1960 John Steinbeck took his standard poodle Charley on a road trip through America to learn more about the land and about the people he was writing about. His “Travels with Charley in Search of America”turned out to be not only one of the greatest travel narratives ever written, but it is also one of the greatest examples of literature depicting the relationsship between a man and his canine companion.
Traveling together with a dog makes a considerable difference to the dynamics of your journey, to the places where you might stay, to the activities you can and you can’t do and to the people you are going to meet.
On my own round trip through Northern Europe I took with me Mia, my 7 year old Hungarian Vizsla and probably the best travel companion you can ask for: very quiet but extremely social and reliably friendly, sizeable and fit enough to be able to joining me on my runs and when hiking, with no real health issues and without any dietary limitations.
In a nut shell – the dog a lot of people would love to have and I am lucky enough to call my own.
While stating this I should probably add that I am in fact not a real dog, but actually more a cat person (among other things I love and appreciate their independence). However – dogs like Mia are making it difficult to be too certain on this point.
As much as this journey included long hikes through the mountains in Norway, runs through forests and along deserted beaches and meeting many dog lovers who at times were more interested in the dog than in her owner, it also meant very long car journeys, days spend in a dog kennel at the clinic while I was working and it meant having to interact and to arrange herself virtually every day with other dogs and at times having to share a house or even a sofa with them.
This point can not be underestimated – although I knew most of the people I was visiting, that didn’t apply to Mia and the dogs of my hosts (mostly veterinarians themselves) and that their idea of hospitality might have differed considerably from that of their owners…..
But as different as these dogs were in size or in personality, my travel companion got on with all of them, which was to no small degree helped by the fact that she is a physically fit, but in no way dominant or threatening female with a fair amount of life experience, clever and fast enough to assess an encounter with another dog in time to pre-empt and if necessary to avoid any confrontations already before they are happening. Very much in line with Steinbeck’s description of his dog Charley, I would say that Mia is as well a born diplomat.
Having grown up in the UK with a lot of opportunities to socialise with other dogs (and humans) both on, but – more importantly – off the lead was vital for this.
It is something where I often felt things were going wrong with dogs in the German speaking countries: too rigidly applied rules to keep dogs on the lead are making it impossible for dogs to interact normally with each other and this in many cases is adding to behavioural problems.
A pre-condition to ease these rules is – of course – good training and an excellent re-call (which Mia has), but when this is in place and dogs are allowed the freedom they need, it will result in more relaxed individuals, in better behaved patients during veterinary consultations and it will also increase the enjoyment one will get from keeping a dog.
Another interesting difference in national attitudes towards dogs I observed, was when it came to visiting restaurants and hotels.
Whereas dogs are usually allowed in most restraurants and cafes in Germany, this is usually only the case in pubs in the UK and in Scandinavia it is absolutely out of the question (unless you are sitting outside).
A lot of hotels and also a fair number of mountain huts in the Nordic countries were not an option for me to stay at, as my dog wouldn’t have been allowed in. This problem was mitigated by me spending a few nights in my tent, which in turn extended my options of potential places to sleep. This was possible because of the public right of everyone being allowed to pitch a tent pretty much anywhere in these countries (something I can not do in Germany though….). Waking up in some of the most spectacular mountain settings was a result of this.
Being accompanied by a dog – especially one with a friendly face – will make you as a male stranger less threatening and it often gets you into friendly converations with both the locals and with other travellers regardless where you are. This effect is probably only surpassed by travelling with small children.
Thankfully neither Mia nor I experienced any health issue during our travels, but considering the very high fees for veterinary care in the Nordic countries – despite me being a veterinary surgeon myself – I would not have dared to take Mia along without comprehensive health insurance cover.
Crossing borders with my canine friend was never an issue, with her pet passport only been checked when leaving and when returning to the UK and with otherwise only Norway insisting on tapeworm prophylaxis (which was never policed).
Looking back at my travels with Mia, I think that she – being more a creature of habits like most dogs are – would probably have preferred to stay at home, but I can now understand better why Steinbeck chosed to take along Charley.
And one thing it certainly did – it helped me in my search of Northern Europe…..