Q: Dear BooneDogs,
We adopted a dog last year and would love to take him camping. We’re a little unsure of how to best prepare him for an overnight trip, though, and we’re a little afraid that he’ll bark a lot or will otherwise embarrass us and disturb everyone else in the campground ... (We don’t want) our campground neighbors to suffer through a night’s worth of barking and whining like we’ve had to suffer through in past camping trips with other people’s ill-behaved dogs. What do you suggest we do to prepare him to be a good camping companion?
A: One of the greatest passions in my life is dogs. One of the others is camping. In addition to camping with friends and family, I also enjoy camping alone with my dogs. And in addition to camping together as a pack, I also enjoy camping with each of my dogs, individually. Every summer, I head into the mountains or to the lake with each of my three dogs, on separate trips, just for a night or two, so we can enjoy some quiet time together, just the two of us.
I’ve found that these “just me and one of my dogs” camping trips gives me time to bond with each of my dogs as individuals, gives me a chance to learn new things about each of them that I may not have discovered otherwise, and it gives me the chance to work with each dog on his or her camping skills, so that when we all do camp as one big pack, each dog knows how he or she is expected to behave, and we’re all able to relax and enjoy our time away, which is what camping is — or at least should be — all about.
Although camping provides many obvious benefits to humans, these benefits may not always appear so evident to our canine companions, who also happen to be creatures of habit. What may seem fun and exciting to us may seem highly unusual and even frightening to Fido. Taking Fido out of the comfort and security of his own home and plopping him on to some parcel of woods somewhere is likely to cause some confusion and possibly even anxiety for him, especially if this is his first camping trip. But, if you prepare in advance, there are some simple things you can do to ease his mind and to help him relax and enjoy the trip as much as you hope to.
First, be prepared to bring some of your dog’s special items with him on your camping trip. If he knows that not everything is “out of whack,” but that there are certain things around him that he is used to having around, he will likely relax. Pack his bed, blanket, crate or whatever he is used to sleeping in or on, along with your sleeping bags and pillows, and he will likely rest easier at night on those familiar items, making it a more restful night for all involved.
Bring a good supply of the food he is used to eating, as well as a water supply just for him, and serve both in the bowls he is used to eating and drinking from. If he has special toys he enjoys playing with, bring some of those, as well. Even if he doesn’t play with them while camping, having those familiar items handy will help him feel more at home. If he’s especially active or playful, bring some new toys, like a new Frisbee or ball, that he can play with on the trip. It will help him associate future camping trips with fun new activities.
In addition to bringing familiar items, take the time to teach your dog some easy commands that will come in handy on your camping trip, or do a “refresher course” on these commands if he already knows them, so you know he’ll respond consistently while camping.
In addition to taking my own dogs camping, I also enjoy taking some of my foster dogs camping from time to time, but not until they know some of the basics. The recall — “Come!” — is probably one of the most important commands you can teach your dog, and I feel that no dog is safe camping, or otherwise traveling, until he or she knows this command and responds to it consistently.
Although your dog should remain on leash or be otherwise appropriately restrained at all times while camping (most campgrounds require that dogs remain on a leash no longer than six feet at all times), knowing that your dog will come when called if he gets loose or while he is temporarily off-leash will give you the peace of mind you will need to be able to relax while camping. It may also prevent you and your entire family from being ejected from the campground by an angry campground host whose entire hot dog supply has just been consumed by your furry free-range friend.
Two other commands I teach all of my canine camping companions prior to our camping experience are “Leave it” and “Quiet.” “Leave it” is essential if you are camping in an area with lots of other pets, or when wildlife is present. I have taught my dogs “Leave it” to a point where deer can freely walk through my campsite and not be harassed by them. When a deer or any other type of animal approaches, all I have to do is give the command — “Leave it” — and they know that that animal, or whatever else it is I’m asking them to leave alone, is off limits.
Other than “Come,” “Quiet” is probably one of the most important commands you can teach your dog, especially if you plan to take him camping. I am quite perplexed and have been more than moderately annoyed on occasion that everyone who takes their dogs into a campground or wilderness area doesn’t have the foresight to teach them this command.
Personally, I think it’s downright rude to let your dog bark chronically, camping or otherwise. Taking the time to teach this command every time your dog barks (without a legitimate reason) from puppyhood on will save you from unnecessary noise and frustration and should result in you and your dog being welcomed back to your favorite campground again next year.
Finally, whatever you do, do not leave your dog unattended at your campsite, at least until you know how your dog will behave in your tent or camper while you’re gone, which can sometimes take years. Remember, you’re taking your dog camping with you so you can share this fun experience together, so you’re really missing the point if you are leaving your dog behind while you go hiking or on fun excursions with the rest of the family.
Be prepared to locate dog-friendly trails and identify activities that you and your dog can do together. If you’re camping in an area where dogs are restricted from many of the trails or activities (for instance, dogs are not allowed on most trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park), perhaps consider boarding him at home, or locate a boarding facility near where you are camping, just in case you need to utilize their services.
Being perhaps overly prepared for all scenarios on your first few camping trips with your dog isn’t a bad thing, at least until he figures out what’s going on and you know how he will respond in situations common to camping.
If you’ve done all these things and are still uncertain if your dog is ready for camping, why not try camping at home first? Setting the tent or camper up in the yard may not seem like a big excursion to you, but it’s a great way to get your pup used to the sights, sounds and scenes of camping. And besides, you and your family just might find that some of the greatest treasures don’t lie at the end of a long and winding road, but rather right there in your own backyard.
BooneDogs is a weekly column by Melissa Bahleda, certified canine behavior counselor and founder of PARTNERS! Canines, a Boone-based nonprofit shelter dog rescue organization.