The ability to travel from A to B in our cars is something we take for granted. We think nothing of bundling the family into the car and hitting the road for hours on end—as long as there’s a weekend of rest and relaxation at the end of the road, that is! Having a car is a means to an end for so many of us these days that a phobia of car travel has become increasingly less common in humans. However, in dogs, it is still an extremely common fear. Imagine planning a family vacation, including your four-legged pal, only to discover you can’t get them within a five-meter radius of the car, let alone inside! That is the struggle that many dog owners face and the reason why so many of us end up kenneling our pets instead of taking them on the holidays that they so deserve, for bringing so much joy to our families.
The Root of the Behavior
So, what can we do to make our furry friends more comfortable taking a trip in the car? Well, the first step is to understand exactly what it is that is causing your dog’s fear of traveling. A road trip can be traumatic for your dog for many reasons, most likely some kind of deep-rooted issue going back to puppyhood. Many young dogs’ first time traveling in a car comes very early on in life, at a point where every day is bringing a hundred new experiences. Many will also get sick on this debut journey, through a combination of stress, over-excitement and just plain not liking the unusual sensations of car travel. Let’s not forget, a puppy has to endure several trips to the vet very early on in their life, and if all of these journeys are taken in the car, even an older dog can develop a phobia of the car through pure negative association. Think about it—if you thought every time you got behind the wheel that you were going to end up getting pulled, prodded, poked, injected and goodness only knows what else by your doctor, you’d never drive anywhere! If your dog was placed with you via a rescue center, you may also have even more trouble convincing your dog to get into your car. Rescue dogs can develop a big mistrust of cars, and understandably so. Their previous owners probably dropped them off at the rescue center in the same fashion, possibly in a car that they had enjoyed traveling in before, which makes it all the more difficult for them to swallow. This is probably the most negative connotation a dog can have towards road travel—and who can blame them? Would you risk never seeing your family again if all it meant was staying as far away from cars as possible? Absolutely not!
Encouraging the Behavior
So, if your dog’s fear of the car stems purely from an issue with motion sickness, there is plenty you can do. Some puppies will just grow out of this awkward—and let’s face it, pretty gross—phase after a short while. If not, you may be able to give your dog a human, over-the-counter anti-sickness medication. The suitability and effectiveness of this will vary by breed and size, so speak to your vet, who will recommend a type and a dosage specifically tailored for your dog. If your dog’s car phobia is based on some sort of deep-seated fear or a traumatic event, then you’re going to have far more work to do to snap them out of it. Sometimes, getting them into the car in the first place is enough of a battle. If this is the case, positive reinforcement is the only way forward. Try to coax your pooch into the car with the promise of yummy snacks. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Don’t get cross; this will only set your dog back further. If it works, give them a treat, a cuddle and plenty of praise. Spend some time with them in the car with the doors open and the engine off.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Once your dog is comfortable being in the car, then you can repeat the process but with the engine on and eventually shut the doors. That’s nine-tenths of the battle fought and won, to be honest. Then comes more positive reinforcement. Take short journey to start with, to avoid your dog becoming stressed out, especially if they’re from a rescue center. And the biggest secret to having a happy travel companion in the car? Take them somewhere nice! Don’t let your car become the shuttle of doom, only traveling backwards and forwards to and from the vet. Pop your pooch into the car and take them for a fun walk on the beach, or to a beautiful park where they can run around and play.
The more you can associate your dog’s feelings towards the car with positive, fun things, the more comfortable they will become taking road trips. Ridding a fearful pet of car phobia can be a long journey, so patience and persistence is the key. Gently work with your dog to replace those negative connotations with positive ones—it will do wonders!