Can You Vacation with a Reactive Dog (without pooping in the woods)?

The Best City for Pet Traveler’s competition over at the Go Pet Friendly blog has been lots of fun. But some of you are reading about pet-friendly cities and saying to yourselves, “Take my dog to a beach with a hundred other dogs? Or expect him to sit quietly under a restaurant table while strangers walk by? Forget it!”

I feel your pain.

Agatha and Christie, My Reactive Inspiration

For many years, I lived with Agatha and Christie who would bark and lunge at every other dog that approached. At that time, I knew far less about working with this problem than I do now. So I did what many who have reactive dogs do. I took up camping.

Campsite in the Thousand Islands on Wellesley Island

Perfect campsite for reactive dogs: surrounded on two sides by water and a distance from our nearest neighbor. But where’s the carry out sushi?

And not camping in a bright, cheery pet-friendly campsite. No, we’d find the most densely wooded, separated from all others, campsites in state parks we could find. We couldn’t risk ending up near another dog that would set ours off like fuzzy little barking time bombs.

I love camping. And I think the dogs did too.

But it’s good to try new things. And after crying in the car the first time we left the girls behind in the care of our neighbor as we drove off for a week at the beach, I wanted to find a way to travel with my dogs.

Over the years, I’ve learned a few tricks like everyone who manages reactivity. I’ll share my tips using my favorite vacation spot, Cape May, New Jersey, as a case study. Hopefully you’ll add your tips in the comments.

Tips for Vacationing with a Reactive Dog

Yes, you always need to be alert and proactive when managing life with a reactive dog. But a few things can make vacationing with one easier.

Start Small

A large city or crowded dog beach will overwhelm your dog. And avoid big festivals and events. You need space to spread out and allow your dog enough room to be comfortable. Oh, and you might need an escape route. You don’t want to be boxed in when a loping dog gets up in your dog’s face while her people yell from a distance, “She’s just being friendly. Let your dog play with her.”

A small town or city that is not famous world over for its dog friendliness will be the best place to start.

Cape May, NJ is best known for its precious, Victorian buildings. Although it’s a very dog friendly town, it draws a wide range of visitors and not just people looking to have a good time with their dog.

Enjoy the Shoulder Season

In the North, a beach resort in the off-season might not be much fun. Very little is open. The refreshing breezes of the summer become arctic gusts. So you might not have other dogs and tourists to worry about. But you won’t have places to eat or stay either.

We take advantage of the shoulder season—that time right before or after the mad rush of tourists. Many things are open. But, since children are not out of school, many families are not in a place to take a vacation.

You’ll find more places to enjoy with your dog without the press of people who think the only time to take a vacation is when everyone else does.

In Cape May, the end of May has wonderful weather. But the crowds and the cost of housing reflect that fact that the tourist season has not yet begun. In early September you’ll find the same thing. And the water is still warm enough for swimming.

Rent a House

Yes, a funky little inn or Victorian cottage might be where you’d like to stay. But does your dog agree?

Ice machines in conventional hotels make some dogs nuts. Not to mention the sounds of other people moving around out in the hallway. And a charming, pet-friendly inn where the innkeeper’s dogs visit residents will be the last thing your reactive dog wants.

Renting a pet-friendly house for a week is usually less expensive than staying in a hotel or inn. You can save even more by preparing some of your own meals instead of eating out. Invite a few friends or family to share the cost and you’ve just got yourself a dog sitter if you decide to go out.

Golden Retriever on couch

Now this is what I call pet-friendly accommodations. With sheets on the couch, I don’t even have to hold onto my fur.

Your dog will be more comfortable without the noise of neighbors on the other side of the wall. And will feel more secure if you decide to leave him there while you explore non-pet friendly entertainment.

If your dog would be anxious if left alone, at least you’ll have more room to spread out and often a nice deck or yard to enjoy together.

We’ve found great houses on a list compiled by the Cape May Times. We’ve also done well using Vacation Rental By Owner which has searchable listings for vacation rental houses all over the world.

Bring Crates and Guards

If your dog is comfortable in his crate, bring it along. It’s not a bad idea to stick a baby gate or two in the car or maybe even a foldable exercise pen.

If you haven’t traveled much with your dog, you don’t know how he’ll react to the new setting. So set him up for success by making sure you can confine him comfortably and safely if necessary.
And yes, it’s worth it even if you have to leave your boogie board behind to make room in the car.

Plan Your Dog-Friendly Activities for Weekdays

During the shoulder season at a beach resort, you’ll still have bigger crowds on the weekend. People will come for day trips and you’ll find more dogs hanging around with their people.

Golden Retriever rolling in the sand on Cape May beach

How do you like the beach, Honey? Mmmmm, sandy.

Cape May has a small park with a memorial to fishermen lost at sea. Yes, fishing is still a very dangerous business. In 2009, a scallop boat sank and its crew of six were lost. The park is at the end of Missouri Avenue and overlooks the Cape May Harbor. And behind it is a small, dog-friendly bit of quiet beach.

On a weekday in May you’ll have it to yourself. On the weekend you might find up to four or five people who have discovered this little gem. It’s the absolute best dog beach if your dog doesn’t like dog beaches.

Enjoy Carry Out

Okay, maybe your dog won’t be comfortable on a patio with other dogs sitting with their people. That doesn’t mean you can’t express your appreciation for these pet-friendly restaurants by ordering carry out.

Do you think clams or crab fresh off the boat taste better sitting on a cute, dog-friendly patio without your dog than they do back to your house on the deck? No way. And wouldn’t you rather enjoy that delicious sandwich and homemade potato salad on the beach than sitting away from the refreshing ocean breeze?

Eat a nice, carry-out lunch at the beach or a park. Then come back at your rental house in the evening to make dinner on the grill. You’ll save a few dollars and your dog will thank you for providing a stress free time.

Try Boating

We’ve taken a number of different boat trips with dogs. For a reactive dog, your best bet is to either go very big or very small.

Honey the Golden Retriever at the Cape May Lewes Ferry Terminal

Oooh, can we take the ferry?

The Cape May-Lewes Ferry is dog-friendly and will cut hours off the trip of Cape May visitors coming from Maryland, Virginia, and points south. Plus it’s a relaxing way to enjoy the water and spot dolphins and seabirds off the bow.

Call the ferry terminal to ask which times of day the ferry is likely to be least crowded. We’ve only encountered a few dogs on the upper decks in our several trips and have always had plenty of room to avoid encounters. But that’s less likely if you’re traveling by ferry on a busy holiday weekend.

We’ve also enjoyed kayaking with our dogs. Kayaks can go places most other boats can’t. If you tuck into a marsh or small river with your dog in a kayak, I guarantee you won’t run into any other kayaking dogs.

Just Do It

Having a reactive dog makes you eternally vigilant. You scan 100 feet ahead in all directions looking for potential “situations.” You rehearse in your mind how you’ll respond if a rude, off-leash dog approaches yours. You become tense and irritable that other people with barky dogs aren’t working as hard as you are to manage the issues.

And it’s not fun.

Sometimes, after years of working with a reactive dog, he makes major improvements. But you can’t see them because you’re stuck in vigilant mode. You have to take a chance and see what your dog can do.

Last year, I was very touched by a post over at Kenzo the Hovawart describing how Viva, the reactive dog, surprised her person by not being reactive at the groomer. Your dog might surprise you too.

Don’t throw her right into the deep end. Use these tips. Hopefully other commenters will add more. But give her a chance to shine at something new.

What do you have to lose? Besides having to poop in the woods?

Best City for Pet Travelers – The Final Four

We’ve made it. Cape May, New Jersey, a tiny town of 5000 people (in the winter) that few have ever visited is the last remaining East Coast city (in two countries) remaining in the brackets. It’s time for all of us on the East Coast, East of the Mississippi,  East of the Rockies to stand up to the West Coast juggernaut that thinks it’s the only place to have fun with your pet.

Oh, and east of the Rockies includes Europe as well as Australia and New Zealand. It just depends on the route you take, doesn’t it?

I reach out to people who voted for lovely St. Petersburg Florida in round 3 and gorgeous Burlington, Vermont in round 4 (which, by the way, garnered more votes in our bracket than two of the other winners in the other brackets–way to go Burlington!). You won’t let a little trash talk stand in the way of bringing down the West, will you?

It’s the Final Four. Go. Vote. Now.

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  1. 🙂

    Okay, the east coaster in me kicked in and I just voted for Cape May. Besides, it’s the least I can do since you essentially wrote a blog post just for us. 😉

    • Oh, thank you Leslie. With all my authority to do so (actually, none), I’m awarding dual citizenship to any non-Easterners who vote for Cape May. 🙂

  2. I love reading your posts about reactive dogs. When you are in the situation it makes it better just to know that someone *gets* it and you really do. Good tips and I will be rooting for Cape May 🙂

    • Thanks for the support. I bet you’ll find a lot of people in blogville “get it.” And maybe someday Pearl will “get it” too and flourish from the wonderful dog you love to the wonderful, awesome dog you love.

  3. wouldn’t Asia and Africa also be considered part of the East coast? I mean as long as you are expanding the territory for your voting bloc… 🙂

    • You’re certainly right. But since I don’t see Asia and Africa turn up in my blog stats very often, I thought it was presumptuous to think anyone from those varied and ancient cultures would care about something so petty. But what the heck. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

      Perhaps I should count Mars and Saturn for the East Coast too. 🙂

  4. You are so daring! Jen says that if she rented somebody’s house, it’d be her look one of us would pee on the furniture!

    When she travels, we just say at Doggie’s Day Out. She misses us terribly, but neither of us is amenable to travel. She says in her next life she’s gonna try a dog that does travel well.

  5. I can’t believe it’s the only east coast city left! That’s just wrong. Having lived in the West for most of my life, I have personal experience and the east is where it’s at. Foolishness, I say!
    On the other hand, my reactive dog and I kind of like living and travelling in tourist-free areas. So I guess if everyone keeps heading west, that’s fine by me. More east coast pleasure for us!

    You’ve given some terrific tips here. You’ve described our mode of camping perfectly. Shiva is more reactive with people than with dogs so I don’t mind the dog heavy areas as much as I do areas with lots of foot traffic where she feels she has to defend her people from evil robbers. The more secluded the campsite, the better.

    We almost got thrown out of a campground one year when the owner wandered over to our site just to chat. Shiva took serious offence to his presence and it wasn’t fun. Now I look for larger campgrounds rather than small one-person-shows. Less chance the owners will want to share their life stories with us.

    I love the idea of renting a house but I wonder how easy it would be to find one that is pet friendly. Have you ever had problems with that?

    • Bwa ha ha. I bet that was the last time that campground owner tried to be friendly and chatty. 🙂

      I’ve found it remarkably easy to rent dog-friendly houses. At the VRBO site I linked to, they have a check box for house features which includes pet friendly. We used that to find a nice cabin in the Adirondacks once.

      We’ve done best in Cape May with the links from the Cape May newspaper. But the other rental agencies also advertise pet friendly houses.

      Although I was disappointed once when we were looking at renting an island in North Carolina. We thought it would be the one safe place for Shadow to run off leash (she wasn’t trustworthy anywhere else). But when we looked at the fine print, it said the dog wasn’t allowed in the house. And it seemed pretty expensive to rent a private island just to sleep outside in a tent with the dog. 🙂

  6. You better be careful – if word gets out . . so much for your quiet May and September months 🙂 I’m just sayin . . .

  7. This is great advice for people with reactive dogs. I especially like that you’ve allowed for the fact that your dog might surprise you – Buster and Ty are constantly doing that. Just this week I warned a friend that Ty is not friendly toward strangers. He promptly proceeded to rub himself all over her shins and lean into her scratching. I swear he does it just to make a liar out of me.

    I also have to agree with your suggestion to visit places in the off-season. One year Rod and I went down to a B&B in Cape May where they did Chocolate Lover’s weekend for Valentine’s Day. The town was deserted, quiet, almost surreal. It couldn’t have been better. Good luck in the voting!

  8. I voted for Cape May and it was 20 to 19 after my vote. Good luck, Pamela!

    We’ve traveled with the Greyhounds for years without any trouble, but I wasn’t sure what to expect when we took Morgan along with us. She’s not dog reactive, but she can be people reactive, particularly when it involves men with hats. If she does see someone suspect, then every man becomes suspect that day. Last year we took her to Greyhounds in Gettysburg with us and I learned a lot about her during that trip. She handled it beautifully — even when a locksmith had to break into our van after hubby locked Bunny and Morgan in the van with my purse. One thing that worked in our favor is that we did a lot of different things in different places where she’d never been. She was always with us and Bunny or Blueberry. We found that exercising her brain created a very good kind of tired for her. She rested more deeply and contentedly than normal for her. As a matter of fact, we laughed that she slept the entire twelve hour drive home. She needed to experience a lot of new things and engage her brain. We were careful not to overdo it with any of the girls, but we did get them tired enough to sleep well. Even Lilac slept well on the trip! lol I wouldn’t say that we put her in situations that were too much for her, but we did challenge her and she rose to the task beautifully! Now to see how it goes this year!

  9. I hope to someday be brave enough to take Felix kyacking with me. I think he would love the feeling of the wind on his face as we glide through the water, but I’m also afraid he’d overturn me. Repeatedly. And then overturn me again as he scrambled to get out of the water. **sigh** Maybe another time.

    Koly and Fe are always wretched the first few weeks of cabin season, barking at all the neighbors who have been dropping by and hanging out on our deck since before they’ve been alive (for woof sakes), but by the end of summer things are usually pretty calm. I love having a cabin I can count on every year!

  10. Dammit!! Why do my comments keeping going to spam?

  11. Thanks for this. I have one super-leash-reactive dog and one social butterfly. I still love to have them with me when I travel. I’ve actually found that my reactive dog is slightly less reactive than usual when we are on a road trip because he takes traveling very seriously and is more attentive to my instruction.

    Even though my dog has never bitten anyone (nor any dog) I sometimes have him wear a basket muzzle when I am going to be somewhere which might have a lot of dogs and people. It has the drawback of making me more self-conscious about my reactive dog (he looks like Hannibal Lecter) but people do get the hint and know to keep their dogs and children away and don’t, themselves, walk up and try to pet him. Plus, when he does end up lunging violently at someone who wandered into his cone of protection, they aren’t as angry or scared, seeing that he is muzzled.

  12. i love this post. i love this post. i love this post.

    thank you so very much for telling all of us about this. i really would love to return to cape may–not in the middle of february–and be able to bring desmond. i will be holding on to this post in my little travel folder i keep in my email.