Most dogs are thrilled at the prospect of a ride in the car. Leaping in willingly, they either settle down for a relaxing nap, race back and forth barking excitedly at every passing car or pedestrian, or gaze out the window, sniffing the air and anticipating a fun adventure. There are some dogs, however, who fear car rides. Some dogs dislike car rides from their first experience. Others seem fine when riding in a car until something happens that frightens them. For example, if a dog who has always enjoyed riding in the car experiences some trauma, like an accident, she might develop a lasting fear of riding in cars. Puppies and adult dogs who are new to riding in cars typically suffer motion sickness the first few times, but most grow out of it. Unfortunately, some dogs don’t, and these individuals have a really tough time learning to enjoy the experience. Sometimes dogs develop an aversion to car rides because they only ride in cars when going to the veterinary clinic. Imagine if you only rode in a car to go get vaccinations somewhere—you’d soon learn to dislike the car, too!
Other Possible Causes of Fear of Riding in Cars
See your veterinarian if your dog suffers persistent motion sickness. Dogs with motion sickness seem inactive and listless. They often drool and progress to vomiting, even on an empty stomach. If your dog appears ill after several car rides, consult your veterinarian about treatment for motion sickness.
If your dog develops a fear of riding in the car for no apparent reason, have him checked out by your veterinarian for orthopedic problems. If he’s sore, he might be reluctant to jump in and out of the car, and this reluctance might make him seem afraid of car rides.
Some dogs experience intense fearful reactions to noises while in a car, such as passing transport trucks, loud motorcycles, vehicles with no mufflers and the sound the car makes when it hits rumble strips. If a dog fears these noises, she’ll probably associate her fear with traveling in the car and become afraid of car rides. Dogs with this problem need treatment for noise fear to overcome their anxiety about riding in cars. Please see our article, Fear of Noises, for more information.
If you have a puppy or a new dog, spend some time teaching her to enjoy being in the car. Place a comfortable bed on the seat so that your dog doesn’t slip and slide on the upholstery. Feed your dog her meals in the car while you sit in the driveway and run the engine. Give your dog plenty of tasty treats in the car without ever driving anywhere. You can even give her a tasty bone or stuffed KONG® toy to work on while relaxing in your parked car. (For information about using a KONG, please see our article, How to Stuff a KONG Toy.)
When you introduce car movement, start with short rides and gradually build up your dog’s tolerance for riding in the car. For example, the first time, just start your car, back out of the driveway, drive back into the driveway and turn off the ignition. Repeat this sequence for a couple of days, once or twice a day, always giving your dog a few tasty treats during her time in the car. Then try a quick trip around the block. After a day or two of doing that, try a five-minute drive around your neighborhood. As long as your dog doesn’t show signs of anxiety—such as panting, trembling, whining, cowering or drooling—you can continue to slowly increase the amount of time she spends riding in the car over the next couple of weeks.
The easiest way to prevent your dog from developing a fear of riding in the car is to make sure that the majority of the time you take her for a ride, you go somewhere fun. Take her to the dog park or to a hiking trail, even if it’s within walking distance. Take her to the local pet store and go shopping for treats. Take her to visit friends or relatives. Then that once-a-year trip to the veterinarian won’t be the only event associated with riding in the car.
Treating Your Dog’s Fear of Riding in Cars
Motion Sickness: Puppies and Dogs Who Are New to Riding in the Car
The key to helping your dog or puppy overcome motion sickness is to go slowly and avoid making her nervous. After practicing each of the steps below for a few days, progress to the next step as long as your dog seems completely relaxed at the current step. Dog body language can be subtle, so it’s sometimes difficult to tell how a dog feels at any given moment. To determine what your dog looks like when she’s relaxed, take note of what her body, ears, eyes and tail do when you know she’s in a situation she finds pleasant. For example, notice what your dog looks like when you and she are relaxing together on the couch or taking a leisurely walk. Signs that a dog feels calm and content are relaxed posture (muscles relaxed, not tensed), normal breathing or slight panting, eating at a normal pace, wagging and wiggling. If your dog doesn’t seem relaxed, don’t move on to the next step until she does. If she shows signs of anxiety, such as panting, trembling, whining, cowering or drooling, you might have progressed too quickly. Go back a step or two and stay at that level until your dog seems relaxed again.
- Begin by teaching your dog to be comfortable in the car while it’s stationary. Simply relax in the driveway. Start up the engine but don’t go anywhere. When your dog seems completely comfortable hanging out in the car when it’s not moving, you can start to take numerous, very short trips.
- Just back in and out of your driveway at first.
- Then, after you spend a few days practicing Step Two, try driving around the block.
- Gradually increase the distance you travel, adding five minutes of time in the car every few days.
Schedule your practice car trips for times of the day when your dog is well exercised and likely to feel calm. Make sure she hasn’t eaten for at least three hours so that if you do accidentally make her nervous and she vomits, there’s less mess to clean up. You can also consult your veterinarian about medication for motion sickness. If the problem persists, your vet might prescribe a sedative for your pet on travel days.
Dogs Who Fear Riding in the Car Because of an Unpleasant Experience
One of the most common treatments for fears and phobias in animals is desensitization combined with counterconditioning (DSCC). For a thorough explanation of these effective but complex treatments and guidelines for their successful use, please see our article, Desensitization and Counterconditioning. In a nutshell, desensitization means to make your pet less sensitive to what she fears, and counterconditioning means to teach her a new, pleasant association to replace the unpleasant association she already has.
Below are steps for treating a dog who’s afraid of riding in cars. Please keep in mind that this is a sample protocol only. To be most effective, treatment steps must be tailored to your dog and her particular fears. Because treatment must progress and change according to your pet’s reactions, and because these reactions can be difficult to read and interpret, systematic desensitization and counterconditioning are most effective under the guidance of trained professionals, such as Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAABs or ACAABs) or board-certified veterinary behaviorists (Dip ACVB). To locate one of these experts in your area, please see our article, Finding Professional Help.
Sample Treatment Steps
To help your dog overcome her fear of riding in the car, try to go slowly and avoid making her nervous. After practicing one of the steps below, progress to the next step as long as your dog seems completely relaxed. Do as many repetitions as you need to achieve the goal described at each step. You might complete some steps in a single session, while others will take days or even weeks of training sessions.
It can be difficult to interpret dog body language to know how a dog feels at any given moment. To determine what your dog looks like when she’s relaxed, notice what her body, ears, eyes and tail do when you know she’s in situations she finds pleasant, like when you and she are relaxing together on the couch or taking a leisurely walk. Signs that a dog feels calm and content include relaxed posture (muscles relaxed, not tensed), normal breathing or slight panting, eating at a normal pace, tail and ears held normally (not plastered back or tucked under), and possibly wagging and wiggling. If your dog doesn’t seem relaxed, don’t move on to the next step until she does. If she shows signs of anxiety, such as panting, trembling, whining, cowering and tucking her tail or drooling, you might have progressed too quickly. Go back a step or two and stay at that level until your dog seems relaxed again.
- Begin by teaching your dog to be comfortable in the car while it is stationary. Simply relax in the driveway. Start up the engine but don’t go anywhere. Give your dog several tasty treats or a tasty chew bone while you sit there. Be sure to stop giving treats or take away the chew bone as soon as you get out of the car. (You could also just leave the bone in the car.) Repeat this step once or twice a day for a week or two or until your dog seems completely comfortable and doesn’t show any signs of stress.
- When your dog willingly jumps into the car and seems relaxed with the engine running, just move the car out of the driveway. Stop and, with the engine still running, give your dog a few treats or if your dog loves toys and play, have a quick play session, tossing a ball or toy around in the car. Drive back up the driveway and end your treatment session. Continue with short movements of the car, followed by treats and playtime. Stay at this level until your dog appears totally relaxed, whether the car is moving or stationary.
- If you have a dog park or hiking trail near your home and your dog enjoys going there, drive your car to within a block or two of the destination—without your dog. Then walk back home and get your dog. Walk with her to the car. Get into the car and drive the short distance remaining to the park or trail. Enjoy the reward of going for a walk together or playing a bit there. Afterwards, walk your dog home. Do this repeatedly until your dog seems comfortable getting into the car and driving the short distance to the fun destination. With each subsequent trip, park the car a bit farther away from your destination so that your dog’s car ride is slightly longer but always ends at the place she loves.
- As you build your dog’s tolerance for longer and longer car rides, add fun places to go, like friends’ or family members’ houses, a park or a lake, a favorite dog-buddy’s house and the pet store. Always end the ride with an enjoyable experience.
- Once your dog is comfortable with short car rides, take her for drives on the highway. The continuous motion, uninterrupted by stops and starts, makes most dogs sleepy. This effect will further promote relaxation in the car.
- If you have to take your dog on a lengthy trip before you’ve completed your treatment exercises, ask your veterinarian about sedating her for the duration of the trip. This way she won’t be unnecessarily frightened and regress back to her original fearfulness.
- Some dogs feel more comfortable riding in the car when in a crate. Others are more content if they’re not confined and can see out of the windows. If your dog likes her crate in the house, try using the same crate in the car. If she seems to enjoy watching the world go by, buckle her into a pet seat belt in the back seat or in the rear of your vehicle. (You can purchase a pet seat belt, like the Roadie® Ruff Rider® Vehicle Restraint System, from major pet stores or online vendors.)
- Only allow your dog to ride in the front seat of the car if she’s wearing a seat belt and you’ve deactivated your car’s airbags. A deployed airbag can easily kill a dog, even if the accident’s just a minor fender bender.
- If you have leather or vinyl seats, put a blanket or dog bed on your dog’s seat so that she won’t lose her footing as the car moves.
What NOT to Do
- Do not try to get your dog used to riding in a car by subjecting her to repeated long car rides. This will only cause your dog suffering and won’t do anything to resolve her fear or motion sickness. In fact, it’s likely to make her worse.
- Do not yell at your dog if she vomits or whines while riding in the car. Verbal or physical punishment won’t make her a better passenger and could heighten her anxiety and fear of riding in cars.
- Do not give your dog medication of any kind in an attempt to relieve her motion sickness or fear of riding in cars. Always consult your veterinarian first.