Whether you’re planning a long road trip with your favorite pup, or simply trying to get them to the dog park, a car ride can be very stressful for both of you if your dog experiences car anxiety.
Travel-related anxiety can happen for a variety of reasons, including fear of the car, fear of an unfamiliar situation, or simply discomfort from motion sickness. Here are some important things to know about recognizing travel anxiety in dogs and how to help your pup…
What is Dog Car Anxiety?
Dog car anxiety, or travel anxiety, is exactly what it sounds like — anxiety, stress, or fear that occurs due to being in a moving vehicle.
This could mean mild discomfort to full-blown panic, or any degree of stress between these two extremes. In addition to the mental and emotional consequences to a dog, an anxious dog can also be a dangerous distraction to the human driver.
What Causes Car Anxiety in Dogs?
For a number of reasons, a dog may associate a car with something bad happening.
For example, if the dog was abandoned, they may associate the car ride with going to the shelter and being left behind.
Or, imagine if a dog only goes on car rides to the vet’s office (or the groomer’s or a boarding facility, or anywhere else they’re not super excited to go). In the dog’s mind, every time they get inside the car, they think they’re heading somewhere that’s not very fun.
Sometimes, there’s no specific “cause” or event that happened to make a dog afraid of the car. Instead, some dogs just find the car to be a scary or uncomfortable place.
Think about it from the dog’s perspective. Their footing is unstable due to the car’s movement, and they may lose their balance and fall if the car makes a sudden stop or turn. There may be scary noises or an overwhelming amount of stimuli.
Also, some dogs (especially puppies) get car sick, which can make riding in the car very unpleasant, even if they otherwise enjoy ventures outside the home.
So, while plenty of dogs love being in the car, it’s natural and not unusual at all for others to dislike the experience.
Common Symptoms of Travel Anxiety in Dogs
Some of the most common signs of dog anxiety in a car include…
- Reluctance to get into the car.
- Whining, panting, or barking.
- Pacing or acting restless.
- Excessive drooling.
- Lip licking or lip smacking.
- Shaking or trembling.
Some of these symptoms can also be caused by motion sickness. A dog who is car sick might vomit, too, or they may just show more subtle symptoms of distress.
How to Prevent Car Anxiety
As with many things in life, prevention is the best medicine when it comes to car anxiety. If your dog is new to car rides, smart training strategies can help them learn to view the car as a fun (or at least neutral) place — so that travel anxiety never develops in the first place.
The main strategies used by behaviorists to get a dog used to the car include desensitization and counterconditioning, which are both types of healthy training techniques that avoid any type of punishment and help a dog feel safe.
Desensitization Helps a Dog Used to the Car Gradually
Trying to get a dog comfortable with the car with full-length drives can be a little like learning to swim by jumping into the deep end of a pool—it can be overwhelming.
A more comfortable strategy involves slowly introducing a dog to car rides — starting with the car parked and turned off.
Some pet parents start by playing with their dog — or giving them attention or delicious treats — near the parked car. Then, they will invite the dog to sit with them inside the car, while continuing to offer praise and treats. Initially, the doors of the car should be left open, so the dog doesn’t feel trapped.
Next, the positive time together can be repeated with the car door closed. Then, with the engine briefly turned on, then turned off again.
After that, short trips can be added — for example, starting with just a drive up the driveway or around the parking lot and back. Then, gradually increase the length of the drives.
Throughout each step of the desensitization process, give your dog praise, attention, treats, or playtime — or a combination of all of these, depending on what motivates your pup and helps make the experience a positive one.
If your dog ever reacts fearfully, that means the process is moving too fast for them. Go back to the previous step and try again.
Does this process sound slow? You’re right, it can require a lot of patience. For some dogs, the process can take weeks or even months. But it can make car rides much better for both you and your pooch in the long-term.
Counter-conditioning Teaches a Dog that the Car Is a Fun Place
Counter-conditioning is the term for training a dog to form a positive association to something — in this case, car rides.
This process was already partly covered in the above section on desensitization. When you offer your dog praise, quality time together, playtime, treats, or other positive reinforcement, that is helping to teach them that the car is a place where good things happen.
You can add additional counterconditioning benefits by driving your dog to fun places, once they’re ready for full-length car rides. For example, take them to a dog park, nature walk, or other location they would enjoy.
If possible, recruit a travel buddy who can sit with your dog and give them love and attention while you’re driving.
That way, your pup will associate the car with fun places, rather than just the vet’s office or groomer’s.
At What Age Can a Dog Begin Training for Car Rides?
Puppyhood is a great time to begin desensitization and counterconditioning, especially when it’s time for a puppy to begin socialization. But adult dogs can also learn to enjoy (or at least tolerate) car rides using this same process. It may just take a little longer.
For puppies, check with your vet as to when it is safe to begin socializing them or taking them to locations such as dog parks. Puppies are more prone to infectious diseases, which can be very dangerous, so it’s important to avoid exposing them to potential risks too soon.
One additional note on puppies: Since their inner ears are not yet fully developed, motion sickness is very common. Many will outgrow this issue, but it can initially create a negative association with the car. If your puppy has car sickness, talk to your vet team about the best time to begin longer car rides.
How to Help Your Dog with Travel Anxiety
If your dog already shows symptoms of car-related anxiety, don’t despair. There are many things you can do to help them.
The First Step Is to Get Motion Sickness Under Control
A dog’s motion sickness is often confused with travel anxiety, since both can cause symptoms such as drooling, restlessness, or other signs of distress. It’s especially common in puppies, but plenty of adult dogs get car sick, too.
Schedule a consultation with your vet to discuss your pet’s symptoms. Your vet can help determine if your pup truly has motion sickness. They can also prescribe medications to help, if needed.
Additionally, there are measures you can take that may help with mild motion-related tummy upset, including…
- Keep the car cool with the a/c or by cracking the windows.
- Create a comfy place for your dog to rest, so they aren’t looking out the windows or struggling to keep their balance.
- Limit food intake for a few hours prior to the car trip.
Many dogs experience a combination of motion sickness and travel anxiety, since nausea can make travel stressful to them. So it’s important to address motion sickness in addition to dog anxiety in cars.
Train Your Dog that the Car Is a Safe Place
Using the techniques of desensitization and counterconditioning, as described in the previous section, you can help your dog begin to see the car as a safe, or even fun, place.
While these techniques work best for dogs who don’t already have a negative association with the car, they can also be used to retrain a dog with car anxiety. It may just take a little longer.
Make the Car Ride as Comfortable as Possible
First, ensure everyone’s safety. Use a dog seatbelt or safety harness, set up a travel carrier or crate, or block off an area of the car. Not only will this prevent your dog from distracting you while you’re driving, it can also help a dog feel more secure and less likely to lose their footing, fall, or go flying forward in the event of sudden braking.
Also, consider these factors that can help your pup feel safe and comfortable…
- Place towels over the kennel or back windows to reduce overstimulation. Just make sure there is adequate airflow.
- Bring a comfort item, such as your dog’s bed or favorite toy, or an item of clothing that smells like you. Choose something washable if your pup is prone to car sickness.
- Play soft, soothing, or classical music.
- Distract your dog with a puzzle feeder filled with a special treat.
- For long car trips, bring adequate supplies (food and water) and make plenty of stops for potty breaks.
Use Non-Medical Calming Aids
The most popular options are probably a ThunderShirt and dog pheromone products.
A ThunderShirt is a snug vest made for dogs, which can provide comfort through gentle pressure.
Dog pheromones are synthetic substances that mimic calming scents that a mother dog would produce. Adaptil brand is widely available.
Consider Over-the-Counter Products and Homeopathic Remedies
Benadryl is a commonly used antihistamine that can reduce nausea from motion sickness and also make a dog feel drowsy. Another popular option is Rescue Remedy for Dogs, a homeopathic remedy that may help dogs with mild to moderate symptoms.
While these options are generally considered safe, they are not safe or appropriate for all dogs, and it’s important to give your dog the correct dose. Always check with your vet prior to giving a new medication or supplement.
Some dogs may benefit from prescription medications for anxiety or nausea. This is best determined via a consultation with your veterinarian.
For anti-anxiety medications, it’s always important to do a “trial run” prior to your road trip, since individual dogs respond differently and it may take some trial and error to choose the best medication and dose.
For your dog’s safety, always check with your vet prior to giving them any new medication.
How Your Vet Can Help
Your vet can help you create an individual success plan for taking your dog on car rides without stress or nausea. This may include training techniques, prescription or over the counter medications, general travel tips, or a combination of all of the above.
While the process of helping a dog with car anxiety may seem daunting, it helps to have a vet team that can guide you through the process and determine the best course of treatment for your individual pup.
Need help planning for your next car ride with your pup? Call us or schedule a telehealth consultation today so we can help make car travel more enjoyable, for both you and your favorite pup!