Canine Camping 101: Should I Take My Dog Camping?

To witness our dogs enjoy the great outdoors enriches our own experience. Exactly when and how the domestication of dogs occurred is a question of much debate.  Sometime around 20,000 and 40,000 years ago, either man chose to domesticate the dog or the dog chose to domesticate man.  One thing we do know for is for certain, it happened during a period when humans were still living a nomadic, hunter-gatherer life.  When humans followed the migration of animals. When man and canine came to coexist alongside the campfire, sharing the bounty of the hunt together as they moved from one camp to the next.  Just as the smell of campfire blended with the crisp mountain air invokes a primordial sense of euphoria in humans, dogs too seem to have an instinctual understanding and love for the camping experience. 

Most dogs are highly adaptable, and many enjoy traveling.  Once they get settled into their camp routine, they quickly learn campground etiquette and expectations. A great majority of dogs can transition right into camping with absolutely no issues.  If your dog gets overly stressed by traveling, doesn’t enjoy new places or strange people, leave them at home.  If your dog loves riding in the car, enjoys new places and taking long walks, your dog will do just fine.   If you’re not sure, tread the waters gently and take it slow and easy. 

Consider your dog’s health, age, activity level, temperament, prior socialization and training and your family’s camping style.  Are you an active family that plans a full schedule of high-energy activities? Are the activities you’re planning dog friendly? Most campgrounds prohibit dogs being left at camp unattended, so Fido needs to be able to go wherever you go or someone will have to stay behind to dog sit.  Is your dog healthy enough to participate in the activities planned? If you’re dog is too old, too young, or too out of shape, talk to your vet about what level of activity would be best. 

 Consider the weather and the limitations of your gear.  The main reason we purchased a travel trailer was to give our aging dogs a comfortable place to sleep and get out of the weather.  Having a furnace and an AC greatly extended our camping season and made it possible for us to camp in weather our dogs (and ourselves) would find undesirable.  Before we had the TT, we had to put much more thought and preparation into the weather conditions.  Cold temps called for extra blankets, more blankets, dog clothes, people clothes, lots of firewood, and prayers that nothing got wet.  Heat waves would often end up with a cancellation because I hate camping when it’s sweltering hot and so do the dogs.  Now that we have the TT, we can camp year-round and heat waves are no biggie since the dogs can hang out in the AC.  If you are tent camping, be sure to consider your dog’s tolerance of the elements and plan accordingly. 

Before you go be sure to research the property’s pet policies.  Rule and regulations regarding pets will vary from property to property. Every property will require that pets be kept on leash a no longer than six feet and never left unattended.  Some places may have breed restrictions and national parks prohibit dogs on many of their hiking trails.  State and local laws require that your dog be up to date on certain vaccinations.  Many boarding facilities require further vaccination.  Even if you do not plan on boarding your dog, having them current on all vaccinations allows you that option in the event of an emergency. 

Spend a few nights in the backyard to get your dog accustomed to sleeping in a tent.   Introducing your dog to the concept of a fabric shelter will go much easier without all the stimuli of the campground.  Trim and file your dog’s nails to save wear and tear on your gear.  Familiarize them with going in and out of the zippered door.  Teach them that a mesh window isn’t an exit.  Reinforce positive behaviors and discourage the negative.  If your dog is crate trained, bring their crate, and consider your dog’s crate size when purchasing your tent.  Whether or not you allow your dog to sleep with you at home, you may consider allowing your dog sleep with you inside of the tent.  Some properties encourage or even require you to sleep with your pet if there’s dangerous wildlife in the area.  Co-sleeping keeps your pet safely and quietly by your side all night. 

If you are genuinely concerned about how your dog will react to the experience, start with a short trip near home, preferably when there aren’t too many other campers.  Bring lots of treats and items from home, like beds, blankets and toys. 

At Camp

At camp your dog will require constant monitoring and containment.  Always keep a close eye on your dog   Dogs are not accustomed to the dangers of the wilderness and it’s your responsibility to keep them safe.   Flora and fauna can pose a lethal danger to domesticated animals.  Never let your dog chew or graze on plants.    You can use a dog cable to attach your dog to a solid fixture.  Make sure the cable is secure and doesn’t reach onto other campsites or near a road.  Smaller dogs are often kept in crates and playpens.  Small to large playpens can be purchased from pet stores.  Just be certain it’s going to securely contain your pet. 

Never leave your dog alone at the campsite. Don’t leave your dog inside a tent.  Even in the shade, tents can get hot enough to overheat a dog.  And of course, never leave your dog inside your vehicle. The best place for your dog is right by your side.  The only time I can approve of leaving a dog alone at camp is in the case of a well-maintained travel trailer or RV equipped with a system that allows the owner to remotely monitor the inside temperature for a very short period of time.

Barking

One of the most common complaints you’ll hear are those of the barking dogs.  People arrive with the expectation that camping at a public campground is going be peaceful, quiet, serene even.  When their expectations are not met, so begins the criticism.

Some of this could be easily remedied if people would just lower their expectations and have a little more tolerance.  A large campground could have as many as 100 – 300 sites.  During a typical full capacity weekend, that’s 100 – 300 families.  Say half of those people decide to bring a dog or two, you’re talking hundreds of dogs and hundreds of children.   

The campground can present an extremely high degree of bark stimuli. Unless you are camping during the week or during the shoulder seasons, you will be sharing the campground and all its facilities with lots of people.  Some of them will be obnoxious, play their music too loud, allow their kids run wild, and let their dogs bark incessantly.   The key is to not be those people and exercise some tolerance and patience to those around you. 

If your dog is prone to barking, it’s still possible to take them camping without ruining yours and your neighbor’s trip.  Our dogs bark at home and are not corrected.  Barking is territorial guarding, and most dog owners don’t mind this natural behavior.  Many dogs are encouraged at a young age to bark when visitors knock or the doorbell rings.  When your dog goes camping, his sense of territory is disrupted, and he may be more inclined to bark than at home.  Typically, once a dog establishes the campsite as his new territory and begins to see that every passerby isn’t a threat, the dog will eventually relax and the barking becomes minimal.  After a day or two, our dogs get fairly used to the traffic in the campground and are actually less inclined to bark than they are at home.  

Give your dog plenty of physical and mental stimulation away from camp.  Take your dog walking, jogging, hiking, or swimming.  Bring plenty of toys and distractions from home.  Use treat dispensing toys, like a Kong filled with peanut butter.  A large uncooked bone from the butcher can be a pleasant distraction for days on end for some dogs. 

Use a shaker can to correct behavior.  Shaker cans are noisy and made to distract your dog with a startle.  Once your dogs barking has stopped, you can verbally praise your dog and reward with a treat.  You can make a shaker can by simply putting some coins into an empty pop can. 

If the shaker can isn’t effective, you could try a spray bottle.  However, some dogs won’t be affected by the spray bottle either. 

Hiking with Your Dog

Most dogs love to go hiking and some will literally hike themselves to death.  It’s your job to monitor your dog’s level of exertion and make sure he doesn’t overdo himself.   Bring plenty of water for everyone in your group, including your dog.  Bring a collapsible drinking dish and do not ever let your dog drink from lakes, ponds, streams, or puddles.  Even clear moving water can carry parasites that could give your dog a very nasty case of diarrhea or even kill them. 

Make sure the length and difficulty of the hike is appropriate for your dog’s level of fitness.  Know what lies ahead and if there are obstacles likes creek-crossings, ladders or ropes.  Inquire at the park office or nature center about dog friendly hikes. Hike in the early morning or late evening if temperature and humidity levels are excessive.  Always remember, if your dog becomes injured or suddenly ill, you will have to carry your dog back to the point of entry.  Consider carrying an emergency sling cot if your dog is over 50 pounds. 

Boating with Your Dog

Many people take their dogs boating with them.  Only take your dog boating if he actually enjoys it.  Start with a short trip to see if your dog is prone to seasickness.  If your dog gets sick or otherwise acts distressed, it’s time to find an alternative plan for the dog while everyone else goes out on the lake. 

 If your dog does enjoy boating, he will need a bright, well-fitted life jacket, available at pet stores and marine retailers.  Contrary to popular belief, not every dog can swim.  Lean, muscular dogs lack buoyancy and tire out quickly.  We once threw our very lean Great Dane into the County Line Ditch when he was about two years old and he sunk like a rock and displayed absolutely no interest in attempting to swim in any capacity even to save his life.   Make sure your dog has access to shade and bring plenty of fresh of water.  Provide your dog with an area to relieve himself or plan to make frequent potty stops. 

No Dogs Allowed

            There are some activities that your dog will be prohibited from.  Public beaches generally do not allow dogs.  This includes national, state, county, and private properties.  Many National Parks prohibit dogs on hiking trails.  Dogs are never allowed in restroom facilities, bathhouses, or swimming pools. Dogs are not allowed inside restaurants, nature centers and are restricted to guest rooms when permitted in lodges.   A simple solution to this problem is elect someone to stay behind with the dog.  Take turns.  Draw straws.  If you absolutely must, you can always find a local boarding facility with doggy daycare services. 

See also: Canine Camping Checklist

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