Help your dog learn to love car rides

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

training a dog to ride in a car

Story at-a-glance -

  • Taking lots of brief car rides when your dog is a puppy is ideal for helping him to learn that car rides can be fun and sometimes necessary
  • You should make a point to take car rides to places your dog enjoys — like the forest preserve for a walk, grandma and grandpa’s house or the pet store to find a new toy
  • A dog who is fearful of the car will do better in a safe space within the vehicle, i.e., a crate, which is where I recommend most dogs stay when your vehicle is in motion
  • Desensitization and counterconditioning can be used in conjunction to help your dog overcome a car phobia

For some dogs, a car ride is one of the most exciting prospects in a day. They love the thrill of going to new places and seeing (and sniffing) all the sights along the way. But for others, car rides can be a stressful, overwhelming and downright frightening experience.

If your dog belongs to the latter group, you probably dread the thought of packing up your pooch for a car ride just as much as he does — but sometimes it’s a necessity. You’ll know your dog is afraid of car rides if he keeps resisting getting into the car or shows other fear signals, such as panting, shaking, yawning, drooling, whining or even vomiting or having diarrhea.1

In fact, stress and anxiety are common triggers of car sickness in dogs, which can lead to physical symptoms. Fortunately, there are ways to make car rides smoother for all parties involved, though it will take practice and patience on your end.

Teach your dog that the car is fun

Taking lots of brief car rides when your dog is a puppy is ideal for helping him to learn that car rides can be fun. You should make a point to take car rides to places your dog enjoys — like the forest preserve for a walk, grandma and grandpa’s house or the pet store to find a new toy. In many cases, dogs learn to fear the car because they associate it with trips to unpleasant places, such as the veterinarian, boarding facility or shelter (if they were a rescued dog).

By taking your dog on trips with fun destinations, he’ll learn to associate the jingling of your car keys and trips in your vehicle with positive experiences. Even if your dog is no longer a pup, take brief trips to close locations your dog loves to ease him into car travel.

Further, because anxiety can lead to car sickness in some dogs, experiment with taking trips when your dog has empty stomach versus a few treats first. Some dogs do better traveling on an empty stomach while others do best with a small amount of food in their tummy.

Create a safe space for your dog

Many dogs love to hang their head outside of car windows to take in all the passing smells, but it’s not a safe way for your dog to travel. Further, a dog who is fearful of the car will do better in a safe space within the vehicle, i.e., a crate, which is where I recommend most dogs stay when your vehicle is in motion.

Depending on your dog’s size and vehicle, you can place the crate in the rear (such as in an SUV) or on the backseat. Look for crates and carriers that have strength-rated anchor straps or work in connection with your vehicle’s existing LATCH connection systems (used for children's car seats) so the crate will be secure in the event of an accident.

You'll want to choose a crate or carrier that fits your pet snugly, with enough room to be comfortable but not excess room (which poses a risk to your pet in an accident). Another option is to use a safety harness to restrain your pet in the car, but be sure it has been crash-test certified for safety.

If your dog gets motion sickness, covering the crate to create a dark space may help. Adding a spritz of lavender oil may also reduce nausea, and spraying the car with Rescue Remedy or other anxiety-reducing flower essences prior to loading up may also take the edge off of this stressful situation.

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Try to figure out why your dog fears the car

Sometimes, honing in on the origins of your dog’s car phobia can help you to relieve it. Was he in a car accident? Did he take a very long, unpleasant journey in the past? Or does he have pain in his hips when he climbs into the vehicle? Is the reason behind your dog’s fear isn’t obvious, it could be that he’s developed a phobia of car rides.

A phobia is an extreme form of fear that results in severe anxiety to your pet. Desensitization, which involves exposing your dog to the stimuli in order to try to desensitize your dog, and counterconditioning, which involves consistently and repeatedly pairing a negative trigger with a positive one (usually a treat your dog loves) until your pet makes a positive association, can be used to help your dog overcome a car phobia.

For dogs with a severe fear, you should work with a positive dog trainer or a veterinary behaviorist, but understand that this will be a gradual process. You’ll first need to get your dog used to the idea of going near the car without fear before you even think about getting him into the car.

Progress slowly using desensitization and counterconditioning

In the case of Igor, a 165-pound Newfoundland, his owner worked with Susan Sarubin, a positive dog trainer in Maryland, to help him overcome his fear. Sarubin wrote in Whole Dog Journal:2

“Counter-conditioning and desensitization (CC&D) is considered the most effective method in working with fears, anxieties, and phobias. Our goal was to change Igor’s emotional response to riding in the car from negative to positive. To use counter-conditioning, we needed to pair something Igor perceived as wonderful (in his case, garlic hot dogs and cheese) with the scary things that triggered his fear response.

We also needed to work below Igor’s fear threshold, at a level of intensity low enough to avoid a fearful response, gradually increasing the intensity in small increments as long as Igor stayed relaxed (desensitization).”

The training began inside the house, where Igor would get anxious about the prospect of a car ride, and eventually progressed to walking near the car, making contact with the car, opening the car door (feeding his treats that were placed on the threshold of the car door) and having Igor enter the car and turning on the ignition. In time, Igor learned to stay calm even as the car was moving.

“One rule of CC&D is to never exceed the comfort level or fear threshold of the dog during training,” Sarubin explained. “Moving too far too fast is a common mistake of those new to the process. It can be painstakingly slow at times, and owners often become impatient hoping for quicker results.”3

If you push your dog too much and he regresses, acting more fearful again, you’ll need to take a step back and restart training at a point that does not induce fear responses in your dog. Some dogs may never learn to truly love the car, but in time he should at least learn to tolerate it so you can transport your dog safely when necessary.

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