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My dog is afraid to get into the car
When you bring a new dog or puppy into your home, part of the pleasure is taking your dog for walks in new places, trips to the beach, outings on your local trails, and visiting the dog off-leash area.
For many of you, this is exactly what happens but for some, that dream comes to a screeching halt when you discover that your dog is afraid to get into your car.
Was your dog a rescue and associates the car with bad experiences, is your dog a puppy who finds car trips make them nauseous, did your dog hurt themselves getting into the car and now are afraid to hop in?
You may never know ‘why’ your dog is afraid of getting into the car, but you can certainly tell when your dog doesn’t want to get into the car!
Cars will be a big part of your dog’s life from local trips to fun places, local trips to boring places, trips to the vet, and vacation trips. So many possibilities.
If your dog is afraid of getting into the car, it's important to grow their confidence and optimism. A dog who likes the car is a dog who will enjoy traveling to all the amazing places you want to take them.
It may take time (extreme cases can take a long time and a lot of patience), but you can change your dog’s emotional response to your car.
Here are some steps you can take to help your dog overcome their fear of the car.
Stop all Car Rides
Before you start working on the steps below, stop all car rides unless it is an emergency.
While you are working through your training plan, talk to your veterinarian about medication to help minimize your dog’s anxiety for unavoidable car trips.
Ditch the Car Routine
Does your dog start to show anxiety even before you leave the house? Think about your ‘we are going for a car ride’ routine and start to mix it up. By ditching your car routine, your dog will stop predicting that a car ride is imminent, and they will be more relaxed when you leave the house.
If you can identify the actions that increase your dog’s anxiety before you leave the front door, you can start to pair those actions with something good.
For example, if the leash causes an increase in your dog’s anxiety, pick up the leash, feed something yummy, put down the leash. Repeat 4 more times and put the leash away. Repeat throughout the day until your dog shows relaxed body language when you pick up the leash.
Start at a distance where your dog can see the car and still look comfortable. Your dog looks at the car, give a yummy treat, repeat. Gradually decrease the distance. At any point, if your dog starts to show signs of stress, go back to a distance where they are comfortable, practice there for a few more days and then try to move closer.
You are pairing the sight of your car with something your dog loves, such as their favorite toy or treat. This helps to change their emotional response from a negative association to a positive association.
When you leave and return to the house with your dog, change how you approach the car.
Being near the car is a good
Once your dog is comfortable being near the car, start playing the training games you learned in Confident Puppy, Becoming Adolescent, Tricks, or 90 Days to a Well-Behaved Dog. You can find more information on these and other courses on my Upcoming Classes page.
Start with the car doors closed.
Once you see relaxed body language, open both passenger side-car doors and play the games near the open doors.
Getting your dog into the car
Before you start. If your dog is sound sensitive and afraid of the beeps that your car may make, be sure to open the car doors before your dog is close enough to hear them or see the car. You can work on desensitizing your dog to these sounds as a separate training exercise. (For those with an inner geek, check out a series of science based posts on Dogs and Sounds by Eileen Anderson)
Step 1: If you have a platform or ramp, use it instead of asking your dog to jump into the car. This is a good option for dogs under 18 months of age to protect their bones and joints, for older dogs, or for heavier and bigger dogs.
If you use a platform, have your dog get on and then off the platform reinforce with their favorite toy or food.
Step 2: Throw the toy or food onto the car seat. You dog will jump in after the toy or food and will probably jump out the other side (it’s okay if they don’t!). Play, play, play. The car becomes like an agility tunnel! Repeat two or three times and then end the game. You don’t want to overwhelm your dog!
Always be aware of your surroundings. You may need an extra long leash and/or a helper to catch the leash or long-line as your dog exits the other side of the car. If it isn’t safe for your dog to play this way, skip this step and go to Step 3.
Step 3: As you see your dog relaxing and having fun moving in and through your car, close the opposite side door. Now your dog must jump in and turn around to get the toy or food before hopping out of the car…play, play, play. Now the car seat is part of a fun game. Repeat two or three times and then end the game. Always end with your dog wanting more!
Step 4: When your dog is having fun, close the door nearest you and open it right away. When your dog hops out, play, play, play. Repeat two or three times and end the game.
Step 5: Gradually grow the amount of time that both car doors are closed while you are standing outside.
Growing Calmness Inside the Car
When your dog is comfortable with the doors closed, start feeding one of their daily meals in the car. Using ‘Ditch the Bowl’ ideas, scatter their meal on the seat of the car, feed them using a lick mat, or give them a stuffed Kong.
Step 1: Put your dog in the car, close the door, you will get into the driver seat, give your dog their meal, stay in the car until your dog is finished eating. Get out of the car, let your dog out, play a few games, and either go for a walk or take your dog inside.
Step 2: When your dog is looking relaxed after they finish their meal (they may sit or lie down), wait 15 seconds and then get out of the car and let your dog out, play a few games, and either go for a walk or take your dog inside.
Step 3: Slowly increase the duration between when they finish eating and you let them out of the car. Always stopping when your dog is still relaxed.
While growing duration, don’t always make it harder. For example: Day 1 is 15 seconds, Day 2 is 15 seconds, Day 3 is 5 second, Day 4 is 30 seconds.
Your dog’s fear of your car is severe or causing distress
If your dog's fear of cars is severe or not showing any improvement,book a free 30 minute Struggles To Strengths Discovery Call with me.
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 help your dog overcome their fear of getting into your car.
Be consistent, continually build value for being near and inside the car, and always provide a supportive environment to help your dog build the confidence they need to feel safe inside your car.
With consistent, positive experiences, your dog can learn to relax in the car. Once they can relax when the car is stationary, you have a foundation upon which to build enjoyment for the car when it is moving!
Next month I will talk about how to make the car ride itself an enjoyable experience.
Absolute Dogs YouTube video: My Dog Hates Getting into the Car
Whole Dog Journal article: Help for a Dog with Car Phobia
A car can get too hot for your dog even on a cool sunny day. How Hot Does it Get in a Parked Car by Dr. Ernie Ward
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