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Some dogs get really, really anxious in the car. If your dog paces, whines, drools, or barks in the car, you know how frustrating (and even dangerous) this can be! So how do you teach your dog to relax during – and even enjoy – car rides?
Why Is My Dog Anxious in the Car?
There are many possible reasons that your dog can’t relax in the car. Let’s explore a few of the most common ones.
- He gets carsick. This is more common than you may think! Talk to your vet about doing a trial run with anti-nausea medication, especially if your dog is a puppy or new to you. Anti-nausea meds are pretty low-risk, and if they work, your problem is solved! That said, it’s possible that your dog started out feeling nauseous, and now feels nauseous and anxious – so you might still need to work on feeling good in the car emotionally.
- She’s excited for where you’re going. If your dog is pacing and whining in the back of the car, or barks nonstop as you get going and pull in somewhere, you might be dealing with an over-excited pup! For pups like these, you’ll want to work on teaching them to regulate their emotions (I like Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol for that) and practice going to a lot of boring places. If your dog learns that most of the time, you’re just driving around the block or going to the grocery store, she’ll stop losing her mind. It’s also important to practice a lot with these dogs. If your pup only ever gets in the car to go to her favorite place in the world a few times a year, of course she’ll lose her mind with excitement! These dogs may not benefit as much from the desensitization protocol outlined below.
- He’s nervous about where you’re going. This is another common reason that your dog might struggle to relax in the car. If he’s worried that you’re on the way to the vet, groomer, or boarding place and your pup doesn’t like those places, the car will start to feel icky! Use the plan below to help your dog relax, and be sure that you take your pup lots of good, fun places as well! If he’s pretty sure you’re going for a walk by the river rather than the vet, he’ll feel a lot better.
- She’s hypervigilant about the objects whizzing by the window. In most cases, covering your dog’s crate will basically solve this problem – it just gets difficult if you can’t fit a crate in your car (I used to drive a little Honda Civic and fostered a big German Shepherd who had this issue, and it was a pain to work through). This is one of the trickier versions of car anxiety to truly fix – because it’s not about the destination. This sort of car anxiety is all about the motion of the objects going by. You’ll want to work through the protocol below, but will also have your work cut out for you working on reducing your pup’s anxieties in general.
- Something bad happened on a car ride or after a car ride, now your dog is nervous. If you’ve recently gotten into a car accident or otherwise really scared your dog during or after a car ride, she might be super anxious about the car. Most of these dogs will recover using the protocol below.
How Do I Help My Dog Relax in the Car?
The main reason I wanted to write this blog post was because I was working with so many dogs who were anxious in the car, and I realized that writing out the step-by-step desensitization process for car rides is very time-consuming.
The plan outlined here is really detailed and very incremental – perfect for tricky cases. If your pup is only a bit nervous about the car, you might not need to follow this plan to a tee – but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
A few things to keep in in mind as you go forward:
- Keep your training sessions SUPER SHORT – like 1-3 minutes MAX at first, longer as the car rides get longer. Set a timer, and try to end the session while your dog is still relaxed. If things go downhill, just cut it off and go cuddle your dog.
- Be liberal with treats, petting, and praise. Now isn’t the time to be stingy! Reduce your dog’s meal sizes to accommodate the calories if need be.
- Your dog may feel differently from minute to minute, day to day. Expect progress to NOT be linear. Keep track of the general trends, and expect to need to take a few steps backwards in your plan every so often.
- Familiarize yourself with your dog’s “tells.” Don’t push her limits until she’s whining or won’t eat treats because she’s so stressed – instead learn what she does right as she’s starting to get nervous, and respect those feelings. She may widen her eyes, pull her ears back, lick her lips, lower her tail, hold her breath, brace her paws wide, start to pant, etc.
- Don’t force your dog to do anything. If she hides, refuses to go forward, etc., just end the session and take note. You may want to get help from a professional trainer (like the Journey Dog Training online training team) if this happens more than once or twice.
- Give your dog a treat at every stage of the process that feels like a jump for your dog. I suggest feeding your dog’s meals as part of this training plan.
- Figuring out which steps to skip is the hardest part – err on the side of taking extra unneeded steps rather than skipping necessary ones!
A Step-By-Step Process to Teach Your Dog to Relax in the Car
Start a few steps before where your dog starts to get nervous. So if your dog is fine until you turn the car on, start a few steps before that. But if your pup is nervous as soon as you clip the leash on and head to the garage instead of the front door, start with just clipping the leash on!
Likewise, when you come back for your next session, start over a few steps before your last success point. We want this to feel EASY and BORING!
- Grab your car keys and whatever else you may usually get before a car ride.
- Approach your dog with a leash.
- Reach towards your dog.
- Leash your dog.
- Move towards the door where the car is, rewarding your dog every few steps as necessary.
- Open the door towards the car.
- Continue rewarding your dog for movement towards the car and/or crossing doorways until you are within sight of the car.
- Slow down a bit here as you approach the car – keep an eye out for your dog’s tells. Increase how many treats you’re giving as you get closer and closer to the car and be ready to “call it off.”
- If you get stuck right around here, consider walking in circles around the car or arcing around the car, staying near-ish to it but not directly approaching it.
- Open the car door.
- Move towards the open car door.
- Get your dog into the car. Unfortunately for most dogs, this is a big step up! You may have to pick up a small dog or encourage a big dog to jump. Trying to reward your dog for stepping her front paws into the car might result in you getting “stuck” because she’d be more comfortable jumping. If you have to pick up your small dog, make sure she’s comfortable with that process as well.
- Reward your dog for increasing duration of staying in the car – 1 second, 2, 5, 10 seconds, 20, 30, 45, 60. Try to get to 1 minute of calmly waiting in the car before moving on to the next step.
- Try to keep the car door open and not do anything that looks like you’re actually going anywhere while working on this step!
- Put your hand on the car door/truck as if you’re going to close it.
- Close the door/trunk partway. Some dogs might be able to handle just halfway and then closing, while others might do better if you close the door mere centimeters at a time each session.
- Fully close the door. From here onwards, a remote pet treater like a Treat n Train will come in handy! These gadgets let you reward the dog from afar, letting you reward the dog without opening the door again or trying to lean back while driving (dangerous!).
- Take a step or two towards the driver’s seat. Repeat this step as needed until you can easily get to the driver’s seat without your dog displaying any “tells.”
- Open the driver’s side door.
- Get halfway into the car.
- Get fully into the car.
- Put on your seatbelt.
- Adjust your phone or the radio.
- Turn the car onto “accessories” mode.
- Fiddle with the car’s controls a bit – radio, windshield wipers, etc.
- Turn the car engine fully on.
- Put the car in gear.
- Take the car out of gear and turn it off. Repeat steps 19-26 a few times to ensure that your dog thinks this game is BORING.
- Move the car a bit – not too far, but far enough that you can drive smoothly. Driving jerkily won’t help! A few meters should do.
- Fully back out of your space, then return and start over at 19 – do this a few times.
- Drive around the block. For most of us, this is the shortest distance we can go once the car is on the road. If you can do a lap around a parking lot or garage, or otherwise go a shorter distance, do so.
- Gradually build up distance.
- Add variety to your car rides – city traffic, highway driving, windy country roads, etc. Identify problem areas for repeated practice.
- Switch up your destinations depending on your dog’s main issue. If she’s fearful, go to AWESOME places. Just make sure she really likes them – not all dogs like the dog park, for example. If she’s overly excited, go on lots of boring trips.
Reach out to Journey Dog Training if you need any extra help implementing this plan or troubleshooting, and happy training!
Kayla founded Journey Dog Training in 2013 to provide high-quality and affordable dog behavior advice. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant who’s worked with hundreds of private clients, thousands of shelter dogs, and dozens of working detection dogs. Kayla’s dog and cat behavior advice has been featured in NPR, the Chicago Tribune, and Pet MD. She’s an avid adventurer who is currently doing #vanlife on the Pan-American Highway with her two border collies and a cat. Aside from running Journey Dog Training, Kayla also runs the nonprofit K9 Conservationists, where she and the dogs work as conservation detection dog teams. You can get 1:1 advice with a Journey Dog Training team member here.