What Do You Need to Know About Anxious Dogs and Travel?

There are over 60,000 pet-friendly hotels and vacation rentals in North America. That’s a lot of dogs on the road. If your dog has separation anxiety taking him on your travels may seem like an inspired idea. But get it wrong, and dogs with separation anxiety are the worst travel companions.

If you're traveling for US Thanksgiving or planning your travels for Christmas, there are ways to make it work for you and your dog.

Why travel is hard on a separation anxiety dog

Before we look at making things easier, let's look at why travel might be tough for these dogs.

The thing to remember is that when dogs get over fear, they don’t generalize their new-found confidence in every scenario. They cope in one context at a time, but the fear can return if you switch things up.

You might have experienced this too. If you have anxiety about public speaking, doing the same presentation over and over might help your nerves. But, if you had to present new material, or to new people, your anxiety might return.

Learning to drive is another example.When you learned to drive you developed the skill in your own neighbourhood. You breezed round the streets you know. But, when your instructor suggested you go across town, did you feel a little tested again?

This is the same pattern we see with a separation anxiety dog. He learns being alone in his home is okay. But he will fall apart in a new location like a hotel.

How dogs learn to lose their fear

When dogs perform a new behaviour we often say: “They know it.” But, they don’t “know” it like we know the capital of France or the name of the first  US President. Dogs learn new behaviours the way we learn languages, or to play a musical instrument, or drive a car.

Just because your dog has learned he can cope on his own at home, doesn’t mean he knows how to cope in other places. When you travel somewhere new, don’t expect your fretful dog to be ok. Expect him not to be ok. Then, anything else is a bonus.

If you want your dog to chill alone in a hotel or a relative’s home, he must learn the drill in the new place.

Old dogs, new contexts

My dog, Percy, is comfortable being on his own in our home. He’s no longer fearful when we leave because we worked on desensitizing him.

He’s a new, confident, sunny home alone dog. But, he doesn’t generalize the confidence. That means if something changes, all bets are off.

This is common for dogs with separation anxiety. It's common for dogs learning anything new, for that matter. Change the context and you change the deal.

Last month, my husband and I stayed in the friendliest of pet-friendly hotels for Canadian Thanksgiving. Because Percy can’t hack alone time in strange places, we ordered room service on the first night.

Our cheery server chimed that all guests with dogs do that. No one risks leaving their dog on the first night, she explained.

This interaction was fascinating. It reminded me many dogs would struggle if left alone in an unknown place.

If you travel all the time with your dog, he might be at ease with new places. If you don’t, and you leave him in an unfamiliar hotel room, there’s a good chance he will stress.

If your dog could talk, he might be saying: “Hey, where is this? Have you sold me to a new owner? Hey!”

So, if chilled out dogs find new places scary, it’s no wonder anxious dogs do.

Even a chilled dog can get worried by a new context.


The separation anxiety learning curve

Percy’s been over separation anxiety for so long, But I was curious. Could a recovered separation-phobic dog settle in an unknown location?

I decided to experiment. I set my phone up as a video camera and my husband and I stepped out of the room.

The door hadn’t even closed when I heard “a-ruff!” Percy’s “a-ruff” means no one’s going anywhere. So, we trooped back in.

Being the training geek I am, I wrote a few exercises of short departures. Could we make much progress getting him calm despite the different context? It turns out, we made solid progress. We rattled through a fair few (tiny) steps.

Why was that? Think back to the learning to drive example. When you drove to a new part of town, you might have felt more nervous or more hesitant. But, you weren't a learner all over again. You’d already learned to drive. You needed to learn how to do it in a new context, that’s all.

Separation anxiety training doesn't teach your dog a command or a trick, but it's still learning. You’re teaching your dog a new association. You’re showing your dog being alone isn’t scary. That it’s a nothing event.

Dogs who have “learned to learn” understand the game. When they gain confidence in a new context, they often progress faster than dogs who’ve never played the game.

This is why Percy did better than I expected with the exercises in the hotel.

Dog on beach with mountains behind
A bit of planning helps make travel fun for all dogs.

Travel tips

So what can you do if you’re traveling with a dog, anxious or not? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Make it routine

Repetition is a big plus. Staying with the same relatives or friends raises your dog’s comfort level.

2. Make it familiar

Going back to the same hotel may not be practical. Instead take your dog’s beds, crate, or blankets. All dogs will feel better staying a place that has their stuff.

A hotel stay is not the time to discover your dog doesn’t like being in a crate, so know before you go.

Many anxious dogs fear crates, so getting him to love his crate might take effort. My anxious dog Percy had extreme crate-phobia. Even the most scrumptious food wouldn’t lure him in. After months of training, creeping along at a snail’s pace, he now adores his crate. But I still don’t leave him in his crate when we go out.

3. Call ahead for a sitter

Arrange a dog sitter to come to your hotel or vacation rental. You’d do it traveling with your kids, wouldn’t you? The number of accommodations providing lists of pet sitters might surprise you. These sitters get busy though, so book ahead.

4. Try the car

If you’re lucky, your dog might tolerate staying on his own in the car. Again, try this before you go away. And of course, don’t leave him in the car in the hotter months.

Some snakes, but more ladders

As an owner of a separation anxiety dog, you’ve experienced many ups and downs with your dog’s training. You have good weeks and bad. But, it’s not Snakes and Ladders. You don’t slide back to square one when you have a blip

So when you travel don’t freak out if your dog gets upset in a strange place. It's to be expected. Most separation anxiety dogs will not handle the change. But remember, all that’s happened is you’ve switched the context. 

Stick to what you know and help your dog learn in the new situation. Have plans in place that mean you don’t have to leave him. Go slowly and go at his pace. You never know, your dog might surprise you by how well he knows the game.

If you want to learn more about how to train your dog to be comfortable on his own, contact me for a free consultation.