A topic I’ve seen come up repeatedly on Facebook pages dedicated to vandwelling is that of living on the road with pets. The folks with questions usually fall into two categories. The first group wants to know how they can help animals they already have adjust to life on the road. The second group wants to know if they should get a dog with whom they can travel and share road life.
I’ve traveled with dogs. About a year into full-time vandwelling with the man who was then my boyfriend (let’s call him WHN, short for “What’s His Name), we got a puppy. The Man had six-year-old Jerico when I met him; the three of us traveled together in my van for most of 2017. I think these experiences with dogs on the road qualify me to tell you what you may be able to expect if you decide to bring a dog into your life and rig.
I don’t feel qualified to give advice on how to acclimate a house pet to road life. WHN and I actually got our puppy from traveling kids, so the puppy had been on the road almost his whole life. At six, Jerico was a seasoned road dog when I met him. He’d hitchhiked with The Man and done urban-stealth tent camping with The Man, and lived and traveled with The Man in a small sports car. When the time came, Jerico jumped right into my van and didn’t have to adjust to anything.
What I can tell you is how my life changed when dogs moved into my van.
Before dogs, I did whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. If I wanted to sit in a coffee shop for eight or more hours a day, I could. If WHN and I wanted to go to a music festival, we didn’t have to give it a second thought. WHN and I could go to a movie or the grocery store together in the middle of the day if we wanted. Like a couple with no children, we didn’t have to worry about anyone but ourselves.
Then we got the puppy.
We got the puppy in winter. We were in the Southwest United States, so the winter wasn’t brutal, and we could leave little Bruno in the van while we did other things. He never had an accident and only chewed a couple of things, so we didn’t worry about leaving him in the van until the seasons changed and spring moved into summer. Of course, life got hotter for us all, and leaving Bruno in the van became dangerous.
According to PeTA,
On a 78-degree day, the temperature inside a parked car can soar to 100 degrees in just minutes, and on a 90-degree day, the interior temperature can reach as high as 109 degrees in less than 10 minutes.
Animals can sustain brain damage or even die from heatstroke in just 15 minutes. Beating the heat is extra tough for dogs because they can only cool themselves by panting.
I’ve seen several different wannabe or soon-to-be vandwellers ask in Facebook groups how to make a van safe for a dog to stay in it during the daytime in the summer while the person is off doing other things, usually working. I’ve never seen a fully satisfactory answer. There is always a faction up in arms over the idea of a dog being left in a van during the summer who tells the writer of the post how dangerous it is to leave a dog in a vehicle in hot weather. (The writer of the post knows it’s dangerous to leave a dog in a van in the summer, that’s why s/he is asking how to do it safely.) Another faction gives advice like leave the windows rolled down or install a ceiling vent, but I’ve never seen anyone lay out a step-by-step plan for making a van summer-safe for a dog staying in there alone for several hours at a time.
Last summer The Man and I worked at a campground store in a remote mountain location. We usually went to civilization once a week, sometimes only every two weeks. We had one vehicle (my high-top conversion van) between us so 95% of the time, we went to town together. The Man was sleeping in a tent, and he knew if left to his own devices for six or seven or eight while we were in town, Jerico—a Houdini of a dog—would have escaped from the tent, possibly through a hole of his own creation or via a zipper he busted with his snout. We had no choice but to take Jerico with us.
It was warm on the mountain, but it was scorching down in the valley. As the summer progressed, the temperature soared. Early in the season, we’d leave Jerico in the van with all the windows open and a bowl of water. Jerico takes his job as a guard dog seriously, so we never worried about anyone getting into the van through the open windows to steal anything while he was inside.
By mid-July, I didn’t feel comfortable leaving him alone in the van, even when he crawled under the bed for the coolest, shadiest spot he could find. The Man and I started taking turns going into stores so someone could always keep an eye on Jerico. When it was my turn to stay in the van, I’d usually sit in the driver’s seat holding the door open with my foot and wishing I could crawl into a cool and shady spot.
The following are things you’ll probably never be able to do in the summer if you’re a van or car dweller with a dog: Relax in a cool movie theater during the hottest part of the day. Splash in a public pool or water park. Enjoy the air conditioning in a museum or mall. Sit in a coffee shop sipping iced lattes until the heat lets up after dark.
The other thing you may not be able to do in the summer with a dog in your rig is work. Most employers aren’t going to let you run out to your van every hour or two to make sure your dog has water and hasn’t disabled any cooling system you’ve rigged up.
Often camp host is give as an example of a good job for nomads with dogs. Being a camp host can be a good choice for people with dogs, depending on where the job is located and what the duties are.
The company The Man and I worked for last summer does allow hosts and other workers living on site to have dogs. My boss told me once that because the company is based in California, he is not allowed to ask potential employees if they plan to have a dog with them. However, if a camp host has a dog, the dog still has to be somewhere while the host is working. If it were too hot for a dog to sit in the van, a quiet, nonaggressive one could be tied up outside a restroom while its person was inside cleaning toilets, but if Bruno or Jerico had found himself in such a situation, the barking would have been incessant and woe unto anyone who approached the restrooms while one of these guys considered himself on duty.
If you’re looking for a doggy companion to share your vandwelling life and you think you might want to work as a camp host, consider what traits you want and don’t want the dog to have. If I found myself in such a situation, I’d choose a dog that didn’t bark much and certainly one without the propensity to bite. I’d want an obedient dog that could wait calmly while I completed my tasks.
The Man was not a camp host last summer. He and I were both clerks in a campground store. We worked the same hours on the same days, so Jerico spent his days in the van. Luckily, we could park the van outside the store where we could see it from the front door, and we had the freedom to check on him throughout the day when we didn’t have customers.
For the first month of the 2018 camping season, The Man worked as a camp host and collected access fees at the parking lot of a very busy trailhead. Jerico mostly stayed in The Man’s minivan while The Man performed his work duties. Most days were not yet hot then, so Jerico was comfortable (although bored) in the minivan with a bowl of water and the windows open.
Boredom is an important factor to consider. Even if you work in a mild climate or you can rig a cooling system in your van so your dog is safe while you’re at work, the dog is still going to be bored. If your dog mostly sleeps all day anyway, it will probably be ok in your van, but if the dog has a lot of energy and likes to run and play all day, what’s going to happen when you stick it in the van during your eight hour shift? Decrease the chances of your dog destroying your precious possessions by picking up any items you don’t want your dog to chew and give it appropriate chew toys to keep it occupied while you are gone. If you have a very energetic dog, make time to take it for a long, vigorous walk or fetch session after work and again in the morning before work in hopes of wearing the dog out so it will sleep while you’re away.
Some folks think if they order a service dog certificate and vest off the internet, they’ll then be able to take their dog wherever they go. I think more and more businesses are catching onto people pulling this trick, and I’ve seen signs (literal paper signs on the doors of businesses) prohibiting people from bringing in dogs that are not trained to perform specific tasks. I think it’s going to get more difficult to pass off a pet as a service animal.
If you want to be a nomad primarily to see the natural beauty of the U.S.A., consider that many National Parks prohibit pets on their trails. When The Man and I visited Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, we had to pay $10 to leave Jerico in an onsite kennel, which was little more than a bunch of wire cages in a storage room. Pets are allowed at the Grand Canyon only the South Rim. If you’re traveling with a dog, you might find yourself relegated to national forests and BLM land.
If you’re more into the music scene, please note that dogs are not allowed at many festivals. (Chochella doesn’t allow non-service animals in the campground. Boneroo also bans pets. Oregon County Fair does not allow pets on site.) After WHN and I got Bruno, we scrutinized the website of any music festival we wanted to attend before we bought tickets. If we didn’t see an announcement specifically stating dogs were welcome, I called and confirmed canine acceptance before we confirmed our tickets. It wasn’t just a matter of I don’t go anywhere my dog isn’t welcome; we didn’t have anywhere to leave him, so if Bruno couldn’t go, neither could we.
Bruno could be a pain in the neck even in places where he was welcome. He was super sweet when he was alone with WHN and me, but in public he barked incessantly at everyone we encountered. He never bit anyone, but we lived in fear of a kid approaching him while we were distracted and getting nipped. I didn’t know how to train him and WHN wasn’t interested in doing any kind of work, so it became easier to just leave Bruno in the van if we were somewhere cool enough. If it wasn’t cool enough to leave hem, one of us stayed with him. Of course, isolating him didn’t solve any of his socialization problems.
Every so often, The Man tells me I should get a dog. You’d love it and Jerico needs someone to play with, he says. I keep telling him no. As long as I spend even half a year living in my van, I can’t see trying to fit my life around a dog’s needs. I’d have to give up too much of myself, and the dog would probably suffer too.
Of course, I’m not telling folks not to get a dog or move their dog into a van. I’m just suggesting people think long and hard about how they will meet the dog’s needs, especially the need for a cool place to hang out in the summer. If your life is not complete without your dog and van life isn’t right for your dog, van life may not be right for you.
Blaize Sun has lived in two different vans with two different dogs, so she knows a thing or two about being responsible for another living creature. She is not currently living with a canine companion. Sometimes she sees a cute doggie and experiences a bought of puppy love, but then she thinks about never being able to spend a hot summer day in an air conditioned coffee shop, and she moves on.