Dog in the back of a car

Q. What is the best way to get my dog accustomed to car rides?

A. Dogs who have difficulty with car rides usually fall into one of two categories: those who have motion sickness and those who have a fear of riding in the car. To prevent these problems from happening in the first place, it’s best to get dogs accustomed to car rides when they are still puppies.

Overcoming Motion Sickness

Puppies, like children, get motion sickness more easily than their elders do, most likely because their inner ear structures that control balance aren’t fully developed yet. Many dogs will eventually outgrow the problem, but if your dog starts to drool or vomit when you hit the road, there are some steps that you can take to remedy the situation.

First, limit your dog’s food and water intake for a couple of hours before any trip. Lower the car windows a few inches to provide fresh air and to equalize the air pressure, and keep the air temperature in the car cool. Get your dog used to being in a crate, and then to sitting in the crate while it's in the car (maybe provide a fun toy to distract him). Once he's comfortable with that, then you can take him, in the crate, on short rides, such as around the block. Provide him with praise for successful trips. Then gradually increase the length of the rides. If your dog still has trouble, consult your veterinarian about motion sickness medications.

Calming Fears Associated With Cars

Both puppies and dogs can develop a fear of riding in the car, either from previous experiences with motion sickness or from bad experiences in the car, such as accidents or because car rides always end at the veterinarian’s office.

As with any behavior issue, your first step in teaching your dog to enjoy car rides is talking to your veterinarian, whether you're dealing with a puppy or an older dog. Medical issues are at the heart of many behavior problems, and you cannot hope to change your pet’s behavior until any underlying health issues are addressed.

Once your dog is given a clean bill of health, you’ll want to provide him with positive associations with the car as early as possible. Start by getting your dog accustomed to being in his crate inside the car. Provide him with treats or meals while in the crate, without turning on the engine. Once he’s comfortable with that, try a short trip around the block, rewarding him for good behavior. As in the previous example, gradually increase the length of the car rides, building up tolerance with gentle, consistent handling and patience.

Try to end the ride with a pleasant experience, like a romp in the dog park or a hike in the woods. When you go to what can potentially be an unhappy place — such as the veterinarian, boarding kennel or groomer — be sure to have delicious treats to offer your dog.

If your dog still has trouble, you may need a little help from your veterinarian, and possibly from a trainer or behaviorist as well. In some cases, your veterinarian may prescribe an anti-anxiety medication to help your dog leave old behaviors — and old fears — behind.