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While some dogs are tail-wagging happy to ride in the car, others pant, pace and even become physically ill during a car trip. Anxious dogs are often left at home, but that’s not always an option; dogs have places they need to go, like the vet's office or the groomer's. For a frightened dog, the stress of riding in the car can have long-term effects; if not addressed early, the anxiety can escalate over time. And a fearful dog makes road trips — of any length — miserable for both pet and person.
If your dog is terrified of the car, careful planning and patient training can literally teach him to “relax and enjoy the ride.” Here are my favorite tactics for building canine confidence in the car.
Create a safe, comfortable resting area for your dog. A crate is one of the safest ways for your dog to travel; it helps protect him in an accident (research the crate, though, since some protect better than others) and helps minimize driver distractions. The crate can also be a dog’s refuge. Start by making your dog’s crate comfortable. The angle of the car seat can make a crate tilt backward, creating an unstable surface; make the area where your dog will be lying down as flat as possible; you can purchase a car leveler or create your own by placing rolled towels under a crate. Some dogs also do better with a breathable towel placed over the crate to block their view while others prefer to see what’s passing by outside.
Get your dog familiar with the car. Many dogs become anxious even before the engine starts, so it’s important to break the car ride down piece by piece. Start by loading your dog in the car and giving him a tasty treat for getting into his special area — then let him out immediately. Once he’s comfortable getting in the car, start the engine while your dog is near the car (but not inside it). Reward your dog and then turn the engine off. Next, have your dog get into the car and start the engine, but don’t move out of park; while your dog is in the car, give him a reward. When your dog is comfortable in the car, pull out of the garage, but immediately return. If your dog remains calm with this short drive, try a trip around the block. Pair each trip with a reward to alleviate your dog’s anxiety and create a positive association with the car.If your dog suffers from motion sickness in the car, consider replacing food treats with praise as a reward.
Arrange for your pup to visit some rewarding destinations. For many dogs, the fear of car trips is really a fear of the destination — they often end somewhere the dog doesn’t want to be, like the grooming facility or the veterinarian's office. To alleviate your dog’s stress, make the majority of car rides end somewhere fun. Drive to a nearby park for a game of fetch, to a hiking trail for a long walk, or to the dog park for a play date with some canine friends.
Address specific triggers. Certain sights and sounds may scare your dog when he’s in the car. My parents' dog, Quixote, is fine with the car, but is terrified of rumble strips. To counter your dog’s fear, offer a reward every time he sees or hears the thing that frightens him, no matter how short or long your trip.
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