This week, I’ve got a story to tell you about a 130-pound bulldog and the humans who love him.
You see, last week was Lovey’s 50th Birthday Week, and to get the party started off right, he was sailing in the Bayview Mackinac Race on a boat called the Zubenelgenubi. (Zoobee for short.) Then I was to meet said husband on Mackinac Island with said 130-pound dog, shore bags for three sailors (basically, the shit they need to get fit for human companionship after three days on a 30-foot boat with no shower), and all the swimsuits, towels, shorts, toiletries, kitchenware, etc. we would need to spend a week in a cabin in Northern Michigan.
Let’s do the math: Me + 1 Nissan hatchback + 9 zillion bags + all 130 pounds of American bulldog. Yeah, the numbers weren’t looking good to me, either.
The first problem: Getting Hank, that’s the dog’s name btw, into the car. You see, he’s arthritic and it takes two of us to lift him into the back of the Nissan when we take him anywhere. But today, it was just me. And he was looking at me with his pleading eyes, begging me to bring him while also not doing a damned thing to help—not even lifting a paw. Thankfully, I’d planned ahead and asked our neighbor, Noah, for help. He came out, scooped up Hank and deposited him in the hatchback. Like it was no thing.
Thanks to him, we were on our way. But I wouldn’t be able to let Hank out of the car until we reached our destination because there’d be no way to get Hank back in the car. As a result, about three hours into our four-hour drive, I smelled that unmistakable scent of urine. You pet owners out there know the exact acrid scent I mean.
Hank had peed himself. In the back of the car. And there was nothing to be done about his crime other than roll down the windows.
By the time we got to Shepler's Ferry and he propelled himself from the back of the car, the pee, mixed with his own drool, had dried and left a faint yellow stain on his coat. There was nothing faint, however, about the remaining scent.
And our journey was from over. I still had to get Hank and the luggage on the ferry and to our hotel room on an island that prohibits motorized vehicles. Mackinac Island has three choices of transportation: by foot, by bike or by horse-drawn carriage.
I’m sure, as my friend Katy would say, that I’m really selling this whole travelling-with-dogs thing. The pee! The lifting! The drool! The first draft of this essay was all rainbows and kittens and glorious social media perfection, but that didn't feel true. So I decided to lead with the hard stuff lest you get the wrong impression. But adventures with Hank also brings me deep joy. Me, a dog and the open road are the essence of life. When we travel, I have a constant running dialogue with Hank, and his presence makes me feel strong and confident. Plus, it makes for good stories.
When I discovered that porters would take all 9 zillion bags and transfer them all the way to our hotel room, I nearly wept. Suddenly, this whole fandango seemed do-able. I just had to get Hank on the ferry. And I was prepared for that; I had a whole movie of it running in my head.
What I envisioned: Hank and I standing on the ferry deck looking very Kennedy-esque with the wind blowing our hair (well, his ears) back. I even had a scarf!
The reality: Hank and I hunkered down with the luggage because he couldn’t climb the stairs up to the open-air deck or down into the seating area. The staff was kind enough to let us sit with the bags and didn’t comment on the pee smell emanating from our corner.
By the time I made it onto the island, where Lovey’s smiling face was waiting on the dock, it had been a day. Hank was hot, dehydrated and stinky. I was hot, dehydrated and cranky. And there was my husband approaching me for a kiss, looking like that whale in Provincetown had swallowed and spit him back up. Birth Week or no Birth Week, I was not having his romance. Instead, I sent him to deliver the shore bags and find water for Hank.
In the 15 minutes he was gone, Hank made about 27 new friends. Everybody wanted to pet smelly Hank and take his picture.
That’s what happens when you have a 130-pound dog who looks like a lumbering cow. And they all had the same questions in almost the same order. By the time Lovey returned, I felt like I had a script.
“Yes, he’s friendly.”
“His name is Hank. Hank the Tank.”
“He’s 130 pounds.”
“An American bulldog. But we adopted him, so who knows.”
“He’s large for the breed, but not abnormal.’
“No, he doesn’t miss many meals.”
“Ha, yes, you could saddle and ride him.”
Except you can’t ride him. That would have made life easier. Instead, we had to find a way to get him the ¾ mile to Mission Point, a gorgeous resort and the only hotel on the island that accepts dogs. Hank was in no shape to walk and none of the Burley trailers we could rent with a bike were big enough for him. So Hank got his first ride on a horse-drawn carriage. He took to having horses ferry him around as if it was his birthright.
After we checked in, Lovey headed off to meet the Zube crew for celebratory drinks, so I cleaned up Hank (wet wipes FTW!) and walked him over to the resort’s restaurant to enjoy dinner on its deep porch with sweeping views of the Straits of Mackinac. They also provide rocking chairs for some excellent porch-sitting; I could happily while away an entire evening there with a cocktail and a book. It’s pure perfection for me.
Even more so for Hank: Every customer on the porch came over to say hello. And our wait staff doted on him like he was a pasha, refilling his water bowl, calling others over to say hello, and even bringing him his own plate of bacon. The chef came out to check that he enjoyed it.
By the next afternoon, people we didn’t recognize were calling across the street to Hank.
“Mom, there’s Hank!”
I even overheard people on the street whispering to each other: “I think that’s Hank.”
He was a damned celebrity in less than 24 hours. He soaked up every minute of it. He loves all of the attention — especially when it comes with bacon. He should have an Instagram account called Love and Bacon.
And that’s why we brought him. We love travelling with dogs, even Hank with his size and mobility challenges, because they are a great way to meet people and become a “local” in short order. For me, dogs help create a sense of belonging and connection that I find hard to do on my own. My introvert self feels awkward talking to strangers on the street. But with Hank in tow, the conversations flow. I meet people. They tell me their stories.
Sitting on the patio of the Mustang Lounge, the woman next to us told us about living through the derecho that caused $11 billion in damage in Iowa last year, and what the rebuilding has been like in Cedar Rapids. (Long and hard.) She also happens to train service dogs, and it’s been a tough year between the pandemic and natural disasters.
“You know how you get tired of a place and think maybe you want to live somewhere else?” she asked.
“Well, seeing everyone come together to help each other has really shown me why I love my community.”
I told her about the floods that have been drowning Detroit basements this summer and leaving people with huge cleanup bills. I told her about FEMA being called in for the disaster and how the community has been helping each other.
She hadn’t heard anything about the flooding, and we hadn’t heard much about the results of the derecho. But thanks to Hank, we had a moment of shared connection.
Of course, for this to work, Hank has to be incredibly well behaved and trust worthy. We work really hard to make sure our dogs — two Rottweilers and two pitbulls before Hank — have manners. In fact, our dog Maddie knew the command “bar manners.” If I told her that, she would sit down where I pointed and not move. Hank is not quite that smart. He’s more of a bumbling tank and can be easily distracted. But even he knows the basics. Here are our rules and tips for travelling with dogs.
No person should ever feel threatened or encroached upon by our dog. Period.
No jumping. Ever. Dogs absolutely must not jump up on people. Thankfully, Hank can’t really jump.
No visiting strangers without an invitation. This one can be a challenge for Hank, who wants to say hello to every person, but he’s not allowed to go over unless they invite him. That means sometimes I have to be physically strong and restrain him if he doesn’t listen. But it’s the rule. As a result, we never use retractable leashes in street settings. There just isn’t enough control for us.
“Quick like a bunny.” That’s what my mom told me when crossing the street; now my dogs know that command, too. If I say “quick like a bunny,” they know they better move it.
Dogs must sit when kids approach. Children can say hello to Hank, but only after they ask permission from their people and approach slowly. Hank will be sitting so that they can offer their hand to him before petting.
No reacting to other dogs. We’ve trained Hank, and all of our dogs, to mind their own business. In general, we don’t do dog introductions on vacation because it can be stressful for dogs to be in a new environment.
Always clean up after your dog. Duh.
Bring a blanket or sheet to cover the sofa or bed. You know the dog will likely try to get up there, even if they aren’t allowed at home. It will make it easier for you -- and housekeeping. And you won’t lose your deposit.
Carry a collapsible water bowl in your bag. I like this one.
If you’re driving, throw in a boot tray to use as a feeding station. It helps the dog know where they’re supposed to “be” and keeps the mess contained.
I’d like a fancy food bag like this, but I honestly just use an old Folgers can for kibble.
Don’t sweat the treats. When we’re on vacation, treats may be freely given by strangers. If your dog has an irritable stomach, you might keep a bag of kibble with you so strangers can give your dog a “treat.”
Small packs of wet wipes are your friend.
Don’t forget the can opener. You may need it to get a can of wet food open.
Pack a small bottle of all-purpose cleaner and a ziplock bag with a few paper towels.
Do you travel with dogs? What are your tips or must-haves? Tell us all about it in the comments!