If you are like many dog owners, offering your canine companion a ride in the car is one of the easiest ways to make him or her happy. Your dog nearly jumps out of his or her skin with excitement and runs for the door, ready to jump in the car and go. Once on the road, your dog is the picture of pleasure as he or she pokes his or her nose out the window or bounds around the backseat. A car ride may not seem like a big deal to you as a human, so why is it such a big deal for your dog? As is the case with many dog behaviors, the explanation lies somewhere in the intersection of sensory pleasure, hunting instinct, and a pure love for his or her human.
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The Root of the Behavior
Research shows that when a dog interacts with his or her human companions, the dog's brain releases the kind of feel-good hormones associated with a close social bond. Getting in the car with you means that your dog gets to be with you, instead of being left home alone. Your dog comes to associate car rides with togetherness, so he or she wants to come along because it means spending time with you.
But is there something special about the car? Most likely, and its roots are where many of a dog's pleasures lie: in his or her nose. According to Dr. Brian Hare, an associate professor at Duke University and founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, the breeze through a car window carries a richness of smells straight into the dog's nostrils. Because dogs have as many as 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, as compared to 5 million in a human, this sensory influx is a kind of sensory feast.
So, what about when your windows are closed, and your dog is still having a field day in the car? Dr. Hare explains that the simple act of traveling is enjoyable to your dog. Canine species evolve to roam, and when your dog goes in the car with you, he or she feels as though the two of you are wandering the plains like a pack of domesticated wolves.
The movement itself may play a factor as well, since the sensation of the ride can make some dogs feel as though they are hunting. Dogs hunt by sensing the movement of their prey and feeling int heir bodies the movement necessary to counterbalance and catch up with it. In this state, the dog feel suspended and moved by his or her instinct, a different feeling than the consciously directed movement of everyday life. In a car, a dog feels that he or she as well as the pack are all suspended in this kind of awareness, and thus the ride becomes a kind of group hunt.
Encouraging the Behavior
You may not want to go with your dog on an actual group hunt, but his or her enthusiasm for the car ride may be a lot of fun for you as well. So, is there any reason not to allow it? Typically, your dog's love for the car is perfectly healthy, so feel free to enjoy your trip. If your dog doesn't enjoy the car, though, there is no need to make the experience his favorite thing. Nevertheless, you may have to help him feel at least okay with a short ride, if only to make trips to the vet or to a dogsitter's house less distressing.
Experts recommend that you start by opening the car doors and allowing your dog to explore the space on his or her own time. If he or she needs some encouragement, try putting some meals or treats inside. Eventually, your dog may get comfortable enough that you can get inside, close the door, and drive with your dog inside the car. If the fear does not abate, or if sickness is more of a concern, you may need to consult your veterinarian. He or she can evaluate the situation and see if there is a medication that can help.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Whether your dog loves a car ride or tolerates them with chagrin, you need to make sure he or she is safe. Traffic safety experts despair at the sight of a dog climbing around on his or her owner's lap while the owner is trying to drive, and doing so isn't particularly safe for the dog either. Your dog will be more secure in a carrier or a seatbelt if possible. Dogs can also be vulnerable to flying debris during car rides, particularly if they are able or inclined to stick their heads out of a window. The easiest solution may be to keep the windows closed, assuming you can bear to deprive your dog of his sensory indulgence. If not, a pair of dog goggles can be a workable (and perhaps Instagram-worthy) solution.
As long as you have a dog, there will always be things that he loves that seem strange to you. For your dog, though, a ride in the car doesn't mean errands or a commute. It means time spent with his or her favorite person, smelling and seeing the wonders of the world. So, go ahead and let your dog have his (or her) day!