When your dog hates the car

We tend to assume that dogs love to ride in the car – that every canine can't wait to hop in the back and stick his head out the window.

And lots of dogs do love the car, wagging and leaping around when they realize they get to go on a driving adventure with their humans. But others haaaaate car trips, whimpering and hiding under the bed (or requiring three full-size people to push them into the crate in the "way back" of the station wagon). Why is that, and what can dog owners who want to travel with their dogs – or just get them to the vet without a huge drama every time – do about it?

According to Steve Dale's recent piece on the topic, the first step is figuring out what's going on with Max. Why isn't he grabbing his tennis ball and gluing himself to your heels? Chances are he's associating the car with something negative: that trip to the vet, for one, or motion sickness he got from a car trip in the past. Dogs can get carsick just like humans can (we've heard a story about a twisty trip down Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles that quickly got ugly for dog, human, and car upholstery), but Dale recommends asking your vet about Cerenia, an anti-motion-sickness drug that comes in shot and pill formats.

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If your dog is afraid of the car because it always makes him throw up, Cerenia may offer a solution. The problem is, Fido may not understand that; he doesn't know what the pill is for. You'll have to do some training to desensitize your dog to the car as well, and start building positive associations for him. Dale counsels trying a pheromone collar (like Feliway, but for dogs), or Anxitane (an amino acid that soothes anxious pets), products that will tamp down nerves from the get-go.

After you've asked your vet about those products, you can deploy Dale's four-step program for conditioning dogs to like – or at least not actively fear – your vehicle.

At around mealtime, bring the dog to your car. Open the (back) doors, and play with a favorite toy nearby, occasionally tossing the toy into the car so your dog has to venture in to retrieve it. (You can also use treats if you think those will work better.) Don't start the car, or make the dog go inside; just keep playing near the car until Tiger doesn't show any fear of jumping inside for a biscuit. This could take a couple of tries, or a couple of weeks, depending on your dog's personality and how fearful she is.

When she's ready to move on, try the next step: feeding the dog in the back seat. With the dog on a leash, bring her to the car where the meal is already waiting, and let her jump onto the seat for dinner. When your dog comes to look forward to "meals on wheels," it's time for the next step.

It's just a small step, and it's also at dinner time. Bring Bella to the car and send her into the back seat for a big treat or a Kong filled with peanut butter – something it's going to take her some time to break down. Get into the driver's seat, start the car, and drive to the end of the driveway and back (or half a block – some short distance that won't freak her out). Stop the car, pile out with the dog, and take her inside for dinner; this step will further associate happy fun food time with the car for your dog by explicitly following a car ride (even a short one). Once this seems to be going well, drive a little further – to the end of the block. Two blocks. Dale says this step could take a while to finish, but when your hound seems "totally cool" in the care – even excited to be there – you're ready for the last leg of your dog's journey towards fear-free car living.

That last step doubles as a reward. Take a trip your dog would choose – someplace fun, like a park, a dog run, or a friend's house where there's another dog. Mix it up for the best results, going to one park one day, then another park, then a pet store for treats. Dale doesn't like advising owners to spend money on gas, but suggests a distance of 15 minutes or more for one of these pleasure trips, so both you and the dog can get a sense of whether he's ready for longer jaunts, or still a little bit freaked out.

It'll take time and patience, but once the dog is okay with getting in the car – or even eager to do it – your work is probably done. Still, Dale says, if you let the dog know it's time to go to the car, then jingle your keys, and the dog seems nervous or reluctant, you may need to back up and repeat a step, or slow things down.

Once your dog is ready to hit the road, you'll want to review some car-safety tips. Have fun!

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Elsewhere on Shine Pets:
PSA recommends having The Talk with your pets
Get ready for vacay with some pet-sitter prep
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