Updated: Mar 30
Practical Training Tips for Dogs That Are Anxious About Riding in the Car
You and your dog are safest in the car when your dog is in the correct restraint device. Having a loose dog in the car is distracting during transport and causes an accident. In the event of an accident, your dog could become seriously injured. First, let's discuss the safest restraint devices for your dog, followed by training tips for car ride anxiety.
Choosing the Best Restraint Device
The type of restraint you use depends on your dog's size, your vehicle type, as well as preferences (for you and your dog). The ideal restraint device should be comfortable for your dog and minimize distractions for you. Properly fitted restraint devices should minimize movement so the dog doesn’t slip, fall, or run around. These actions can cause an increase in fear, anxiety, and stress while riding in the car. Lastly, the ideal restraint should prevent escape and help buffer impacts in the event of an accident. Fun fact: unlike for human children, animal harnesses aren’t required to be crash-tested, and the quality of these devices can vary. Here are some recommendations based on your dogs’ size.
Small Dogs and Other Small Animals
Small dogs should be placed in a crate or carrier during transport. Provide your dog with a nonslip mat inside the crate or carrier to help prevent slipping or falling during transport. Doing this increases comfort and decreases stress. Place the carrier behind the passenger seat on the floor. You can lean the passenger seat back for added security. Many people buckle up the carrier in the front seat, but this can be a dangerous thing to do. Buckling the carrier into the seat can crush the carrier during an accident. By placing the carrier behind the passenger seat and leaning the seat back over the crate, you form a padded layer over the carrier and increase their chances of survival in the event of a car crash.
Medium to Large-Sized Dogs or Animals
Medium and Large dogs should be secured with a crash-tested harness or seatbelt designed for animals. It should be a secure and comfortable fit, and your dog should be restrained in the back seat. Never leave your seat-belted dog unattended. You can get more information on quality, crash-tested harnesses, and seat belts at the Center for Pet Safety.
Training your Dog to Love Their Restraint Device and the Car
Ideally, your pet should be conditioned to the restraint device before using it in the car. Practice this in the comfort of home first so your dog can get used to the restraint device in a calm, quiet environment. Pay attention to your dog's body language throughout this process. If your dog starts showing abnormal signs of fear, anxiety, or stress at any given step, take a break, and go back to an easier step. When you feel your dog is ready, go to the next step. By doing this you ensure greater compliance from your dog for future car rides, and it helps them build confidence. Here are some steps to help you condition your dog to the restraint device and the car:
Step 1: Begin by pairing the presence of the restraint device with rewards (small pea-sized treats or a Kong that is smeared with a yummy spreadable treat like cream cheese or baby food). Every time
the dog looks at the restraint or interacts with it, they get an instant treat! If you are working on a crate for a small dog, they should get a treat for looking at or interacting with the crate. Do this for no more than 3 minutes (this equates to roughly 10 – 15 treats).
Step 2: Take a break and reassess your dog. Do they seem comfortable? If not, keep working on step 1 for a few more sessions. Make sure to take breaks in between sessions to give your dog a mental break. If they're comfortable, we can go forward to the next step. Using a spreadable treat (baby food or cream cheese) set up short, 1-minute training sessions where you pair the treat (let them lick it off a paper plate or Kong) with putting on the restraint device. Remember to go at your dogs’ pace and work your way up to fastening the device. Then practice leaving it on for a duration of time.
Step 3: Now that your dog is comfortable wearing the device (or getting into the crate), practice walking nicely to the door after putting it on. Remember to reward calm behavior the entire time. When you reach the door, take off the restraint device and have a party!
Step 4: When your pet is good at the previous step, then you can practice approaching the car, getting into a stationary car, getting into the car and starting the engine briefly, going around the block, etc. Keep going little by little and soon enough, you're going for short trips in the car! You can slowly continue this process until your dog is comfortable going on longer trips.
Remember to watch your dog for signs of fear, anxiety, and stress as you reach each step and to go at your dog's pace. Take breaks in between each session and be sure to keep them short (no more than 3 minutes). Prepare for the car ride by having high-value treats, food stuffed toys, or self-feeding devices on hand in the car. Remember to always reward calm behavior especially in the car. Success on short car rides indicates that your dog is ready to try longer car rides.
If your dog is experiencing extreme signs of car sickness that are hindering your training plan, check with your veterinarian about medications or medical advice that may help your dog get over this hump so you can continue the training plan. It is best to have your trainer and veterinarian collaborate on issues such as this one to ensure a higher probability of success!
Play quiet, calm music (classical or "Through a dogs ear")
Avoid loud, startling music
Spray pheromones (Adaptil) on a blanket in the car or on a bandana to put around the dog's neck (wait 20 minutes before introducing the blanket or bandana to the dog)
Provide puzzle toys or food toys to keep them distracted
Use sunshades on your windows to help block out visual stimuli
Provide your dog with a nonslip mat in the crate or carrier
Do not rush or drive aggressively
Watch the dog's body language for abnormal signs of fear, anxiety, or stress and adjust the training plan accordingly
Reward calm, relaxed behavior in the car
Precautions with Conditioning to the Car and Restraint Devices
Don’t force your dog into the restraint device, this will only teach your dog that the process of getting into the car isn’t fun and will decrease compliance. Never punish your dog for showing signs of fear, anxiety, or stress. This increases their fear and anxiety with car rides. Dogs will begin to associate the car with punishment. Never force your dog into the car if they are showing any signs of aggression. This is abnormal and you should contact us, or another training professional to help you if this occurs!
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