From House Dog to Van Dog: Lucy’s Journey

Tips for transitioning your dog to RV living.

Katharine & Humberto Gunn Katharine & Humberto Gunn  |  11.02.2018

People always ask us about how Lucy, our Golden Retriever, deals with traveling in the van. After a full year of adventuring, we can confidently say that she is a full-on van dog and is ready to hit the road whenever we are. Lucy was eight months old when we started van life and was very much a city dog prior to us leaving the Northeast. Police sirens and crowded streets were a way of life and she was a huge fan of Saturday-night-sidewalk-pizza, but she had never seen a deer or heard a screaming night fox, both which we experienced on our first night in the van.

Why we Chose to do Van Life with our Dog

Lucy may be an adventure dog now, but she didn’t start out that way. When we adopted her, she was immediately put into puppy daycare for about 10 hours a day while we both worked office jobs. We found a place near Humberto’s work, but his commute was still about an hour and a half each way with the extra stop. By the time they got home every night, we were exhausted and only ended up having about two hours a day with Lucy before we had to go to bed and wake up to do it all again.

We were always thinking that she might have thought that her daycare was her “real” family and we were just her nighttime caretakers. Getting to spend more time with our dog was one of the top perks we were most excited for when choosing van life.

van dog

Transitioning our Dog from House Life to Van Life

We were excited to have more time with our dog as we traveled the country, but we also wanted to make sure Lucy had a good experience and a seamless transition from house life to van life. When we got the van, we started out by letting Lucy explore inside on her own before we drove it anywhere, just to get her used to all the new spaces and smells.

We brought treats, toys, and her bed, so she would associate it as “home.” We put her dog bowls in the bathroom, so she had easy access to water. And, since our bathroom is a wet bath, it made any spillage easier to clean up. We took a few rides in the van before moving in full time, hoping that she would like it.

van dogLucy hugging the floor goodbye on our last day in our condo.

We spent our last night in our empty condo without any furniture except for our mattress. Lucy cried the entire next morning as we prepared to say goodbye to our home, and she let us know her disdain by pooping on the floor multiple times an hour before closing. It didn’t help that I cried at least three times, and I think she could sense my sadness. If we had to do it all again, we would try to limit her exposure to our emptying house, since she seemed increasingly stressed out the emptier our house got, despite the fact that she had tons of more room to run around.

Getting Lucy More Comfortable while Driving

While we had good intentions, the first month in the van was tumultuous with Lucy. She barked at every noise and was frequently startled by the rattling of objects while we drove and the occasional things falling off shelves. Lucy could not get comfortable and would try to jump into the front seat every time she heard the ignition. We were surprised because as a city dog, she was used to being shuttled back and forth to doggy daycare in our SUV, so we thought it would be an easy transition into the van. Our biggest fear was that she would never get used to it and we would have a scared, panicky puppy for the entire cross-country road trip. Or even worse, that she wouldn’t adapt at all and we would have to abandon van life.

We didn’t want to give up on our adventure, so we got to work solving everything that we could think of to help Lucy adapt to the van. We made sure to secure everything that made noise or fell when driving. One of our biggest revelations came when we figured out that Lucy liked to lurch into the front seat because she not only felt more stable, but because she liked to look out the window. Originally her bed was under the table, so we quickly threw out our “No dogs on the couch” rule and got her a travel harness to help her feel more stable on the bench seat. For long trips, we converted the fold-down table to make a big bed for Lucy to spread out. Once we made these adjustments, she was the happiest van dog and now even jumps right into “her spot” on the bench seat.

van dog

A Typical Van Life Day with our Dog

Most mornings we head straight to a park for Lucy to run around and stretch her legs, bonus points if it’s a dog park, double bonus points if it’s a dog park with water. We use BringFido to find dog-friendly parks, restaurants, and beaches, and sometimes it’s as easy as just Google Mapping the nearest dog park. After Lucy is nice and tired, we are able to do activities that we can’t take the dog to (do those even exist?), like grocery shopping, libraries, coffee shops, gym/showering, museums, beaches, National Parks.

van dog

We of course have to monitor the weather to make sure it won’t be too hot or too cold to leave her in the van, so if there’s ever any doubt we won’t leave her or one of us will stay in the van with her. When we’re in really hot places, we usually make sure to be outside all day with Lucy until it gets cooler and we can do our dog-less tasks.

One of our new favorite activities is to visit the various local dog bars we have found. We would have never known these existed if we hadn’t traveled the country!

van dogLucy attempting to enjoy a beverage at The Dog Bar in St. Petersburgh, FL. We stayed a week in St. Pete just because the dog bar was so great! (Read more about why this city is so pet friendly here).

At night, we’ll try to walk her in a well-lit safe place before finding our sleeping spot for the night. Since Lucy grew up in a city environment, she is often more comfortable with the Walmart parking lot sounds than the stark quietness of an off-grid boondocking site. We make sure to put up all of our black-out panels, so light does not get through and we often leave our fan on to drown out sounds.

Other Tips for Traveling with a Dog

  • Utilize Instagram. Before we arrive somewhere @LucyAdventureGunn asks her followers to tell her great dog-friendly places to visit. Sometimes we even get to meet up with her new dog friends!
  • Pick a dog food that is available everywhere – Lucy needs a limited ingredient dog food, so we made sure to choose one that was available at Petcos nationwide. If we ever go to remote areas (West Texas) where there aren’t any Petcos for hours, we make sure to pick up a bag if there’s any risk of running low.
  • Be Patient. Transitioning from a completely different living arrangement is difficult for anyone, including your dog. Some dogs are completely cool with it, while others take some time to adjust. Try to get your dog to associate the van as a comfortable, safe place where fun things happen, and she gets lots of treats. We like to think of our van as a giant rolling dog crate that Lucy lets us live in with her.
  • Get a waterproof seat cover and a portable vacuum to help keep your rig clean from dog adventures. (Read more van life cleanliness tips here).

What are your tips for traveling with your dog? Any favorite dog-friendly places we should add to our list?

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  1. Christopher M Hudson Posted on 04.14.2019

    Your photograph of Lucy on top of the rock with the gorge behind her is FANTASTIC. Thanks for the article.

  2. Karen Koogle Posted on 12.27.2018

    I just bout a class B winnabago Era. I am going to be camping with my dog Molly. I have gone on short trips so far and she has done fine. We are leaving from Md. to go to Florida the end of January. I’m fortunate to have family and friends along the way to visit. Some I will stay in their driveways and I’ll be in some Campgrounds also. Really looking forward to this adventure.

  3. Katharine Gunn Posted on 12.23.2018

    @David Nordin – Yes! We have the Kurgo Quilted Loft Seat Cover. ( It’s water and stain resistant and we love it for protecting our leather.

    @Steve Saubert – Yes! They’re a thing…and we LOOOOVE them! Especially in the winter. We’ll write about the great ones we’ve been to soon.

  4. David Nordin Posted on 11.11.2018

    Loved your article. We arepicking up our first Travato G this month. Is the seat cover you have for her waterproof, and are they available for purchase or is it custom made?

  5. Annette Posted on 11.05.2018

    Great article. I have traveled with two or three dogs in a pick up truck with a camper shell, Sportsmobile van, truck with a fifth wheeler, and now a Winnebago Aspect. I never experienced any problems with traveling and camping with dogs, until my latest dog. She loves going and being at a campground, but she is a nervous wreck traveling. My vet prescribed a travel relaxing pill, she chills out and arrives with a smile ready to play!

  6. jeff oppenheim Posted on 11.03.2018

    We have a 35 B Sunstar and our dog with all the room available to travel only will sit with my wife in the passenger captain chair

  7. Steve Saubert Posted on 11.03.2018

    Really fun article…dog bars, huh?

  8. elise Posted on 11.03.2018

    Wonderful, helpful article. Thanks so much. We travel with two small dogs who seem to love our van. They choose to sleep in it when at home too. We did work at getting them used to it, however. We love to see people and dogs on the road.