Getting a Handle on Car Rides

Helping your pet become happy and confident in the car.

It’s summertime, and what could be better than taking off for a family vacation? For a lot of families, that includes the family dog(s). The idealistic image of a happy dog sitting quietly in the car next to an open window with his fur ruffling in the breeze as you approach the beach comes to mind. But what if your dog isn’t comfortable in a car? What if he gets car sick? (Now there’s a favorite part of a family vacation: cleaning up after an incident). What if he gets stressed and afraid? Or he becomes overexcited and overstimulated so he’s a pain to travel with? Do you want to subject him to a long ride? Can you stand it yourself? There are things you can do to help your dog become more comfortable in your vehicle and make those family dreams become a reality.

The first thing to do is figure out why your dog doesn’t like rides in the car. Perhaps he suffers from motion sickness. Perhaps he’s afraid of the car because he associates it with unpleasant destinations, the vet, for example. Perhaps he is suffering from general anxiety which manifests during car rides. Perhaps he is overstimulated with all the sights and sounds outside the car and reacts with fear or frustration.

The good news is there are things you can do to condition your dog to riding in the car, making it a much more pleasurable experience for him, and for you.

Car sickness and nausea can cause aversion to car travel. In some cases, cracking a window can help. Speak with your vet; he may recommend Dramamine or Diphenhydramine in mild cases, but they can have side effects. For extreme cases, ask him about Cerenia, as this medication was specifically designed to help traveling pets.

When a dog dislikes the car because he associates it with things that are not fun, you can easily fix that. Take your dog on frequent short trips in the car to enjoyable outings, such as the dog park, the pet store, a hike, or a visit to friends or family where he gets lots of positive and loving stimulation. He’ll soon associate the car with fun things and won’t be so reluctant to enter the vehicle.  

When a dog becomes overstimulated in the car, resulting in barking and lunging at things passing by, the most effective remedy is good old-fashioned training. Identify the things that trigger the behavior and work on gradually desensitizing him to those stresses. Simply work each individual step, rewarding for confidence and ensuring your dog is happy and calm before progressing.

Some dogs simply do not know how to cope with riding in a car, and may become anxious. In this case, training comes in again; it is vital to slowly counter-condition and desensitize the dog to what is causing him stress, and be sure to proceed at his own speed. If the dog is showing lack of coping skills in multiple environments, and the car is just one of many places the dog shows stress, then generalized anxiety may be a concern. Speak with your vet about whether or not Clomicalm / Clomipramine may be a good supplemental medication to aid alongside behavior modification.

Training for positive car associations

Phase 1: Entering the car

Step 1: Reward your dog heavily with lots of treats or games for walking towards the car. Discontinue the rewards as you move away from the car, so he has the good associations with actually approaching the vehicle and is not rewarded for leaving it.  

Step 2: Reward your dog for standing next to the car, with the doors closed. If he knows the “touch” command, progress to asking him to touch the car with his nose.  

Step 3: Reward your dog for going towards the entrance of the car, either an open side door or a hatch open in the back. Reinforce him for looking in that direction, and for sniffing or inspecting the entrance. Continue rewarding as he sticks his head into the car.  

Step 4: Encourage your dog to place his paws in the entrance to the car. Lure him in with treats, or lift the paw for him yourself and place it in the car. Help him by boosting his hind end up once he has his front paws in. Offer a huge reward for jumping in by himself.  

Phase 2: Staying relaxed in the car

Step 1: Reward your dog for being in the car, ensuring the engine is off at this point. Make a game out of it, praising and feeding treats that he especially loves when he displays happiness and confidence in the car. If you are using a crate, hide treats or food-dispensing toys in it and let him spend some quiet, non-stressful time playing there.  

Step 2: Repeat the above step, only with the engine turned on and the car in park. You may need to be very patient with him as some dogs will show signs of stress once they hear the engine. Go slowly and reward for calm behaviour and happiness and confidence.

Phase 3: Actually riding in the car

Step 1: Start with just moving the car up and down the driveway, rewarding heavily for calm behavior.

Step 2: Progress to a very short trip down the road, rewarding heavily. Stop about a quarter mile down the road and get out and walk the dog home. He will associate positive activities with the car ride.

Step 3: Increase the trips incrementally and slowly, keeping a close eye on him to determine what about the car ride triggers stress responses or behavior issues. It could be the amount of time spent in the car, the distance, or the speed. Take a step backward and work on these things again, only progressing to the next step when he is calm, confident, and happy.

Step 4: Use extra high-value treats (ones that he normally goes crazy for) or toys when going on longer car rides to keep him occupied and happy.

Have a great summer with your four-legged family members!

Tips for travel

Use a crate to keep your pet contained in the car. Consider placing a blanket or beach towel on top for dogs who become over stimulated, or suffer from nausea. Limiting visual triggers can greatly reduce stress. Alternatively use window clings to tint or block off visual stimuli.

Consider having someone ride next to him in the car to keep him calm and to give treats.

Use food dispensing toys (like Kongs, Sumo, or Titan) or chews (rawhides, antlers, bully sticks) to keep him occupied for the trip. If need be, skip a meal to increase his interest in the treats or chewys.  

Only release your pet out of the car when he is calm and controlled. Use the “wait” command to exit or enter the vehicle or crate.

Charlotte Wagner Harvey
About Charlotte Wagner Harvey 21 Articles
Charlotte Wagner Harvey holds a Bachelors of Science with honors in Animal Management from the University of Essex with a special interest in behavior. As a dog trainer and the owner of K9ology in Warrenton, she helps dog owners and dogs find common ground to establish a peaceful life together. Her core tenets: there are no shortcuts, it is hard, and do it right or don’t do it at all. She lives in Rappahannock County with her husband and a farm full of animals including horses, chickens, cats, and, of course, dogs.

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