This is a collaborative post
For lots of dogs (and their owners!) the car is a cause of anxiety. It’s one of the most common causes of anxiety for dogs, but fortunately for you and your four-legged friend it’s also one of the easiest to overcome.
Dogs develop car anxiety for a multitude reasons, but it all comes down to something called classic conditioning. This is when your dog associates an object with a certain feeling, in this instance a negative one. For example, if you’ve had an accident with your dog in the car, the dog associates the fear felt during that accident with the car. It doesn’t even need to be anything as traumatic as an accident – things as simple as a vet trip, car sickness or being left alone can all be triggers for negative association.
The good news is classic conditioning can be an easy fix with desensitisation and counter conditioning. It sounds fancy, but all it really means is changing the car into a positive place your dog is used to.
First things first – your car needs to be safe. This means making sure it’s not just driveable, but is in good working order with an MOT and serviced by a mechanic. It also means traveling safely. The law says all dogs need to be suitably restrained so they aren’t a hazard or distraction. This can be with a seatbelt, secure bag or even a crate if your dog is previously crate trained – whatever works best for you and your dog. These steps minimise the chance of a traumatic event whilst your dog is in the car.
Before moving onto counter conditioning if your dog suffers with car sickness, address this issue first. Treating travel sickness can be a bit of a trial and error method as our dogs can’t tell us what’s wrong – some dogs prefer travelling on an empty stomach while others will benefit from a small amount of food before a journey. Generally ensuring they’re well hydrated and rolling the windows down a little for air circulation helps. If symptoms are severe, a chat with your vet about possible medications may be a good option.
Once you’ve checked this off as a possibility and ensured you have a safe environment, you can move onto desensitising and counter conditioning by following some simple steps:
1. Start with your car stationary (or if your dog is particularly fearful – even just near the car). Place your dog in the car as they’d usually travel and sit with them. Dole out treats and fuss for calm and quiet behaviour and don’t react to any negative behaviour. Repeat this until your dog is calm and relaxed in the car before moving on.
2. Now when you place your dog in the car, go sit in the driver’s seat away from your dog as you usually would when travelling. Again, ignore negative behaviour and reward calm behaviour. A chew toy can help with keep dogs distracted here or even placing an item of your clothing in the back with them.
3. Once your dog reacts well to the previous step, you can now turn the car on. This can be the trickiest step to overcome as engine noise is often the trigger for anxiety. Again, lots of verbal praise and treats are key here as well as positive energy from you. Dogs read human emotions very well and will pick up on any worries you have and react.
4. Time to move! Take this as slowly as you need to, even just pulling out of your driveway and back in again is a step. Build this up to a trip round the block, or a short drive. Make sure to praise and reward as you have for the previous steps.
5. Finally, once your dog is remaining calm and happy on short trips – take them to do something fun! Often we only take our dogs in cars for vet or grooming appointments which in themselves can be stressful. Take your dog to a new park, a pet shop or even on a playdate. These trips help confirm that getting in the car doesn’t always end up somewhere scary.
With all these steps, watch to see if your dog is showing any signs of fearful responses. You know your dog best and should be able to recognise abnormal behaviour. If it occurs, just move a step back in the process to help gain confidence again before moving on. Every dog is different and some are harder to help than others. You can try other tips like listening to different genres of music or homeopathic remedies.
If you’d like more dog antics, you can follow Herbie’s journey so far here!
Disclosure: This is a collaborative post