Outdoor Connection

Meet Merlin, the Road-Trippin' Dog

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Merlin, an Australian Shepherd, leans his head out of the Merlinmobile
Meet Merlin, the road-tripping dog!

Dogs are, without question, man's best friend. They are there for us when we need an ear. They cheer us up when we're feeling down. And they can understand what we need without us speaking a word. They are the perfect companion, especially when it comes to traveling.

For dog lovers, part of the appeal of going on a road trip is the ability to bring their furry friend along for the ride. Dogs enjoy new travel experiences as much as their owners and aren't afraid to display their excitement, whether it be via a tail wag or face lick. No one knows this better than Cindy Pavlinac. Cindy and her Australian Shepherd Merlin traveled across the US in the "Merlinmobile" taking amazing photos and sharing the details of their trips on their very amusing blog, Merlin's Road Trip!

CampingRoadTrip.com caught up with Cindy to get some tips on traveling with pets, find out what she learned during her travel experiences, and how she and Merlin became inseparable.

CampingRoadTrip.com: First things first, your blog centers around your travels with Merlin. How did you come to meet Merlin and how long have you had him?

CINDY PAVLINAC: I grew up with dogs and always enjoy having them around. Almost thirteen years ago I moved to a place that allowed dogs so I immediately went to the local humane society, dog shows and dog parks to meet different breeds. Merlin was born at a happy ranch in the Valley of the Moon in California wine country. Merlin crawled into my lap when he was three weeks old and my heart was his. Four weeks later, I brought him home and we've been inseparable ever since. Next month will be his thirteenth birthday and although he's slowing down a bit, he's first out the door when the car keys rattle.

Merlin in the backseat of the Merlinmobile with all of his necessities.
Merlin prepares for the road.

You traveled with Merlin to a friend's wedding. Before leaving on your journey, what research did you do on traveling with pets? What did you find most useful?

I always do loads of research, starting with acquiring all the AAA Tour Books and maps along the proposed route. Two good websites for dog friendly travel worldwide are Bring Fido and Dog Friendly. You can search for motels, dog parks, cafes, businesses that welcome dogs. There are several iPhone apps now that use your current location to suggest nearby dog places. AAA has a good book called Traveling with Your Pet that has great basic information.

We take quite a few overnight road trips and Merlin knows the meaning of luggage. His big Planet Dog travel bag goes by the front door first so he knows he gets to come along. Another favorable road trip signal is watching me pour a week's worth a kibble into his travel jug. His little ricky raccoon squeaky toy goes in the top of my bag so he knows we're sharing luggage and traveling together.

Merlin's road trip travel bag includes brushes, emergency shampoo, and a first aid kit. The Ruff Wear website has excellent tips for different kinds of dog adventure environments. My check list of packing tips includes having your phone numbers on the dog's collar tags, including your cell phone and destination numbers. If I'm staying somewhere for a few days the tag includes those contact numbers. I always register my pet so he's official and the manager knows there's a dog with me in case we get separated. The car emergency kit includes duct tape which serves as a temporary label to write our campsite number on Merlin's tags.

Merlin always has an available bowl of water on the floor. Make sure everyone stays cool and hydrated. On the road, we stop at least once every hour for a stretch and a sniff. Having Merlin along made me take it easy on myself too. There were long stretches in the middle of America where Merlin and I made an unspoken agreement to stop at every rest area.

How did you secure Merlin's items in the car? It's one thing to pack those items on an RV, but in a car? That must've been tricky at first.

I'm a big fan of bungee cords. And boxes. The road trip Merlinmobile is a Saturn VUE so there's a big hatchback area and plenty of room on the floor. A cooler goes in the middle under Merlin's bed so he has a platform to stretch out on. There was also camera and computer gear, plus a box of maps, guide books, GPS, cell phone, and assorted chargers for everything. Merlin's stuff was easy compared to mine.

Merlin sitting amidst a pile of maps
A unique way of choosing their next destination.

I think our users would love to hear about the way you use doggie treats and paper maps to decide your next destination. How did you come up with that idea?

Merlin has a knack for placing himself in the middle of any action. So when I started sorting maps on the living room floor, he promptly sat in the center, pushing my neat piles in all directions. To keep Merlin mentally challenged, I invent a new task for him to learn each month. For my January map sorting, I opened a dozen old maps in the backyard and asked him where he'd like to go this year. He waited on the side while I tossed biscuits around the maps. When I said, "OK" he snatched up the biscuits, going first for Santa Fe then Michigan's upper peninsula. Then he lay down in the middle of all the maps for his photo op. Santa Fe's been on my mind too, and southern Utah.

Are there any warnings that you would like to share?

It sounds pretty basic but dogs (and people) are creatures of habit, so it's useful to cultivate good routines. If a dog pulls on his leash in his neighborhood park, he certainly will pull himself sick in a National Park. Merlin responds to voice and hand signals and is leash and harness trained. It's crucial to be aware for your dog in unfamiliar environments. While traveling, everything is new and interesting. We're all excited to get out of the car as soon as it stops. Never let your dog out of the car until he is leashed. Check the ground. When it is hot out, pavement and sand can be sizzling. I test the ground temperature with my palm to see if it's safe for unprotected paws. Parking lot edges can be full of sticky burrs and garbage, so we steer around and head for the designated dog run area. Although canine instinct is well developed, city dogs in the wilderness may think a skunk is a chaseable cat and a rattlesnake is a tuggy rope toy. Our dogs trust us for guidance. May I be the person my dog thinks I am!

A park sign that states 'Pet Area'.
Drive the extra distance to the designated pet area to ensure the area is safe for your buddy.

Before a long trip, take short shakedown drives. Some dogs need to travel in secure crates. Merlin tried seat-belts but declined to be restrained. He prefers to keep his window viewing options open. His bedding covers the entire backseat and he is not allowed in the front. It's also "four paws on the seat", so no legs hanging out the window. I cringe when I see little lap dogs driving big trucks or dangling across outside side view mirrors in traffic.

Do you find that Merlin needs to prepare for the road trips? For example, does he need a nice long jog around the neighborhood to prepare for being in the car for so long?

Absolutely! We go to the corner for a quick pee before we go anywhere. A tired dog is a happy dog, so exercise is essential. He doesn't eat before a long drive but there's kibble available for a nibble. He won't drink if he thinks he's going to be left alone in the car, so I make sure he drinks before getting underway again by putting his bowl on the ground outside and pouring fresh water. Actually, standing in the car looking out the window and leaning around turns gives him a workout.

I've noticed that most, if not all, of the photos are of Merlin and it seems as though the road trips are more special and enjoyable with him around. Is that the case?

Definitely. Having a dog companion alters your perspective and influences every decision. Ironically, I think traveling with an animal makes me more human. Because I'm thinking of his welfare, I treat myself more humanely, slowing down, pausing, open to adventure and spontaneity. Traveling with Merlin makes any trip more about the journey rather than the destination. We've discovered all sorts of places that we would have driven right by if we didn't have Merlin on board. I knew puppy Merlin would grow up and change rapidly so I gave myself the assignment to photograph him every week. His motto is, will pose for biscuits.

Are there any places/states/parks that you would found Merlin particularly enjoyed?

Cindy Pavlinac: Merlin loves any place he can trot along and sniff, especially with trees. He wasn't sure about desert Nevada but liked Utah. We spent a delightful morning discovering petroglyphs at the Sadie McConkie Ranch. A snowstorm through Wyoming rendered every rest stop a roll-in-the-snow adventure. We stopped at Indian mound parks on the return trip and Serpent Mound in Ohio and Cahokia in Illinois were favorites.

Anywhere with a river where Merlin can cool his paws is always popular, and his favorite was the campground in Dinosaur National Monument. We were disappointed to learn that dogs are no longer allowed on National Park trails, so I didn't go anywhere Merlin couldn't go.

How does your passion for photography affect where you decide to go? Do you prefer places where you expect to get better photos or can you pretty much find beauty in any landscape?

For the across America trip, I had a photo hit list: Dinosaur National Monument, Cahokia, grain elevators in Iowa. But since you never know what you'll find when you actually get there, I keep my expectations open. My creative challenge is to find something distinguishing to depict wherever I travel. There is beauty everywhere.

Besides prehistoric sites and landscapes of stunning natural beauty, I am passionate about labyrinths. Our next overnight road trip is an annual northern California daffodil labyrinth camp out on a friend's property in Mendocino.

I have an ongoing photo series I call anti-travel photography because they make you want to stay home. Those images were created at top travel destinations where it was impossible to get any decent photo and involve insurmountable challenges like torrential rain, delivery trucks, irreparable damage, brightly clothed tourists, closed until further notice signs, and scaffolding. People thank me, relieved they avoided my disappointing experience. Then we all laugh.

Naturally, adding Merlin to any landscape instantly beautifies it for me!

Did you, or would you, ever consider taking a road trip in an RV? If so, why or why not?

Actually, I would like to try an RV road trip. It would be a relief to not have to repack the entire vehicle every day. And be able to make a hot cup of tea during a rest stop. The kitchen is one of Merlin's favorite rooms at home and he would be thrilled to add one to his mobile doghouse. The espresso machine could make him steamed milk all day long. We could enjoy our own beds each night and Merlin could leave all his toys around. But the windows would have to open enough for him to stick his head out for drive-by sniffing.

Piloting a large vehicle would certainly influence our route selection. There's a few back roads I'd avoid in places like Death Valley. He is always road trip ready and primed to go. Anybody have an RV Merlin can test ride?

Special thanks to Cindy Pavlinac. Read her blog Merlin's Road Trip - a traveling dog's tail of life's mobile adventures, and visit Cindy's Sacred Land Photography. All photos are kindly provided by Cindy Pavlinac.

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