Long Distance Dog Transport, Stress, and Security

I confess I’ve been a dog mule. No, that’s not a typo. My first transport happened in 2012 and maybe somewhere behind the scenes the TSA beagle sniffed the crate to see if there was something else besides a sweet four-legged something. It was the start of a habit with 50-something dogs leaving an animal sanctuary in Thailand and migrating to the U.S. In the mix were a few kittens dumped at a temple in Cambodia who also made it to my local area. And just like a true negative peer influencer, I also talked students and friends to join as ‘flight volunteers’ to help transport critters as checked baggage on their return trip home.


The Pacific Northwest where I live receives dogs not only from overseas but routinely from the South, states like Texas and Arkansas. Have you been in a parking lot when a large semi-truck pulls up with loads of dog crates and people milling around waiting to pick up their transported rescue? A lot of northern states have better-funded population-control programs, shelter resources, as well as pools of potential adopters while shelters particularly in rural, southern areas struggle with excess animals and fewer resources. Hence, some years ago, pet transport operations came into existence following a simple supply and demand situation. This is so commonplace that Petfinder has updated its search criteria to include whether a transported pet is of interest or not to a potential adopter.


People have remarked that it seems like a crazy long trip for a dog to take either flying internationally or being trucked from Texas to Washington. Many ask how they fare after such a long journey. The number of dogs transported annually is growing and we don’t have hard evidence that this kind of transit creates stress or conditions leading to a maladaptive outcome. I generally respond to this question that I personally know of only two dogs who displayed overt behaviors reflecting high levels of stress during their overseas transport and/or being crated for that lengthy period of time, so these odds anecdotally seem low. On the other hand, just because a dog doesn’t show overt signs of stress doesn’t mean that the experience was not stressful. Further, one could argue that arriving into a completely new environment once they land might also be stressful. If only we could talk to our pets… ‘Geez, that was a crazy long trip, how are you feeling now? Was the long trip getting here or settling into a new environment disconcerting to you? How can I better support your transition?”


Transporting dogs is a complicated issue and if you are someone contemplating adopting a migrated pooch, you might want to take into consideration the circumstances surrounding that dog’s life – for example, how much human interaction the dog has had and the quality of those interactions – as this may impact how easy or difficult it may be for the individual dog to integrate into a pet home.


Besides their history with humans, we may consider if there are ways to ease the transition, especially since we can’t read a crystal ball or have that personal conversation with Fido about how they are feeling. It seems likely that long distance transport is going to be stressful to some degree, yet the impacts on a dog are likely to be very individualized. We all know people who have had challenging, negative experiences in life, even traumatic ones, yet they seem to be doing well. In other words, some seem to have greater resilience than others.


Dr. Kristina Spaulding summarizes nascent research focused on factors that may contribute to resilience among dogs in a chapter of her book, The Stress Factor in Dogs (2022). In particular, predictability and control may be key elements that can positively contribute to how a dog experiences stressful life events. In a prior Pet Harmony blog post, the category of Security was defined as “feeling like you are safe, regardless of whether or not you are” which is distinct from Safety where one is “physically out of harm’s way”. Providing predictability in the new environment post-migration may be a one way to enhance a dog’s sense of security and better support their welfare.


Predictability can mean a number of things. Whether your new rescue is a transport pooch or not, establishing routines can be very useful to support predictability. I’m not suggesting that we need a drilled down minute by minute daily schedule. Our critter crew knows that after we get up, we have a group walk down the long driveway, then breakfast happens. It’s a predictable sequence of events, not one that is necessarily tied to a time schedule.


How many of you have a dog who does an excited dance when you pick up a leash? Your actions predict that an exciting walk is imminent because getting the leash out usually means that you are headed out the door for a sniffari or other fun. Conversely, how many cat parents find bringing out their crate means someone hightails it under the bed? For many cats, the crate predicts going to the vet or some such place rather than fun. Our pets are constantly reading the room to collect clues about what is going to happen. It can be very helpful for us to reflect on what routines we want to set in place so our new dog has greater predictability and be more likely to feel secure about their new environment.

Predictability also relates to how the environment responds to a dog’s behavior, and we are part of that environment. When we introduce a new pet into the home, we will likely react to their behavior. For example, your new dog jumps on you to give you a big smooch and you think ‘oh how adorable’ and embrace his actions, but then when your elderly parent comes over and your excited dog starts to jump on them, you quickly shout ‘no’ to avoid your parent getting knocked over. Or what about the scenario where one pet parent keeps telling Fido to get off the living room furniture while the other pet parent encourages them to get up on the bed? This makes learning more difficult, as a dog tries to figure out which scenario will result in a stern ‘no’ or a reward. As your new dog is settling into your home, creating predictability through reliable rewards for particular behaviors can help both the learning process in knowing what the expectations are in their new home, but also help create a more secure environment. Treat jars set up around the house so you have ready access to your new dog’s reinforcers makes it a lot easier to say to Fido, “I like how you are being calm,” or, “You made a great choice deciding to keep all four paws on the ground.” Consistently reinforcing the things you want your new dog to do helps them learn and brings predictability between their actions and the consequences. 

Now What?

Happy Training!