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Whether you are moving cross country or planning a dog-friendly vacation, traveling with dogs can be daunting. Here are my top 5 tips for an easier road trip with your large dog.
Whether you are looking for a dog-friendly vacation or are moving with a dog cross-country, the prospect of traveling with dogs can feel both daunting and crazy.
The hair flying. Slobber flinging. Panting hot breath on your children as they try desperately to keep their books from getting saturated with your dogs’ jowl juice.
Driving over 2000 miles under these conditions can bring even the most tenured big dog mom to her knees if she isn’t prepared.
The following are 5 simple tips, from my recent personal experience, that will help you maintain your sanity should you be considering a road trip with dogs. As an added bonus, I’ve included a VIDEO summary of these 5 tips linked below. Check that out when you finish reading…
In this post you will learn:
- How to transport your dog safely in the car,
- The 5 most important keys to successful travel with your big dog,
- What you need to have on hand in the event of an emergency,
- A sample project plan (checklist) to prepare for your trip with ease,
- How to relieve stress and anxiety for dogs that fear car rides,
- The best pet-friendly hotels for large dogs,
- And some helpful advice for fellow raw feeders!
Let’s get going…
Did you know?
Click here for my FREE Pre-Travel Checklist for Big Dog Owners that you may find helpful as you plan for your road trip. It contains 24 suggested dog-related action items to assist in your planning and preparation with a notes section for you to jot down phone numbers or other key information for your trip.
Travel Safety for Dogs
Did you know in an accident that occurs at 25 mph, a dog can be thrown forward with a force 40 times greater than its weight, hitting objects and passengers with thousands of pounds of force? (1)
Consider the impact of a 200-pound mastiff. That would be a force of 8,000 pounds flying through the cabin, and worse, crashing through the front windshield!!
Whether you are in the car for 5 minutes or 10 hours or more with your dog, it is critically important that you factor into the cost of big dog ownership, money for a seat belt, harness, gate, crate, or some way to safely transport your dog in a car.
The make and model of your vehicle and the size of your dog(s) will determine what safety gear makes the most sense for you.
Here are a few options for your consideration.
Best Products for Car Safety for Large Dogs
Seat Belt or Seat Belt Tether
These will usually attach directly to the seatbelt in the car. An example is the Kurgo Seatbelt Swivel Tether which hooks onto your dog’s harness.
Read The Best Dog Harness for Large Dogs [Definitive Buyers Guide] for more on how to select the best harness for your large dog. If you prefer a video, check out How to Choose a Dog Harness for Large Dogs [“NO PULL” Truth REVEALED!].
These are harnesses made exclusively for car travel for dogs. They are different than regular dog harnesses.
A gate is simply a barrier between you (the driver) and your big dog.
Unfortunately, I have yet to find the perfect barrier for our Navigator. I’m sure I did something wrong with the installation of our WeatherTech one, but, for some reason, the second the dogs lean on it, it slips out of place. I do think this product would work well for smaller vehicles, vehicles without a liner, and families with just one dog, however. For our vehicle, the Kurgo Backseat Barrier would work much better!
If you have just one large dog, a crate may be an option for you.
A good example of a quality crate you could fit in the cargo space of a large SUV is the Pet Gear 3 Door Portable Soft Crate which would be big enough for a Labrador retriever, Boxer, or Collie size big dog.
For families, like us, with giant breed dogs or multiple dogs, a crate may not work for you given the substantial space limitations in most vehicles.
How to Get a Large Dog Into and Out of a Car
Secondly, you will want to think about how you are going to effectively get your dog into and out of the car safely.
We use a Twistep and LOVE it! This product attaches directly to the hitch on the back of our Navigator. To use it you simply lift the lock and swivel it out from under the car and it locks in place. When your dogs step out, you lift the lock again and swivel it back under for storage. Easy peasy and oh, so convenient! The Twistep has been a Godsend for me! Check out the video below to see it in action!
Other big dog owners love using a dog ramp for their dogs. For dogs with mobility issues like Wobblers, hip dysplasia, CCL injuries, or senior dogs, a ramp will likely work better for you than the Twistep. For healthy adult dogs and puppies, however, either one can work for most vans, SUVs, or trucks.
Check out my video, Hitch Step or Dog Ramp: Which is BEST For You? A Mastiff Owner’s Journey With Both | PROS & CONS, for a more in-depth comparison.
That said, if your car is small enough, you may not need either one.
Now that you have the means to travel safely, let’s move on to HOW to successfully survive a long-distance road trip with your big dog.
5 Tips for Long-Distance Travel with a Large Dog
Preparation can mean many different things depending on what type of travel you are doing with your large dog.
Let’s discuss some possible scenarios and I will give you a few tips for each.
Traveling For a Few Days to a Week
While the most simple of the three scenarios, traveling long distance, even for just a couple of days, with a big dog involves some planning and preparation.
Consider your destination, the routine needs of your dog such as food, medication, and behavior, weather, and how many hours you will be traveling each day.
You will need to prepare food and medication, make hotel arrangements, and pack your Essentials Bag (see point #2 below).
If your dog will be riding in the car for more than a few hours at a time on this road trip, consider conditioning them to long car rides ahead of time. More on that in a minute…
Long Distance Road Trip for 7+ Days
In addition to the points made above, longer road trips require a little more pre-planning.
Depending on how long you will be gone, you may want to arrange for a routine vet visit beforehand to discuss any needed immunizations or medications your dog will need.
Inform your veterinarian about where you are traveling as there may be geographical health considerations you need to be aware of like Lyme disease, valley fever, or canine influenza.
You will also want to plan to have more food on hand or the possibility of buying dog food at your destination.
Don’t be surprised if your dog’s appetite is thrown off or if he chooses to skip a meal here or there. In my experience, this is normal.
The prospect of moving to a new state can be daunting, to say the least, especially if you have children and/or big dogs.
Don’t expect to get much sleep in the weeks leading up to your move. With so many competing priorities and action items, it’s easy to get lost or overwhelmed.
In addition to everything I’ve already mentioned above, you will want to provide a forwarding address to your vet, as well as contact your state or county where your dog is licensed to let them know you are moving.
I also recommend getting all of your pet medications refilled a few days before your departure to give you time to get established with a new vet and pharmacy.
I’ve created a Pre-Travel Checklist for Big Dog Owners that you may find helpful as you plan for your road trip. It contains 24 suggested dog-related action items to assist in your planning and preparation with a notes section for you to jot down phone numbers or other key information for your trip.
Click here to simplify your travel prep with this FREE comprehensive project plan checklist.
2. Easy Access to Travel Essentials
There is nothing worse than 5 minutes after leaving a rest stop being forced to pull over yet again to retrieve something stored overhead in the car carrier.
My best advice is to try and consider anything and everything you might possibly need access to and keep it in a bag or safely stored nearby.
Call it a Go Bag, an Essentials Bag, or Mom’s Bottomless Pit Bag. This is the bag that contains your most essential items you need to have on hand at all times whether for convenience or emergency.
💡BIG DOG MOM TIP: If you have children, consider empowering them to pack their own Go Bag as well so they can begin to be responsible for their own stuff.
My car travel bag contains only dog-related items as my (Bottomless Pit) purse stores my personal belongings.
Here are just a few of the items I don’t leave home without when I am traveling with big dogs:
- ✅ Leash
- ✅ Collar/Harness (see my buyers guide to harnesses for big dogs here)
- ✅ Vet Records including immunizations
- ✅ Dog bowls (one for each dog)
- ✅ Drool cloths, waste bags (you can never have too many!)
- ✅ Treats (dehydrated liver, Real Dog Box, and Raw Paws treats work best)
- ✅ Clicker, squeaker
- ✅ Dremel and styptic powder or Kwik Stop (Yes, I am a nail fanatic!)
- ✅ A few toys or balls (here is a great toy guide for big dogs)
- ✅ Gas-X, Probiotic
- ✅ Bloat Kit (read more about bloat here)
- ✅ Prescription Medications (including allergy meds and Melatonin)
- ✅ Alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, betadine
3. Maintain Routine… and Patience
Consider that the longer your road trip, the more your dog will be out of his or her normal routine.
This can cause disruptions in appetite, gut and bowel issues, anxiety, and stress in some dogs.
To minimize potential behavior or health issues, I recommend starting a probiotic in advance, bringing water from home, and bringing some of the dog’s bedding or soft toys for comfort and familiarity.
Feed your dog as close to your normal schedule as possible while on the road.
If you have been wanting to “feed this new dog food” or “try this new treat,” right before or during your road trip is not the time for the switch.
Anything new that you buy for your trip or your move should be introduced BEFORE you leave – that includes any items that require conditioning such as a crate, harness, or seat belt, as well as anything edible.
And finally, be patient with your dog while you travel.
Every trip with my dogs is an imperfect adventure. When you react to this simple fact of life with a sense of humor and ease, your dog will as well.
4. Stop Frequently for Exercise
Plan your stops so that you are able to provide ample exercise and potty time at each one.
And, better yet, map your route to schedule in extended times when your dog can burn off energy through play, running, hiking, etc.
Find a local park, hiking trail, or open field where you can safely let your dog off-leash or on an extended (not-retractable) leash.
After all, a tired dog is a happy dog!!
The added advantage of doing this is that most dogs enjoy meeting and interacting with new people and new smells.
Allowing your dog this freedom to do what they do best as a social scent hound will ensure your dog is comfortable and content to sit or sleep quietly until your next stop.
5. Relieve Dog Stress & Dog Anxiety
My guess is some of you have read up to this point and are asking, “What do I do if my dog is afraid of riding in the car?”
If you have a dog that is fearful of getting into the car or riding in the car, and you are wondering, “What can I give my dog to calm her down,” this is the section for you.
Here are a few resources I found particularly helpful on the topic of how to cure car anxiety in dogs.
I’ve broken them down into three categories:
- ✅ Behavioral Supplements
- ✅ Behavioral Modification
- ✅ Behavioral Management
1. Nutritional Supplements for Dog Anxiety
According to Bravo et. al. in their study published in 2011 titled, “Ingestion of Lactobacillus strain regulates emotional behavior and central GABA receptor expression in a mouse via the vagus nerve.” (2)
In this study, the authors conclude that what they call the gut-brain-HPA axis pathway, in part mediated by the neurotransmitter GABA, is significantly affected by the bacteria in the gut, which can be altered by the addition of a particular strain of Lactobacillus.
More simply, what’s in the gut affects behavior, and modifying what’s in the gut can modify the behavior as well.
In a more recent literature review in 2017, researchers at NIH found that gut health in a variety of species, including humans, are affected by the microorganisms living in the gut, and that the administration of probiotics could significantly increase gut health, and accordingly decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression. (3)
While it may not be a silver bullet for your dog’s fear, anxiety, or stress, the potential health benefits are proven. How the probiotic affects your dog’s behavior is something I would love to hear about in the comments below!
One great probiotic option for calming a reluctant traveler is Calming Care Canine by Purina.
This product contains a proprietary probiotic strain of Bifidobacterium longum BL999 to “help dogs maintain calm behavior, cope with external stressors like separation, unfamiliar visitors, novel sounds, or changes in routine and location.”
Keep in mind, you will want to start your dog on Calming Care 4-6 weeks before traveling.
For a more in-depth analysis of probiotics for dogs, read Probiotics for Dogs: The Facts and Strains that Matter Most.
In addition to Calming Care, you may consider keeping some Melatonin on hand as well. Melatonin for dogs is both safe and effective. While there aren’t many studies done on animals, there is anecdotal evidence that melatonin works to treat behavioral and sleep issues, as well as specific types of hair loss.
I started giving Junior Melatonin for his patchy hair loss (non-allergic alopecia) and noticed that when he took it, he became calmer and more sleepy than normal.
Melatonin is not going to drastically alter your dog’s behavior, but it may help take the edge off in a dog that suffers from stress or anxiety in the car.
Melatonin takes about 1-2 hours to take full effect so you will want to dose it accordingly.
*NOTE: Consult your veterinarian for specific dosing and health considerations for your dog before you give Melatonin. While it’s a safe, natural supplement, there are some dogs who should not take it.
2. Behavioral Modification – Conditioning
As I mentioned above, conditioning your dog to ride in the car safely is a core responsibility for any dog owner.
Ideally, this will start when your dog is a puppy.
Socialization both in and out of the car is vital for the health and wellbeing of your dog, so start early if you can.
Make every trip an amazing one with tons of treats, praise, and fun. Never force your puppy into situations or places he or she is fearful of.
For now, let’s assume you have an adult dog who just needs to get used to riding in the car for long hours at a time.
Conditioning in this situation is nothing more than increasing the duration of time in the car in the weeks leading up to your trip.
For example, start with a 45-60 minute drive to a dog-friendly place near you where your dog is rewarded with adventure, exercise, and lots of treats. Increase the drive time over a few months to 2-3 hour-long trips, where again, your dog is rewarded with fun and love at each stop.
After a few short day trips, your dog should be well familiar with what it means to be a good canine companion on the road and the joy of the adventure that awaits.
3. Behavioral Management for Car Anxiety – Avoidance of Stressors
For dogs with fear or anxiety, sometimes the best choice is to avoid the stressor altogether.
If riding in the car is not the problem, but interacting with other dogs is, select stops on your route that are less likely to involve other dogs.
In my experience with an aggressive mastiff, management is absolutely critical. My dream of traveling and camping with my handsome Linus was not to be. For us, riding in the car was limited to essential trips to the vet only.
Patricia McConnell has a terrific blog post about how to determine whether your dog is a good fit for a long distance road trip or not.
In this article she says, “Some dogs are neophobic (afraid of new things). Some dogs would love a week in a cabin in the woods but hate the city. Or vice versa. Some dogs can’t wait to play with your grandchildren; others, not so much.” (5)
Best Hotels That Allow Large Dogs!
While this is not an all-inclusive list, here are a few of our favorite dog-friendly hotels for when we are road tripping with our mastiffs:
I like to use Bringfido.com to identify and filter for hotels at my destination that both allow 2+ large dogs and that has NO PET FEE. From there I filter on price to find just the right pet-friendly hotel for my needs and budget.
If you haven’t tried BringFido, definitely check it out.
Below is my list of top pet-friendly hotels for big dog owners. I have listed them in order from the BEST to the least wonderful, but still acceptable.
Keep in mind, the quality of an individual hotel depends on the property owner, age of property, and its location, so please take this list as a guide to start from as you plan for a road trip with your large dog.
- ✳️ TOP CHOICE: La Quinta Inn & Suites
- ✳️ RUNNER UP: Hampton Inn & Suites
- ✳️ 2ND RUNNER UP: Homewood Suites
- ✳️ Extended Stay
- ✳️ Country Inn & Suites
- ✳️ Motel 6
- ✳️ Super 8
Tips for Raw Feeding on the Road
This is a really tough one, unfortunately, but I feel compelled to offer a bit of advice and insight as a fellow raw feeder.
First and foremost, do not beat yourself up if you need to switch to kibble for a short time during your travel or move.
We moved from Arizona to Michigan during the fall of the 2020-pocalypse and the supply of raw food for my dogs became more difficult both financially and logistically to obtain. This forced me to switch my mastiffs to kibble for a few months until we arrived at our destination and I could locate a new raw food co-op in our area.
Despite their icky coats and shedding, they survived.
It’s not ideal, but sometimes preserving your sanity is more important when faced with the insanity that was 2020.
That said, I have traveled long distances with my mastiffs while continuing to raw feed. It absolutely CAN be done, but it definitely takes planning and preparation.
Depending on how long you will be on the road, you will need one or more coolers and separate containers for each meal. I have traveled and tried to portion out large quantities of raw meat, but doing this out of your car or in a hotel is VERY difficult (and MESSY)!
I highly recommend scheduling a raw dog food prep day before you travel when you portion out whole meals into separate containers so that the only cleaning you need to do when raw feeding on the road is of that one container after your dog eats.
I have reviews for all three linked below for you to see what will work best for you and your big dog. All have their pluses and minuses, but would be a headache-free way to continue to raw feed your big dog while you travel.
- Feeding the Way Nature Intended: A Review of Raw Paws Pet Food
- Top 5 Reasons Why Darwin’s Raw Dog Food is Great for Big Dogs
- My Honest Review of Dr. Harvey’s Raw Dog Food [for Big Dogs]
[VIDEO] Traveling With Large Dogs | Top 5 Tips for a Long-Distance Road Trip
The latest on Youtube:
Ditch the Insanity and Bring On The ADVENTURE!!
I started this post with the title, Road Trip with Large Dogs – Are You Insane?!
Meeting new people on the road is one of the great highlights of any trip for me because they inevitably ask this question.
I will usually laugh and reply, “Traveling with big dogs is no crazier than living with them! All it takes is a sense of humor, patience, and a whole lot of preparation.”
Are you planning a road trip with your large dog? What concerns you most about traveling with them? Tell me all about it in the comments below.
- Keeping Pets Safe In the Car
- Ingestion of Lactobacillus strain regulates emotional behavior and central GABA receptor expression in a mouse via the vagus nerve
- Gut microbiota’s effect on mental health: The gut-brain axis
- Teach Your Dog to Ride in the Car: Prevent Anxiety and Motion Sickness
- Traveling with Dogs–Should You?