Perfect Travel Dog

Everyone told me I was crazy for wanting to travel with a dog.

If I had thought traveling alone was hard, how was it going to be when I had a pet? How often would I stop? Where was I going to stay? What if I couldn’t find anything dog-friendly?

The questions were endless, but I was determined. I had a certain tenacity when it came to the idea of traveling with a pet, and I wouldn’t be bogged down by the negativity. I had allowed that too much before my first year-long trip.

Besides, I had enough of my own doubts to deal with. The same questions filled my head, among others. Time and again, the biggest question I found myself asking?

Why?

Why did I need to travel with a pet?

Besides the fact I’d always wanted to bring the family dog on every vacation, and I knew it was possible, I just wanted to do it. I’d always wanted a dog of my own, but it never seemed to work out. If I lived in a place that allowed pets, I had roommates who either didn’t want them, already had them, or were allergic. Likewise, if I lived in a place that didn’t allow pets, I lived with roommates who wished we could get one.

But the biggest reason it had to be “now” was my post-trip depression after New Zealand.

I’d heard a lot about the processing time it took after a year abroad. That year was about isolation, but it was about finding freedom in that. I drew away and broke my chains all at the same time.

Me and Piper

The first ever picture of me and Piper.

But I couldn’t live in solitary forever.

Although I knew I had to come home, I didn’t want to stop traveling. I also had the idea for this trip, and I wanted to make it happen.

This trip, though, I wanted to be different. This trip needed companionship.

I asked around, and even though everyone wished they could join, no one thought they would be able to do it. After two months of planning this with no bites on my offer to join, I knew it was time to find myself a dog.

Phase One: Convincing the Roommate

Once I’d decided, I only needed permission from my roommate. I was living in a three-bedroom townhouse with a backyard at the time, and it was one of the most notoriously pet-friendly complexes in the area.

The problem, however, was that my roommate wasn’t fond of the idea. She had a cat, and she’d had more than one bad experience with poor pet owners before I came around.

It took me two months to convince her, and I’m happy that I finally did. After an intense discussion, she asked me for two things:

  1. The dog would be kid-and-cat-friendly, since she had an eight-year-old and a kitty.
  2. We agreed on the dog first. She didn’t want to just come home from work one day and have a new dog running around before she’d given it her approval.

Piper and Joshua Tree National Park

Phase Two: Choosing a Dog

Now I had some work on my hands.

Since I’d already planned this out, I knew I needed to be specific when it came to finding the perfect dog. At that, I didn’t want a puppy. I didn’t have time to house-train, I didn’t have time to raise it, and I needed a dog that was already car-trained as well.

Three weeks into the search, after looking at multiple dogs, being denied for certain adoptions, and feeling like I was out of options, I started losing hope. Dog fever hit me, and everywhere I looked, people were out walking their dogs and enjoying their life.

Why, oh why, could I not just be one of them?

Phase Three: Finding Piper

Everyone told me not to give up. “The dog,” they said, “will find you.” Apparently, it doesn’t work the other way around.

So I held fast. I spent about a month researching different breeds, the best fit for what I wanted, and continually looking for other dogs.

Then, on the morning of July 5th, 2016, as soon as I woke up — just a little hungover from our 4th of July party the night before — I checked the SPCA website.

And there she was:

Smiling Piper

Piper.

Smiling in her picture, a beautiful German Shepherd/Hound, and a pup just looking for a home.

I immediately got out of bed and told my roommate, Claire, that I was going to go look at this dog. Her sister, brother-in-law, and nieces were visiting for the holiday, and they wouldn’t be leaving until the 6th. That meant I couldn’t get the dog just yet, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t put her on hold until the family left.

Meeting Piper for the First Time

So I went. My friend, Megan, called me on the way out the door and invited me to lunch. When I told her what I was doing, she opted to join me. She, like the rest of my friends, wasn’t oblivious to the trip I was planning, or the companion I wanted to take with me, and fully supported my decision to find a dog.

When we arrived at the SPCA, nerves clouded my stomach. There was something different about this visit. Something about this dog had me already.

Megan and I checked in, nerves still rising in me, and we walked out to the back kennels. This wasn’t my first time visiting the shelter, and it never got easier whenever I came back looking for another dog. Everything in me just wished I could save all of the dogs, cats, and every other animal in there, but it just wasn’t plausible.

We walked to the end of the kennels, and there, in the last one, was Piper.

The moment she saw me, she leaped so high I thought she would jump over my head. There was terror in her eyes, and confusion as to what had happened to her last master. She hated where she was, and she just wanted to get out. All she wanted was someone to take care of her.

The Relationship Begins

I ended up walking Piper around for about an hour. All of the other dogs I’d tested out didn’t catch my interest. Either they didn’t want me, or I didn’t want them, and it didn’t take long for either of us to figure it out.

There was something different about Piper. She’s a bit standoffish, and once I took her to a separate, fenced-off area and let her off the leash, she didn’t immediately jump all over me. Quite the opposite, in fact. She kept her distance between me and Megan, skeptical as to who we were, and only came around every so often to let us give her a pat.

Her shyness intrigued me. She wasn’t averse to love or cuddles, but she wasn’t obsessed with them, either. She liked to have her own space, to not be crowded, and to have a little freedom.

Turns out we had a lot in common from the start.

As soon as my heart fell for Piper, I called Claire.

“I found her.”

“I still need to approve her first,” Claire said.

“Claire. I found her.”

Claire sighed. “Well, I still need to meet her, but it sounds like I’m not going to have much of a choice in the matter.”

“I love you so much, Claire, but no. You don’t. If you don’t like her I’m moving out. I found her.”

In an instant, I didn’t even know how I’d lived any of my life without Piper. It was like she could see into a part of me I didn’t even know existed. The dog memes saying “I just want to be the kind of person my dog thinks I am” all of a sudden made inexplicable sense to me.

Road Trippin Piper

I didn’t even know I could love so deeply as I put Piper back in her kennel. The sadness in her eyes turned to desperation as I walked away from her the first time, and she barked and whined as if begging me to come back. “Don’t leave me here,” she pleaded. “Please, save me.”

My heart shattered. All I wanted to do was heal her wounds, revoke her desperation. How could I explain to her she only needed to hold on for 24 more hours before she was finally free?

Adopting Piper

The next morning, I called out of work, went to the pet store, bought everything I’d need for Piper’s first day (except, oddly, a bed of her own) and went to adopt her.

Claire came with me, just to meet her, and held on to her skepticism. She wasn’t sure about the standoffish behavior, expecting the dog to be a little more “friendly,” but agreed that she wasn’t aggressive and would at least be good around kids.

“She was so loved,” the receptionist told me as I filled out the adoption papers. “So, so loved. Her former owner calls every day to see how she’s doing and asks if anyone’s adopted her. It’s almost to the point of being annoying, but he was just devastated when he surrendered her. Shipped overseas, couldn’t bring her with. So sad.”

I withheld my tears as I listened to the story and filled out the papers. That was the only information, still to this day, that I have about Piper’s past. Based on that, I assumed her to have belonged to a military man, which explained why the woman finished, “She needs someone to be dominant. She’ll try and get away with things if she thinks she can, so make sure you’re always authoritative over her.”

Piper's Puppy Eyes

Piper trying to act innocent, when she knows she can be a crazy bitch sometimes.

Becoming a Dog Owner for the First Time

“Okay,” I told myself as Piper and I left the SPCA. “You can do this. You can do this.”

Much to my relief, Piper was immediately easy to deal with. She jumped right in the car, laid down in the backseat, and stared at me with those fear-filled eyes as I took her to her new home. There, I dropped the bag of treats I’d just bought for her, and they spilled all over the ground right in front her.

“Ah-ah,” I said as Piper went for them —

And she listened.

“Well, all right!” I said as I cleaned up the treats. “You’re going to be an easy dog, aren’t you?”

I was wrong, but it doesn’t matter. She may not be easy, but she’s certainly the best dog I’ve ever interacted with.

That night, Piper curled up on the end of my bed and just stared at me. Who was I? Where was she? Where was her master? When was he coming back? Was I just temporary? Should she be scared or happy to be free of the shelter?

I wrapped my arms around her and laid next to her, petting her head and looking in her eyes. “I’m your new daddy,” I whispered. “And I’m going to take the best care of you I possibly can. I will never leave you. I promise.”

A Budding Relationship Forms

Even though finding Piper took a lot of time and energy, I knew that was the easiest task. Now, I had to make sure she was ready to hit the road nine months in the future.

Worse, it took one walk before I realized I had more of a beast on my hands than I thought. She yanked on the leash, ran after the scents her nose led her to, and had an extreme reaction any time she saw another dog.

Oh no… what have I gotten myself into?

Piper in the Snow

The Worst Trainer…EVER!

After a couple of months getting to know Piper and learning about all of her quirks, I decided to get some training from a professional to help me in the areas that needed work.

I knew that training was more about the human learning how to communicate than it was the dog learning how to understand. All I wanted was to learn why she had such a strong reaction to dogs, particularly if they were female (which, apparently, isn’t uncommon), and what I could do to help prevent her from acting like a psycho.

The first place I called was the Zoom Room in Monterey. I’d heard good things, the ratings were nice on Google, and I felt relieved to seek some help. I didn’t want to blame Piper for aspects of her history I couldn’t account for, and I wanted to learn how to be the best replacement for her previous owner.

When I got to the trainer, however, things went downhill pretty quickly. As I stated when I made the appointment with the trainer, Piper freaks out when she sees other dogs. I didn’t know why, I didn’t know how to deal with it, and I needed tips and advice.

Piper Center of the Nation South Dakota

Piper, conquering the Center of the Nation in South Dakota.

Upon seeing Piper’s reaction, the trainer told me I had a liability on the end of my leash.

That I was never, ever, ever to take my eyes off this dog, or she would kill something. She said Piper wasn’t a good fit for me or for this trip, and I’d be wise to consider surrendering her back to the SPCA.

“I know people who have had hundreds of dogs who wouldn’t want to deal with her,” she said. “As your first dog, I don’t think you’re prepared for this. I’ve given this advice before, and most people come back and thank me for it later on.”

Facing the Hardest Decision of My Life

What did this mean? I loved Piper. I couldn’t imagine coming home and not seeing her smiling face and wagging tail greet me at the door. But was she right? Did I have a liability? If I had a professional telling me to surrender my dog back to the SPCA, should I have listened?

My answer, obviously, was no.

I’d also like to note that I will never “thank” this woman for her “advice.”

In fact, I think it would be best if she just closed her business, especially considering the fact I was not the only one she gave this advice to. What trainer tells a new dog owner they have a liability, then encourages them to bring the dog back to the shelter, as if that’s the best answer?

I digress.

I decided to take Piper back to the SPCA, yes, but to enroll her in their training program. There, I discovered Wendi, who was everything I needed in a trainer and more. She taught me tricks to play with Piper to make it a game, most notably, “Where’s the doggy?”

Piper Devil's Tower

Me, Josh, and Piper at the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.

For that game, you hold treats, get your dog’s attention first before you see the other dog, and once the other dog comes into view, you say, “Where’s that doggy? Do you see it? Where is it?”

The moment her eyes fall on the dog, she gets the treat.

Piper’s by no means perfect in this category, but at least with some help from an actual professional, I was able to form a better relationship with Piper and get her to become more responsive to what I asked of her.

Transitioning Piper Into a Travel Dog

Wendi and I discovered something about Piper’s “aggression” toward other dogs — it was nothing more than frustration.

She just wanted to play. That was it. Truth be told, there’s still something about other bitches that just sets Piper off, but Wendi had me do an exercise where I let Piper go and see what she did when she saw a stuffed dog. She held the same initial reaction as she would seeing a real dog, but as soon as she got up to it, all she did was sniff.

Learning that saved my relationship with Piper. I spent the following months taking her on mini road-trips to get her prepared for the big one. I socialized her with my friends and their dogs. Piper and I worked on building trust with each other, and it paved the way to our success on the road.

Now, Piper’s been to 23 different states and has traveled over 17,000 miles with us on our journey. Time and again, people compliment her behavior. Numerous people have told me they wished their dogs could be as well-behaved as mine.

If that’s what it means to be a liability, I couldn’t be happier to have thrown aside the advice from that “trainer.”

Here’s to you, Piper, and hoping the second half of this trip goes just as smoothly as the first.