RV Travel with Giant Breed Dogs Like Mastiffs and Great Danes

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Before we left for our big trip, I googled for information on RV traveling with Really Huge dogs, and didn’t find anything. I’m much wiser now, and I thought I would write something up to share with others who are thinking of doing this. Excuse me a minute while I deal with the messy SEO business. So we’re talking about huge breeds like English mastiff, St. Bernard, Newfoundland, Great Dane, Bernese Mountain Dog, Dogue Des Bordeaux, and other Molosser breeds. You can take these dogs camping in a travel trailer like an Airstream or a motor home almost as easily as a smaller dog, but there are a few extra considerations.

The first thing to remember is that traveling is stressful to dogs, especially extended travel. I think the ideal traveling dog would be a big, dopey, happy-go-lucky Labrador. There’s a reason Labs are such a popular breed of dog. They are extremely adaptable and most are mellow. Giant breed dogs, on the other hand, do have a tendency to shyness and sensitivity. Even Chewie, who is an exceptionally outgoing, well-adjusted, stable mastiff showed signs of significant stress while we traveled. I felt guilty, but rationalized that they would be even more stressed by an extended stay in a kennel where they won’t know if we’re ever coming back.

Because travel is stressful, it will tend to exacerbate any behavior problems or issues your dog may have. It’s important to make allowances for that in your dog’s care and routine while you’re on the road. As well, if your dog has severe behavior problems, or is very fearful, RV travel simply may not be a good idea. Below are some tips for helping your family and your humongous dog survive a big RV trip.

Vet Check–Before we left, I took the dogs in for a bordatella vaccine, because we thought we might use a boarding kennel or dog day care on the road, and many of them require bordatella. (Bordatella is otherwise a silly and useless vaccine, being as how the vaccine is not very effective, and the disease pretty similar to a mild cold in humans.) I actually wish I had spent the extra $37 each for an exam for each dogs. While we were getting the vaccine, the tech reminded us they were overdue for a fecal exam. I took the dogs outside and luckily obtained the necessary material. I thought it was great they’d thought of this so I could produce proof that the dogs had clean fecal exams. I never expected that one of them would have worms. In fact, Chewie came up positive for hook worms AND round worms! So we had to administer worm medicine (for both dogs) once a week while we were on the road. If I had spent the extra money on an exam, I could have also had Chewie’s toenail looked at. He tore it right before we left, and it turned out to be a bad one that oozed and pained him the whole time we traveled. Bottom line, if you’re going on a long trip, it’s not a bad idea to get your dog looked at by a vet. You don’t want to have something come up on the road, and your dog just might be full of worms! (Egad.) You should also ask the vet to prescribe some sedatives, in case your dog gets agitated while you need to be driving. I considered them for Courage. I never thought the dog that would cause problems in the car would be Chewie. (More on that below.)

Tasty Food–Both dogs ate poorly at times on the road, especially at high altitudes. Next time we go, I will stock up on extra-palatable food to make sure they keep eating. At one point, I stopped at a gas station and bought a pack of hot dogs. I fed five of them to Chewie and three to Courage. I felt bad giving them salt- and nitrate-laden crap, but neither dog had eaten a bite in more than thirty-six hours.

Altitude–As I mentioned, our mastiffs seemed to suffer from altitude sickness. The care and treatment is pretty similar to that of humans. They should rest and stay hydrated. If your dog doesn’t seem to be getting enough fluids, or is really unusually punky, get him off that mountain! I don’t know if it’s genetic, but I think it’s very suggestive that both of my unrelated mastiffs had altitude sickness, and I think it may be more common among the giant breeds (except for the mountain breeds, I’m sure). They really perked up when we got them back to sea level.

Dog Barriers–We used a tension-mounted dog barrier to keep the dogs in the cargo area of our Chevy Suburban. Chewie is an excessively loyal dog, and he viewed the barrier as an unacceptable separation from his humans. Remember how I said that travel stress exacerbates behavior problems? Well, Chewie is a near-perfectly behaved dog, but he is extremely loyal and very intelligent. The barrier turned out to be Chewie’s Waterloo–and ours. He systematically destroyed it. Here is where you separate the Corgis from the Corsos. If you have a dog that is 150 lbs, 200 lbs, or more, you need to invest in a very solid containment system. Chewie’s attacks on the barrier created an unsafe situation, and we had to pull off the road many times to re-secure him, sometimes even on the side of the highway with high speed traffic zooming by. I recommend the Acme Velociraptor Special, available through any major chain pet store. The solution we ended up cobbling together was to rig up the X-pen with bungees, attach Chewie’s collar to the vehicle with a rope to keep him away from it, and then drug Chewie with benedryl to make him sleep.

X-pen–One of the best pieces of equipment we had for the dogs was an exercise pen. In fact, we actually had two of them that we connected together. It’s sort of a portable “dog corral,” and it’s really a lifesaver. We put them in there for feedings and any time we needed to get them out from underfoot in the trailer. They also enjoyed the sights and sounds of the outdoors. I picked this idea up from a Newfoundland dog show. There were many RVs parked around the grounds, each with its own round exercise pen filled with huge dogs.

Crate–Neither our home nor our vehicle will accommodate crates for our big guys, but if you can fit them in, do consider using it. Because we spent so many hours driving, Courage identified strongly with the Suburban as his den, which was cute and useful at times. Unfortunately, we couldn’t always accommodate his desire to hang out in there, because the inside of a car can heat up dangerously in the sun. If we had a crate, we could have moved it to a shady spot.

In and Out–On long trips, your dog will have to get in and out of the vehicle. If he has trouble, you may need to invest in a ramp or a set of portable stairs. We were lucky in that one of our dogs is a good jumper and has no problem leaping up into the back of the Suburban. The other dog can climb in if we help him. We think of it as power lifting.

Records–Make sure to get all of your dog’s vaccination records from your veterinarian. In the unlikely event that he bites someone, you will need proof of rabies vaccination for legal reasons. Those records will also be handy if you need to use a boarding kennel. Even if you haven’t planned to do so, some emergency may arise which will force you to board your dog while you deal with it.

Supervision–When you are traveling and exhausted, it can be easy to let your attention lapse and lose track of your dog. This happened to us once, when both dogs got away from us while we were setting up camp and got involved in a minor, bloodless fight with another dog at a campground. The whole incident was massively embarrassing, but it was an important lesson learned. Even if your dogs are behaving well and would never normally fight, they are under stress and in an unfamiliar situation, and their reactions may be unpredictable. Later, at that same campground, we saw the same thing happen at another campsite, where an poorly-supervised dog slipped away from his owner during camp set up and came charging at our leashed dogs. Even if you are really, super tired, take time to make sure your dogs are secure while you are setting up and packing up.

Dog Friendly Campgrounds–We mostly had no problems finding campgrounds that welcomed our dogs. However, some only allow small dogs, and some forbid “aggressive breeds.” At one campground, we were asked if our dogs were an “aggressive breed.” I was baffled because I had no idea what breeds they┬áconsidered aggressive. At that campground, we established that mastiffs were fine, but they were expressly forbidden at a Provo, Utah-area KOA that we checked out. You unfortunately always have to check the camp rules when you’re traveling with the big guys.

National Parks and other attractions–Dogs are not allowed on hiking trails at most National Parks. There are exceptions, but it’s determined on a park-by-park basis. Serious hiking was not on our agenda, so that worked out well for us, but it’s something to check before you commit to a trip. Some attractions also offer dog kennels. There are kennels at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon (we visited the North Rim). Sea World San Diego also has inexpensive kennels that visitors can use.

Leaving your dog alone–You should never leave a dog alone in a hot car. We figured since we had air conditioning in our trailer, that wouldn’t be a problem. However, traveling through areas where the temperature was well over 100, we didn’t have any┬ásafe place to leave the dogs if we wanted to eat a restaurant or something, and even if we had a power hookup on the road, it would take hours to cool the trailer in those conditions, if we could do it at all. The only option was to keep everyone in the car with the air conditioning, and keep the car on the road (so that the engine wouldn’t overheat). That’s not a very comfortable situation and I don’t recommend it. My advice would be to minimize your travel in and through dangerously hot conditions if you are traveling with any pet. We did find that in moderately warm temperatures, up to say 90 degrees, that it was fine to put our dogs inside the Airstream trailer. I don’t know about other models of trailer, but the Airstream is insulated and does not heat up excessively in the sun. It basically doesn’t get any worse than the outdoor temperature, so if the temperature outdoors was reasonable, we felt safe sticking the dogs in the trailer while we went inside stores and restaurants. The Airstream, basically, was like a giant rolling dog kennel. I am wary, however, of leaving dogs in air conditioned trailers for extended periods–like all day, because the unit may malfunction or the power may go out. I would only do this if I felt the outdoor temperature was safe. Most campgrounds do not want you to leave your dog alone outside for any length of time, and I don’t blame them. Anything could happen.

Admirers–This is usually the fun part of traveling with giant breed dogs. Because they are eye catching and unusual, many people will approach and want to meet them. That’s usually ok, but if your dog is having a bad day, you may have to assert yourself and insist that strangers give your dog some space. It’s great that so many people love huge dogs and believe them to be perfect angels, but they are dogs and dogs under stress can bite. If you have any reason to believe that your dog may be feeling threatened by strange people or dogs, it’s your job to control the situation. Fortunately, our dogs very much enjoyed the adulation of their many fans.