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I am a New York-based writer, travel lover, and author of The Drive North and Destination Paranormal. I have several other books in the works, including fiction.

Driving Miss Anxiety

Anna (finally!) riding happily in the car

Anna (finally!) riding happily in the car

Listening to a dog pant heavily in a car for four hours is not nearly as enjoyable as it sounds. Trust me. As I approached Grand Junction from Denver, I was about ready to drive my car off the road and into the Colorado River. Four plus hours of listening to it had made me absolutely batty.

Let’s backtrack a few months before we get to that point, though. Anna and I had taken plenty of drives together, but none more than an hour one way. We’d go off to some great hiking location, and she was always the perfect companion in the front seat – where she preferred to sit.

Enter the plans for the long drive to San Diego for a belated family Christmas.

“How does she do in the car?” people at the dog park would ask.

“Fine,” I’d tell them. “She seems to love it. She’s always so excited any time we go somewhere.”

“Have you gone on a long drive like this before with her?”

Sigh. That was my big mistake. I assumed that if she was good for an hour she’d be good for fifteen or sixteen, albeit not in one massive chunk.

Driving through the tunnels

Driving through the tunnels

For every hour we drove into the mountains we stopped. First to get gas in Idaho Springs. There she seemed fine. Second in Eagle, because she was getting antsy. Next in Glenwood Springs, since she seemed on the verge of a panic attack each time we went through a tunnel. And there are lots of tunnels on I-70 between Denver and Glenwood Springs. Lots of ’em.

I couldn’t figure out what Anna’s problem was for the life of me. She had water. She had a comfy blanket. I fed her treats. But nothing I did seemed to make a difference; rolling down the window for fresh air, petting her, playing soothing music, giving her toys. She only got worse.

The products I tried

The products I tried

Finally, come Grand Junction, where I couldn’t take it any longer, I pulled off the highway to find a pet store. They suggested two calming agents of different manners, neither of which helped more than an hour at a time. We had five more to go on the day.

Incoming text: “How’s the drive going?”

It was my sister in San Diego. I called to talk to her about the difficulties. She’s a dog owner. She’d be able to sympathize. Maybe she’d even be able to give some advice, considering she’s driven to Denver from San Diego with Torrey, her Golden.

She offered no real advice to speak of, but instead said she puts her dog in the back seat when they drive long distances. Apparently the vibration and hum of the car puts their dog to sleep when they do that. But Anna fights the back seat. I can’t get her back there without her trying to climb back to the front. That’s why I went with the front in the first place. Well, that and because other dog owners warned of car sickness, which I know can always be worse in the back.

Another hour down the road, somewhere outside of Green River, Utah, the panting had resumed. With no other choice, I pulled over on an exit ramp, shifted around all of my boxes in the car, and moved Anna to the back. As I did so, my black lab – who is as dark as the night – pulled her head out of her collar in her panic over the car, and started to take off.

“Anna!” I screamed. “Sit!”

Without hesitation, she cowered down in the middle of the entrance ramp to the highway. Normally I’d be glad she listened so well, but keep in mind this is a busy entrance ramp to a busy cross country freeway. Panic instantly set in for me.

I grabbed her by the scruff of her neck and pulled her back toward the car. Less than a minute later, two cars zoomed up the ramp and onto the I-70 westbound. It was close. Too close.

Everything was rearranged. Anna was in the back, panting strongly in my ear. Another hour went by. It wasn’t as bad as in the front. By the time we reached the I-15 interchange, she was snoozing soundly on her blanket with her stuffed pig next to her.


Anna woke in St. George, Utah, where we stopped to spend the night. The next day, and for the rest of the drive to San Diego, she was relatively fine. The only difficulty I had was in keeping her to the back seat. Occasionally, she tried to climb back into the front. We managed though, and with nerves still running high we made it to San Diego.

My five days there, which I’ll talk about more at another time, were great. Time with the family, whale watching, a national monument; we had a great time just bumming around the area. I even was able to get away a couple of times to see some old friends. But all the while the thought of having to drive Anna back to Denver for another 16 hours loomed in the back of my mind.

Finally, come Friday, the car packed and ready to go, we hit the road for the return journey. Anna was snuggly tucked in the back. Without a pant to be had, she curled up into a ball and went to sleep. She stayed that way, too, until we reached Las Vegas.

Maybe it was because I told her on the drive out that it was the greatest city in the world, maybe it was because she needed a stretch, but she chose that time to climb up on the arm rest between the seats. She stayed like that, too, for much of the drive home. Somehow it seemed like a happy medium of safely being in the back while also not missing out on anything out the front. She also had the opportunity to get a lil scratching behind the ears.

This lasted for the rest of our drive to Beaver, Utah for the night, and on through the next day. That’s when we hit real nasty weather in Colorado. I-70 was icy, snowpacked, and a great big mess from the western side of the state to Denver. Anna lay calmly between the seats as if nothing was going on. But when I got nervous, when the roads truly got bad, and I had to tell her to get back, she crawled into the back seat and simply looked on as we crawled along the roads, never once reaching more than 40 mph.

Our drive of eight hours on the day turned into more than ten. It was difficult. I was a tense wreck myself at the end, but, unlike Anna, I didn’t have the opportunity to crawl into the back seat. Thankfully, though, she was back there as snug as a bug in a rug, or so my mother used to say to me.

Lesson learned?

Take some medium-length drives before doing big ones. Experiment with where to put the puppy in the vehicle. Make sure they’re comfortable with blankets, toys, and water if at all possible. And be sure, if they’re awake, to make a few stops along the way so they can stretch their legs and take a pee. I did that with Anna, and I could always tell she was grateful for the opportunity to get out for a few minutes.

Other thoughts?

I know some folks would harp about kennels, doggie seat belts, and those tarps that connect between the seats to create some sort of back seat nest. Anna would’ve gone bonkers over any one of the three. But not all dogs are alike, so test out what works for yours. Give things a try on both short and medium-length drives. When it’s time to take the big one, you’ll be glad you did.

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