Traveling with a pet can be daunting, especially the first time you both leave home. Whether you are driving or flying, travel can be either stressful or it can be fun and exciting. Wouldn’t it be nice if your pet understood what was going on and did not shadow you looking unsure and anxious as soon as you pull out your suitcase?
Preparing your cat or dog for traveling is one of the most important things you can do to help them get through it. As for you, your worries about their welfare should subside a bit knowing that you have properly prepared them for the experience.
Getting good equipment like pet carriers for smaller pets and pet crates for larger pets to keep them safe is so important. Safety comes first and a carrier or crate that falls apart means your pet can escape which is never good.
The focus here will be how to mentally prepare your pet for traveling, whether by car or air. This preparation is crucial to lessen the stress that your pet may feel on travel day.
There are two major reasons why your dog or cat may be anxious when traveling. First, you are removing them from their known environment in which they have explored and feel comfortable. Second, and especially when flying, they will be separated from you during this time and cannot draw support from your presence. There are ways that you can address both of these fears before hitting the road, but it will take some time.
How do pets learn?
Let’s take a brief moment to look at how dogs and cats learn. The first way is through social cues such as smells, body language and verbal commands. This form of learning is useful to help your pet make day-to-day decisions about things they encounter; however, this information comes to them primarily from their surroundings and not so much learned from humans. And, in most animals, scents and smells will trump verbal commands. This is because scent is an extremely important part of learning to your dog or cat. More on that later.
The second form of learning is referred to as conditioning. This type of learning is imposed on your pet from humans and is used a lot in behavioral training. Conditioning is a crucial tool that can be used to lessen stress for your pet when traveling, and it will result in building experiences well ahead of travel.
How can you use this technique of conditioning to prepare your pet for traveling? Simply put, when you take the steps to introduce your pet to its crate or carrier and to being removed from its environment (and maybe you), you create experiences for your dog or cat to remember. That is why dogs and cats who have traveled previously are better travelers; because they have the prior experience to draw upon. And they know that, in the end, they will be happily reunited with you because you will practice doing that over and over again.
The time and steps it takes to complete the process depends on your pet, its personality and its willingness or interest to learn. If you are lucky enough to skip a step, that is awesome. If you are not lucky, you may have to back up a step and try again. Either way, set aside time each day to work on conditioning your dog or cat to travel. Patience is paramount here. Stay strong, positive and consistent. The payoff will be worth the effort.
Get good equipment
Start by getting your equipment early. If you have a small dog or cat, it may be able to travel in a pet carrier. If your pet is larger or your airline requires it, your pet will travel in a pet crate. Either way, it is important to introduce this new home to them as early as possible. Making a last-minute decision to travel with a pet is not a good idea unless your dog or cat is a seasoned traveler.
First Experience: introducing the new home
Once you have received your carrier or crate, put it in a place where it is easily accessible and as close to where you and your pet spend your day as possible. Take time to introduce the crate or carrier. Keep all access available; zippers open and flaps up and only use the bottom half of the crate.
Put a pet pad, favorite toys and a treat or two inside the crate. Also, include a “used” t-shirt or towel of yours so that your pet will smell your scent when in the carrier or crate. (hence the reference in the paragraph about social cues above). Personalize the crate or carrier to them and make it their second home – their safe place.
Spend time each day encouraging your pet to venture inside the carrier or crate. Feed them there if room permits. Encourage them to sleep in their carrier or crate by putting their bedding in it if room allows. Remember that conditioning your dog or cat for traveling involves rewarding them for good behavior, so treats and attention at every step of the way are crucial for success.
Don’t get discouraged if your pet is slow to take to its new home. Remember that your pet learns also from your body language. Stay upbeat and try various methods to encourage them to stay inside the crate. (new toys, catnip, etc.)
When some level of comfort is achieved, then put the top half of the crate and the door on, but leave the door open. Note if their willingness changes. More time and attention may be needed at this point.
Second Experience: closing doors
Once your dog or cat is comfortable in the carrier or crate, close it while your pet is in it; however, stay with them and offer verbal encouragement. This step should be performed multiple times for longer periods. Should your pet object when the door is closed, keep it open for a while before closing it.
Third Experience: home alone
Next, move them to a place where they cannot see you. Again, do this for short periods at first, then longer periods and always, when returning, reward them for their good behavior with treats and attention.
Fourth Experience: introducing the car
Now it’s time to introduce the car. Whether you are flying or driving, you will likely start your travels in a car. It is better to have your pet in the carrier before leaving the house, but may not be possible for larger dogs.
If you hear objections to this step the first time, don’t start the car. Just put them in, wait for 5 or 10 minutes with them, take them back in the house and let them out. If you do not sense signs of stress, start the car and either just let it idle or drive around the block. Short trips, then longer trips. Each time, remember to reward good behavior and never punish bad behavior.
If one of the few times your pet has been in the car is to go to the veterinarian, you will need to undo this experience as it certainly was not a happy experience for them. Creating happy experiences will go a long way in conditioning your pet for traveling.
Fifth Experience: go somewhere fun
Next step is to take your dog or cat to somewhere fun: the dog park, a pet store or the home of a pet-friendly friend or relative. Again, lots of “good boys” or “good girls” when you get home and don’t forget the treats.
This step may be a bit difficult with cats, so you may want to take them to a pet friendly restaurant or anywhere where your cat can stay with you while in its carrier. The more your pet is removed from their environment, the better. After all,the goal is to build experiences for them, right?.
Sixth Experience: the cargo hold
If your pet is flying in the cargo hold of an airplane, it is hard to create the environment they will be in. One thing you can do is to put them in a dimly-lit location in your home while in their crate for a time.
Also, try accompanying them through an old-fashioned car wash while in their crate. All the while, reassure them that you are there and closely observe their reaction. When you feel they are ready, send them through on their own. You will have the cleanest car in town and your pet will have another experience to draw on.
Seventh Experience: travel day
If you have done a good job with the first 5 or 6 steps, then travel day will be like another outing and the experiences you have created for your pets will be what they draw upon for assurance. Certainly, they should know that you will rejoin them as soon as they finish their new experience because you have done that every step of the way.
Traveling with a pet does not need to be as stressful as it seems if you take the time to condition your dog to travel. The payoff for both of you will be significant.