Ask the Trainer: Can I train my dog not to be afraid of riding in a car?
Q: Is there a way to condition a dog NOT to be scared of riding in a car? My dog shivers and panics every time she knows she’s about to have to ride in the car!
A: Many dogs experience car anxiety. They may drool, vomit, shake or even urinate or defecate in the car. For most, it starts when they are puppies.
Unfortunately, many puppy’s first couple of car experiences can be extremely stressful. The breeder may transport them to the veterinarian for the first immunization injection, then the new owner comes along and takes them away from everything that is familiar (mother, siblings and home) and the new owner then takes the puppy to the veterinarian where he/she may receive another immunization. For many pups, these are their first three car rides. From the puppy’s point of view … no good can come from getting in a car!
Additionally some puppies, like many children, are prone to motion sickness. And when the puppy vomits during a car ride lots of owners just don’t put them in the car more than necessary. This, unfortunately, can make things worse.
Dogs don’t really need to ride much in the car, do they?
It depends on your lifestyle but many dogs, in order to spend lots of time with their owners, need to ride in the car. Dogs who travel well may get to go on errands, vacation and weekend trips with their owners.
Since many of us spend a good deal of time in the car, having a dog who travels well allows us to have company and spend time with our dogs all while getting things done, going to a friend’s to watch football or go on vacation.
How to travel?
There are several things to keep in mind when deciding how to travel your dog in a vehicle. Some states require dogs be restrained in a car but regardless of your state’s laws, remember there are three primary reasons to use car restraints with your dog.
- Restraints prevent your dog from escaping the vehicle during and directly after a collision. Dogs who escape vehicles frequently are hit by other cars.
- Restraints protect your dog from injury caused by the dog hitting the windshield or other parts of the car.
- Most importantly restraints protect you and your passengers from being hit by your dog who may become a projectile traveling at 40 miles an hour or more in the event of a sudden stop.
Which restraint to use?
There are choices to make in how to restrain your dog. Some considerations include the type of vehicle, the size of the dog, and the frequency of travel. All of these should be used in the back seat of a vehicle.
- Crate – probably the safest way, for dog and other vehicle occupants, to restrain a dog is in a crate which is secured into the vehicle. Small dogs can often be accommodated by “seat belting” the crate into the back seat of the car. Crates are certainly easy to use as the dog goes in “as is” with no additional equipment.
- Car Barrier – some people prefer these but the barrier must be secured into the cargo section of the SUV, station wagon or other vehicle. Remember, in the event of a highway collision, the dog will hit the barrier moving at upwards of forty miles an hour. That is a great deal of force against the barrier so it must be secure. A well secured car barrier does prevent the occupants of the car from being hurt by the dog. It is less successful at preventing injury to the animal or preventing the animal from escaping if the hatch pops. They are, however, easy to use.
- Dog Seat Belt – is the least expensive and most versatile method of restraining a dog because they work in any vehicle. This is a harness, specifically designed as a vehicle restraint, which clips in to a regular seatbelt receptacle. The dog can stand up, sit down and lie down easily but is still restrained in the car. This type of restraint does involve putting a harness on your dog each time you put her in the car.
If your dog is exhibiting severe signs of stress (panting, salivating, vomiting, diarrhea and so on) try switching how you restrain the dog. Sometimes switching, for example, from a crate to a seat belt may help the dog change her association with car travel. You can also try covering the crate with a blanket or, conversely, uncovering the crate.
Dogs who salivate before even getting in the car are anticipating motion sickness or are exhibiting generalized anxiety to getting into a vehicle. For dogs who are not experiencing motion sickness while traveling but are instead salivating, panting, pacing, barking, having diarrhea and so on, counter-conditioning can help alleviate the anxiety associated with travel.
- Step One: Start by getting your dog accustom to whatever restraint device your have chosen. Put the seatbelt on your dog and feed her supper then take it right off, feed your dog in the travel crate and then take him out or put the car barrier in a doorway and feed your dog behind it. Do this every meal for three or four days or until your dog appears relaxed and comfortable. With some dogs this may take several weeks.
- Step Two: Once your dog is comfortable with the restraint device, feed your dog in the car using the restraint device and immediately take your dog out of the car. Do this every meal for three or four days or until your dog appears relaxed and comfortable. With some dogs, this may take a week or more.
- Step Three: When your dog is comfortable eating in the car using the restraint device – sit in the front seat and leave your dog in the device after she finishes eating for five minutes. Do this every meal for a week.
- Step Four: Add two minutes of time per meal after your dog finishes eating. If your dog shows any anxiety reaction go back to five minutes and add one minute a day. Once you have reached twenty minutes in the restraint device after eating you can proceed to step five.
- Step Five: Feed your dog in the restraint device and then drive down the block. Park your car and walk your dog home. Do this every day for a week.
- Step Six: Drive your dog somewhere close, but fun. A neighbor’s yard, local park, or other enjoyable destination. Walk your dog home. Repeat daily for a week.
- Step Seven: Drive your dog further each day but try and include a drive through where you can purchase a “munchkin™”, chicken nugget or other very high value treat. Many banks and gas stations will also give you a biscuit for your dog. This is a valuable lesson for your dog – sometimes there’s great food while driving!
- Step Eight: Gradually lengthen the car rides.
- Step Nine: Drive to your veterinarian’s office on day when you DO NOT HAVE an appointment. Take your dog in, give them a treat, and go home. You may want to call your veterinarian and ask permission to do this.
- Step Ten: Enjoy having your dog with you in the car!
Other Things that May Help:
- D.A.P. – Dog Appeasing Pheromones work well with some dogs. You can purchase a plug in for the cigarette lighter or buy a spray. This is a product used for anxiety in dogs and has been used successfully for car phobic dogs.
- Ginger Snaps – if the dog is actually vomiting in the car, feeding him a couple of ginger snaps twenty minutes before travel may be effective.
- Dramamine – talk to your veterinarian about using medication if your dog, over six months of age, is vomiting in the car.
Remember, if your dog is salivating, shaking, panting and so on before you put them in the car then the issue is anticipatory and not a physical problem. Counter-conditioning is the answer. If your dog does not react until they are in the vehicle, and the vehicle is in motion, then you may be dealing with actual motion sickness.
Most dogs have a window of time prior to getting motion sick. For some dogs it may be four minutes and others may have twenty minutes or longer. In addition to the suggestions above, once you have figured out your dog’s window, take trips shorter than your dog’s threshold. Try and make it someplace fun like the park, to play with a dog they like, or to someplace they can get a special treat! Every trip you take where your dog doesn’t get sick and has fun is like money in the bank. Your dog learns that car travel is enjoyable. And most puppies outgrow motion sickness before they turn a year old.
Avoiding car travel because your dog gets motion sickness may set up a situation where your dog develops car anxiety. It is better to take frequent, short, enjoyable trips so your dog has the chance to overcome their sensitivity or anxiety.
With practice any dog can get better about car travel. And most dogs learn to love going for a ride – if only to be with you!
Thanks for asking and remember: Train your dog, enjoy your dog.