The Australian road trip is an experience unlike any other – our vast landscape and small outback population means hours between towns, expansive stretches without reception or fuel, and the need for some serious forward planning. As you can imagine, doing an Australian road trip with a dog in the car is on a whole other level.
When I first decided to go on a huge Australian road trip with my dog Teddy this year, I was all about planning ahead. I’ve been a fan of long drives and weeks on the road for years, even doing a whole lap of the country solo once, so I know it takes careful planning – like packing a serious first aid kit and mapping out rest stops for each leg of the drive.
Still, there were plenty of factors exclusive to travelling with a tiny, furry little being in the car I never had to consider. From hot cars to marching around dirt patches praying your dog will pee on command, here is everything I wish I knew about road-tripping with a dog before I actually did it.
How to road trip with your dog
Check the temperature regularly
You might be cool and comfortable in the front of your vehicle, but if your car doesn’t have air conditioning that pumps efficiently through to the back where your pup is, they may not be having as good a time. In fact, depending on how old your car is or how inefficient the air con is, they could even reach dangerous temperatures back there. Even if you think all is well, the fact is dogs can’t verbally tell you if they’re uncomfortable, so it’s worth checking – even just sticking your hand back there to make sure it’s temperate every now and again.
Another factor, especially when driving in summer, is heat that comes through the windows. We were lucky enough to borrow Ford’s Escape ST-Line PHEV, which has state-of-the-art climate control for the front and back sections of the vehicle, meaning we could make Ted’s space cooler or warmer depending on how it felt back there, without freezing ourselves in the front in the process. The privacy glass windows also meant less sun got through, so we didn’t find the temperature ramping up during the day.
But if we were to take my dinky old car with its peeling tinted windows and crappy air con? I’d definitely have picked up some cheap sun-protective covers to keep the blazing sun out of the back, because even with the air con pumping in a modern car, that outback sun can heat up a vehicle in no time.
Learn the signs of heatstroke in dogs
Speaking of overheating, you cannot go on an Australian road trip (or any travel to hot areas) without learning the signs of heatstroke in dogs.
“Heatstroke can cause multiple organ damage and can be fatal if not treated promptly,” explained Dr. Lisa Chimes, founder of Dog by Dr. Lisa.
“As their body temperature increases, the more serious signs of heatstroke begin to appear such as increased heavy panting, gums that are dark red, vomiting, diarrhoea, confusion, breathing difficulty, seizures and collapsing.”
If you notice any of these symptoms in your dog, Dr. Chimes urges seeking veterinary help immediately. “Never cool your pet down too rapidly, as this can be dangerous. Instead, place damp towels over them, offer them a drink of water and ensure that you keep the windows down and air-conditioning on during the car trip.”
Never leave them in the vehicle
This brings us to the relatively obvious – never, ever leave your dog in the car on a road trip, especially in the Australian summer.
With temperatures outside reaching 30 degrees before 8:00 am, we knew that within minutes, the car could heat up to unlivable conditions for Ted. Even if we were just running in for snacks, one of us would either stay in the car with the air con running, or we would take Ted out with us.
Stop at parks, not rest stops
If you’re driving through the Australian outback, you’ll quickly find that lush, green grass is rare. The rest stops you know and love from the old Aussie east coast highway are like botanic gardens compared to what’s out in Woop Woop, so if you’ve got a dog that’s used to doing its business on some well-mown buffalo nature strips, it’s worth planning stops in towns along the route, where grassy Rotary Parks and pubs with pet-friendly beer gardens are going to be more up your fur-baby’s alley.
My dog Ted? Refused to go on anything that wasn’t green. Peeing wasn’t an issue (he’s a boy and therefore loves to mark every single post or pole in sight), but when we were driving full days and it came time for his afternoon, um, ablutions, we wasted many hours panicking about an in-car accident because he simply refused to go on gravel, dirt or patchy, bindi-infested spinifex. After a few days, we realised it was better for us to take our rest stops in towns with the green grass he was used to.
Try to crate-train them
Something that worked brilliantly for our dog with car travel was popping him into a travel crate instead of trying to secure him to the seat. Granted, he is a little dog, but this method meant he was able to stretch out and sleep comfortably, plus was secure should we stop suddenly or go over bumps.
It’s worth noting that in Australia, it’s illegal to drive with a dog in your lap or your passenger’s lap. They need to be secured.
“Unrestrained pets can pose a safety risk and distract you, especially when sitting in the front of the car,” explained Dr. Chimes.
“And if you’re forced to suddenly stop your car or swerve, your dog could be thrown into the dashboard or a window – or even out of the car altogether.”
You can crate-train dogs from puppyhood, or pick up a cheap travel crate and encourage its use before you travel with treats and putting their favourite bedding in there at night in the home. It really made a huge difference for us. Make sure yours can be fitted securely in the back. Otherwise, pick up a dog seat belt, which usually attaches to the regular seat belt lock in the back seat or secures via other ports.
Double-check your accommodation is pet friendly
Many Australian caravan parks will say they are pet friendly, but what they may mean is that the property is pet friendly – as in, you can bring along your dog if you’re travelling with a caravan, but they can’t actually stay inside the on-site cabins.
We ran into this problem more times than I’d care to admit, often because I didn’t read the fine print. Given Australian summers are hot even in the shade, and winters can be too cold for dogs to sleep outdoors, you don’t want to end up locked into accommodation where your pet isn’t welcome in the cabin.
Be careful of burrs and baits
The two biggest hazards we found for Ted were spiky burrs and fox baits. The burrs are common in outback areas and are kind of like really, really spiky versions of bindis. Ted not only limped if he trod on one, but he would also hate it being removed – they really get into their paws! Again, you’re more likely to encounter them in areas of natural, outback brush cover versus lawns maintained in town.
Another nasty you’re more likely to come across in the outback brush is 1080 baits. Search the baits on Facebook travel groups and you’ll find devastating stories of dog owners whose fur babies ingested one and died very painful deaths. They’re technically meant to remain in well-signposted areas, but according to travellers, have been found in other outback areas due to birds carrying them, then dropping them.
You’re unlikely to come across one unless you’re camping remotely, or walking your dog in more remote areas – so if you’re nervous, stick to the plan above of letting your dog out in towns, not along the highway.
Water at every stop
What’s easy to forget is that your dog doesn’t have a little water bottle they’re sipping from along the journey, and if you’re travelling in summer as we were, they’re likely to need more H2O than usual.
Make sure you bring out the doggy travel bowl at every stop throughout the day so they stay well hydrated. It’s also good to stash the water bowl with you in the front in case you get stuck in traffic (almost guaranteed during the school holiday season) and need to give them a little water on the go.
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