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How to get your dog used to travelling by car

Approx. 9 minutes read

Most dogs will gladly hop into a car or bakkie, anticipating an exciting adventure with their human. Most dogs. Some dogs, however, have a bad association with a vehicle. Maybe the only time they get into the car is on a trip to the vet – an experience that is fraught with unfamiliar sights, sounds, people, needles and medicine that literally leaves a bad taste in their mouth.

Some dogs will display signs of fear and panic when you pick up the car keys or leash them up to get into the car. It just means they have not had the oppawtunity to associate the car with fun, pleasure and positive experiences. Unlock your dog’s potential for fun and adventure with these tips to help them get used to travelling in a vehicle.

Signs of a panicked furry passenger

A dog who is terrified of travelling by car will exhibit the same signs of fear (and feel the same fear) as a dog who’s scared for his life. These signs of distress may include:

  • a tucked tail
  • whale eyes (where you can see the whites of his eyes)
  • shaking/trembling
  • resistance to being picked up and put in the car/unwillingness to get into the car
  • panting and/or excessive salivation
  • yawning
  • whining
  • vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • peeing inappropriately

Take note that vomiting out of fear and vomiting as a result of motion sickness are two very different conditions. Motion sickness is a physiological response, while vomiting from fear of the car ride is a biological reaction to a mental state. When you manage to resolve your dog’s fear, the vomiting should stop. However, if your dog has motion sickness, they will need specific treatment for the condition that causes it.

How to change your dog’s fear of the car

Your dog is only afraid because the car – it’s smell, sound and even the effects of being in motion – feels unfamiliar and scary, and it may have led to undesirable destinations in the past. They have not yet had the opportunity to associate a car ride with a positive experience. However, you – dear pet hero – have the power to change this experience for your dog by putting him or her through a few (patient) steps of desensitisation and counter-conditioning.

  • Desensitisation means exposing your pup to their fear trigger (the car) incrementally enough so as not to cause them to experience anxiety.
  • Counter-conditioning is essentially reconditioning your dog to experience pleasure and relaxation, rather than fear, in the car.

These two processes can intersect at various stages, but the objective is to eliminate your dog’s fear of riding in the car. This process may take time – especially if your dog is an adult with a history of fearful car rides – so don’t expect to do half an hour of behavioural work before taking them on a car trip. Plan accordingly.

1. Play near the car

While playing near the car is not usually good advice, the point here is to teach your dog that the car in and of itself is not a scary thing. Sit near the car and encourage your dog to play with a tug rope or a puzzle toy. Reward them for playing and being relaxed near the car. Open the door to the backseat (don’t get in yet) and continue with playing and rewarding on the ground. When your dog no longer reacts warily to the car (i.e. they are desensitising to the trigger), it’s time to move to the next step.

2. Get into the car

Sit in the backseat of the car and continue giving your dog – who is still outside the car – positive experiences. When they approach the car without any signs of anxiety, keep giving them rewards until they appear ready to get onto the backseat to receive those rewards. Don’t try to persuade or trick your dog; they must want to come to you willingly. Also give your dog loads of praise with each successful step – keeping the process light and positive.

3. Put your dog on the back seat

The car’s interior may still feel and smell like an unfamiliar and scary place, so you need to make it as welcoming as possible.

  • If you have another dog who is confident in the car, get them onto the back seat first – this should encourage your fearful dog when they see your confident dog being calm and having a good time.
  • Put your dog’s bed or their favourite toy on the backseat so that they have a familiar object and scent to help recondition their response to the car.

Keep offering your dog rewards and praise for as long as they can stay on the backseat without displaying signs of fear. At the first sign of fear, cowering or trembling, remove them from the car and then try again the next day.

For a dog who is very fearful of the car, the desensitisation training may feel like a two-steps-forward-one-step-back process, but you need to give your dog time to build their confidence around the car. For other dogs, this process may be quick and may seem like a penny has dropped, making your dog realise that the car is great and leads to many exciting experiences.

4. Turn the key

When your dog appears comfortable around the car, open the back door and then get into the front seat and start the engine while they are still outside of the car. The noise might seem startling, but as you let the car idle, encourage your dog to relax with play, treats and praise (as in Steps 1 and 2). As soon as they get anxious or show signs of fear, switch off the engine and go back to the previous step.

Gradually, as your dog gets used to the sound of the engine, expose them to the idling car for longer and longer periods.

5. Get into the idling car

When your dog is used to the sound of the idling car, place them on the backseat while the car engine is on. Go through the play, treat, praise process to reinforce the positive experience and when your dog appears comfortable and relaxed, close the back door, get into the driver’s seat and close the door. Keep praising and rewarding your dog. If you have a confident dog in the car with you, their excitement for an impending car trip will be palpable and can instil further relaxation in your fearful dog.

6. Go for a short drive

When your dog appears comfortable enough in the idling car with you in the driver’s seat, go for a short drive around the block. Don’t be tempted to go for a longer drive just yet. Keep it short and fun. When you return home, if your dog has not shown any signs of fear, stop the car, reward them on the backseat and then exit the car. Have a fun game of fetch or offer treat toys to keep the positivity going.

7. Go for a longer drive to a happy destination

Once your dog is pawfectly comfortable going on short trips around the block and not showing any signs of fear, it’s time to attempt a longer drive. Go to the dog park, to the beach or dam, or to a friend’s house for a puppy playdate. Make the longer trip an intrinsically rewarding experience that gives your dog a huge dopamine hit, motivating them to anticipate pleasure from the car ride the next time around. It’s this expectation of a good time in the car that gets dogs excited when they hear you pick up your car keys, put on your shoes, or grab their leash.

Some dogs just take longer than others to come to associate a car ride with a pleasurable experience, so they need your understanding, your patience and your insight into their fear to help them overcome it. The process of overcoming their fear may be quick and straightforward, or it may be a little more complex and take a few tries. One way to help your dog overcome their fear is to keep them calm in the car while they are counter-conditioning.

How can I calm my dog down in the car?

Fear in dogs is a visceral experience, which is why some dogs will tremble, vomit, pee on themselves or even poop inappropriately. During a fear experience, their sense of panic skyrockets and they have trouble calming down afterwards. Fortunately, there are ways to keep your dog calm in the car while you are desensitising them to car rides.

1. Use up all their excess energy

Panic and fear require a lot of energy, so if your dog has pent-up energy, it can make a bad situation worse. Exercise and play with your dog; tire them out before attempting a desensitisation training session – or before doing anything that may trigger their fears. Exercise also releases endorphins into your dog’s body; more feel-good hormones that will counteract the stress of their fear. Playtime and bond-building with you will also increase your dog’s self-esteem and, knowing they are in the car with their favourite trustworthy human, they may tend to be more confident and less fearful.

2. Calming medication for dogs when you travel

Aside from the process of desensitisation and counter-conditioning, you can use calming supplements, which contain pheromones that naturally reassure and calm dogs down. Calming supplements come in the form of collars, capsules, sprays and diffusers, drops, chews, and gels that can be added to your dog’s food. They are not tranquilisers that have a near-instant effect of taking the edge off; they are natural products used over a period of days or weeks to bring down your dog’s level of anxiety and help them to cope with normally fearful situations.

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3. Put your dog in a crate when travelling by car

Some dogs like to burrow or be confined in order to feel safe. You can put your dog’s bed, igloo bed or their crate in the car and confine them to it. Only use a crate if your dog is already comfortable with the crate and feels safe when crated. If you have a small dog, get them used to a booster car seat outside of the car – make it a delicious, comfortable and pleasurable place to be (using treats and praise) – before placing it in the car and putting them inside it. Only when they are comfortable should you put the car in motion.

4. Keep the car comfortable

It should go without saying that your dog should feel comfortable in your car. Don’t drive with your dog in the car in the heat of the day. Panting from fear and overheating just escalates your dog’s anxiety. If you must travel in the hottest part of the day, make sure your air-conditioner is functioning effectively. Don’t drive with the windows open, as a panicked dog may attempt to jump out of the car. Even a healthy, happy dog who puts their face into the wind can get injured from airborne objects or even insects. Have you ever driven through a swarm of bees? Just imagine…

5. Speak to your veterinarian

If you have tried desensitisation training and counter-conditioning, as well as the steps above to try to keep your dog calm in the car, but they are just not winning, talk to your vet about medication. Some medications that may work for treating your dog’s anxiety in the car include sedatives, antihistamines, and anti-emetics. These should only be used in extreme cases, but follow your vet’s recommendation, and work with a dog behaviourist to get positive results with counter-conditioning.

Always have your dog’s wellbeing or best interests at heart. They are doing their best.

Impawtant safety tips for keeping your dog calm in the car

  • When doing desensitisation training and counter-conditioning exercises, make sure you are inside a secure yard. If your dog suddenly gets scared, they may decide to run off or escape, which you don’t want to happen.
  • Don’t expose your dog to a hot car. If it’s summer time, rather do the training exercises in the early morning or evening. Always have fresh water close by.
  • Always have your dog leashed when entering and exiting the car. This may be an unpredictable time, so a leash helps you to maintain control over the situation and keeps your dog out of danger.
  • On longer trips, take regular pee and poop breaks along the way. As your leashed dog exits the car, give them some fresh water in a bowl and then take them for a short walk to encourage them to empty their bladder. Always carry poop bags with you to pick up after your dog. It’s simply good dog ownership.
  • In preparation for your planned car trip, don’t feed your dog less than two hours before departure. This will help to avoid any nausea. Speak to the vet about anti-emetic tablets if your dog has a habit of getting sick in the car.

A little pawsistence will go a long way to making sure your dog has calm, safe and enjoyable car rides for a long time to come!

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