Riding With Dogs — How to Keep Everyone Safe and Sane

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog in car rides

Story at-a-glance -

  • Some dogs love car rides, while others hate them
  • If your dog is over-the-top excited in the car, it’s probably because she knows you’re headed somewhere fun
  • If your dog hates the car, it’s probably stress-related
  • There are effective strategies for calming dogs at both ends of the car travel spectrum

Depending on the dog and to some extent, his or her past experiences, car rides are either crazy exciting or something to be avoided at all costs. It seems there’s little middle ground on this issue for most canine companions, with the exception of a small subset who adopt a nice, mellow “this might be interesting” attitude whenever they’re invited to hop in the car.

I’m So Excited, and I Just Can’t Hide It

If your dog falls into the first category of super-excited car passenger, there’s a good chance she also paces if not restrained (which she definitely should be), and yips or whines or — depending on her level of excitement — sings the songs of her wild ancestors (which can be a bit disconcerting the first time you hear them!). Needless to say, this behavior can be distracting, bordering on annoying, especially if you’re traveling any distance.

As animal behaviorist and professional dog trainer Karen B. London PhD explains, much of the time your dog knows where you’re headed (dog park, hiking trail, camping adventure, doggy friend’s house, etc.) and she simply can’t contain her enthusiasm.

The solution, says London, is to “Make it harder for her to figure out the destination and easier for her to contain her exuberance in the car. To do that, it’s important to become less predictable — to reduce her expectation that a ride in the car means she’s going to the dog park.”1

She suggests taking your dog with you more frequently (weather permitting) and on mundane errand runs so that being in the car isn’t so closely linked with the destination(s) of her dreams.

“Add to the unpredictability by varying the order of your stops; for example, errands might come before or after the dog park, or both,” writes London. “Sometimes a trip may be just errands, and sometimes just a joy ride without any stops at all. She may still become revved up when you get close to the dog park on the days you actually go there, but hopefully, it will be for a couple of minutes rather than the entire ride.”

No Thanks, I’ll Walk

If your dog is a hater when it comes to car rides, it means he finds them stressful at a minimum, and potentially downright frightening. Signs your canine BFF is genuinely fearful of riding in cars include resisting getting into the car, panting, yawning, drooling, shaking and whining — all the way up to vomiting and diarrhea.

In fact, stress and anxiety are common triggers of car sickness in dogs, which can lead to physical symptoms. Fortunately, there are ways you can make car trips less unpleasant for your dog (and for everyone else along for the ride). Here are a few recommendations:

Make car rides fun — Taking lots of short outings when your dog is a puppy is ideal for helping him learn that car rides can be fun. Make a point to go places he already enjoys or can quickly learn to love.

In many cases, dogs develop an aversion to car travel because the only time they see the inside of a vehicle is when it’s headed to the vet’s office or boarding facility. Thankfully more and more veterinarians and animal hospitals are becoming Fear Free certified, so their goal is to work with you to eliminate fear associated with vet visits (including transportation).

By taking him on lots of trips with dog-friendly destinations, he’ll learn to make a positive association between car rides and fun. Even if he’s no longer a pup, take brief trips to close locations he loves to ease him into car travel.

If possible, bring someone along to calm your dog while you’re driving, or speak gently and reassuringly to him along the way. Once you reach your destination, devote your attention to your dog, playing or hiking with him, and make the outing fun for him.

On the ride back, again, do whatever works to calm his nerves. Once you’re back home, have another vigorous play session and then let him rest. Repeat this routine at a minimum once a week so your dog learns to associate car rides with fun destinations and playtime with you.

Since anxiety can lead to car sickness in some dogs, try taking trips when your dog’s stomach is empty, as well as after he’s had just a couple of treats or a very small amount of food. Some dogs do better when they travel on an empty stomach, while others do best with a small amount of food in their tummy. Again, Free Free veterinary practices can assist you in prescribing the perfect anti-nausea car trip protocol for your pets.

Create a safe space for your dog inside your vehicle — Many dogs love to hang their head outside the car window, but it’s not a safe way for them to travel. And generally speaking, a dog who is fearful of the car will do better in a safe space (e.g., a crate) within the vehicle, not to mention that a secure crate that doesn’t move around the car is the safest way for pets to travel.

Depending on your dog’s size and the type of vehicle you drive, you can place the crate in the rear (such as in an SUV) or on the backseat. Move it from spot to spot to see if the location makes a difference in how she’s feeling. Some dogs do best if the crate is placed in the rear compartment of an SUV. Others do well on the back seat.

Some small dogs prefer their crate to sit on the floor of the front passenger seat where they can see the driver, but not much else. (This location is typically fine in colder weather, but be careful during the summer months, as forward compartment floor space can heat up quickly.) If you use a harness or other type of restraint, again, try moving her from seat to seat if possible, to learn where she feels most comfortable.

Look for a crate or carrier with strength-rated anchor straps or that work in conjunction with your vehicle’s existing LATCH connection systems (used for children's car seats) so it will be secure in the event of an accident.

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

If your dog gets motion sickness, covering the crate to create a dark space may help. Add a spritz of lavender oil to help reduce nausea and consider spraying the car with Rescue Remedy or another anxiety-reducing flower essence before putting her into her crate or harness.

Try to understand why your dog fears the car — Sometimes, learning the origins of a dog’s car phobia can be helpful. Was he in a car accident? Did he take a very long, unpleasant journey in the past? Does he perhaps have pain in his hips when he climbs into the vehicle? If 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 him to the stimuli in order to try to desensitize him, and counterconditioning, which involves consistently and repeatedly pairing a negative trigger with a positive one (usually a treat he loves) until he makes a positive association, can be used to help your dog overcome a car phobia.

If your dog seems excessively fearful of the car, I recommend working 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, and working with a fear free professional will assure you that you’re not exacerbating your dog’s fear by doing this incorrectly.

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