t look like he has rabies,” and we found ourselves through Portal, North Dakota and on our way to Saskatoon.

On a high note, Odin did not bark at the armed man who gruffly approached the driver’s side window and reached in the cabin for paperwork. He did not whine when we left him in the Border Control’s outdoor cage comprised of a slab of concrete and a chain link fence. And by the time we were finally sent over to the Canadian side of the operation, he popped his head over the shoulder of the driver’s seat with such innocence that our extensive vaccination record and certificate of health were waived away. A quick glance from the agent, an off-handed comment of, “Awh, he doesn’t look like he has rabies,” and we found ourselves through Portal, North Dakota and on our way to Saskatoon. The upside, as we saw it, was that we were prepared to navigate a system which, on that day, happened to be easier than it might have been with a different agent at the desk. Plus, we now had one international dog travel notch on our belt.

our dog Odin in Idaho Falls on the day of the 2017 eclipse

2) Train As You Travel

As we arranged to travel full-time, the list of training we’d never done with Odin seemed long and stark. Traveling with Odin would mean tackling in rapid fire succession all the training we’d talked about since he was a puppy and yet somehow managed to indefinitely delay. It would mean camping, road trips, daily walks, off-leash training, and an abundance of opportunities to practice the command hush. We’d actually have to do what we’d been saying for years we wanted to do. And, we’d have to undertake those goals in a higher stakes, more public way. This realization might encourage delays in the name of training. But if you wait for your dog to have perfect behavior, you’ll never travel with him for two reasons.

Traveling with Odin would mean tackling in rapid fire succession all the training we’d talked about since he was a puppy and yet somehow managed to indefinitely delay.

First, despite the best intentions, any training that’s spent years on a perpetual to-do list is unlikely to get done without a shift in the environment. If all other variables stay exactly the same, teaching your dog to go to his bed or stay off furniture will never rise to the number one priority. But if you plan to train your dog on the fly as you travel, there will come a moment when the next travel task at hand is teaching him those very things, and in that moment that training will demand the attention it deserves.

Camp setup for a night in North Dakota

For us, this was teaching Odin to camp. Instead of the local park, test run idea we’d tossed around for years, Odin’s first night in a tent was in the middle of North Dakota after fifteen hours in the car. It was the midpoint of our two-day haul from Kansas to Saskatoon. Here, on a 40 degree, mid-June night, we tackled this piece of his training regiment.

Instead of the local park, test run idea we’d tossed around for years, Odin’s first night in a tent was in the middle of North Dakota after fifteen hours in the car.

We arrived at the campgrounds grateful to find just one other family and a site beautifully positioned on a lakeside bluff. We got Odin out of the car and he promptly started sticking his nose down every mysterious hole. We worked on the leave it command. Anchored to a picnic table, he watched us make a skimpy dinner and then set up a two-man tent, into which we shoved our sleeping bags, then his fluffy bed, and then him. After a few suspicious growls at the wind, and a bit of confusion about why we had suddenly decided to join him on the ground, Odin drifted off. Nestled in his insulated bed, covered with a quilt, and sandwiched between the two of us, Odin ended up enjoying a warmer, more comfortable night sleep than anyone else.

our dog Odin camping at Fort Stevenson state park in North Dakota
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The second reason to train as you travel is simply that it’s impossible to train for all situations you’ll encounter on the road. From free range roosters to the ocean tide, there were countless training opportunities that we could only introduce once we were traveling. The very first situation had to do with the fact that Odin had never lived in an apartment. He’d been an occupant of a tiny, standalone rental and a townhouse that shared a vertical wall, but there’d never been footsteps on the ceiling, and our first Airbnb was in a walkout basement.

From free range roosters to the ocean tide, there were countless  training opportunities that we could only introduce once we were traveling.

This wasn’t a situation we could simulate for training. We had to wait until we arrived to work on hush as he adjusted to the pattering feet of a three-kid family. The other piece of our strategy was to keep him as tuckered out as possible which led to incessant walks through the nearby park. Ironically, after six months of dormancy, January’s new year’s resolution to teach Odin to walk properly on a leash was resurrected with great success.

our dog Odin sitting down in the sand at a beach in Victoria Canada
our dog Odin playing fetch at a beach in Victoria Canada
our dog Odin playing fetch at a beach in Victoria Canada
our dog Odin laying down in the sand at a beach in Victoria Canada

3) Avoid the Worst-Case Scenario Rabbit Hole

While upfront research and on the fly training can improve dog travel, endless worst-case scenario ruminations don’t accomplish a darn thing. There are two reasons to keep in mind here. First, remember that of all the travel-specific hypotheticals your anxiety might cook up, the chances of it playing out as badly as you imagined are slim to none. Exhibit A: We worried Odin would provoke a bear while we were camping. Instead, this happened.

Exhibit A: We worried Odin would provoke a bear while we were camping. Instead, this happened.

After timidly exploring the first two Airbnbs, Odin settled into the third one like a champ. These incredible hosts were to thank, welcoming him with a bowl of fresh water, big breezy windows, and dog treats just for him. On our first full day on the coast, we took a work break at lunch and followed our hosts’ local guidebook to the nearest dog-friendly beach. In a serene bay, our midwestern pup got in the ocean for the first time. Slightly hesitant about the water, he found the beach itself much more fascinating. He bounded from overturned pebble to barnacle-coated log in a sniffing frenzy. Chalking the experience up to a success, we started to climb the hill back to the car. And that’s when we saw the bear.

pebble beach in british columbia

Peeking its head out of the forest, timidly looking about, the black bear was positioned directly across from our car. Before Odin had a chance to realize what was happening, we whipped around and bolted back towards the water. He didn’t even pick up the bear’s scent, let alone emit a growl or a bark. After a few minutes, Jay went to retrieve the car alone as Odin continued to frolic on the beach, and we were back at the Airbnb in time for a 1:30PM conference call.

our feet and Odin sniffing around a pebble beach in British Columbia

The second reason to avoid the worst-case scenario rabbit hole is that of all the adrenaline-spiking dog travel moments you’ll actually experience, the majority will never have crossed your mind. Exhibit B: Odin is terrified of car ferries. Departing from our home state of Kansas, we didn’t even know what a car ferry was, let alone that we’d end up taking four of them or that they would scare the bejeezus out of our pup.

Departing from our home state of Kansas, we didn’t even know what a car ferry was, let alone that we’d end up taking four of them or that they would scare the bejeezus out of our pup.

The final car ferry brought us back into the US. And while he was an angel to the border patrol agent, Odin started to shake as we drove aboard. Unlike the previous open air parking decks, this one was windowless, loud, and almost completely dark. Dogs were allowed on the upper decks, so we brought him up to get some fresh air. For the entire two hour trip across the strait, Odin sat between our legs like a baby penguin. He nervously watched the ocean bob and the waves crash into the boat, with only a brief lapse in nerves when he realized the salads we’d bought from the cafe had cheese on. Odin loves cheese.

our dog Odin on the deck of a Canadian car ferry
a car ferry going between Victoria Canada and the US

4) Set Aside Money for Unexpected Jams

A few unexpected glitches are par for the traveling course, but when there’s a dog alongside you, the glitches tend to cost more to fix. We strongly recommend setting aside a few hundred dollars for the day something goes wrong. We’ve had two days where we unexpectedly whipped out our wallet to solve a dog travel problem.

But suddenly, we were out a place to stay at 6:00PM at night and the only dog-friendly hotel in town came with a non-refundable pet fee equivalent to the room’s nightly rate.

The first time was in conjunction with the only Airbnb to date for which we’ve requested a refund. The long version of the story can be found in this post, but the short version is this: the Airbnb didn’t have the wifi it advertised, we need wifi to work, we left immediately and received a full refund. But suddenly, we were out a place to stay at 6:00PM at night and the only dog-friendly hotel in town came with a non-refundable pet fee equivalent to the room’s nightly rate. (We’ve since discovered that there are handful of hotels that are proudly pet-friendly. La Quinta is our personal go-to.)

Vaccination history documents

The second time was our own misstep. The morning we had train tickets from Connecticut to New York City, we entered a nearby Petsmart to drop Odin off for two nights of boarding only to find ourselves back in the parking lot with him five minutes later. His six month bordetella shot expired on that very day. And even though he had a standing vet appointment in two weeks and even though the necessary shot was in the attached vet’s office, there was a 48 hour incubation period and the corporate guidelines were clear: they couldn’t board him.

Yes, they could administer the bordetella and board him immediately. But they also required an influenza vaccine Odin didn’t have–something about the annual influx of dogs visiting from Florida.

As the time until our train departed continue to tick down, we scrambled to find a solution. Actually, first Jay scrambled while I cried, and then we scrambled together. We ended up finding a fantastic vet that also had boarding. Yes, they could administer the bordetella and board him immediately. But they also required an influenza vaccine Odin didn’t have–something about the annual influx of dogs visiting from Florida. Between the cost of the boarding and the two shots at a facility well outside the scope of his usual pet health plan, we ended up shelling out the same amount as our roundtrip train tickets in order to actually catch that train.

our dog Odin rolling upside down on a rug

5) Celebrate Embarrassment

And last but not least, don’t just brace yourself for the moments where your dog’s bad behavior is on full display: celebrate the embarrassment. Internally, of course, maybe once the situation is fully under your control again. But don’t let your dog’s inevitable awkward, unflattering moments shame you. Let them bolster your pride that you are embracing a challenge that many a pet owner would avoid out of fear of public humiliation. Inherent to building up a graceful canine traveler are clumsy, embarrassing moments like these.

When we arrived at the given address, we realized that the dog park was actually a fenceless soccer field where the neighborhood pups played from 4 to 6 each evening.

Here was the scene. Just down the street from our Airbnb in the surprisingly fabulous town of Boise, Idaho we’d been told there was a dog park. After several days, it was clear that the daily walks weren’t cutting it and Odin had a bit of cabin fever going on from being cooped up in the suite. When we arrived at the given address, we realized that the dog park was actually a fenceless soccer field where the neighborhood pups played from 4 to 6 each evening. And these neighborhood dogs weren’t so much playing as they were trotting alongside their owners or obediently sitting nearby.

From the side at top speeds, his profile is that of a graceful sprinter. But head on, he’s a frenzied ball of fur, dust, and tongue, the kind of chaotic energy cartoonists represent with bustling clouds and random black lines kicked up in his wake.

Here’s the other important piece of information to have. Odin is all leg. Despite the genetics test that comically pegged him as a German Shepherd and Chiwawa descendant, our mutt has the miniaturized frame of a greyhound and a love of running to go with it. From the side at top speeds, his profile is that of a graceful sprinter. But head on, he’s a frenzied ball of fur, dust, and tongue, the kind of chaotic energy cartoonists represent with bustling clouds and random black lines kicked up in his wake.

black dog running in the snow
our dog Odin sprinting through the snow in Connecticut

After off-leash training at a beach in Victoria and in Boise’s surrounding foothills, we were confident he wouldn’t leave the circumference created by the other dogs. But we also knew that he would, shall we say, stand out in this collection of well-groomed, poised pups. We asked him to sit and he threw his butt to the ground while maintaining impeccable eye contact. He knew what was at stake.

The final stunt was a gangly attempt to hurdle jump an outstretched, retractable leash, which he butchered, wiped out, and then was running again before he was fully upright.

We unhooked his leash and he sat perfectly still. Not a blink, not a wag. And the moment we said his release word “OK”, he shot across the field like he’d been launched out of a cannon. With every ounce of might he could muster, he ran, cutting corners so tightly that he looked like a motorcyclist dipping in and out of ridiculous curves. He bolted through the calm wagging groups of dogs gently sniffing each other’s butts, flew past the retrievers lasered in on their game of fetch, sniffed an entire family sitting down for an afternoon snack. The final stunt was a gangly attempt to hurdle jump an outstretched, retractable leash, which he butchered, wiped out, and then was running again before he was fully upright. We called his name, he galloped over, we hooked him back up to his leash and walked home.

At the end of the day, a sprinkle of embarrassment is a small price to pay for doing what’s in your dog’s best interest.

After those precious minutes of freedom, Odin trotted off in a droll-filled ecstasy. Completely exhausted, he slept the rest of the evening. And we, despite the bewildered, slightly offended dog park frequenters, were proud of ourselves for sticking with Odin’s training to the point where we could let him off a leash in a fenceless park and trust him to return. At the end of the day, a sprinkle of embarrassment is a small price to pay for doing what’s in your dog’s best interest.

our dog Odin on a walk down a snowy street

Happy Travels!

We hope Odin and his travel experiences are helpful as you consider hitting the road with your dog. We’d love to hear from you! What questions do you have for us? What are your dog travel stories? Share in the comments below, and until next time, happy travels! Woof woof!

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