by Jenny Turner
Fear of riding in the car is usually caused by one of two reasons: poor socialisation or a previous bad experience. Either way, to train a dog to enjoy riding in the car we need to change the association they feel towards the car, to a positive experience.
Poor socialisation can be due to age. Your puppy may be very young and generally scared or cautious of anything new, or an older dog may not have ridden in the car regularly, or for a long time. A previous bad experience may include regular car sickness, being involved in an accident, or being hit by a car. Dogs will even associate the car journey with a bad experience at the destination. For example, your dog may be unwilling to get into the car if the only destination he ever goes to is the vet’s office, if he associates that with stress and discomfort.
As with all training, we need to break down the final action into small stages, then train and reward each stage. The first stage is getting the dog to go near the car willingly. Use something that your dog finds rewarding to get him beside the car, such as a treat or ball to lure him there, then reward by giving the treat, or playing a game of fetch beside the car.
The next stage is getting into the car. Two good methods are to get into the car yourself and feed your dog his meals in the car. Often a young puppy will feel safer approaching a scary situation if the person they trust the most (you) goes in first. Prepare your dog’s daily meal, then walk to the car, open the door or hatch, climb in yourself, then use the food bowl to lure your dog into the car behind you. If he follows, pet him and make a big fuss, then give him his meal as a reward. If he doesn’t follow, then you need to go back to stage one again, or break stage two into smaller increments. Instead of asking the dog to climb all the way inside the car, reward the dog for standing or sitting very close to the car, or sniffing inside the car, or putting one or two paws into the car. Reward these smaller increments, and your dog will become comfortable at this level, then he’ll want to do more to please you and get further rewards.
Once your dog is comfortable sitting in the car with you, it’s time to move to stage three. This stage involves you getting in the front seat. Evaluate how your dog copes with your getting out of the back and into the front. If he copes well, you can move onto the next stage. If he copes poorly, you’ll need to break this stage down again. First open the door that you are going to exit by, then reward your dog. Next put your feet on the ground, stand up, sit back down again, and reward your dog. Keep moving in small steps until you can get into the driver’s seat while your dog stays calm.
The next stage is to start the engine of the car. Assuming you will need to be in the front seat to do this, and your dog will be in the back, you’ll need to toss a treat to your dog as a reward for remaining calm.
Once your dog is comfortable sitting in the car with the engine running, it’s time to introduce your restraining equipment. For the safety of your dog, you should put them either in a crate or a harness designed for riding in the car. The reason we don’t introduce this equipment before now is that we don’t want the dog to transfer their current fear of the car to the equipment, therefore creating the need to retrain again. A dog that starts to panic while confined to a crate or strapped into a car harness, because you are exiting the car without them, will become very unwilling to get into the crate or the harness again. The same can be said if they start to panic when you finally put the car in gear and begin to move, but I cannot recommend taking your dog for a ride, no matter how short, without having him restrained for his own safety. To be sure your dog is comfortable in his crate or harness, go back to stage two (where you are sitting in the back with your dog). Put him in the crate or harness, reward for being calm, then move to stage three (you getting out of the back and into the driver’s seat), reward again, then move to stage four where you start the engine, and reward again. This may need to be done over a few training sessions, or your dog may accept their restraint readily and be comfortable moving at a faster pace – you’ll need to assess this as you go.
Now it’s time to take a spin around the block. Take it slowly and smoothly; sudden braking and acceleration will probably scare your dog. Make it a very short trip (just a couple of minutes at first, then building up) and talk to your dog calmly and reassuringly. If you can do it safely, toss some treats to your dog from time to time. Once you have successfully taken a few trips around the block you can start taking your dog with you on short errands. Be sure to take your dog to fun places, such as the dog park or beach, so that your dog associates a ride in the car with a wonderful destination. But remember: never leave your dog in the car on a hot day – the temperature inside a locked car can soar to deadly levels in less than 10 minutes.
Motion sickness is often suffered by young puppies. Over time they usually grow out of it, especially if they are given plenty of short rides in the car. To avoid making a mess of your upholstery, it’s best to put your dog in a crate with a waterproof liner. Be sure your dog hasn’t eaten for many hours, or better still since the day before, and be sure the car has adequate ventilation. If your dog begins to show signs of sickness, such as excessive panting or drooling, stop the car and turn off the engine. Severe stress can also cause your dog to become sick. However, if you have followed the steps above, and most importantly, not moved to the next stage until your dog is fully comfortable with the previous stage, he should be calm enough by the time you begin taking short rides to avoid become sick due to stress.
Remember, train each step completely before moving to the next stage, and break stages down into smaller pieces if need be. You should have a dog who loves riding in the car in no time.