Anyone who has ever dealt with dog car anxiety knows how upsetting and frustrating it is. Car anxiety flares up when your dog appears agitated, upset, or in distress while riding in a moving vehicle. Fortunately, there are easy steps you can take to help your pup become comfortable in a moving vehicle.
Dogs fear cars for one of two reasons–they associate a vehicle with something negative or they get car sickness (and sometimes a combination of both.)
If your dog gets anxious because she associates the car with something negative, this process is designed especially for you.
If you rescued your dog, were dropped off at the shelter in the car (likely)? Did they get in an accident in a moving vehicle? Did someone argue in the car with the dog present? Perhaps your pooch heard a loud sound while in the car and now associated moving vehicles as bad.
Car sickness can lead to nausea and vomiting. Puppies tend to grow out of this, but there are some things you can do for dogs who genuinely just get sick in the car. Stay tuned.
Before starting this process, make sure your dog is medically okay and doesn’t have any underlying medical conditions of which you are unaware. A dog who doesn’t feel well may act out. For example, a dog with a thyroid issue may behave irritated or aggressive according to famed veterinarian Dr. Jean Dodds.
Symptoms of Canine Car Anxiety
Like people, each dog is unique. Your dog may be afraid of the car because it makes her sick with nausea. Another dog might whine, shake, pant heavily, excessively salivate, bark, whine, or relieve themselves in the vehicle.
The day we brought our third Cocker Spaniel puppy, Alvin, home he threw up and defecated in his car crate. He was nine weeks old and not accustomed to riding in a car. We were new to him and leaving his mother and siblings was traumatic no doubt.
Slowly, but surely we got our puppy used to car rides as part of the 100 things in 100 days to do with a puppy adventure we are on.
If your dog doesn’t like the car or shakes when she gets in the car, we’ve developed a four-step system to help your dog overcome car anxiety in four weeks’ time.
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Overcoming Dog Car Anxiety In Four Easy Steps
Sit with your dog in the vehicle with the car doors open. Do not turn the car on. You want your dog to sit next to you in the back seat–not in a crate and not in a seatbelt.
1. You are teaching your dog that a car is a happy place. Bring some of her favorite treats or a favorite toy–whichever holds the most value to your pooch.
Let her know what a good girl she is for simply being in the stationary car. Sit together and reward them, pet them, and let your dog simply get comfortable being in the vehicle. Do this every day for 5 to 10 minutes for a week and reward.
Be sure your dog cannot jump out of the vehicle. Don’t hold her down or force her to be inside the car.
Of note: If your dog refuses to get in the car or freaks out at the site of the door being open, you may need to give her something to calm his frazzled nerves first. Here are some products to help dogs who are bothered by noise or have anxiety issues.
You don’t want your dog to be drugged or sedated but relaxed instead.
NOTE: Once your dog is accustomed to sitting in the car, the next step is her restraint system. Follow step one but introduce her car crate or harness restraint. Sit in the car for 5 to 10 minutes. Don’t move the vehicle. Don’t start the vehicle up. Reward and praise. A car is a happy place.
2. Repeat every single aspect of step #1 but turn your car on. Leave the doors open. Be sure your dog cannot jump out of the vehicle. Don’t hold her down or force her to be inside the car.
Sit with your dog. Praise, reward, pet her. She may seem irritated at first but she will calm down soon since she is used to being in the car.
Soon, you will be driving the vehicle with the dog inside. She will see that not only do great things happen in the car but on arrival, too! Do this every day for 5 to 10 minutes for a week and reward.
3. Put the dog in the car with you and move a few hundred feet. Maybe to the end of the street. Maybe around the block. Take the toy. Take the treats. It is best to do this step with a friend or family member so they can drive the car while you sit in the backseat next to your dog.
Once you’ve driven a few hundred feet, or maybe to the end of a street or block, pull the vehicle over. You and your dog will exit the vehicle and walk back home. Praise your dog. Give her treats and shower her with joy. She is such a good girl! Do this every day for a week.
4. Repeat step three but drive to a place that your dog loves. Ideas include a local park, visiting a family member or friend, playing with another dog she knows, or wherever her happy place is. Maybe your dog can go for a Puppucino at the Starbucks drive-through. Perhaps a local dog-friendly pet supply store would be fun.
Make sure it doesn’t take a long time to reach the final destination. Reward your dog on arrival. Preferably, you get out of the car and engage in a super high-value activity with your dog. Reward and praise like the champion she is! Do this at least twice a week for a month or so.
You can watch these steps in action in our example video below. If your dog needs something calming, the product we mention is no longer available. We recommend these products for anxious dogs.
Overcoming Dog Car Sickness
Dogs get sick with motion just like some people do. Your dog may feel sick depending on how she is positioned in the car.
I feel nauseous whenever I ride in the backseat and the same holds true for some dogs. I talked to my doctor about motion sickness tablets. They help me, and a canine version of this product may help your dog. Talk to your veterinarian. Ask if Cerenia (a prescription) would help your dog.
Some dogs like to be in a booster seat while others prefer a seatbelt harness or a crate. I know dogs who overcame car anxiety when their owners put them in a canine booster seat instead of the seatbelt. The positioning helped.
Sometimes a little bit of fresh air can do the trick. Did you ever get a stomach ache and needed some fresh air to feel better? Dogs are the same way.
Bonus Tips For Dog Car Anxiety
A Tired Dog Is A Happy Dog
A tired dog is a happy dog. Exercise your dog or play before you get in the car. She is likely to sleep it off.
Swaddle With A Thundershirt
Consider using a Thundershirt to acclimate your pooch to the car. Your dog needs to wear the Thundershirt prior to the car ride so she knows it’s a fun, easy thing to do. You don’t want her associating the Thundershirt with the car, thus inciting anxiety.
Play Calming Music In The Car
Calming music in the car may help. Some mistakenly believe blasting loud music helps a dog overcome her noise or travel fears. Personally, that would freak me out. Try classical music or something more soothing to your dog’s ears.
Note: The Pet Acoustics Pet Tunes Calming Music Dog Speaker can really help with travel stress in many dogs.
Introduce the Crate Separately
If you are using a crate in the vehicle, be sure it’s a happy place for your dog. Don’t introduce a crate and the car at the same time.
Here’s our favorite pet safety carrier available in three sizes. It tethers to the seat and uses the seatbelt for extra protection while allowing the dog room to move.
Slowly Increase Car Time
Slowly increase the amount of time you spend in the moving vehicle. If you can only drive around the block and come home, do something really fun with your dog when he exits the vehicle at home. Praise as if she won Best in Show.
If You Own A Rescue Dog
If you rescued a dog from a shelter, you may need to take a bit longer. Your dog’s last car ride before you may not have been pleasant. Be gentle and reassuring.
Never Leave A Dog Alone In The Car
Never leave your dog alone in the car. Winter is cold, summer is hot and deadly. Thieves prey on innocent dogs in cars 24/7/365.
Sunblock and Sunscreen
Dogs have some protection from their fur, but they can still get sunburned. Use a car shade in your vehicle or sun window sunshades that easily adhere. Consider a sunblock product made for dogs, especially short-haired and white dogs.
Bring Water and A Water Bowl Along
Bring your dog’s water and a portable water bowl with you. Once your dog acclimates to car travel, I highly suggest you bring bottled water or whatever water your dog drinks at home. Thirty years of car travel with dogs has taught me that even a change in drinking water can cause stomach upset.
Make The Car A Continual Happy Place
Take frequent happy trips. If the only time your dog is in the car is for vet visits and grooming sessions, you can understand why he isn’t fond of the car.
Positive Reinforcement Is Key
Keep up with positive reinforcement car training for your dog. Do a weekly ride to a happy place. Take your dog to visit family or friends. Visit a pet supply store that allows dogs. Visit his favorite park. If your dog isn’t very mobile, sit at a park. Curl up together on a blanket.
If everything fails and no matter what you do, your dog just hates car travel, it’s best to leave him behind on long trips with someone you trust. You can ask your vet about a sedative to relax the dog en route, depending on how far you are traveling.
Have dog will travel. Make your vehicle a happy place and sooner than later, your dog will be wagging and showing excitement when the car keys come out.