Is your dog afraid of car rides or of traveling in your vehicle? Dogs develop dog car sickness or a fear of traveling for many reasons. The very fact that they get car sick and the unpleasant accompanying feelings of this can make dogs afraid of travel and for many dogs, the only time they go in the car is to go to the vets. Going to the vets is rarely a pleasant event and for these reasons, dogs can learn to be afraid of going in vehicles. This can cause a lot of disruption to your daily life if your dog is car sick or you can’t get him in the car!
So, once your dog has built up negative associations with going in your vehicle, how can you help him to feel better about it?
Make them feel secure
One of the simplest ways to help dogs to feel more secure is to bed them down in a secure crate whenever you travel. Dogs have a natural denning instinct and instinctively seek out darker, enclosed spaces when they are feeling anxious. It may be that all your dog needs to make him feel happier about travel is to spend some time relaxing in his crate in the car with a filled kong or new bone when the car is not running or moving. (Please ensure that your dog is supervised at all times). This will help to build positive associations with the car and may be sufficient to stop your dog’s fear of traveling. Our crates can be covered with sheets or blankets to make them feel more “den-like” and this may help the dog to feel safe while the car is moving.
Give them choice
The basis for helping any animal that is afraid of something is to give them choice. It needs to be the dog’s choice about whether or not to approach the vehicle. Don’t try to force him using the lead or try to lure him with treats. It is much better to let him make his own choices and then reward those choices with things that the dog loves.
For best results, you may want to consult a certified dog trainer who can help you manage the behaviour modification process. They will be able to show you what stress signals to watch out for and help you to manage the step by step process. In addition, you can talk to your vet about various supplements or medications that will help your dog to remain as calm as possible, particularly when it is essential that the dog goes into the vehicle.
Above all else, patience is key.
1. If your dog is very anxious about even going anywhere near the vehicle, then start outside the parked car. Any time they look at the car, offer them a treat or praise. Do the same if they take a step towards the car. If they like to play tug, play next to the vehicle. Do this for just a few minutes at a time and carry out daily for a few weeks.
2. An alternative in these early stages is to teach your dog to target an object (which can be your hand) using clicker training. Once he fully understands the concept of targeting, ask him to touch the target near the car. Build this up so that you are asking him to take a step towards the vehicle, then another step and continue until he can touch the outside of the vehicle. Don’t forget to click and treat. You can find out more about target training here. Target training has had amazing results with fearful animals, giving them the courage to approach objects that they would never usually approach. Because it is their own choice to approach, they tend to learn very quickly.
3. Once the dog is happily approaching the car, start to leave the car door open and repeat the whole process, gradually building up the dog’s confidence. Don’t try and prise the dog into the open door – just reward any approaches with his favourite treats.
4. Continue with this until the dog will choose to jump into the vehicle and reward him. Give lots of praise and a very high value treat as soon as they set foot inside the car and let them jump out as soon as they want to. Don’t restrain them once they are in. They need to know that they can leave at any point they wish. Keep practicing this step until the dog will jump in and appears to be quite happy staying in the car without trying to jump straight back out.
5. Now, once your dog will get into the car, start to sit in there with him and share high value treats, play with his toys or feed him his dinner in there. Build on this for a few weeks to really increase his confidence. Shut the car door for brief periods of time then open it again, gradually increasing the duration of time with the door shut.
6. Once your dog appears happy in the vehicle, turn on the car engine and carry on rewarding and playing in the vehicle as if nothing has happened. If he attempts to escape, allow him to do so and start right from the beginning, getting him to approach the car, then get in it, then sit with you and enjoy sharing treats, toys and his dinner, all with the engine running. Don’t attempt to drive anywhere at this stage or shut him in.
7. Finally, when you can turn on the engine and keep the door shut without any sign of stress from your dog, try reversing out of the drive then back in again. Then slowly build up to short journeys to somewhere the dog loves. A daily drive for a walk is ideal. So is a visit to a friend’s, a visit to the pet store, or wherever else your dog loves to go!
The aim throughout all of this is to change your dog’s association with the car as a scary thing to a positive association, where all his favourite things happen – cuddles with mum or dad, his dinner, treats and his favourite toys.
One step at a time
Don’t try to go too fast, keep it to one step at a time. If, at any time, your dog is showing signs of anxiety, go back in the process to where they were last happy and relaxed and take it from there, building up gradually.
It can be a time-consuming process, but when you think of all the years you have with your dog, and all the times you will need him to travel, it is worth it in the long run.