Dogs at the Cabin
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Dogs at the Cabin

We finished building our vacation cottage in the mountains of western Maine about a year ago. My husband and I had been dreaming of owning a second home throughout our 19 years of marriage.

We finished building our vacation cottage in the mountains of western Maine about a year ago. My husband and I had been dreaming of owning a second home throughout our 19 years of marriage.


Once our cottage was finished, our two teenage children were thrilled, our families were excited and all our friends were eager to visit.Only one important member of our close-knit circle was displeased: our 9-year-old black lab, China.

A Day in the Life

Our “real life” in Massachusetts is typically suburban. China clearly loves her daily routine of riding with the kids to school after breakfast, then plopping down in the front yard in a patch of sun for a couple of hours. She often lifts her head to bark at someone passing by, but is quick to befriend anyone willing to throw her a tennis ball. At noon, China comes indoors and sits with me in my office as I work until school is over. Then one of the kids gives her a walk and throws her a ball in the back yard. In the evening, following her dinner, there are plenty of hands around to rub China’s tummy. When we travel, she almost always stays home under the care of our next-door neighbor. We took it for granted that our happy, mellow pet would immediately translate her daily life to our weekend retreat in Maine. But from the moment we drove up the dirt driveway, she seemed like a different dog. When China ventured inside the cottage, she was nervous and whimpered to go out. When she was outside she was overly alert and tense. And when anyone happened to walk along the rural wooded road, she charged them, her hair on end, even growling. The Pope family shares a ski lodge in New Hampshire with their extended family. Whenever possible, they bring along their beloved dog, Josie. At home Josie is a contented Pug who has an occasional accident when left too long in the house. However, up at the ski lodge, Josie frequently has accidents – sometimes multiple accidents in the same day. It occurs more often when Josie is left alone at the lodge. Dodman believes Josie loses confidence when she is at the ski lodge. In fact, this dog may be feeling so anxious and frightened when left alone in this unfamiliar environment that she is figuratively wetting her pants! To help her regain confidence, he recommends independence training that you start at home and maintain at the second house:
  1. Do not make a big deal about coming and going with squeaky hellos and goodbyes. Keep it calm, avoiding a roller coaster of emotions.
  2. Have routines when you come and go that are pleasing, such as giving the dog a healthy treat.
  3. Leave a CD or audio tape running (preferably on a loop) of your own household noises. For instance, record your family during the dinner hour so the dog can listen to reassuring “room tones” while you are out.
  4. Keep the dog’s schedule consistent as much as possible, such as a morning walk and feeding times. And always make the experience at your vacation home fun for your dog as well as for yourself.
China, explained Dr. Nicholas Dodman, sounded like a typical shy, socially insecure dog who has more confidence at her own home than she does away. Dodman – a professor of animal behavior at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine – is a noted author of several books on dog behavior. In China’s case, Dodman said, our Maine cottage was not familiar territory, so she was not at ease.

Sue McDonald/Agency:

Another dog expert concluded that China had all the earmarks of an unsocialized dog, one that is uncomfortable around other dogs, people or in different surroundings. Gail Fisher, president of All Dog’s Gym & Inn in Manchester, N.H., and co-author of two books and several manuals on training dogs, said China seemed comfortable in a specific environment, but uncomfortable and nervous in others. In order to help China acclimate to her new surroundings, these experts recommended taking China – with some of her familiar toys – to the cottage as often as possible. (Oh, lucky us!) In addition, incorporating her dog bed or crate with a routine would help ease the transition. “Because dogs thrive on routine,” explained Fisher, “it is important for vacation homeowners to create a routine that works for the dog at home, and can easily be taken on the road.” For example, select a specific series of commands. Practice the series at home, then repeat often at the cabin and reward with praise and/or tiny treats (which can even be bits of apple or carrot). Karen Gorman, owner of Fit-n-Trim Agility in Rowley, Mass., urged taking it slowly. “Do not leave China outside alone until she is more confident, relaxed and sure of her boundaries. Go outside with her and play and have fun. Also, put China on a leash when someone walks by your property. Distract her with a small, healthy treat to make her think good things happen when someone walks by. And don’t allow her to bark or move toward the person.”

Photo by Tomislav Stajduhar

Jen and Mike Tatro live in rural paradise near a cove along coastal Maine. They also own a cabin about 45 minutes inland which borders hundreds of acres of protected wetlands. Occasionally, Jen and Mike bring their Bassett hound, Shelby, to the cabin where she can run freely throughout the expansive property. However, Shelby often appears uncomfortable, as if she’s waiting for the first bus back home.  When Shelby is inside the cabin, she cries to go out, but when she ventures outside, she sits close to the front door and rarely moves. Dodman labeled Shelby a porch sitter. “She is a sensitive animal who isn’t going to take chances.” “Second homeowners view their vacation homes as a place to relax,” explained Fisher, but that doesn’t translate to some dogs. All the changes – to the dog’s schedule, the family’s schedule, their routines, the owners’ attitudes (even if it’s more relaxed), even changes in water – these all add up to stress for the dog.” Gorman suggested taking the time to repeatedly investigate the new environment with Shelby, inside and out. It should be a fun and playful routine, such as a tummy rub upon entering a room. Outside you could play hide-and-seek or have a treasure (treat) hunt in the yard, as long as the dog is under your control. Eventually a sensitive animal like Shelby should gain the confidence to explore the cabin and her outdoor area on her own.

Put Them to Work

Just like people, some dogs love change and associate it with excitement and adventure, while others loathe change and feel as if it’s the end of the world. Consequently, less confident dogs, like China, Josie and Shelby, arrive at these vacation homes wondering, “What the heck am I doing here?” The experts suggest “Give these dogs a job” when they are at the second home. It should be a function that the dog recognizes, understands and for which he or she is rewarded with attention, praise and tiny treats. The job could be as simple as routinely retrieving a stick from the end of the driveway, giving the dog a sense of accomplishment.
Diane Diederich,

Remember to give the dog plenty of appropriate exercise while away on any vacation – especially a hardy, aerobic workout like chasing a ball or swimming in a lake – to help them unwind. If necessary, you can restrict the dog to a cozy area, like the bathroom or kitchen or a familiar crate, if the dog is already comfortable with confinement at the primary residence. In addition, tension-reducing toys such as the Buster Cube (which drops small amounts of kibble as the dog tumbles the cube across the floor) can help distract the dog while you’re away. And all of these experts agree that a consistent diet of natural, high-quality dog food, rather than the typical grocery store varieties, will help diminish stress in every situation.

China Cured!

One year later, I’m happy to report that China adores visiting our cottage in Maine. We bring her up as often as we can, along with her bed and tennis balls. Before each meal we have established a routine where China must sit, then lie down for several seconds before eating. She sleeps in the same place every night and takes the same walk every morning down to the lake to swim and fetch sticks. We no longer have to tie her up in the yard, as she just gives a few hello barks to people passing by. And when we leave her alone in the house, we confine her to the porch where she naps on her dog bed. Now our homebody dog loves her second home as much as we do. Elizabeth Atkinson is a busy mother/wife/free-lance writer in Massachusetts, who lives for lazy weekends on Kezar Lake in Maine.

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