Calming Your Dog Down in the Car: A Road Trip Guide
While a dog and a car ride might seem like a tale as old as time, not all pets enjoy this particular mode of transportation. If your dog gets scared in the car, there are multiple steps that you can take to make your next road trip much more pleasant for everyone involved.
Put Them in Their Cozy Crate
If your dog is feeling uncomfortable in a new situation, giving them something that exudes comfort is incredibly helpful. Introducing an item or object that is familiar to your dog will make this new experience less daunting and will carry with it positive associations.
After training and acclimating your dog to their crate, there is perhaps no place on the planet where they will feel more at home. Anyone with a crate-trained pet can attest to this: a dog’s crate is their safe space. Their crate can be their safe space both in the home, in a place where they already feel comfortable, and in entirely new places.
We can take advantage of the ease that our dogs feel while they are in their crates by bringing them into the car with us. There are actually a few advantages to taking your dog’s crate along for the ride.
First, their crate is a symbol of peace and relaxation. It also smells like them, so it automatically makes this new environment (the car) feel more like it’s somewhere that they belong.
Next, having your dog in a crate means that they are secure and are therefore unable to roam around the car too much. This is crucial for both the dog and any people who might be in the car. For dogs, being secured is much safer. For people, being disrupted by a wayward dog can be dangerous and distracting.
Also, when your pet just stays in one spot, there is less stimulus for them to experience, making the ride less overwhelming. Unfortunately, dogs can have symptoms of motion sickness, just like people. Having less to look at can help them feel better. To reduce the number of stimuli even more, consider draping a blanket or towel over a few sides of the crate. If your dog can only see out one side, they are likely to be calmer.
Work on Desensitizing Them to the Car
If your dog already has some negative associations surrounding being in the car, then this is where you will have to start. Before you can even hope of your pet enjoying a nice ride, they first have to understand that the car is nothing to fear. If your dog does not show any signs of stress when in the car, but you want them to enjoy it more, you can skip to our next step.
Desensitizing a dog to being in and around the car is not terribly difficult, but it absolutely requires a lot of patience. As we will delve into more in a bit, rushing your dog’s process will only create negative consequences long term, so it should be avoided.
Show Them That the Car Isn’t a Scary Place
If your dog begins showing signs of apprehension even just being near a car, this is where you’ll have to start. First, just walk them near the car, and let them see that there is nothing to be afraid of.
Next, you can up the ante by opening the doors to the car. Let your dog explore the interior of the vehicle at their own pace, and know that it might not happen immediately.
If they don’t want to be anywhere near the car, try offering up some delicious treats. Just putting them around the car is a wise move if your dog won’t even approach the vehicle.
Later, you can put treats in the interior of the car, and your pet will eventually realize that this is actually a safe space rather than something to fear.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
When dispelling negative associations in dogs, there is one cardinal rule. Slow and steady always wins the race. If you try to speed through the process before your dog is good and ready, you will only end up doing more harm in the long run.
It’s much more difficult (but not impossible) to build a positive association when there is already a negative association in the way. Reinforcing the negative feelings will only make it harder.
Knowing when to push your dog just slightly out of their comfort zone versus knowing when to let them lead the way can be a difficult balance to strike. You have to take the time to know your dog and understand their signals.
What do they do when they are nervous or relaxed? Do they shut down when they are in new situations for the first time? Patience is the name of the game, but understanding and compassion are also crucial.
Create Positive Associations With the Car
Once your dog no longer fears being in the car, we can now move on to the next step, which admittedly is much more fun. For some dogs, tolerating the car might be as good as it gets, and that is okay. However, other dogs might have the capacity to genuinely enjoy a car ride. In order to get them to that point, you will have to work on fostering positive associations.
Basically, this means you have to positively reinforce your dog whenever anything having to do with the car occurs. This could be them getting into the car on their own, you going for a ride together, or even just being near the car. Positive reinforcement is not only a fun way to bond with your pet, but it has also been shown to be much better than negative reinforcement in the long run.
Studies show that dogs who have been trained using more negative reinforcement (also known as “aversive-based training methods”) are more prone to having stress responses. This is, above all else, very unpleasant for your dog and, therefore, should be avoided. However, if a dog is afraid of training, this can also easily weaken your relationship and the trust you share.
As a result of all this, it is a much better idea for everyone involved to engage in positive reinforcement rather than negative. Your dog will feel more comfortable and supported, your bond together can flourish, and everyone can have fun during training. Luckily, there are many simple ways to create positive associations with your dog when it comes to cars.
Go Places That Your Dog Enjoys
If you only ever bring your dog to the vet when they enter the car, it stands to reason that they will inevitably end up with a phobia. Even though regular check-ups are important, you would be hard-pressed to find a dog who enjoys a visit to the vet. Once your dog understands that going in the car only leads to negative outcomes, they are going to be resistant to ever going for a drive.
You can nip this problem in the bud by varying the destinations of your car rides together. Sure, some unpleasant trips are bound to come up from time to time, but make sure that they are few and far between. On other occasions, teach your dog that going in the car means that they get to go to their favorite dog park, or to visit their best puppy pal.
This will show your dog that a trip in the car is nothing to be afraid of, and they might even be excited by the prospect of a ride!
Bring Fun Toys Along for the Ride
Another way to spruce up an average car ride is to take some of your dog’s toys. Since the toys smell like your dog, they will feel more comfortable immediately. Having these trusted companions by their side will show your dog that this is a happy place.
At the same time, having favorite toys nearby can also serve as an excellent distraction for an otherwise nervous dog. Playing with a squeaky toy can serve as the perfect way to get rid of some of their nervous energy, rather than dwelling in it and just becoming more scared.
Before heading out, put some of your pet’s toys into their crate. You can even use these toys to help lure your dog into the car if there is still a bit of hesitancy.
Have Treats at the Ready
It isn’t necessarily the best idea to feed your dog treats while the car is moving. Motion sickness is a possibility for dogs, and feelings of anxiety will only increase those symptoms. In order to avoid a mess, keep the treats out of sight until you get to your destination.
Once you arrive, however, feel free to break out some of your dog’s highest reward treats to congratulate and praise them on a job well done.
A Ride To Remember
With enough patience and understanding, you and your dog can be living the high life on the highway in no time.
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