Friends of mine used to check their rescue cockapoo, Holly, into the kennel a day or two early so she wouldn’t see them packing. Holly, of course, knew they were going away long before the suitcases came out.
Leaving our animal companions behind when we travel can bring stress for all involved. I know this firsthand, having fought back tears more than once when pulling out of the driveway or dropping somebody off at the vet clinic. Even when you trust those caring for your precious family member, when the moment comes, there may be pleading looks, trembling, and whining. The animal may not take it well, either.
However, you don’t have to deceive your cat or dog (you probably can’t anyway) to make it easier on either of you.
The obvious place to start is with the best possible arrangements for your animal’s care in your absence, whether in your home with a relative, friend, or sitter coming in; at someone else’s home; or at a boarding kennel or vet clinic. Consider the animal’s individual needs and personality, and trust your intuition about what is best for him or her. (Got fish? Check out this very useful information from a fish veterinarian. Everything you may have assumed about vacation fish care is probably wrong.)
Once those plans are in place, here are a few ideas:
• Give it to ’em straight. With pictures. Tell the animal what you’re doing, who will care for him or her and where, and when you will be back. No, I am not kidding. Animals understand way more of our quirky English language than we think. As you are speaking, calmly hold the corresponding images in your mind, because these — just as much or more than your words — will get the message across.
For example, you could tell your dog: “We are going to visit Grandma next week, and Susan is going to come stay here and take care of you. Remember how much fun you had last time she was here? We’ll be back in four days.”
While you’re saying these things, picture Grandma … then Susan … then the dog playing with Susan during that previous stay … then the sun rising and setting four times … and finally, you coming back in the door with your suitcases. Keep it simple, positive, and fact-based.
• Acknowledge any challenges or negative feelings. “I know you got upset the last time you went to the kennel, and that was hard for me, too. We’re going to try it one more time. I’ll try to be braver and hope you will, too.”
This respects both of you and sets the intention for a better outcome. It also affirms you as the decision maker. Again, it’s important to get in charge of your own state of mind first; if you are angry or anxious, that will drown out whatever you’re trying to communicate.
• Check in. While you’re gone, you can call and have someone hold the phone out to Fluffy while you talk to her. Then you can listen as the human comes back on the line and tells you Fluffy twitched her ear and stalked off. Or you can touch base telepathically. Yes, you can; there’s a reason some dogs (and cats, and birds, and horses, etc.) know when their owners are coming home.
Find a (relatively) quiet moment, bring your animal companion to mind, and just say hello. Tell her you’re thinking of her, that you love her, and remind her when you will be home. You can leave it at that if you just wish to “leave a message,” or you can ask a question and listen for a response. Either way, she will appreciate you checking in.
Try one or more of these next time you travel and see how much clearer, and calmer, the experience can be for all creatures great and small.