It was nearing 1:00 a.m. I was beat, emotionally exhausted, and physically ill. I was a stranger in a strange land and this land was proving to be the least dog-friendly I had so far experienced.
Earlier that morning, Thunder and I bussed across a backwoods border somewhere in the desert where Ecuador meets Peru.
Six months in Colombia and two months traveling through Ecuador with Thunder had been a breeze. Peru, on the other hand, was shaping up to be a different story entirely. We had been stuck in this dead-dreams town for 15 long hours, having thus far been refused entry onto every bus that had passed. All the tricks that had worked in Colombia and Ecuador weren’t flying; all the documentation and official paperwork we had gathered in Central America weren’t cutting it. We had hit the first major roadblock in all of our travels together.
Since we were shackled by the bus schedules and had to check with each bus before it left, we hadn’t been able to get out into the town at all. We had eaten our last snacks somewhere near the border, and we were now running on fumes and frustration alone. I staggered beneath my backpack—a colossal 90 liters filled to the brim with old clothes and crampons, camping and climbing gear for the Andes.
The sun beat down on us mercilessly, I had misplaced my patience a while ago and to make matters worse, Thunder had just rolled in something so absolutely foul I struggled to find even the breath with which to speak the words that would fail to describe it. To top it off, I was madly in love and intrepidly traveling half a continent to rekindle a relationship that now rested delicately on the hinges of uncertainty.
I don’t remember how many busses turned us away that day. The last bus for Trujillo left around 1:30 a.m. Eventually, after much deliberation, some haggling in the Latin style, and support from the other passengers on the bus, the driver of the very last bus capitulated and agreed to take us…for 30 extra Soles (around $10). (And yes, I did manage to get Thunder cleaned up before that. It would have been cruel not to, like biological warfare confined to a 10 hour bus ride.)
Our difficulties did not end in Trujillo. Eventually we managed to hopscotch our way across Peru, but Peru was by far the most difficult country we had traveled through.
To my wayward brothers and sisters, ever restless and wandering, whose canine companions are more than just pets, and to whom the notion of leaving the pooch behind is not only unthinkable, but unspeakable and blasphemous as well: I offer you some indispensable tips on travel with the furry friend, whether national or international, and some amusing anecdotes from the many adventures of Thunder the Wonder Dog. Here are a few important things to consider before you next embark.
1. The dog’s personality:
Just like the police and military are selective in which dogs make the cut, and just like guide dogs and rescue dogs are meticulously screened for behavioral traits and personality, it is important to understand that some dogs are more resilient in the face of change and more tolerant of a stressful environment. Sometimes breed plays a role, but it is important to realize that each dog has its own personality. A hyper or timid dog who is prone to stress or anxiety by nature will not be a good travel companion, and in many cases it might be cruel to impose such undue hardship on an animal that is ill-equipped to handle it.
2. Proper training:
Your dog has responded well to change so far, and seems to possess a calm, resilient personality. The next consideration, and probably most important, is proper training. It is one thing to fight for the awareness of Service Animal and Emotional Support Dog access—highly trained dogs whose jobs are to help people. It is something else entirely to demand that a poorly trained dog be given the same access rights and respect that Service Animals deserve.
Thunder is highly trained, and has a proven track record of great behavior on busses, airplanes, and restaurants. He does not bark, he doesn’t smell, and he doesn’t pee on passengers’ luggage (although he did shit in a Walmart, twice, which I consider more of an impassioned ideological statement than an indiscretion).
He is so quiet and well-behaved that more often than not, when we exit the airplane or bus, people comment that they didn’t even know he was there. People who demand the same access rights for dogs who don’t have manners will ruin it for those who rely on their dogs for guidance, help, and medical support. So please be conscientious of that.
Depending on the manner in which you travel, you will also need to rely on basic obedience as well. Is your dog off-leash trained? Will he or she sit and stay while you pack your backpack or go into the passport office for a stamp? I can’t imagine how utterly terrifying it would be to lose your friend in a foreign land, especially a place where you don’t know the language and there is little value for a dog’s life. So for the dog’s sake and yours, brush up on basic obedience regularly.
A prerequisite for entering most countries. Most countries will require proof of an unexpired Rabies vaccine. Some may require that it has been administered within the last year. Some countries want to see records dated within 15 days of travel. Other common vaccines include Bordetella, Leptospira, and distemper. Depending on the region you are traveling to or from, proof of screenings for worms or parasites, like screwworm, might be necessary. It is important to do your homework as entry requirements differ from country to country and can also depend on what region of the world you are traveling from. Some countries are stricter than others. If you are traveling with your pup to Europe, be cautious about flying into the UK or Ireland, even for a layover, as they might require a quarantine period. Up until recently, Australia and New Zealand required mandatory quarantines (something I personally vowed to never subject Thunder to). I believe they have made exceptions since, but I am not positive.
4. Paperwork and records:
Guard it like an impassioned opinion founded in fallacy and questionable evidence. I kept mine in a folder, crammed in my backpack between too many books and that missing sock I thought I lost back in Nicaragua. I always knew where that folder was. You never know when, or for what, you will need to access it. Keep vaccine records, veterinarian check-ups, receipts from entering the countries you have visited, and any other pertinent paperwork. If you have any training certifications or accredited paperwork for a service dog, it is a good idea to make copies and carry those too.
5. Careful planning:
From extra food to water bowls (or the ability to cut one out of a littered plastic bottle), traveling with your pup requires some foresight. Especially in remote areas, you might have to pack a few days of dinner if there is a chance you won’t be passing through a sizable town any time soon. Some dogs have sensitive stomachs, and the food they are used to eating might not be easy to find in a different part of the world. Do you have a backup plan if this becomes an issue? To help carry dog food, extra water, a collapsable bowl, clean-up bags, a leash, snacks, or toys, you can consider getting a dog backpack like the DOGPAK Moab Lite daypack. Life on the Road can be unpredictable, and a backpack for your pup could prove useful in more ways than you might think.
Be prepared for added wait times. In less-regulated countries, you might have to deal with corrupt officials who try to extort bribes from you (looking at you, Medellín, Colombia). Sometimes you can wait for the next shift employee and hope he or she is more honest. Other times, you can call a different official to help verify the legal validity of suspicious “fees.” Thunder and I had some trouble with this sort of thing crossing into Panama. We were told we would have to get a certain stamp, and that it would cost us something like $130. It turned out this stamp was completely unnecessary, and that money probably would have ended up in the personal pockets of the racketeers who tried to swindle us.
Thunder and I have pushed the boundaries of canine travel. We have made trips by boats and motorcycles; planes, trains, and automobiles; kayak and horseback; hitchhiking and trekking. Hell, we have even gone by rickshaws and rollerblades, and maybe someday we’ll check blimps and balloons off the list too. Creativity is always at the root of travel.
Whether finding a creative way to explain the value and importance of a well-trained service dog to an obstinate bus driver in a foreign language, or figuring out a safe way to rig a harness for a rappel, the key is to keep asking “how?” How can we make this work? What needs to happen in order to make a safe cross-country motorcycle trip with the mutt? How can we obtain the proper paperwork to cross the next border? Creativity will permeate your daily life on the Road, becoming a regular necessity in determining how to pack the extra food, or, as mentioned earlier, how to cut a water bowl from some roadside litter. It is also an important skill in first-aid. Should your dog suffer an injury, creativity and proper planning are imperative, especially if you are remote and cannot get to a veterinarian right away.
Travel can be incredibly rewarding.
It can open our eyes to alternative ways of life. It can teach us about different cultures, new perspectives, and global problems we might otherwise remain blind to.
It presents us with challenges and hardships that help us grow as we overcome. Likewise, our relationships with the animals we love are some of the most meaningful connections we will make. There is no reason the two experiences have to be mutually exclusive.
I don’t remember how many insufferable nights I’ve made it through with Thunder either tucked into my sleeping bag or grunting and groaning next to me as we fight for the pillow in a crowded truck bed. I don’t remember how many times he’s kicked me awake while dreaming of chasing rabbits. From the Wyoming wilderness to the rainforests of Nicaragua, the Swiss Alps to the Peruvian Andes, from the Grand Canyon to the Everglades, Hollywood to the Big Apple and everywhere in between, we go everywhere together.
He’s been bitten by a rattlesnake and bounced back with a smile, unshaken. He’s survived battles with raccoons, coyotes, and too many bears. He's been kicked by cows and rushed by horses, crawled on by goat kids too. The little mutt even got me sprayed by a skunk…twice. 45 states, 30 countries, 3 continents and counting, his bucket list is longer than most friends' of mine. The dude is my rock and my savior when in need. He’s pretty rad. I love my dog.
So here’s to our best friends on four legs: may our travels be happy and safe. May we remain mindful of other cultures and their customs and laws, and may our interactions spread awareness of the special role dogs play in our lives.
A few relevant details: Thunder weighs about 50 pounds or 23 kg. He fits pretty well in the cramped floor space on buses and planes, but it can be a tight fit. Our country of origin is the US. Thunder is a service dog for Avalanche Search & Rescue, and in the US, the law gives him full access to public places. His training and license has certainly helped us in our travels, though outside of the US, the laws change, and we no longer have legal precedent on our side.