Unlike the associations a dog might have, when you think of riding in a car you most likely associate it with grocery runs, your commute to work, traffic and generally as a means of travel and a little bit of time when you can be on your own. Dogs, however, can see it as a particularly fun way to spend time, or as a russian roulette of either being on the way to the dog park or the veterinarian. But regardless of the destination, what is the appeal of riding in a car for dogs and is there more to it than just being able to stick their tongues out of the open window? What’s more, what makes some dogs ecstatic about the idea of going for a ride while others not thrilled at all?
The Root of the Behavior
Despite there not being much scientific research, experts believe that there are several reasons for why your dog might be leaping into the backseat of your car as soon as the car door opens. Firstly, compared to the 50 million receptacles humans have in their noses, dogs have 225 million receptacles and an amazing sense of smell, which is why many people say that dogs perceive the world through their scent. Going for a car ride with the window rolled down can be a very exciting sensory experience for your dog as it allows him to experience and smell all kinds of scents throughout the trip. Humans are highly visual beings and even though dogs do appreciate the scenery when looking outside the window too, if you want your dog to fully experience and enjoy the ride like you do, roll down the window a little bit to enable your dog to take the world in through his primary sensor - his nose. The second reason why your dog might be loving the rides is because being in a car surrounded by the people he loves and views as his pack, going in the same direction and exploring the world might simulate the feeling of a hunt. There has even been a study that confirmed that the simulation satiates a dogs’ natural instinct to hunt. This is also one of the reasons dogs will bark at anyone coming up to the car too close, they are protective of the pack. Another reason they feel protective of the car and enjoy car rides is because they consider it an extension of their home. Lastly, dogs love spending time with their owners and get down when they are left behind, for example when you go to work. Being in a car means being with you which makes dogs feel happy and safe. In addition, going on a car ride is an adventure where good things can happen and that makes dogs enjoy them even more.
Encouraging the Behavior
Although it is completely normal for your dog to love car rides, the opposite is also true. It is also very common for dogs to be afraid of cars and stressed out by car rides, especially if they have negative associations with them or if they are still puppies. Most often than not, the four-wheel phobia is caused by a previously stressful or unpleasant experience of reaching the destination. This is often the case if the only time the dog ever rides in a car is to go to get a checkup at the veterinary clinic or to get groomed. Both of these experiences are not particularly pleasant for dogs to go through and usually cause a lot of anxiety, regardless of breed or age. Your dog might also have a negative association with car travel caused by motion sickness or be fearful due to lack of experience. It is very important for your dog to get familiar with your car before going anywhere in it. While the car is parked, open the car doors and let your dog explore and familiarize itself with it, allow him to hop inside at his own pace and leave his favorite treat or toy there for him to find. After some time close the door while also being in the car with your dog and see how he reacts, if he panics and shows that he wants to leave make sure to open the door immediately so that he knows that this is a safe environment and not a trap. After your dog has become more comfortable with it and starts viewing your car as an extension of the family home, make sure that his first ride is short and pleasant - for example to a park or a dog store where he can pick out a new toy. Patience is important and these tips will help him build a positive association with car rides.
Other Solutions and Considerations
If after following the above steps you find that your dog is still very fearful or gets overly anxious about car rides see a veterinarian as it might be caused by motion sickness which can be treated with medication. While some travel anxiety is normal, your dog should not be suffering each time you need to take him somewhere by car. In addition, whether your dog enjoys car rides or not it is essential to remain safe on the road. Dogs should be traveling in a harness or a crate in the backseat of the car as that is where they are the safest. In either cases, make sure your dog is not hot and consider having the window partially rolled down as it will not only keep your dog cool but will also enable him to experience all the smells along the way and that will help in keeping him relaxed and calm during the trip. For small breeds it is best to either ride on your lap (only if they remain still during the ride), in a harness or an elevated seat.
Whether your dog loves car rides or despises them, it is essential for him to be secured and safe during the trip and not interfere with you driving. If your dog isn’t a car trip fan or gets anxiety there are ways of changing his perspective and building positive associations, all it requires is planning and patience.