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Training a pup to be "vacation ready" is a fun way to keep your dog included in the family! There are travels that will necessitate leaving your dog with a professional sitter or boarder, but when it's possible to choose a dog-friendly vacation spot it can be a wonderful bonding experience for you. It's also an opportunity to practice command behaviors in a new location- helping the pattern become reinforced and thus more reliable.
Each year, our family goes to Cape Cod for a few days, and we have been preparing Rio for her first ever vacation with us. Swanson is a beach pro now, but we followed the same process getting him ready the first year he went along. Some of our best memories involve this pup, a gorgeous day, and miles of bay side low tide sands!
First, we choose a very popular vacation destination, so we go on what's considered the "off season". That's a lot about us as people, we don't love large crowds or traffic. We have the benefit that our jobs are also busiest in the summer, so planning a fall vacation coincides near end of our farming season, the busiest dog boarding time, and even our roller derby season is best. The major benefit as a dog family though- is that many of the Cape Cod beaches open up to allow pups again! We stay at a campground that is pet friendly, but your dogs must go with you when you leave your campsite, so being able to take the dogs to the beach is crucial and also one of the most fun things about the trip.
Second, we don't mince words about buying all of the dog gear we need to make the trip easier. Sometimes it's not necessary to spend the money on your dog for a really cute collar etc- they don't care about fashion. But when it comes to a vacation- you need the tools. Here are our essentials for an easier trip with dogs.
1. Collapsible bowls: Easy to store, take on long trips, and fairly sturdy- we can be sure that no matter what we are up to the pups get their meals and water. This keeps them calmer and healthy while we all enjoy the travel.
2. Poop bags: Duh.
3. Wet and dry dog food: Sometimes Dogs are nervous in new locations, and rather than "waiting it out" to get them to eat, a little bribery goes a long way with some wet food mixed in. There are times when you find a training opportunity, but in this case, we all need to just focus on the relaxing and this keeps us sure that we aren't worrying about someone's anxious hunger strike.
4. Dog back packs: Yes, these are essential. We do some day trips when traveling, in towns where dogs are welcome in many shops and patios. Next up will be some tips for training with packs, but we have found them invaluable. They can carry their own small water bottles, collapsible bowls, treats, poop bags (empty or used!), and often my keys or cellphone. It helps to focus them, putting them in "work mode" while we are in busy environments, and is just practical.
5. Kongs/chewies: Sitting around a campfire is the best! It's even better when your now tired dog is able to settle down with their own treat leaving the humans to tell scary stories that don't involve a yappy over excited dog!
6. X-pens: Exercise pens, or x-pens, set up quickly, fold up fairly conveniently, and can be made sturdy by driving stakes into the ground. We use them to create a dog space on the campsite where not quite as much supervision is needed, while upholding the campground rules that the dogs are on/leash or contained. Because our dogs are very well crate trained, they transition to the x-pen easily and the open top allows for the inevitable campground guest snuggles as people pass by. And I don't have to worry about them getting tangled in a line, or taking them with me in/out of the camper 100 times while I'm getting dinner ready or putting things back from the beach. It's also great for hotel rooms, or guest houses, as it can set up in a few different configurations and act as a gate. Travel crates are another great idea, but I've found I don't love the attention that my crated pup gets when snoozing at the campsite. It gets a lot of "poooooorrrr puppppppy" responses, and while I know that's hogwash- this solution works for us and keeps me from launching into a dog-trainer tirade while trying to relax.
7. Chuck-it and Sand proof balls: If you have a high energy fetch dog, you know the value of a chuck it. Whatever your dog's preferred activity is, bring it with and modify it for the environment you are traveling in. Typical tennis balls collect too much water/beach sand/salt- so we switch the rubberized balls for vacation. Anything your dog likes to do probably has a few different varieties, so plan accordingly! Floating toys, rubberized tug toys, and extras you don't mind loosing are all great ideas.
8. Treat training bags: Practice doesn't make perfect with dogs- it makes reliability! While not my favorite accessory, more often than not you will find me with my clip on training treat bag when I take my dogs to a new location. Helping them focus is worth the fashion disaster, and it also lets me control what they eat when someone is desperate to give them a snack. Rio has food allergies, and we really limit people food hand-outs, so aside from being a great training tool- I can hand off a cookie to a stranger without offending someone offering either of them a french fry!
There is a ton of additional gear that we personally use that can be helpful, but there are also many other resources to help you get started or troubleshoot for your own trip. There are some training tenants however, that will help you wherever you go, whether it is a day trip or a longer stay!
If you are using new tools, like a back pack- PRACTICE. Don't assume that your dog will just automatically take to sleeping in a camper, or be cool with wearing shoes on the beach. Whenever we are introducing something new, we like to start with short periods of time, and use positive reinforcement through foods and verbal assurance. It's also important not to give up either. Some dogs will "melt" the first time you put them in a back pack (lay on the floor and not move), or "freeze" (stand with their legs locked looking like they are literally on ice). It's okay that this happens, it's way more about our reaction then the dog itself. If I act as though I'm torturing the dog, the dog will respond that the new tool, is in fact, evil. I also don't chase dogs for anything. Rather, persistence, patience and counter conditioning are all the tricks. For a back pack specifically- start with just laying a back pack on top of a dog and then giving a treat and verbal praise. Then, when this becomes a fun game, put the straps on and ask the dog to move around. More treats/praise! We like to do a couple of shorter walks depending on the reaction of the dog with a back pack, and then slowly start adding some essentials or weights to help them adjust. In no time flat, your pup will see the back pack as a sign that adventure awaits!
Patio eating is a regular part of most vacations, and it is definitely an acquired skill for most dogs. In general, practicing a strong sit/down/stay will serve you well whether you are getting ice cream or having a drink. Along with those commands, try training a "place" command- which is where you pick a spot marked by a hand gesture (I just point to a spot) or a mat/blanket. Giving your dog clear boundaries while out in public helps them feel calm, and gives you an easy way to correct your dog if they start to wander or pull on the leash. Along with controlling your dog in a tight space, you also want to make sure that they don't try and snag treats or upset a table. "Leave it" along with implied table manners are imperative.
You can practice this behavior on an elevated level at home pretty easily. Set up a picnic lunch in your dining area, but on a blanket on the floor. Put a plate of food in the middle, and work with your dog to maintain boundaries OFF of the floor blanket, and away from the food. I recommend beginning this practice with your dog on a leash. It's always nice to have a handle so that you can prevent an error before it happens! The most important thing here is that you dog doesn't get the food and establish a pattern. Start in a standing position, gently relocating your dog if they challenge the picnic site and using the commands I mentioned above. When the dog gets the idea, start changing your body position- go into a kneel, a sit, turn your back, etc, all while expecting the dog to hold their position OFF the blanket. It takes some time to master, but dogs get food boundaries as a natural process, so it usually happens fairly quickly.
"Look at me" is the most important behavior you can teach. Hands down, the thing I rely on most in my relationship with my dogs is that I can get their eye contact to break up their thought patterns and instinctual behaviors. I start with this behavior on a command, but try to phase out the verbal as quickly as possible. Why? I want the dog to develop a pattern of automatic check in. See something new? Dog should turn their head and look to me for what comes next. See something scary? Dog should turn to their head to look at me and realize it's probably not scary, as I'm not scared. Meet a new person or dog? Look to me to see what greeting, if any, is allowed. This takes years to make highly reliable, but in a few weeks time to you can train your dog to check in using food rewards on command. Start by using a treat, directly in front of a dog's nose and bring it up to your face. I bring it right to my nose, as the hand signal for this command will be me pointing to my nose. When the dog looks at your eyes, not the cookie, use a marker word like "Yes" and reward with food. Practice this each day, inside, outside, on walks etc. Get reliable responses first inside, with no distractions. I then like to stretch the duration of eye contact longer, Swanson can hold it for 2 minutes with distractions. If you can get a full 30 seconds in most scenarios- you probably can deal with any high level distraction that comes your way. Biologically, this is also important! Recent research shows that eye contact releases oxytocin in both the dog and the human! This is an important bonding exercise and can calm either an anxious pup, or a nervous owner.
New noises can be one of the most challenging triggers for a dog in a new environment. An easy way to help your dog with this before leaving, is to use the power of the internet! I frequently will play loud sounds off of youtube, things like trucks, horns, ocean sounds, kids screaming on a playground etc while just going about my business. The dogs go from mildly confused, to completely oblivious most of the time. Occasionally a sound will be really upsetting- and then we go back to counter conditioning. Again, we don't use "it's ok" or baby talk. Rather I ask for a sit, and eye contact, and reinforce success with verbal praise and food. And, again, repetition is the best tool for dog training. If a new noise is proving to be a challenge, it just means we have work to do- not that your dog is terminally afraid.
One of the most important things about preparing a dog for vacation is to think critically about your dog's limits. Swanson has a much longer capacity for situations where engaging with strangers is a skill, where as Rio has a much longer capacity for repeated dog greetings. We plan breaks for both dogs, and use tools like time-outs and crates to give them some space to relax. Our dog Badger is a routine focused guy, and really struggles with his schedule being thrown off, and travel in general. He can travel with us for overnights or short trips, but is much more excited to have his own personal house guest when we go away for long periods of time. We do a lot to help our dogs stretch their natural ability, but part of a good relationship with your pup is understanding their skills and limitations. Much like I am not going to Disney at peak summer vacation- Badger isn't going to handle loud trucks/campers/barking dogs for more than two days. It's not a flaw, it makes him a WONDERFUL couch potato, best sleep-in dog champion of the house, for sure. I want to challenge my dogs in training but also keep their individual personalities and skills in mind. Good dog training doesn't work around a dog, it works with it!
If there is anything more magical then sitting on a beach, at sunset, with a few critters and my wife, I haven't found it. All of the preparation and practice helps build a deeper relationship with my dogs- they don't just live at our house- they are unique contributing individuals to our family fabric. Exploring new places and seeing their excitement and wonder really has made my vacations more fun. So plan, prepare and GO!