Tips for Safe, Stress-Free Travel Time for Dog Walkers

Excerpted and adapted from The Business of Dog Walking: How To Make a Living Doing What You Love

Driving is stressful enough these days as it is. Add a dog—or a small group of them—and it’s no surprise that the transportation portion of the workday is no dog walker’s favorite part. To begin with, there’s the barking and whining and all the potential mess—dog hair on a good day, vomit or diarrhea on a bad one.

Then there are the implications of multiple dogs packed into a tight space for an extended period of time. Much the same as with humans, getting along can be harder when you can’t get away. Many a group walker has said of a skirmish breaking out early on a walk, “I don’t know what happened. There didn’t seem to be any reason for the fight.” There’s always a reason, and in these cases it may well have started on the drive to the park.

Tensions escalate in vehicles while walkers drive along unawares, keeping eyes on the road and thus missing all the subtle (and perhaps some fairly overt) body language going on behind. When dogs are finally freed to romp it takes only a small spark to flare already fanned tempers.

Why the fight?
Fights shortly after a trip, and those that more alarmingly take place in the car during the trip, likely have to do with one of these triggers:

  • Dogs bumping into each other, such as when the vehicle takes a corner.
  • Space guarding, in which one dog attempts to keep others out of his space—a difficult task in an enclosed and moving vehicle.
  • Dogs not able to move away from each other. Most dogs in conflict will choose flight over a fight. Fights are much more common when that choice is removed.
  • Barrier frustration caused by attempts to separate dogs. Separation by use of crates, gates, tethers, or seat belts can keep dogs from fighting or being injured while cornering or in a crash, but if dogs are able to see each other, you can get the same type of results you see with leash reactive dogs or dogs who fence fight. The frustration at not being able to interact properly can build to the point of a conflict once dogs are out of the car and able to reach each other. In short, it’s never wise to set up a situation where dogs can engage in long bouts of staring.

What to do?
Vehicle choice matters a lot, as does vehicle set up. Ideally you want a vehicle that’s large enough to accommodate the number of dogs you transport, with all dogs crated separately. Vans are the most flexible and useful in this regard, though SUVs and even wagons may work for smaller and medium dogs. (Be sure if you use a cargo van, rather than a passenger van, that there is an adequate airflow system in the back.) If you cannot fit enough crates in your vehicle, or you have dogs who do not crate well, use vehicle gates to separate dogs into smaller groupings, and choose who rides with whom carefully.

You may be tempted to go for a pick up truck with a shell on the back, but though trucks have their advantages (the noise and mess being contained in the back primary among them), they are the least safe option for the dogs. You cannot see or hear what’s going on back there, so there’s no chance of stepping in early to ward off conflict. And conflict is much more likely in a truck, where dogs are loose together, bumping into each other, and unable to move away from each other.

Pick up trucks are also dangerous because of the large amount of real estate you must keep dogs from escaping from. The back of a pick up truck is much wider than the space of an opened car or van door, and it is all too easy for a dog to jump down before you’re ready, or while you’re loading another dog.

Why crates are great
Set your crates* and gates up as much as possible so that dogs do not see each other. You can use lightweight opaque barriers placed between crates, for example. Another advantage of this is that dogs who cannot see out your windows cannot bark at passing dogs, people, bicycles, etc., making your trip easier and safer.

Crated or otherwise individually separated dogs can also be given stuffed Kongs or other chewables to keep them occupied during the drive. This is especially helpful for dogs who bark or whine their way to the trailhead. It’s difficult to keep up the barking when you’re busy licking peanut butter from a red rubber cone. You can also toss treats into the back of crates to motivate car-wary dogs to hop in, and as a reward for all dogs at the end of a walk. This is a great practice for off-leash walkers, as a high value treat in the truck can help guard against dogs who go wandering at the end of a walk in order to draw the fun out. (For them, at least—not so fun for the walker.)

Never allow a dog to be loose in your car such that he is able to jump into your lap or into the footwell; this can and does cause car accidents. Also note that airbags can easily kill dogs, just as they do children. If you have a dog riding up front with you, he should be in a firm crate (plastic Vari-Kennel style preferably). If he cannot be crated, use a canine seatbelt and disarm your airbag.

Despite all of your careful planning, should a fight break out while you’re driving, or should a dog need care or attention for any reason, wait until you can safely pull over. The chance of the dogs doing serious damage to each other is much less than the chance of you and the dogs behind harmed in a car accident.

Loading & unloading
We’ve talked before about setting the tone at the beginning of the walk. Actually, we talked about setting tone back before the walk gets underway, by insisting on a polite greeting at the client’s door and a controlled walk to your vehicle. Tone setting continues at the car.

Dogs should be asked to hold a sit before being invited up into the vehicle. If the dog will be joining other dogs in a shared space in your car, those dogs should be asked to sit as well. This is partly to keep them from jumping out while the new dog is jumping in, and partly to keep them from greeting the newcomer too intrusively. Treat the dogs for allowing their group mate to join them, and treat the dog who’s just jumped in as well. This will help to build a positive association to riding together.

At the parking lot or trailhead, each dog should sit before being invited to jump down from the vehicle. Say sit once and wait for it. Use a hand signal or food lure if needed in the beginning, as dogs will be very excited to get their walk underway and focusing on your requests will be challenging. If a dog begins to exit the car before you’ve given them the go ahead (use a clear word, such as “Okay”), tell them “ah-ah.” If they back up, ask them for the sit and try again. If they jump down, put them back in the car, close the door, and let someone else out before you try them again. Just like the jumping at the front door, the message is clear: “If you want to get down, you have to sit and wait. Jumping down before I say okay won’t work.” And just like all training, consistency is key here—don’t ever rush this process, no matter how late you’re running; doing so will cause you considerably more training work.

This process is made easier by carefully choosing which dogs to let out first. (And this is another advantage of crates—they help control the environment to allow you to unload one dog at a time, keeping things calm and avoiding any tragic mishaps, such as a dog jumping down and running into traffic.) Think about the dogs in your group. Let the calmer, more focused dogs out of the car first. These guys will be easier to handle while you’re unloading your more rambunctious charges.

When reloading at the end of the walk, toss high value treats into the back of each dog’s crate to help with speedy loading and to create a positive end-of-walk ritual.

* Which Crates?
There are three main styles of crates: Hard plastic (Vari-Kennel is the most common), wire cage, and soft mesh. The first two are excellent choices for stacking, such as in a van or tall SUV. (Be sure that stacked crates are carefully secured.) Wire crates and mesh crates are best for airflow, while plastic crates are best for keeping barrier frustration at a minimum. You’ll likely want to use either wire or mesh crates if your walking vehicle is also your every-day ride, as they both collapse quickly and easily. Mesh crates are particularly good for dual-purpose vehicles as they keep dog hair, mud, and other unmentionable messes contained. Should a dog soil a mesh crate, simply hose the crate out, spray it with disinfectant, and hose it again. Wire crates are easily cleaned, but there’s a high chance that whatever it was that needed cleaning will also end up on your upholstery. Plastic crates also clean easily, but do not collapse without the tedious removal of multiple screws.