Training Your Dog to Ride in the Car: Foolproof Steps

Posted by on 29/05/2018


Are you planning your summer vacation and planning to take your dog along? You are not alone - over 88% of people plan to bring their dog on vacation this summer and most are doing it in their car, according to a recent Kurgo survey. But do you have a dog that doesn't love the car?

There are two main reasons that might be the case:

1. Physical discomfort or

2. Fear & anxiety

Physical Discomfort

If the issue is a physical one, like car sickness, this is something you’ll need to deal with in advance. Car sickness is very common in puppies, but they often grow out of it. Even if they do grow out of it, however, those early car experiences are formative, and can result in a life-long association with cars and feeling unwell. It's best to start puppies in a car early and continue throughout their lives.

There are a number of things you can try for car sickness, many of them similar to what you’d try for humans:

  1. Positioning. Motion sickness occurs when there’s a sensory mismatch. The inner ear, controlling motion or balance, detects that you are moving, but the eyes, if the dog cannot see out the window, can think that he’s sitting still. This mismatch causes feelings of nausea. A dog car seat that sits up high can help your dog get that view of outside that will help marry up with what’s happening in his ears and eyes! Alternatively, if this is not possible, having him sit in the back on a favorite person’s lap so that he can see out can have a similar effect.
  2. GInger Biscuits. Many people swear by giving their dog a small piece of a ginger biscuit in advance of any travel to help ease any nausea. Ginger is said to have anti-nausea properties. Just make sure there are no ingredients in the biscuits that could be harmful to your dog, such as xylitol.
  3. Fresh air. Opening a window or two to let some fresh air in can help. Just don't let your dog stick their head out the window and make sure they are restrained so they can't jump out.
  4. Medication. If the above don’t work, speak to your vet about anti-nausea medication for your dog.

Once you’ve removed the car-sickness, you can still have the residual association of the car and feeling unwell. If you’ve got a dog who has suffered from car sickness and still fears travel, or if you have a dog who simply has a nervous disposition and dislikes car travel, try the following.

Fear & Anxiety

To combat fear or anxiety, you need to undertake a training process of desensitizing your dog to the experience and associating the car with only good feelings. The most important step for stopping a behavior is to take away the opportunity to practice the unwanted behavior. Every time a behavior occurs, the neural pathways in the brain, which govern that behavior become stronger, and the behavior becomes more likely to occur in the future. So, before you embark on any training, try and block out a period of time in your calendar when your dog is not going to have to go anywhere by car. The amount of time required will vary according to the strength of the behavior and the amount of time the owner can dedicate to the program.

Treat Search in the Car

Searching for treats is an activity most dogs really enjoy, and doing this regularly in your car can begin to off-set any negative associations with the car that your dog has. On top of this, sniffing reduces the heart rate and as such, helps the dog feel calm.

Step 1. With your car securely parked, open the doors, and scatter some tasty treats a

round the inside of the car. Allow the dog to climb in in his own time, and allow him to investigate the whole car, searching for the treats and moving freely. Resist the temptation to interfere, point things out, or even talk to him or praise him as he works. Just let him get on with it! If he chooses to leave after just finding one or two treats, do not force the issue. Simply take him back inside, and try again a few hours later, or the next day.

If he refuses to get into the car at all, you can start by scattering the treats around the car,

 with the car open, and perhaps place a couple of treat on the bottom of the door frame, so the dog can reach up and take them without getting in. The next time, try placing them a little further inside.

It is so important to do this at a level the dog can cope with it. Having choice is a really important element of overcoming fear, so just let him decide what he’s able for at any given time.

Step 2. Once your dog is happily hopping into the car to do his treat search, try sitting into the car yourself, and closing the doors as he does the treat search. When he is finished, open the doors, and you can both hop out.

Step 3. If your dog seems very relaxed with Step 2, repeat, but this time turn the engine on, without moving the car. If your dog seems uneasy, turn the engine off again, and repeat step 2 a few more times.

Getting Moving

Step 1. Is your dog happily searching for treats with you in the car and the engine on? Great! Now, for safety purposes you will have to make a few adjustments before moving the car, as you don’t want your dog clambering around as you try to drive! Repeat step 3, but this time you may like to give your dog a nice food based chew. Pizzles, cows’ ears and moon bones are very popular in my house, where we always opt for the more natural chew options. Chewing releases serotonin in the brain, a nice happy hormone! Once your dog is ensconced with his chew, try some slow movement in the car. Perhaps reverse out of your driveway, then drive back in, leave the car, and allow the dog to follow you in his own good time.

Step 2. Very slowly, increase the length of your drives, increasing the duration when your dog is perfectly relaxed with each step. Start off with less than a minute, then a minute or two, then 3-5 minutes, etc.

And there you have it! You’ve gradually counter-conditioned and desensitized your dog to travelling by car. During the process remember not to bring your dog for trips longer than what you’ve trained for, or bringing them anywhere frightening like the vets or groomers, or you risk undermining all of your hard work!

Does your dog bark while riding in the car? Read 5 Steps to Stop Your Dog from Barking in the Car to combat this behavior.

Steph Rousseau is a canine behaviorist and dog trainer based in Dublin, Ireland. She is a member of the PDTE (Pet Dog Trainers of Europe), and has spoken at various events around Europe. She blogs on her own website, and has a book coming out later this year.