Dog in car

Q: Once my dog gets in the car, she won’t get out. I literally have to push her from behind while someone in front pulls on her collar. What can I do?

A: Stories of dogs refusing to get out of the car have been common among my clients this past year. There are a variety of reasons dogs opt to stay in the car, but each one has a simple training solution.

Keep in mind that any time your dog rides in the car, she should be secured in a crate, for her safety and yours.

So why is your dog resisting getting out of the car? Here are five common reasons, plus strategies for dealing with them.

Teach Your Dog to Leave the Car

Your dog doesn’t want to miss out on any fun. Car trips often take canines to a favorite place such as the beach, dog park or doggy day care. After a round of errands, your dog may not want to get out of the car since that might mean she will miss out on another fun outing.

Solution: Train your dog to get out of the car on cue. Start by teaching her to hand target. Practice in a situation where your dog is relaxed, such as getting on and off a deck or lawn furniture. Have your dog follow your hand as she gets on and off the deck. Follow with a reward she enjoys, such as a treat or a game of fetch. Once your dog is reliably following your hand and climbing on and off the deck or lawn chair, move the training to the car. When your dog gets out of the car, reward her with a fun activity, such as a food puzzle or a game of tug.

The car is her safe den area. Maybe your dog was taken on frequent car rides during her socialization period as a puppy, maybe she likes the cushy seats, or maybe she just enjoys the gentle warmth when it’s cold outside. Dogs like to have comfortable and safe places to rest, and for your canine, the car may be her chosen place, especially since it offers a high vantage point from which to view her surroundings.

Solution: To keep your dog from treating the car as her favorite safe place, create a denlike area in your home for her. Make a crate or doggy-proofed area inviting with soft bedding, chews and toys. 

Being pulled out of the car is stressful. Your dog may not want to jump out of the car because you are pulling on her collar; instead, she will pull back in opposition to the pressure, a normal response for dogs. She may also feel trapped by having people enclosing her on both sides, and she tries to fight to stay in her safety zone inside the car rather than be pulled or pushed out.

Solution: Train your dog to move with pressure when her collar is pulled. Although hand targeting and luring are preferred, your dog should still be taught how to respond when her collar is pulled.

Getting out of the car is scary or painful. Some dogs get nervous with the big jump down from the car and will choose to stay in the car rather than take the risk. For other dogs, pain can be a contributing factor, especially if they have jumped out easily in the past. Various conditions, such as arthritis or a luxating patella, can cause a dog to hesitate when getting out of the car, because getting down equals pain.

Solution: Pet ramps that attach to cars allow your dog to get in and out of the car without having to jump. Ramps are ideal for timid and fearful dogs, as well as for dogs experiencing pain. If you suspect pain is a problem with your pet, talk to your veterinarian. There are a variety of treatments available to make life more comfortable for a pet experiencing chronic pain.

Your dog may be anxious or may be guarding her space. Some dogs get extremely stressed and fearful on car trips. Fear can cause some dogs to freeze up and be unable to move; these dogs can take awhile to get back to normal even after the car stops. Other dogs will guard their sleeping and resting spaces — including their seat in the car. These dogs may stiffen up when you approach and show signs of stress, such as a narrowing of the eyes and a tightened mouth. Be extremely cautious if this is how your dog is behaving as she may bite to keep others away from her special spot.

Solution: If your dog is displaying signs of anxiety, aggression or guarding in the car, talk to your veterinarian. He can help you address the problem or refer you to a positive reinforcement trainer as these issues can get more serious without intervention and may result in a bite.