Living In A Motorhome With 5 Dogs – What It’s Really Like

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Friday, 17 November 2017

Living In A Motorhome With 5 Dogs – What It’s Really Like

Mad, Crazy, Loopy, Barmy….just some of the words that people we meet tend to use to describe our decision to travel in a motorhome with 5 dogs. Personally I’d also like to add wonderful, happy and loving along with frustrating, noisy and often messy, but even that doesn’t say too much about what it’s actually like to live day in, day out with 5 dogs in a motorhome. And besides, as well all know in this world of Facebook and Instagram, it’s all too easy to focus only on either the very best stuff or the very worst stuff, from Barbados to bereavements. Everything else tends to be pushed to one side, considered too mundane to be worth a ‘like’, hashtag or smiley face. And yet, when it comes to trying to live with 5 dogs in a small space, I’m increasingly finding that it is the ‘mundane’, everyday stuff that makes me smile the most, so let me try and explain what it’s really like.

It’s been over 3 months now since we moved into our new, larger motorhome and began touring full time on a journey that has taken us to the Swiss Alps and then down through the French Alps and back up again, broadly following the Route des Grande Alpes in both directions. Along the way we’ve cycled up almost 40 major climbs, run or hiked to various high altitude places and pottered around countless small towns and all with our pack of 5 furry friends in tow. Not literally I should add, although hitching a trailer to the back of our bikes is an idea that we’re still considering for when they’re a bit older. However, the truth is that when we first set off at the start of August we really had no idea how it was going to work at all. We had established a peaceful, easy routine at the gite we’d been staying at in France for 10 weeks, a routine that seemed to be working for both humans and dogs, and now it was going to get turned upside down and condensed into a 6 x 2.5 metre living space which raised a lot of questions. Would we even get to go cycling and hiking? Would the dogs be too noisy on motorhome aires? What if they got ill? Would we get any rest and relaxation? Would we go mad and hate each other? Are we essentially moving into a noisy, hairy, restless white box?

We really didn’t know, but then if not knowing the outcome to something stopped us doing it then we wouldn’t be living in a motorhome in the first place, so we set off anyway determined to work it out as we went along and try and keep smiling while we did it.

One thing we did know for certain before we set out was that the key to making this adventure work for us and the dogs, so that we all had fun, was to try and keep them to a routine as closely as possible even though we knew that every day would be different somehow because we were moving around. The routine we came up with has evolved over time, but basically boils down to the following: 7am wake up and take the dogs for their main ‘exercise’ for the day – usually two pairs of pups and then Leela but sometimes all together; 9am feed the pups and let them sleep while we head out to ride/run; Midday-early afternoon relax all together; 3pm second play/training session followed by dinner; evening relax in the van. Or at least that’s the ‘ideal’ anyway even though it doesn’t account for any of the details.

Naturally along the way there are various other short walks, toilet stops for the pups and occasional breaks to their routine, like if we come across a market or town centre and want to continue their socialisation by walking them around a new environment even if it falls within their “nap time”, but for the most part we try to stick to the same busy/rest blocks each day. We also put a lot of effort into individual as well as group training to help them all develop on their own away from the pack, which we’ve done from day one. Warnings online about getting even two puppies at once said “they’ll never be able to be apart, they’ll bond more to each other than to you”, but that is completely not our experience. Our dogs are happy in groups of any size or to go out alone any time. Yes it can mean 5 times the work but then we’re lucky that we have the freedom to do it at the moment. We also never leave them in the van for more than 3 hours without one of us being with them. If it looks like the activity we have planned for the day will take longer than that then Esther and I will set out independently. An example was in La Berarde when we wanted to try a 6 hour hike. Esther set off first to walk quickly and then I set off later to do it as a fell run, arriving home in less than 3 hours.

Now, on the face of it, trying to squeeze the things that we like to do into short time blocks along with all the hours we spend every day walking and training the dogs might seem like quite a big restriction on our freedom compared to previous years when we could pretty much do what we wanted, whenever we wanted and for as long as we wanted, and on some levels this is the case. However, in other ways what we are each finding is that having a routine sort of imposed upon us by the requirements of the dogs is actually helping us get more out of our days. In the past, for example, we were fairly prone to doing way too much on one day, like a 10 hour hike, and then wiping ourselves out for days afterwards. Now we tend to stick to activities that take a little less time but we then get to do them every day without burning out. Also, although we still enjoy doing lots of things together, we’ve also found that being ‘forced’ to do some things apart means we can do different things more often or at least go at our own pace without trying to stick together by one of us struggling and the other holding back.

But it’s also changed our life in much more important ways. We definitely laugh more now, there is always someone happy to see us when we get home and while it can be incredibly frustrating when one of them sees a pigeon and gets the whole gang barking, it’s teaching us a lot more about being patient and calm. Basically, we don’t get to be nearly as selfish as we could be in the past. And they all have their own unique quirks to test our patience as well. Bella never runs out of energy, Pati barks at other dogs, Rose yowls when she wakes up in the morning, George doesn’t like to listen as well as his sisters and Leela is prone to straying if she gets an exciting scent. Not that we can complain too much because to focus on the handful of negatives would be completely unfair when, on the whole, they are so flexible to our nomadic lifestyle. For example, every day I’m grateful for the fact they all sleep a solid 10 hours overnight! Other people we know with dogs under 1 year old say that’s amazing. Plus, without the dogs we’d probably never take the time to stroll along river banks or through villages like we do with them now. In the past it was all mountains, mountains, mountains but with the dogs we have more diversity in what we do and where we visit.

Our communication has also improved, simply because it has had to. Years ago, when we ran a business together, projects could be a source of friction but now friction and the dogs (while it does still happen from time to time) just tends to seem pointless. Arguing isn’t going to get them walked and fed is it? We also appreciate the quality, quiet time we do get together much more as well and that includes with the dogs as well. Evenings, when they’re tired and sleepy, and falling asleep on our laps while we listen to music or just sit is far more entertaining than a movie. There’s nothing like a tummy rub, or at least so they tell me.

We also try and divide up ‘working’ with the dogs as fairly as possible, although Esther still does the lions share of walking and training while I do most of the driving, cleaning and other motorhome chores. Yes, 5 dogs do produce a fair bit of hair but one of the wonderful things about motorhome life is that no matter how messy it gets, 15-20 minutes of effort is all it takes for everything to be swept, wiped and sparkling again. 2-3 times with the dustpan and brush is all we have to do most days to keep on top of things.

Of course, none of this would work at all if we didn’t have the space in the motorhome for all of us. In fact, probably my own major contribution to the dogs was taking a screwdriver to the cupboards that separated the original living space from the large under-bed ‘garage’ and then building an extension to the floor so that the total living space runs the whole length of the van. Now, we have our own bed raised up and below it are 4 largish cages that are always accessible, one for each of the pups while Leela always has the run of the van. During the day when we’re in the pups mostly stay out as well, but at night or when we do head out together they get put to bed. It’s not so much that we don’t trust them to be loose in the van (there has only ever been one chewing incident – thanks George) but that they otherwise just wouldn’t get any decent rest. They can, and do, settle quite well when all 5 are loose in the van but if just one decides they want to play then it’s game on. They’re still very young after all and while we have grown used to a little bit of tearing around and jumping over our table, we don’t like to let it get out of hand. The outside is for that sort of thing.

That said we, well me anyway, have had to learn to be a little less precious about our expensive moving home. All my life I’ve liked things neat, tidy and kept nice and now I’ve just had to come to terms with the occasional scuff or scratch accidentally caused by a bit of rough and tumble or flying puppy. I do my best and on some days even the throws on our upholstery have throws over the top of them, but on the whole I’m a lot less precious than I used to be, which is a good thing because it helps me remember that that’s exactly what our motorhome is, a thing and not worth stressing out about. Oh, and I also get the occasional headbutt in the groin from Bella when she’s excited to see me. Of course, on the up side, I can always blame any farts I happen to do on her so we’re probably all square (it’s amazing how she can make hers sound like they’re coming out of me – clever dog).

On the whole, however, they are incredibly well behaved. Partly I suppose it’s because we’ve had them from day one and Esther has worked so hard on their training, but when we say “floor” they get down. Granted another one might jump right back up again, but they’re getting it, slowly but surely, along with the other commands we’ve focused on like “sit”, “down”, “quiet”, “wait”, “stay”, “basket” and, most important of all, recall when we blow the whistle…..basically every walk and interaction with them is training in one form or another. They also head straight for their baskets when they see the food bowls appear and are increasingly learning not to crowd the door when we’re heading out with just 1 or 2 of the gang. Our approach has always been to focus on rewarding the behaviour we like and ignoring the behaviour we don’t. I’m not saying we’ve never lost out temper and shouted, but fortunately we’re in this together so if one of us says “I can’t do this right now, I need a break” the other one is there to help. We also have weekly ‘dog meetings’ to review how they’re all getting on and to try and make sure that we are consistent. The last thing they need is me letting them jump up on the chairs when I’m home alone and Esther trying to get them down. That way I think we’d all go mad!

All in all I suppose that keeping the dogs with us in the motorhome is a bit of a project, in that it does take up a fair bit of our time and energy, but a project that has a lot of benefits in the form of love, smiles and laughter. We often joke that it’s hard to know who is training who since we are the ones picking up the crap and dishing out tasty treats for most of the day. We’re definitely wrapped around their little paws in that respect, but then it’s not a “master-servant” relationship we want, either way. It’s a two-way thing and since it’s our choice to give these dogs a home at the moment then we all have to learn to live together. So far it seems to be going pretty well.

Oh, and we take rather a lot of photos as well.....

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