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How to Have a Safe and Fun Road Trip With Your Dog

Expert tips for a pet-friendly driving vacation

Border Collie Dog in seat harness
Papilio / Alamy Stock Photo

Leo loves to travel. The Baltimore, Maryland, resident has road-tripped through 47 states; swum in two oceans, three Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico; and explored numerous state and national parks, from Acadia to Zion. As Leo cruises America's back roads and interstates, he's joined by his faithful companion, a 46-year-old human named Kristin Kluge.

Leo is an 8-year-old Labrador Retriever mix — and he loves his ruff-rider life.

"He gets a lot of attention everywhere we go,” says Kluge, an x-ray technologist who travels frequently for work and pleasure (as we spoke, she and Leo were driving through New Mexico on a 14-state trip). “When I'm traveling, I talk to people who miss their dog, and they're jealous that I have mine.”

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For car-trip fans like Kluge, dogs are more than passengers. They're happy tourists, willing photo subjects and instant conversation starters. But a good, safe journey requires some planning. Before you embark on a road trip with your pooch, take these smart, simple steps.

Find dog-friendly lodging

Camping is an obvious overnight option, but most hotel chains offer plentiful pet-friendly properties. PetsWelcome.com summarizes the policies of major chains, including Best Western (1,000 pet-friendly properties in the U.S. and Canada), Comfort (550 in the U.S.), La Quinta Inns & Suites (800 in the U.S.) and Red Roof Inns (550 in the U.S.). Motel 6 welcomes pets at all of its 1,400 U.S. properties “unless they pose a health or safety risk, or are prohibited by law.” Guests can have two pets per room with a combined weight of 150 pounds.

Before you book a room, research pet fees. “A lot of the more price-conscious hotels take dogs, but they also have a really high pet deposit,” says Tom Manus, who blogs about travel with his wife, Kristi, on their site, Small Town Plus Size. He notes that he's seen deposits ranging from $50-$200. Some pet fees are nonrefundable.

Airbnb and VRBO offer easy-to-find pet-friendly options, but some hosts charge a per-dog fee or mandatory cleaning fees of $100 or more, says Troy Hollan, who writes about dogs and travel on his sites Woof the Beaten Path and Dog on a Road Trip. Hollan avoids properties with large mandatory fees, and to prevent muddy, hairy and potentially costly messes at rental homes, he and his wife cover the furniture, close off unused rooms and bring supplies (such as wipes, a mop and lint roller) for a thorough cleaning before they leave.

Whether in a hotel or Airbnb, Hollan recommends a white noise machine. Unfamiliar sounds can stress out dogs, but the white noise calms his canines and helps them (and therefore Hollan) sleep.

Additional sites for finding pet-friendly lodging include Pet Friendly Hotels, AAA and Pet Travel.

Pack essential stuff

Other key supplies include water, food, a leash, bowls, plastic bags, grooming supplies, and medications. Hollan has compiled a handy road-trip checklist. To store food, he prefers containers with an airtight seal, such as the Gamma2 Vittles Vault. The containers are so well-sealed that he bought a second one to store poop bags when trash cans aren't available.

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Also bring copies of your dog's health records — vaccination certificates, lab work documents, a rabies vaccination tag — and pack a doggie first aid kit. You can buy them from pet stores and most big-box stores, or even make your own. The American Kennel Club has compiled a list of essential first-aid items including gauze, medical tape, nonstick bandages, cotton balls, hydrogen peroxide, antibiotic spray or ointment, scissors, tweezers and a magnifying glass. Such tools can be useful: In Arizona, Kluge once helped two women remove cactus needles from their dogs’ noses.

Leo sitting on a large chair in Vermont
Leo, relaxing on a trip through New England.
Kristin Kluge

To ease your pooch's away-from-home anxiety, bring familiar objects, such as a favorite toy or blanket, along with regular water and food bowls. Kluge also keeps towels in the car. “Leo is a water dog,” she says, “so as soon as we see a river, he wants to be swimming."

Stop at the right places

If your pup needs a bathroom break, choose a rest stop or a park — not the shoulder of a busy road. “You don't want to be on the side of an interstate if a leash slips out of your hand,” says Hollan.

It's tempting to let dogs run free on trails or in grassy areas, but keep them leashed. Hollan has friends who let their little dogs off-leash at a rest area in Colorado. An eagle swooped down, snatched one of the dogs and flew away with it. “They never saw him again,” he says.

Kluge has taken Leo to national parks, but they're not ideal, she says, since dogs typically aren't allowed on most trails or in wilderness areas. While the National Park Foundation maintains a list of seven dog-friendly national parks, you may find that county and state parks are better options.

To find activities that appeal to humans and canines alike, the app Bark Happy features restaurants, hotels, stores, parks and other dog-welcoming locations. You'll also find dog-friendly places, beaches, events and more on BringFido.com.

Drive safely

Leo sitting in a car
Leo has traveled through much of the U.S. with his human, Kristin Kluge.
Kristin Kluge

Dogs are cute. They're also distracting. In an American Automobile Association (AAA) survey, 52 percent of respondents admitted to petting their dogs while behind the wheel — and in another AAA survey, 12 percent confessed that they've photographed their pets while driving (repeat: while driving!).

To protect your dog in an accident, keep her secure with either a harness (which connects to the seat belt buckle) or a crate. It could save your dog's life as well as your own. In a crash at 30 mph, an unrestrained 10-pound dog becomes a 300-pound projectile, and an 80-pound dog exerts 2,400 pounds of force, according to Amy Stracke, a traffic safety advocate with AAA Auto Club South in Tampa, Florida.

Look for harnesses and crates that are specifically designed for automobiles (the nonprofit Center for Pet Safety certifies crash-tested harnesses and crates). A crate should be large enough for your pet to stand, sit, lie down and turn around in, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals states, and you should secure it to prevent sliding and shifting during sudden stops. Dogs should also wear their tags in the car in case you're separated during an accident.

Another car-safety essential: Keep windows up or cracked. Dogs love to stick their heads out, but wind can blow grit into their eyes and irritate mucous membranes. Insects and debris can also fly into nasal passages and even their windpipe, the American Humane organization notes.

If you think your dog would never leap through an open window, guess again. Tom and Kristi Manus tell the tale of a friend who was driving 55 mph when her little dog saw something outside and jumped out the window. The dog was wearing a harness, so she dangled against the car door until the driver could stop and get her back in. One solution: Lock power windows to prevent your pup from accidently opening and closing them.

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