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Dog Car Anxiety: How To Relieve Dog Stress

January 2, 2022

Just like people, some dogs are more prone to feelings of anxiety than others. This discrepancy can become readily apparent when it is time for a ride in the car. Some dogs will take to car rides easily, and perhaps even revel in them.

Maybe they will actively and alertly scout out all the surrounding sights with their ears perked up and tail wagging. Meanwhile, there are dogs who are on the complete other side of the spectrum who experience significant amounts of discomfort when it comes to cars.

This can be tough because car rides are often a necessary part of a dog’s routine even if they do not happen particularly often. A trip to the vet is typically punctuated on either side by a car ride of some length. It is recommended that adult pets see the vet at least once annually, whereas senior pets are recommended to see the vet twice per year.

This means that a trip in the car is unavoidable at times, as these trips to the vet for a checkup are key to maintaining your dog’s overall health. While we as pet parents may understand the importance of these rides, our dogs likely do not. Instead, they may experience some level of discomfort and confusion that leads to anxiety.

We never want our animals to feel any unpleasant emotions, so after identifying possible signs of car anxiety, the natural next step is to resolve to help them. If you are wondering how to help your dog feel more at ease with rides in the car, this is the article for you.

Why Are Some Dogs Afraid of Car Rides?

Dogs that experience greater amounts of fear, in general, will be more likely to feel car anxiety than their confident peers. However, that does not mean dogs with naturally nervous demeanors can’t be helped when it comes to their car woes. Then, there are dogs who have created specific associations surrounding cars that have colored their perceptions.

This situation could occur after rescuing a shelter dog. In this case, it is likely that you do not know their entire history. Perhaps they have had some traumatic experiences with cars in their past, or they have just learned that getting into a car means going somewhere they find seriously unpleasant. If a car ride always leads to a trip to the vet, it stands to reason that they would not be all that excited to go for a drive.

Then there is the possibility that you are dealing with a puppy or younger dog who has simply not seen, been around, or been inside a car before. If this is the case, there might not be any inherent fear about going for a drive, but there could still be a bit of an adjustment period before your pet feels entirely comfortable.

No matter what the situation is for your dog, many of the processes for getting them more comfortable with going for a ride are quite similar. They all revolve around forming positive associations with the car, and showing your dog that a drive is nothing to be afraid of. The only real question is if your dog is forming these associations for the first time, or if you have to work on breaking down some prior negative associations before proceeding.

How Do Dogs Show Anxiety in the Car?

If you are reading this article, you may already be well aware that your dog is experiencing anxiety in the car and you simply want to know how these feelings can be helped. However, we must first understand the many different ways anxiety can manifest in dogs, and how they can try to communicate their emotions to us. Once we understand their ways of communicating, it will become much easier to assess how they are feeling in the future, both in the car and out of it.

Dogs experiencing car-specific anxiety will show their fears in similar ways to dogs experiencing any other kind of anxiety. Just a few of these possible signs include:

  • Shaking
  • Whining
  • Barking
  • Attempting to escape when inside the car
  • Trying to avoid entering the car
  • Frequently licking themselves, especially their paws
  • Licking their lips
  • Vomiting
  • Urinating or defecating

If your dog is doing any of these behaviors in the car, it is entirely possible that they are experiencing some amount of car anxiety. In order to help them to ease their fears, we have a list of helpful suggestions below.

Gradually Desensitize Them to Being in the Car

Fear is largely about negative associations, and desensitization is one of the most helpful therapeutic methods out there to help break down anxiety. This principle works in humans as well, and it is a fairly simple concept.

Fear causes more fear, so it is key to stop that cycle as it attempts to start. Rather than developing a phobia surrounding cars, showing your dog that a car-related experience does not have to be a scary one is an immensely helpful strategy.

Make sure to take this process slowly and steadily, as pushing your dog too far too fast can lead to even more trepidation than before. These should always be pleasant experiences so that your dog will understand that cars can actually be fun, or at the very least not scary.

Lead Them to the Car

The first step in slowly teaching your dog that cars are not anything to fear is to just lead them to the car itself. Let them see the car, and understand that it is not a threatening sight. If this part of the process is giving them some amount of anxiety, consider giving them a treat, or bringing their favorite toy along for the adventure.

Do whatever keeps your dog the most comfortable so that they will be in a good emotional place to accept their surroundings. Knowing your dog well is integral to finding the very best and most effective forms of positive reinforcement for them.

Get Your Dog Comfortable With the Door Opening and Closing

Now that your dog is ok with just being around the car, it is time to get them acquainted with the process of opening and closing the door. When you do open the door, absolutely do not force them into the car. If they are not ready to enter the inside of the car for the first few tries, that is perfectly fine. Again, we need to move at their speed for them to be comfortable.

Allow Them To Explore the Car’s Interior

After your pet understands that the mere presence of a car and the idea of an open door is not a sight to fear, we can move on to the next step. As we mentioned before, do not expect your dog to immediately hop into the car, as this will more than likely not be the case for dogs working through previous negative associations. Instead, leave the door open and let them sniff around.

If they are not expressing any interest in the interior of the car at all, place some of their favorite treats inside to drum up curiosity. Then, the name of the game is to be as patient as possible. Even if they do not enter the car today, with enough repetition they will realize that the car is not a threat and that those treats should not be left uneaten.

The first time they explore the car, the door should be left wide open so that they can enter and leave as they please. They should never feel trapped at this stage, and being in the car should always be their choice. However, things will start to change a bit during our next step.

Close the Door Briefly

Only move onto this step once your dog has explored the entire car, preferably multiple times. They need to feel comfortable in the car, or else this will only add to their fear. Once they feel at ease in the car’s interior, you can enter the car with them and close the door for a very short period of time. Comfort them with pets, treats, toys, and whatever they need during this time.

Assess their reaction to the door being closed, and open it preferably before there is any sign of anxiety. Keep them distracted with happy items for as long as possible, but at the beginning, the door should only be shut for a little while. Then, as they gradually get more comfortable, you can build up to longer periods of time where the door is closed.

Eventually, you can close the door and sit in the front seat as if you were driving. During this time you will be unable to distract them, but gauge how they are feeling. Once they seem to be relatively comfortable, it is time for the last step.

Go for a Short Ride

This is it. You have laid all the groundwork, and put in the time, effort, and affection necessary to show your dog that they are safe in the car. Now it is time to put that to the test. Secure your dog, close the doors, get in the driver’s seat, and go for a short ride.

Like with all the other steps, the first attempt at this should be very quick. Start with just turning on the engine and seeing how they react. Next, back out of your driveway briefly and come back in. Going around the block would work well as your next step up. Drive slowly and calmly, not making any abrupt turns or stops. See how your dog does with this short ride, and when you get back to your house, make sure to reward them with an abundance of love and treats.

As they get more comfortable, you can work up to longer rides. Eventually, your dog should be much more settled when it comes to riding in the car. Even if it is never their favorite activity, they will now understand that it does not need to be as big of a source of anxiety as it once was.

Make Their Space as Comfortable as Possible

It is important to keep your dog secure while they are in the car, both for their emotional well-being and for their physical safety. For smaller dogs, the Passenger Travel Carrier provides a well-sized home away from home that has a five-star crash test rating from the Center for Pet Safety. Include some of their favorite blankets and toys in the space to make it even cozier.

Create the Best Environment To Avoid Motion Sickness

Motion sickness is an annoyance that many people have to put up with, and our dogs can, unfortunately, be afflicted by it as well. Car sickness is especially common in puppies, as the condition is a result of their inner ear not yet being fully developed. Luckily, there are some precautions that can be taken to make motion sickness less of a concern for both you and your dog.

Do Not Overfeed Them Before Leaving

Making sure that your dog is not overfed is possibly the most surefire way to guarantee that there will not be any vomit-related accidents while on the road. Keep their food and water intake to a minimum for a few hours before heading out.

Keep the Car Cool

A cooler environment will help your dog feel less nauseous, therefore keeping them much more comfortable. Do not hesitate to put the air conditioner to use, especially during the hotter summer months.

Lower the Window a Bit To Get Fresh Air

While air conditioners are all well and good, there are some advantages that only some fresh air can give us. When people are nauseous in the car, rolling down the window is a common practice to relieve the discomfort. Luckily, this solution also works for dogs.

Give Your Dog Some Exercise in Advance

By taking your dog out for some high-quality exercise just a little while before heading on the road, they will have less energy to devote to anxiety. This will cause them to feel less nauseous and significantly more comfortable.

A Relaxing Ride

Whether your dog is just starting their lifelong relationship with cars, or if they are now learning to see them in a different light, there are a plethora of ways to help them feel more comfortable. Be very cognizant of their emotions every step of the way, and move as slowly as they need throughout the process. Always be ready with treats and affection, and your furry friend will be feeling more comfortable before you know it.


How Often Should Your Pet See a Veterinarian? | Pet WebMD

Motion Sickness in Dogs | VCA Animal Hospital

Dog Anxiety in Car Rides: How To Relieve Dog Stress | American Kennel Club

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