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Can You Vacation With A Reactive Dog? You Betcha!

My current dog, Honey, is like Mary Poppins—Practically Perfect in Every Way. She travels with us everywhere on board our sailboat. And we take her to all kinds of pet-friendly activities wherever we travel.

Honey the golden retriever at Beaufort, SC's waterfront park.

How good is Honey? She managed to stay down despite two strangers on the swing flirting with her just moments earlier.

But my previous dogs have not been perfect travelers. And yet we managed to travel.

Do you have to stay home if your dogs are uncomfortable out in public? Not necessarily! Just use some careful management tips when vacationing with a reactive dog.

What is a Reactive Dog?

Calling a dog “reactive” is a nonjudgmental way to describe a dog’s behavior in certain situations. It simply means a dog reacts strongly to particular stimuli.

Some dogs dislike strangers. Others fear dogs. My friend’s dog becomes a fuzzy little psychopath at the sight of a man with a beard. Some reactive dogs don’t necessarily fear someone or something but instead become over-aroused in its presence.

Neptune Park on St. Simons Island.

Reactive dogs would find plenty to react to on a sunny day at St. Simons Island’s waterfront park.

If your dog barks or lunges on leash when another dog or stranger walks by, you may have a reactive dog.

Training can help your dog’s reactivity, and you’ll definitely want to start working with your dog to lessen her reactions. But you can also adopt some management tools in the meantime. Management will be key in enjoying your vacation with your reactive dog.

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Your reactive dog will probably feel overwhelmed in a large city or visiting a crowded dog beach. 

Why not choose a small town or remote area for your vacation?

We used to regularly visit the seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey with our pups who reacted to other dogs. Cape May, while not famous for being pet-friendly like Carmel Beach, California or Bend, Oregon, had plenty of pet-friendly activities. But it wasn’t overrun with people visiting with their dogs.

When you’re researching where to go, choose a spot where you’ll find a few pet-friendly amenities, but one that isn’t famous for being a pet-friendly destination.

St. Augustine, Florida is famously pet-friendly, and it’s packed with visitors year-round. We’ve had tourists who left their pups home come rushing up to Honey for their dog “fix.” Dogs who are afraid of strangers (unlike Honey who looks disappointed anytime someone walks by without greeting her) might find St. Augustine a stressful place to visit.

Enjoy the Shoulder Season

Of course Cape Cod is lovely in the summer. And Key West is a treat in December. But if you’re vacationing with a reactive dog, time your visit for the shoulder season—that period right before or after the rush of tourists.

You and your dog will find it much easier to enjoy your vacation without the mob of people who think the best time to take a vacation is when everyone else does.

Pam and Honey cross the dunes at Cumberland National Seashore.

It was cool enough that I needed a jacket in March at the Cumberland National Seashore in Georgia. But we had the whole beach to ourselves.

During the shoulder season, many resorts and restaurants are open and rental prices reflect the less popular timing. Best of all for your dog, there is less to react to.

Rent a House

Even mellow Honey perks up when she hears loud voices in a hotel corridor or the noise of a nearby ice machine. Routine noises in a busy hotel can drive a reactive dog nuts.

So why not rent a vacation house of your own?

It’s easier than ever to find pet-friendly rental properties. And renting a pet-friendly house for a week is usually less expensive than staying in a hotel or inn. You can save even more money by preparing some of your meals instead of eating out.

Your reactive dog might feel more comfortable in a quiet house. And you will feel more secure if you leave your dog behind for short periods of time while you do things that aren’t pet friendly.

If your pup also feels anxious when left alone, bring a few supplies with you—baby gates or crates or whatever you use to keep your dog confined comfortably at home. And when you rent a house, you’ll have the option of hanging out on the deck or back yard together.

If you haven’t traveled much with your dog, you don’t know how he’ll react to the new setting, so set him up for success by making sure you can confine him comfortably and safely if necessary.

Try Camping

Camping has gotten easier for newbies to try out.

You can rent pet-friendly RVs or campers vans. Some U.S. state parks have pet-friendly cabins and cottages. And outdoor clubs rent tents and sleeping bags if you’re not sure you want to invest lots of money before seeing if you like sleeping on the ground.

Whether you and your pup are rugged or prefer “glamping,” you’ll probably find a vacation option that will be fun and keep your reactive pup from getting anxious around crowds or other dogs.

Of course, squirrels may be another matter!

Arrange Your Dog-Friendly Activities for Weekdays

Even if you vacation during the shoulder season, you’ll find bigger crowds on the weekend. People will come for day trips and you’ll find more dogs hanging out with their people.

But on the weekdays, you’ll have quiet beaches, hiking trails, and pet-friendly restaurants all to yourselves.

Plan Ahead When Eating Out

You don’t have to starve just because your dog is reactive. A little training before dining out with your dog goes a long way. We used all the following strategies when dining out with our less-than-social dogs:

Eat during off hours – If you dine before or after rush times, your pup will have more room to settle in. We’ve had a late lunch/early dinner at 3:30 and had an entire pet-friendly patio to ourselves.

Pick your seat carefully – Even with sociable Honey, I choose our restaurant table carefully. I look for seats in the corner where Honey can scoot in around the table and be out of the way of servers and other diners.

Dining with Honey in St. Simons Island, Georgia.

My idea of a perfect restaurant table–in a corner, shaded, and with a nifty ring I can attach Honey’s leash to.

And we avoid darling little places that have tiny tables crammed onto a tight patio.

Pet-friendly dining in Beaufort, SC.

Which do you think is better for your reactive pup–the crowded patio or the picnic area off to the side?

Set your dog up for success – Reward your dog for being calm at dinner. Pack her dinner into a Kong or other food toy. When she enjoys her dinner without reacting to anything else going on, she learns that being calm in a restaurant brings delicious rewards.

We’ve found that feeding Honey while we eat also gives us a little peace. There is nothing like a golden retriever drooling on your foot to make you lose your appetite.

Honey has her eye on some mint chocolate chip.

Do you think the man will get Honey’s hint?

Honey gets ice cream.

Well, she is definitely too busy eating to notice anything else going on around us.

Plan an exit strategy – You can’t prepare for everything.

Someone might walk by your table with a Yorkie in her purse. Or you could discover that you’ve just sat down with your dog who freaks out at bearded men on the night of the bar’s annual Ernest Hemingway lookalike contest.

Despite your best efforts, if your dog starts to react, get out of there. Ask a friend to pay the bill and pack up your food.

Which leads me to another thought …

Dining out if your dog just isn’t ready – Not every dog will be able to sit calmly under a restaurant table. Or maybe you’re just starting to work with your dog on his reactivity. Does that mean you can’t enjoy special meals together?

Honey sits under the table at Iguanas seafood restaurant.

Sitting quietly under a restaurant table in a busy restaurant is an advanced skill for any dog.

Absolutely not!

We’ve rented houses with lovely barbecue grills and bought fresh shrimp down on the docks. I swear our meals were more delicious than some I’ve had at restaurants!

I’m also a big fan of picnics. There is no restaurant setting in the world as attractive as a picnic on a rock overlooking a waterfall or at a table in a redwood forest.

These meals give your dog the opportunity to practice his “eating out” skills without the pressure of being in a crowded place.

Just Do It

When you live with a reactive dog, you are always vigilant. You look ahead in all directions for possible “situations.” You worry about off-leash dogs rushing up. And you dread the reactions when your dog barks and lunges at every stranger who passes.

But the more you work with your reactive dog, the less they react. Progress is slow. But it is also hard to see your dog’s improvements if you’re stuck in vigilant mode.

Eventually, you must take a chance and see what your dog can do.

Honey the golden retriever poses with one of the tree spirits in St. Simons Island.

Hunting for Tree Spirits on St. Simons Island in Georgia is a great activity when you travel with reactive dogs.

Remember, no dog is perfect. With a little planning and a lot of management, even reactive dogs can have fun on vacation. And you may discover some wonderful destinations you would never have found if you weren’t vacationing with a reactive dog.

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