Have you ever seen six Huskies living in a specially converted motorhome ? Or a Great Dane emerging from a small campervan ? We have, and it’s amazing how many motorhomers have dogs. A campsite owner we met estimated 50-60%. I sometimes wonder how much of that is coincidental and how much is causal. E.g. do people who tour in motorhomes just happen to have dogs or are they actually more likely to travel by motorhome because they can take their pooches along?
In our case I have to admit its the latter, as I’m certain we’d have jetted off to far away exotic climes if we didn’t have Bodger and Charlie. Goodness knows it would have been cheaper than buying a motorhome! Living abroad can be significantly cheaper than living in a bricks-and-mortar home in the UK because of high living costs. So in a sense, the Elf is the most expensive dog-mobile ever. But a dog is for life and we are leaving no one behind, least of all our faithful friends.
What is surprising is how many motorhomers take their cats with them. We have seen many cats in vans on our travels and know of others from travel blogs. Once in Bavaria in Germany we saw a Grey Persian reclining decadently along the dashboard of a £250,000 Vohnmobile – a coach converted into a luxury motorhome. In her mobile palace she looked like the Queen of Sheba! Online I am following one family who are taking two years out to travel around Europe, homeschooling their children as they go, and they have taken their Siamese cat. He is trustworthy/intelligent enough to be let out without a harness on lead, but all the other cats I have seen tend to be tethered. Whilst most cats wouldn’t tolerate this state of affairs, I have seen several who seem perfectly happy with this arrangement. The sight of a cosseted and adored long-haired feline out on it’s daily walk on a lead, daintily sniffing with tail held high is something to behold.
But back to dogs. This isn’t a comprehensive guide to travelling in Europe with dogs. Rather, it is a collection of our own learnings and impressions.
France has long been known to be amongst the most dog-friendly countries in Europe. It’s perfectly normal to ask if any restaurant accepts dogs, even at quite smart places. We’ve occasionally sat in some very nice eateries with the dogs asleep next to our table as we enjoyed our meal. It’s also worth asking when you go into sights and attractions. At a castle we wanted to visit in Brittany with Bodger many years ago, we were asked ‘Il est calme ?’, we replied ‘Oui, bien sur’. There is a pet-friendly policy at the beautiful Chateau de Chenonceau where dogs and cats are welcomed in the grounds and gardens. This made a big difference to our visit. We were able to take the dogs and appreciate the beautiful gardens at leisure. Then, getting a stamp for our return, we took the dogs back to the van before going into the chateau, where we really enjoyed our visit as we had not left the dogs in the van for any excessive time, and this mattered even more as it was a warm day. Motorhomes are well insulated compared to cars, so with all the roof skylights open and blinds drawn to keep the sun out, it can actually be very warm outside before it starts to make any serious difference inside.
In contrast to our fantastic experience earlier, the Chateau de Chantilly did not allow dogs, even where the grounds go on forever. This meant that Tim and I had to do the gardens and house in one hit, and it sort of turned into a speed-walking exercise. I marched through the house and the particularly fine art collection in record time, glancing briefly left and right to the famous Poussins and Ingres as I strode through the galleries at a rate of knots. After that, our walking pace in the gardens only increased and we only had time to see a fraction of what was there. All the while I couldn’t help feeling all too conscious of the dogs in the van in the car park, even though they were probably snoozing happily and completely oblivious.
One day, perhaps owners of attractions like this will wake up to the power of the ‘hound pound’ and allow dogs in the grounds with their owners. Until then, I shall regard places such as this as somewhat backward and quite inhumane.
Germany seemed as relaxed about dogs as France. They were welcome everywhere we went (though admittedly we didn’t try to take them in any restaurants). We had no issues at all and even took the dogs on a boat trip in Berlin. The numerous biergartens are naturally dog friendly. The only negative was that in Berlin where there was a lot of broken glass everywhere we went – both on the streets and in the parks. I really liked Berlin and would return there in a shot but I would not take the dogs there again for that reason.
SPAIN AND PORTUGAL
The most challenging countries for us with the dogs were Spain and Portugal, where dogs are not allowed in any bars, let alone restaurants. The law in Spain has changed recently and it’s now discretionary rather than mandatory, but we didn’t find any places that allowed dogs. I’ll report back if I find one. Spain has a terrible reputation for animal welfare but I believe there is now a backlash and they are making inroads with legislation in some places. I read recently that the council of Cadiz has introduced a new law stating that dog owners must walk their dogs twice per day. It seems odd to me that this needs to be made into a law, but if it helps improve dog welfare then it can only be good. Once we saw a hoglet going for a walk with it’s ‘owner’ alongside a dog!
Both the Spanish and Portuguese are also strict about dogs on beaches. Many beaches have a year-round ban on dogs, which strikes me as somewhat unnecessary in winter when beaches are deserted. Almost all half-decent beaches will ban dogs in summer – even on the Costa da Caparica in Portugal, with twenty miles of golden sand by the Atlantic rollers. However, out of season we went there on a beautiful day and had a wonderful time.
An unwelcome trend that we noticed almost everywhere we went in Europe, was an insistence by the authorities that dogs be on leads at all times, even in rural areas. The signs became a depressingly familiar sight. The only place which completely bucked the trend was Portugal, where it’s commonplace to see pet dogs pottering about on their own quite happily. We went to one seaside town where we couldn’t walk anywhere without a third furry companion appearing and joining us for a stroll. Charlie was not impressed with these interlopers needless to say!
BELGIUM AND THE NETHERLANDS
Belgium and the Netherlands were also restrictive about dogs on beaches, but we usually found there was a designated dog-area. However, in the designated areas, some authorities there still demand that they be on leads. The beach is a place I normally associate with the sight of dogs running for joy, so I can’t think of a better way of knocking joy on the head. In Belgium I witnessed a dog owner release his Golden Retriever in a designated dog area, who was so overjoyed that it ran over energetically to greet a family with a small child, the father of which then shouted over to the owner for not having it on the lead. The owner pretended not to hear and just carried on with his walk and the retriever was already bounding off towards the sea. So even though the dog owner had no choice but to be in the designated dog area, the family had the choice to be in either yet chose to be where they were. In the face of such unfairness and discrimination I can’t say I blamed the owner for ignoring this self-righteous indignation.
We very much liked Sweden, it had a laid back feel and and the people were nice. However the authorities seemed particularly keen on all dogs being on leads all the time and there seemed to be signs everywhere. Even by lakesides in the middle of nowhere there would be signs banning dogs at the waterside or else saying they must be on leads. Some campsites would make an effort to provide a ‘dog beach’ but in our experience this tended to be a euphemism for ‘unattractive and unappealing place where no one wants to go anyway’. In one campsite, the so-called ‘dog beach’ was just a jagged, rocky slipway with loads of flotsam and just not very nice for either dogs or humans. That experience didn’t leave us with a good feeling, so we moved on from that place after one night even though it was in a really nice lakeside setting. If anyone finds a nice dog beach in Sweden or anywhere for that matter, please do share !
In Norway there was far less signage about dogs on leads and and one of the the best things about this country is they have a right to roam like we do in Britain, so it feels welcoming and gives a sense of freedom. Having said this, many national parks have rules which state that dogs must be on leads, sometimes all year round and sometimes just in nesting periods. They vary by borough. We observed that Norwegians abide by rules religiously, even if this sometimes means bending the rules a little, such as having a very long loose lead on their dog.
WALKS AND SWIMMING
If I’m making Europe sound like a restrictive, rules-bound place for dogs, then maybe it’s a little misleading. No one ever said anything negative or bossy to us. If anything, people tended to be tolerant, and the dogs were an ice-breaker with locals coming up to us to say hello and chat, just like at home. Though it was sometimes a challenge, we often managed to find places to walk and swim. One of the top criteria we use for a place to stay is proximity to walks and/or swimming opportunities for the dogs. It’s not always possible to find this out in advance from the information we have, so it can be a bit hit and miss. When I leave reviews for a place, I often comment on this so other dog owners in vans can be more informed.
We found for walks, that the hotter the country, the less grassy expanses there were and more gravel and stony surfaces. This is great for motorhomes to park on, but less good for an arthritic Labrador with sore paws. So if we could, we’d choose grass or tarmac parking over gravel. With the size and weight of the Elf (4+ tons), any grass pitches have to be bone-dry to avoid becoming stuck.
We found that rivers and lakes are usually more dog-friendly as there are lower density populations inland – and therefore less restrictions – than in coastal locations. They also have the added bonus of no rough waves or sand and salt to contend with. If there happened to be a beach for humans on a lake, then usually there was another unrestricted place not too far away. In the Basque country, we went to a beautiful national park (Parque Nacional de Garaio) with meadows full of springtime wildflowers and lakes. There wasn’t a ‘no dogs’ sign in sight. We were in heaven and Tim and Bodger could swim to their heart’s content. But we also all enjoyed many beautiful coastal beaches together in the off-season months. Definitions of ‘off-season’ vary from country to country. In Portugal it is October – April, whereas in Scandinavia it’s more like August – May.
The places I liked best for travelling with dogs were Portugal, Slovenia and Italy. At the risk of generalising, I felt that in these countries, the locals were very relaxed with dogs and really like them. In Italy, Charlie could bark his head off at other dogs (not that I condone this behaviour, but I’ve given up the battle and accepted that he is a typical small dog) without the Italians batting an eyelid. I loved that.
Lessons we learned
There are obvious things like vaccinations to consider and you need to consult your vet before you go. Apologies if you know all this already, but I know I’d have found a couple of things on this list useful a year ago:
- Make sure you protect your dog from ticks, these can be really bad in some places. We went to one place in Spain where the long grass was literally crawling with them and both dogs got several on them after only a few minutes. We use Advantix for Bodger and Nexguard for Charlie. Also don’t forget to take a ‘Tom-O-Twister’ tick remover for safe removal.
- Protect your dog from all the different type of worms and parasites on the continent. We use Prinovox for Bodger, but Charlie didn’t get on with it so we use Nexguard for him.
- Familiarise yourself with canine first aid so you can help your dog if they have any problems
- Take a doggy first aid kit with the stretchy bandage roll, antiseptic, sterile gauze.
- Watch out for broken glass on the ground, especially in town centres and after festivals. Glass often gets caught in the gaps of cobbles, where it stays as it doesn’t get swept up. Bodger cut his paw after an Easter festa in Portugal. Paw pads take a long time to heal and waiting for this constricted our activities for quite some time.
- Take a muzzle. Although we know our dogs aren’t a risk and don’t need muzzles, in Portugal and France it is a requirement for dogs on public transport to be muzzled. We almost got chucked off a bus in Lyon as we didn’t realise we needed them.
- Use paracetamol for pain relief if you don’t have anything else. I have been advised by my vet that this is a well-tolerated supplement with Bodger’s other anti-inflammatories for his arthritis pain. (At 32Kg, we use 250mg twice per day with food when he’s having a bad day and it seems to help noticeably)
- For anxiety arising from loud noises, our vet has recommended the drug Sileo. We have not tried this yet but it is reputed to be effective. We tried an Adaptil collar, but could not tell much difference.
- Treat any minor eye infections. Bodger got conjunctivitis and we treated it effectively with some human conjunctivitis drops I bought over the counter in Italy.
- Be aware of festivals taking place in the vicinity you plan to stay, especially in Mediterranean countries if your dog is frightened by fireworks.
- Check the temperature of tarmac on a hot day before taking your dog to walk or stand on it for any time. Feel it with your hands. We witnessed one thoughtless dog owner watching the Tour de France on a hot day with her puppy dancing about on hot tarmac.
- Take extendable leads, we’ve used ours a lot while abroad.
- Consider dog shoes if your dog has arthritis. We’ve just tried some and it has made a huge difference to Bodger’s mobility (Active Walkers by Trixie)
- Keep your dog on a lead (or watch like a hawk at the least) in campsites even when you think they are safe, especially if they are a scavenger. Bodger got serious gastro-enteritis after eating something on the grounds of a campsite in Germany. Now we are much stricter. Rat poison is also a concern and we have heard of a poisoning incident on a campsite in Greece.
- We have also heard that you shouldn’t take your dog to more than 1000 metres in altitude for any length of time if they are old or have respiratory problems.