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Stop Car Anxiety in Your Dog

While some dogs love the cool wind in their fur, others whimper at the very sight of an open vehicle door. For their owners, these steps can help stop car anxiety in your dog.

Because our dogs are our family, we want to take them everywhere, from shopping to the family vacation! However, not all dogs jump into the car ready to go. Some whine, pace in the seat, vomit, bark, or howl as soon as the floor starts to vibrate—whether or not actual motion sickness is the issue.

To help them grow more comfortable, we suggest taking it slow. Try habituating your dog to the new experience of a car ride:

Step 1 to stop car anxiety in your dog: Remain calm

If your dog is scared of the car, getting them comfortable will require patience on your end. Yelling or punishing your dog when they’re simply vocalizing their fear (that’s often what’s happening when they bark or otherwise protest), isn’t going to help. By responding negatively, your dog will only further associate the car with negative emotions.

If your dog is becoming anxious, stop. Wait for him or her to calm down, then try again. Remember your dog only understands the emotions you present to them. The more calm and positive you remain, the better your dog will respond.

Start with just getting into the car

It’s a simple task for us, but may be daunting for your pup! Try encouraging your dog to join you in the car, on their own (so ideally, avoid picking them up and forcing them inside). Use praises, their favorite toys, or treats in small amounts (avoid this if they tend to throw up). Don’t be disappointed if it takes repeat attempts over a few days to make this happen.

  • Your goal is to make the car a safe place for them to explore.
  • Lay out their favorite blanket and invite them in with their favorite treat.
  • Turn the car on so they get used to the noises—but don’t drive anywhere. Have them sit for a few minutes until they get calm.
  • Let them feel at home, then take them back inside.

Try it once a day until your dog is no longer hesitant to get into the car and can relax comfortably in the seat. 

Make the first drive short and sweet

When your dog is comfortable with getting into the car and relaxing there while the car is running, try taking them on a short ride—about 5 minutes. Be sure their favorite toys and/or blanket are in the seat with them. Continue to encourage and even reward them throughout the whole drive.

If you can, go somewhere fun. If your pal loves walks, drive down the street and take them on a short walk. This emphasizes to your dog that the car ride leads to something fun!

Exercise before the ride

If your dog seems to get all worked up in the car, try exercising them beforeyou even head out. Take them on a 20-minute walk, play fetch, sprint up and down the stairs a time or two… just do something to get their heart rate up before getting into the car. This will help wear them out so they are tired and less likely to over work themselves.

Ride with the windows down

Dogs love to smell things. Driving with the windows down even an inch or two creates an exciting sensory experience for your dog. It’s also a terrific distraction: they’ll be curious about all the many whiffs passing their way, and may be less stressed about the motion under paw. (A harness and seat belt attachment can help prevent them from jumping out if you’d like to roll the window down further.)

When all else fails….

Sometimes habituating does not do the trick! If you’ve tried everything and your best friend is still offering a firm “no way” to car rides, talk to your vet about anxiety medication. You may even come to find your dog is dealing with motion sickness, not anxiety. Your vet will be able to help you assess the causes, and prescribe a medication that will make necessary trips a little easier on your furry friend.

While we get excited about our destination, and the idea of having our pal join us, remember that your anxious dog isn’t seeing the upside… yet. Patience is key to helping him or her with their car anxiety—and just about any other behavior change you’d like to teach. Give it time.

Testing these solutions, and regular practice, will very often be the key to helping ease—or even stop car anxiety in your dog altogether. If you have any major concerns, always consult with your vet. Hopefully your dog will happily join our other College for Pets furry friends for a play date soon. Happy Traveling!

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