Updated: May 18, 2021
There's loads of reasons for your dog to be stressed about getting in the car. Joy rides are not for everyone. Yes, it may seem stupid to you - but it's not your opinion that matters. We need to look at your dog's issue and change their perception of vehicles. So yeah ... your dog's opinion is what matters here ...
SICK TO THEIR STOMACH
You ever feel sick to your stomach and not want to do anything? You feel trapped! There you are awkwardly trying to hold a conversation while breathing through the nausea, clenching your stomach, and burping beneath your breath.
Yeah, drooling, gasping, burping, and hard panting usually means your dog is nauseous and stick to their stomach too. Just like people - dogs often suffer from motion sickness. In some cases, cracking a window open or minimizing their view helps relieve the sickness. In other cases you may need to use medication to overcome your dog's urge to yak all over the back seats.
Dramamine and Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) may help for travel, but are often counter-productive in behavior modification. If your dog is nauseous, talk to your vet about medication. If fear is the problem, then anti-nausea drugs will do no good. (Hey! At least we can work on process of elimination?)
DEPTH-PERCEPTION AND SPACIAL AWARENESS
Some dogs simply resist going into the car because they are scared of the unknown. Add in the fact that dog's don't see the world from the same perspective as we do ... and all of a sudden the simple task of getting in or out of the car is a struggle. If your dog hesitates to jump in and out of the car - it may be as simple as
1. Your dog cannot see properly into the car so does not feel safe going in and
2. Your dog has issues with depth perception and does not have the confidence to gauge how, where, and when to jump
To help your dog navigate better, make sure there are contrasting colors inside the car - use a bed, blanket, or hammock that is a different color than your car's interior. Also, make sure your dog can see outside the car to jump out - you may use a hand target or target disc to help them orient themselves.
YOU'RE MAKING CAR RIDES SUCK
I get it, we live in rural Virginia. Some dogs only see the car when it's necessary - to go to the vet, to see the groomer, and when being boarded. The problem is - if most of your dog's car rides end with being restrained, poked, prodded, or abandoned - they will quickly learn that shit happens when you get in the car. And I am talking about some bad shit from the dog's perspective.
Make sure that rides are fun for your dog to dilute or minimize the wrong association with travel. Take your dog to the park, drive through McDs and share some nuggets, or ask for a Pup Cup at your local Starbucks drive through. Anything you can do to make car rides positive, fun, and worth while will help keep your pooch enjoying the ride.
YOUR DOG IS BEING A DICK IN THE CAR
If your dog lunges, barks, paces, or tries to rip your face off in the car, then you're doing it wrong... and most likely you have waited until things became unbearable. For your consideration:
If your dog has barrier frustration, keep them occupied with a frozen Kong, treat, rawhide, whatever ... a pacifier works wonders.
Work on the "leave it" command in and out of the car, practice with triggers, non-triggers, wherever you go. Put a jar with treats in the front cup holder and be prepared to work on dis-engagement while driving (bring a friend if you need help! Be safe).
Alternatively, if you just don't feel like dealing with it while driving ... use a crate. Cover it with a drape, keep your dog occupied, and drive happy. Sometimes good management is just as good as training. Yes, crates are an excellent tool - they keep your dog safe, limit visibility, provide familiarity, and will help keep YOU sane.
We love the Ruffland Dog Crates for travel! Check them out! Alternatively, use a Front Range Harness or Load Up Car Harness to keep your dog safe. Additionally, you may want to invest in a good seatbelt attachment. I prefer to use one with a carabiner and attach it to the child seat restraint hook between the seats.
BUILDING CONFIDENCE IN THE CAR
So, you want an exercise to work on - here you go. Make sure you use a super tasty cracktastic reward when practicing. If the rewards suck, the dog is going to suck at learning. Remember - motivation is EVERYTHING.
Work each step and once you have mastered it, move on the the next. If you need specific help with car travel, book a private lesson for 1-on-1 help!
Step 1: reward your dog heavily for walking towards the car - turn around and walk away, discontinuing any rewards.
Step 2: reward your dog for standing next to the car. Maybe ask the dog to “touch” the car with the doors closed.
Step 3: reward your dog for going towards the entrance of the car. If you have a side door, or the hatch open - reinforce for your dog looking in that direction, sniffing the car, or inspecting it. Begin slowly rewarding for your dog sticking their head in the car.
Step 4 option 1: reward your dog for placing it’s paws on the car. Use the cue “paws up” and lure the dog. If need be, break further down for your dog lifting a paw, or putting one paw on the side of the car. Help your dog up by boosting the rear legs if possible - offer a “jackpot” reward if the dog will jump up all the way.
Step 4 option 2: play the "touch" game and help your dog build confidence by focusing on a hand target. Start off working and reinforcing the behavior outside of the car, and then slowly progress from in front of the car, encouraging your dog to jump for the target, paws in the car, and eventually leap into the car to get to the target (yes, you will need to extend your arm inside the car .... and keep it nice and high!)
Step 5: reward your dog heavily for jumping in the car. JACKPOT!
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 high value rewards for your dog being happy and confident once in the car. If a crate is used for confinement, hide lots of little treats in the crate. Try feeding a stuffed food dispensing toy (Kong, Sumo, Titan) with your dog confined and the engine off.
Step 2: repeat the above step, but turn the engine on. Some dogs will begin to show stress once they hear the engine. Ensure to reward for impulse control for dogs that are easily over-excited. Mark “yes” and reward for focus, confident, but calm behavior.
Step 3: Move the car just up and down the driveway, reward in the car, and stop reinforcing the dog as soon as you leave the vehicle.
Step 1: start with short trips down the road, rewarding heavily. Once you get a quarter mile away, stop the car, get out, and walk the dog home. This way the dog will associate positive activities with the car drive.
Step 2: increase your drive - slowly. See what triggers your dog - is it time spent in the car? distance? speed? Identify triggers and work through them one step at a time.
Stop 3: If need be, have someone sit in the back with the dog. If that is not possible, consider investing in a remote controlled food dispensing tool (manners minder, pet tutor, etc) to assist in the training. Use high value rewards, stuffed toys, and prized chews for longer car rides.
BOOSTING YOUR DOG
Some dogs just need a little bit of help! Here's some ways to boost your dog to build confidence.
Place front paws inside car (or use "touch")
Place one back paw near rim of car (if the dog can reach)
Help boost your dog's bottom and let go when you feel them grip
Repeat over and over for 5-10 mins at a time and reward when dog is in the car.
HELPING THEM OUT
If your dog has issues jumping out of the car, make sure to:
Use leash pressure going out of the car (direction which dog should jump)
Lift dog at torso until their feet are gripping the edge of the car
Gentle help dog tilt forwards, when you feel them teeter, let the dog jump out!