Riding in Cars with Dogs

by Tammy Wunsch

When you think about dogs in cars, most people picture eager canines bounding into the car, tails wagging, excited for a trip to…anywhere! However, this is not always the case. Some dogs experience extreme stress in a car. They pant and pace and become physically ill. They whine and act up, which can be distracting for a driver. While you don’t have to take your dog on all car trips, there are times when it is necessary, like going to the vet or groomer. I spoke with Marie Joyner, Our Companions Canine Operations Director, to get more information on the subject.

Dogs can become stressed due to nausea or motion sickness. Riding in a car is unfamiliar – there’s the sound of the engine, the traffic, and the vibration of the car. Rescue dogs may be traumatized from their ride to the shelter or their new, forever home. Dogs that have been involved in car accidents or hit by a car are also likely to be disturbed by the car experience. However, it is possible to train your dog to enjoy car rides if you are willing to invest some time and energy.

Create a comfortable area
One of the best ways to make your dog feel less stressed is to provide a safe, comfortable area in the car. Using a crate is highly recommended and you can experiment with whether your dog would prefer to have the crate covered or uncovered. Another safe space is on a soft bed secured with a crash-tested harness.

Ease into security
Your car-nervous dog won’t immediately be cured just because you have a crate or a harness. Dogs need to be trained to feel more secure. First, with the car turned off and all the doors open, lure the dog into the car with treats and allow him to sniff around. After he is comfortable with getting into the car, let him explore the car and crate with the crate’s door open. Then, start the engine while the dog is nearby. Reward him and turn the car off. Practice a few times.

Next, have him get into his crate in the car and turn the car on, without driving anywhere. Ensure the car temperature is on the cool side. After the dog has become comfortable with being in the car with the engine running, move the car out of the garage or a short distance. Immediately return to where you started and reward the dog. When the dog is comfortable with this short trip, drive around the block.
Eventually you will build a positive car association for your dog.

Make the trip itself a reward
When you have a dog who dislikes the car, the tendency is to limit car rides to excursions to the vet or groomer, which only strengthens the already-negative associations with riding in the car. The trick is to have your dog associate car rides with positive experiences. Bring him to fun destinations, like a park, a hiking trail, or to a play date.

Address specific triggers
For some dogs, sounds such as the roar of large trucks or the honking of car horns can cause distress. Marie recommends using the same reward system whenever a trigger like this is encountered, to help them feel less stressed. Some dogs react better if a person rides next to them.

Exercise is good for both of you
Release some pent-up energy and take the dog for a walk 15-20 minutes before a car trip. Exercise helps a dog reduce stress and releases hormones to better tolerate a car trip.

Set the mood
Experiment with different dog-calming scents. You can use a car diffuser or spray pheromones in the air. Pair scents with soothing music for a relaxing, low-stress journey.

Medical attention
If you have tried calming techniques to no avail, it may be necessary to seek medical attention. The vet can likely provide anti-nausea medication for motion sickness or anti-anxiety medicine for stress.

Be aware
Some dogs are naturally carsick in a car. Puppies may be prone to carsickness due to their underdeveloped ears. Carsickness is evidenced by nausea, vomiting, yawning, drooling, lip smacking, and whining. You could try training methods, soothing music, withholding food…and still have a carsick dog. When the first sign of carsickness presents, immediately stop the car and take the dog out for a short walk to recover his equilibrium. You may need to stop frequently and take numerous walks on long car journeys, but that is far better than watching your beloved dog suffer through carsickness.

It is worth trying all of these methods to relax and de-stress your car-averse dog. Keep in mind that, even if you have success, there may be times later on when your dog reverts to his previous, car-hating behavior. If this happens, don’t panic. Take a step back and start retraining again. With a little patience, it’s entirely possible that your best friend can learn to enjoy car rides and in time become an enthusiastic traveling companion.

How to Ensure Your Dog’s Car Safety
Many dog owners argue against restraining their dogs in the car. They think it will cause stress. In reality, restraining devices keep dogs safe and can provide better security for other passengers. An unrestrained dog can become a projectile, in the case of sudden impact, and could cause harm to himself and car passengers. Allowing dogs to go loose in the car also can create a distraction to the driver, a threat to emergency responders in the event of an accident; and result in injury to the dog – or his becoming lost – if he escapes the car.

The best methods for car restraint are a harness or a crate. It is necessary to use the right restraint method for your dog. The harness system has two parts: the harness itself and the tether that attaches to the car seat belt system. When buying a harness system, look for:
• Crash test statistics
• Broad, thickly padded straps
• A short tether which attaches at the dog’s back, never at the neck

A crate is especially helpful for an agitated dog and will effectively contain a dog after an accident. When buying a crate, look for:

• Sturdy construction
• The appropriate size for your dog
• A method to secure the crate to the seat belt system

Ideally, the crate should rest lengthwise in the backseat. If you have an SUV and plan to use the cargo area for the crate, ensure that it is not what is called the “crumple zone” of the vehicle. In this case you could consider asking your mechanic to install anchors in the car to further stabilize the crate. You should also remove your dog’s collar before he enters the crate to ensure that his tags do not become entangled and cause him harm.