NEW YORK — Traveling with dogs can be stressful. Throw a vacation home stay into one of the most chaotic times of the year and double the stress on people and pets—especially when hosts have pets of their own.
Large gatherings, unfamiliar smells and sounds, mixing older or quiet dogs with energetic puppies, and introducing young children or cats to a dog without prior exposure are among the issues that can spoil the experience or, worst case, cause physical harm.
But tension can go far with a little preparation, said board-certified canine behaviorist Gabrielle Johnson of Richmond, Virginia. Knowing when to unplug and head to a pet-friendly hotel or guesthouse is also important.
“Of course, holidays can be a tricky time because everyone is out of their routine and out of their schedule. We are in a very small space. The stress is high,” Johnson said.
Johnson warns that dogs that are usually fine at home could be pushed too far. Learning to read unusual body language is important.
“Things like yawning, licking your lips, turning away, looking away, freezing, getting tense,” they said. “We want to see soft, jiggly, loose, relaxed. If we see some of these (other) signs, it may be an indication that it’s time to get our dog out of this situation.”
Taking a crate is a great idea for dogs who are already crate trained, but don’t try to force it for the first time, the trainers said. Pack a bed and familiar blankets, toys, dishes, and groceries and treats.
The first meeting between dogs should take place on neutral ground outdoors. People should plan ahead should pets need to be separated, including considering baby gates, especially when dogs are eating. Owners who suspect anxiety might be a problem might consider medication.
Nicole Ellis, a certified professional dog trainer for Rover.com, suggests training with dogs that haven’t traveled much. If a dog is going from a quiet rural area to a noisier urban environment, make a few shorter trips to simulate the vacation environment, she said.
She also advises packing mental enrichment toys to help a dog relax and adjust to a new environment without becoming rowdy. Licking and chewing also help a dog self-soothe, Ellis said.
James Paasche of Central Point, Oregon, will spend six days in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife, 6-year-old daughter and 11-year-old dog Walter.
Paasche’s brother has three dogs himself, including two older ones. Walter, who has been anxious all his life, only met his younger cousin. He is on medication but once molested a child during a previous stay at another home. Paasche’s brother’s children are older, but he is worried about the two new dogs.
“You know how it is with older dogs, they get a little bit more settled and less receptive to new things that puppies and younger dogs just don’t care about,” Paasche said. The hosts have a garage for Walter if things go wrong.
dr Jamie Richardson, chief of veterinary medicine at Small Door Vet in New York, said that a dog’s consistent diet should be a top priority.
“Your GI tracts can be very easily disrupted by changes,” she said. “Don’t assume your food is available locally.”
Richardson said dogs should be introduced to young children slowly and very carefully. If toddlers don’t understand the concept of leaving a dog alone, they should be separated.
However, homestays aren’t all dark and doomful.
Brooklyn resident Phoebe Yung adopted a pandemic rat terrier puppy named Moose. She and her husband often travel with Moose. During the holidays, they go to Montreal for six days to stay with relatives, including two young children.
“When she sees her carrier, she jumps in right away,” Yung said of Moose. “We really try to follow the rules of every house we are in. We bring a mat and when she’s snooping around in a new place and seems to find a spot she’s comfortable with, we put her down and that’s her spot.”
Small children scare Moose, but instead of becoming aggressive, she runs away and shakes in a corner, Yung said. She added that if Moose got too stressed, she would step in.
Emily Keegans, animal behavior director at Seattle Humane, said dog owners should ask themselves if the situation will be happy for their animals and speak to the hosts.
“When friends or family come to my house, my first question is, ‘How does your dog get along with cats?’ ” She said. If the answer is not promising, she takes her cat to another room and discusses the logistics.
Lily Hargis lives in Richmond with Milo, the Labrador Australian Shepherd mix she rescued last year. She spent her last three Christmases visiting her great-grandmother — who has no pets — in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
“I will never forget the stress of that first vacation with Milo at her house, how concerned I was that his behavior was perfect and looking back on me,” Hargis said. “I think it’s especially difficult when there’s a generation gap.”
Luckily, her great-grandmother immediately warmed to Milo: “Within five minutes she had him on the couch and in her lap snuggling.”
Christmas will be closer to home this year, but she has other concerns about Bourbon, her stepsister’s ancient pit bull who “doesn’t tolerate gimmicks.”
In preparation, Hargis and her mother spent several sessions with Johnson, working to get Milo and Bourbon somewhere “where they could relax comfortably in the room together.”
“It just felt necessary,” Hargis explained. “There are so many aspects of the holidays that force our dogs to do things they really don’t do often.”
Once they arrive, Hargis prepares frozen Kongs and other enrichment items to help Milo decompress in a quiet room.
“Honestly, I’m sometimes jealous of how well organized his vacations are to avoid stress and maximize fun,” Hargis said. “It makes me curious to see how I can do the same for myself.”