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Dog’s Car Anxiety: Relieving stress, growing calmness
Does your dog get sick in the car, pant excessively, bark and whine when you are driving, bark and lunge at things outside of the vehicle, or get over-excited when you near your destination? If yes to any of these, read on!
In the previous post, you learned techniques for growing your dog’s confidence when approaching and entering your car along with how to teach your dog to relax inside the car with the doors closed, and the engine off.
Today’s post is going to talk about how to grow your dog’s confidence, optimism, and ability to relax when the vehicle is moving. You will also learn how to keep you and your dog safe while you are driving.
If your journey starts and ends with stress, you are likely to do less trips with your dog. By changing your dog’s emotional response from high arousal (fear, excitement, frustration) to calmness, you will make travel time more enjoyable for both of you.
Train for the Situation
While you are growing your dog’s ability to be calm and relaxed in the car, you can work on growing your dog’s confidence and optimism away from the vehicle.
Build a wobble pathway. When the car is moving, the surface your dog is standing on may wobble, lurch, and bounce. The unstable motion can be unsettling for dogs if they are not used to surfaces that move underneath them.
Grow your dog’s confidence around wobbly surfaces away from the car by creating a wobble pathway. Checkout this link “Building Puppy Confidence”. While this video is focused on puppies, you will get an idea of what a balance pathway is and then you can modify it by adding in items that wobble.
Teaching your dog to confidently walk over and stand on surfaces that wobble under their feet will make dealing with the motion of the vehicle something they can tolerate and even enjoy.
Grow your dog’s optimism. It requires a great deal of confidence and optimism for a dog to be trapped in a moving box watching things zipping past them and to remain calm. You can help your dog grow their overall optimism by playing games from the ‘Optimism Rocks’ ebook.
Teach your Dog to Disengage from Everything! If your dogs can’t disengage from squirrels, people, dogs, bikes, and so on when you are out on walks, your dog will not be able to disengage from those events when they are rushing past them in a vehicle. Teaching your dog that life’s distractions are ‘none of their business’ when you are out and about will provide the foundation skill you need to teach your dog to disengage from those same distractions when they are in the vehicle.
Learn how to teach disengagement. Read the DMT (Distraction Mark Treat) ebook by Absolute Dogs
Steps to Build Confidence when the Car is Moving
Once your dog is comfortable in the car with the doors closed, and the engine off it is time to start the engine. You want to make sure that your dog is comfortable with the engine running before the car starts to move. To observe how your dog responds when the car engine is running, do this preliminary step:
Step 1: Have your dog get into the car, keep the doors opens, and start the engine. While your dog is in the car, give a Kong, do a scatter feed, or feed one of their meals.
Can your dog take food? If yes, you can move onto Step 2. If your dog can’t take food, go to Sept 2023 blog post and work on the steps in the section “Getting your dog into the car’. Practice those steps with the engine on.
Step 2: Repeat Step 1 but close the car doors. You are still parked. While your dog is in the car, give a Kong, do a scatter feed, or feed one of their meals.
Can your dog take food? If yes, you can start to increase the time your dog is in the car with the engine running. If no, go back to Step 1.
Let your dog out of the car, play some games, or go for a walk.
Step 3: When your dog is calm and relaxed with the engine running, pull out of the garage or driveway, and immediately return. Let your dog out of the car and play some games, go for a walk, or do a scatter feed.
Step 4:If your dog remains calm with this short drive, try a trip around the block. When you get home, play a few games, and either go for a walk or take your dog inside.
Step 5: Gradually grow the duration of your car trips.
Car Trips are Non-Events
Once your dog is comfortable with short trips around your neighbourhood, it is time to teach your dog that car trips are non-events.
It will help your dog remain calm in a moving vehicle, if they learn that car trips don’t always lead to someplace fun.
You can teach this concept by taking your dog to a variety of places; a trip to the grocery store, the pharmacy, perhaps a trip to the beach where you read a book for 15 minutes and then go home. By presenting your dog with a variety of non-event trips, interspersed with trips to fun places, and the occasional trip to someplace they may not enjoy quite as much, you can start to grow calmness and the ability to relax when in a moving vehicle.
If your dog can’t predict where they are going when they get in the car, trips in the car will be non-events and their calmness will grow.
Changing the Predictors that Lead to Arousal in the Car
As your dog starts to enjoy their time in the car, they will likely start to make predictions about certain things. When the car slows, there is a cyclist, time to bark and lunge. My person is removing their seatbelt, we’re about to go for an off leash walk at my favourite beach, I can’t help but whine and yip.
Be aware of the mini events that lead to arousal when your dog is in the car. Each predictor is a tiny step, a little event that leads predictably to a bigger, more exciting (or scary) event.
What causes your dog’s arousal to increase when you are driving? Common situations are:
What can you do? Identify which predictors change your dog’s emotional response when they are in the car and focus on making each of those mini-events, a non-event to your dog.
For example, teach your dog that arriving at the destination doesn’t always mean something fun.
With Piper, she starts to whine and bark as we near home. For our situation, once the car is parked, I do one of three things:
Piper is learning that arriving home is a non-event. By changing the predictability picture, I can minimize the anticipation that stopping in the driveway predicts an immediate trip into the yard. Removing the ability to predict the outcome, lowers her arousal, and grows calmness as we turn onto our street.
What'sfilling your dog’s bucket? You may need to play calmer games before your dog gets into the car so that your dog starts out with an emptier bucket. When you arrive at your destination, make this a non-event by keeping your dog in the car, give a Kong, wait for calmness before letting your dog out of the car.
If your dog is still over-aroused when you let them out of the car, do some Figure of 8 Walking to help bring the arousal down (practice this at home before using it one the road!), or you could do a scatter feed (if no loose dogs are around) to reduce arousal.
If your dog suffers from motion sickness in the car, talk to your vet about medication to help reduce the nausea.
If your dog is scared, anxious, or panting heavily when travelling in the car, talk to your vet about medication to reduce your dog’s anxiety. The medication may provide you a larger window where you can grow your dog’s confidence before the anxiety kicks in.
Medication may also help if you have no choice but to take your dog somewhere. The medication will minimize the anxiety and not break the trust and confidence you are trying to build with your dog.
Create a safe, comfortable resting area for your dog
A crate is one of the safest ways for your dog to travel. Crates can provide protection in an accident, help minimize driver distractions from a restless dog, and be your dog’s refuge.
Start by making your dog’s crate comfortable.
Some dogs also do better with a breathable towel placed over the crate to block their view while others prefer to see what’s passing by outside.
Know your dog and experiment to find out what works best for them.
What Does Safety in the Car look like for You and Your Dog?
Check out the following resources on traveling safely with your dog. These give you a good overview but please do your own research before deciding what will work best for you and your dog. 1) The Center for Pet Safety. A non-profit research and consumer advocacy organization dedicated to the safety of our pets. 2) Whole Dog Journal: What is a Safe Dog Crate? Not specific to the car but good information on purchasing a crate. 3) Whole Dog Journal: Dog Car Harness Review 4) Whole Dog Journal: Dog Ramps: Does Your Dog Need One? 5) Outside Magazine: We Need to Talk About Keeping Dogs Safe in Cars 6) You can also search on 'dog car partitions' or 'dog car barriers' to find information on a barrier that will keep your dog in the back of your car or SUV.
Your dog’s fear of car travel is severe or causing distress
If your dog's fear of car travel is severe or not showing any improvement, book a free 30 minuteStruggles To Strengths Discovery Call
Getting help from a professional can move your training forward.
Every dog is unique
Remember, every dog is unique, and it may take time and patience to grow calmness when the vehicle is moving.
Be consistent, continually build up their confidence, optimism, and ability to disengage when the vehicle is in motion and always provide a supportive environment to help your dog feel safe inside your car.
With consistent, positive experiences, your dog can learn to relax in the car when it is moving!
Absolute Dogs Podcast: Problems in the car and solutions that overcome them!
Whole Dog Journal article: What to do if your Dog Gets Motion Sickness
A car can get too hot for your dog even on a cool sunny day. How Hot Does it Get in a Parked Carby Dr. Ernie Ward
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