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Traveling with a dog: How to be a good houseguest

I spent three weeks driving around New England with Chloe this spring, visiting half a dozen friends I hadn’t seen in a while (I hadn’t seen one girl since the Era of the Padded Shoulder, when we were both 17). I stayed in a couple of hotels, but mostly I stayed with my friends, or I visited their homes.

Chloe and I have been houseguests before, but this trip was different because nearly all of my hostesses had dogs of their own. One also has a pet indoor bunny, and another has a bad-ass guinea pig. The presence of other pets added a layer of complexity to our visits. Here are my six best suggestions for being a good houseguest-with-dog:

Make it crystal-clear that you’ll have your dog with you

Wouldn’t you think I’d have gotten this right? And yet the first friend I visited this spring hadn’t realized that Chloe would be with me, and booked the four ladies who were meeting into a lovely resort hotel that didn’t accept pet dogs. I got a room in a nearby Hampton Inn, and listened sadly to my friends’ tales of spa treatments and late-night chats.

Talk to your host about the best way to introduce the pets

If nothing else, talk about it through the screen door when your friend answers the doorbell. Most of my friends simply invited Chloe in for a thorough sniffing — and Chloe is a very tolerant, non-threatening dog, so that worked for her too — but one friend knew that Agatha Christie, her Shih Tzu, would be worried by Chloe’s arrival and arranged for the dogs to meet on-leash in her foyer, in a shower of treats and praise. By the end of the visit, both dogs were off-leash and Agatha had warmed a bit to Chloe, but we took it slowly.

Thank goodness we took it slowly with my college roommate’s pet bunny, since Chloe suddenly went all red in tooth and claw over it. Deb’s own dog, a Border Collie, clearly understands how much in trouble he’d be in if he gets anywhere near the bunny — but Chloe didn’t, and I was grateful that she was leashed for the meeting. (In the next house we visited, Chloe approached the resident guinea pig with the same agitation, but was buffaloed by his complete lack of concern. Every situation is different.)

Be aware of what might irritate the host dog

Every household has its own routine, and I think that dogs get used to it. I think it’s a good idea to be conscious of that routine, and to try not to muddy it. Try to get in sync with your host dog’s walk schedule and eating schedule, if possible, both for the dogs’ sake (so their energy levels are similar) and for the host’s sake (so it doesn’t seem like someone is always doing something with a dog). Keep out of the way of your host’s leashing-up routine; in those moments of great excitement (we’re going OUT NOW!!!), it’s best to be off to one side.

I feed Chloe in her crate, which I set up in the guest room, so it doesn’t occupy any of the host dog’s space. Chloe’s a food poacher, so I ask that the host dog’s food bowl be put out of her reach — ideally it’s still within the host dog’s reach, but if it’s not, it’s usually better than running the risk that Chloe will annoy her new friend. No one has seemed to mind sharing a water bowl with Chloe.

It wasn’t an issue in any of the households we visited, but some dogs are uncomfortable sharing their toys with other dogs, so I suggest that you talk to your host about whether that might be a concern. Chloe can’t resist a dog bed, which is understandable but unfortunate — to a woman, my hosts said “don’t worry, leave her be,” but to me that’s like letting your dog sit in another dog’s favorite chair. Wouldn’t you be annoyed?

Be aware of what might irritate your host

It probably goes without saying, but bring your own gear with you, so you can care for your dog independently. You’d bring your own food, of course, because you have no idea if your host dog’s food would agree with your dog’s digestion, but you’ll earn big points by also bringing your own food and water bowls, bedding for your dog’s crate, and towels and cleaning supplies (both dog shampoo and enzymatic cleaner in case of disaster). Pack, in fact, as if you’re staying in a hotel (here’s Dog Jaunt’s comprehensive packing list to help you).

We allow Chloe on our sofas and chairs in our own home, but when you’re traveling, your host’s rules win. My mother, who never allowed the dogs of my childhood indoors, kindly welcomes Chloe — but I sweeten the deal by swaddling my parents’ furniture in the sheets and throws we carry with us. Friends of ours have a leather couch, and while I regard leather as super dog-friendly (easy to clean! doesn’t hold hair! scratches add character!), they would like it to remain glossy and unscratched. Thank God I noticed their twitch of concern in the nick of time and learned about their preferences. Now I try very hard to remember to ask about furniture well in advance.

We always clean Chloe’s feet after a walk by sticking her in a sink or tub. Chloe gathers dirt like a sponge, but even if your host assures you it’s not necessary, it’s a thoughtful thing to do. Carry your own supply of towels with you (we use ShamWow towels, but keep in mind that you’ll have to let them air dry somewhere between uses — if you don’t have your own guest bath, consider using paper towels instead). I use whatever soap is at hand, but a better approach would be to put the dog shampoo you’ve brought near the door, so you can grab it as you come in. Ask your host where you can wash your dog’s feet — we wash Chloe in the kitchen sink at home, but my brother was appalled by that idea, and our leather couch friends shooed us towards the laundry room sink.

Be vigilant

The fact is, no matter how comfortable you may be with your hosts, you’re not at home. Chloe still disgraces herself in remote corners of the house she lives in, so I keep a very wary eye on her in other people’s homes. Keep your dog in view, and perhaps even on a leash, regardless of what your host says. No one, no matter how laid-back and loving, really wants their carpets soiled. Consider, too, that these dogs are still strangers to one another, and the sight of your dog poking around new territory, away from human supervision, might suddenly rub the host dog the wrong way.

At home, I know roughly when to take Chloe outside for bathroom breaks. On the road, I probably double our trips outside, partly because I don’t know how the time difference will have affected her insides and partly because I absolutely don’t want her to have an accident. (As I mentioned above, carry a bottle of your enzymatic cleaner with you, and respond promptly to accidents — be sure, though, to clear it first with your host, who may prefer to clean the priceless silk carpet some other way.)

Make every effort to sense your host’s preferences. Remember how our friends twitched when Chloe headed for their leather couch? They love us, and they love Chloe, and they desperately didn’t want to offend us — but they also didn’t want her claws on their naked sofa. Do your best to rescue your hosts from that kind of unpleasantness by anticipating what would make them comfortable. That’s why we started washing Chloe’s feet every time we return home — either your host will be relieved, or they’ll be impressed by your level of concern for them and their possessions. (Even then, though, we almost missed a cue once — we’d washed and towel-dried Chloe’s paws and set her on the ground, thinking, as we do at home, that clean damp paws are a non-issue. Our hosts twitched, and it turns out that in their hearts, they preferred her to stay on the tiled kitchen floor until her feet were dry. Phew!)

Exercise is the answer

A well-exercised dog is a good houseguest. Our tidier, more house-proud hosts have only seen Chloe dozing — it’s just safer that way. I understand that it takes time to wear out your dog, time that you may not want to spend away from your hosts (who you have, after all, traveled all this way to see).

The best way to handle that dilemma is to go for a long walk with your dog and your hosts — we can all use the exercise, and you may well be doing your host a favor by introducing them to a park or a trail they hadn’t tried before. Alternatively, fit your dog’s exercise needs around your host’s schedule. Do research ahead of time and locate a nearby dog park, or get a recommendation for a route to run or walk, and slot that outing in where it won’t interfere with your host’s plans.

If that means you get up earlier than you’d like to, or you miss the afternoon nap you yearn for, so be it. The etiquette books I read when I was a girl (my mother has a collection, and they’re fascinating, especially the ones from the first half of the 20th century) all pointed out that guests must work at being good guests, just as hosts work like crazy to make a visit a success.

So there you have it — my thoughts on what makes a houseguest with a dog welcome for a return visit. My friend Edie Jarolim wrote a post on the same topic a while ago that I didn’t reread before writing this, for fear of copying it — take a look and see what she suggests. What would you add that I’ve missed? I’m always looking for good ideas, and I’d be grateful for your thoughts.

9 comments

  • Jessica @ YouDidWhatWithYourWeiner

    Great tips!

    I especially like the one under being vigilant….keeping your dog is sight and or/using a leash at all times. Every time I do this I hear “It’s ok, let him run” but then I have to explain that in a new environment he may relieve himself in a corner or chew something (this is especially a risk in non-doggie homes because they don’t keep everything up) and I don’t want that to happen in their home. Also, it is less stress for me. If I do let them run I am constantly worrying in mortified anticipation or following them around the house anyway. I can’t relax.

  • Thanks, Jessica, and thanks for your point about the chewing. In one home we visit, we keep Chloe on a leash at our friends’ request because their landlord has put critter bait (ants, spiders, rats — hey, they’re in NYC) out in the past and they’re terrified that a packet still exists somewhere and Chloe will find it. Other people, especially if they don’t have dogs themselves, may not be aware of a potential ingestion or chewing hazard, especially if it’s in a room they don’t always go into.

  • Monica McLaughlin

    Good article. One thing I always try to do is to take my dogs outside very shortly after they have been inside a home especially if there are dogs already in the home. They get so excited and run around and then (if not taken out) PEE on the floor!

  • Edie

    Great post, Mary-Alice. You covered a lot of things I didn’t, and from very direct first-hand experience (but thanks for the shout out). Frankie and I don’t visit friends very often and Frankie almost never pees inside our house so I was appalled and humiliated when he lifted his leg on the rug of a friend’s house this past summer, bold as anything, in full view of everyone. Luckily my friend said it was a much peed-upon rug and she took it in stride but really…

  • Oh, Lordy, that’s a good friend — I do love the “much peed-upon.” With four cats and a dog, someone’s always throwing up on our foyer rug, so I know how she feels….

  • Tony, Stuart & nancy

    Inquiring minds need to know: who was the “twitcher”??? We are pretty sure it was Tony….he assures us it is Stuart regarding the leather couch and Christopher and the tile floor…

  • How I wish I was with you guys! It’s all from the same trip to Irvine, but I remember now washing her feet at your house, and getting towels and other bits of fabric between her and your gorgeous leather couch. It all blends together, you know…. Love you!

  • Rocky

    Don’t put your dog in the hosts shower or tub. The claws will make permanent un-reparable scratches. Since tubs and shower bases are put in first and the walls have to be ripped out to replace them, that kind of damage can run into many thousands of dollars.

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