You are heading out the door to run some errands, keys jingling in your hands and you find your dog attentively waiting for you at the door. He heard you, and he wants to go as well. No one on earth seems happier than a dog with his head at the window, ears back, face blowing in the breeze. For some dogs, it may be innate. For others, it is the desire to be with you. As long as you can keep him safe in the car, and are not going somewhere where he has to be left alone in the car in the heat or for long periods of time, embrace his love of car rides. If he fights you on getting into the car, then there are ways to alleviate the problem that will allow you to get him places he needs to go such as the groomer or veterinarian. Encouraging his love of the car ride will benefit you both in the future.
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The Root of the Behavior
Dogs are pack animals. They need an alpha, who hopefully is you, and they need to run in a group. If you are going in the car, they need to go with you. Their ‘home’ is where their pack is, which is why they will defend the car they are in when someone walks by just as they would defend their house or yard. Being in his pack brings your dog security and happiness, especially in the car with you all in small proximity with a common goal. He does not have to worry about someone leaving the room. He can smell you while getting all the stimulation the outing offers. Being in a car is an adventure, and most dogs love a good adventure. They enjoy going to new places as they offer the opportunities for different visual stimulation. A car ride to them is open ended and that is enjoyable. Something good is always around the car in a dog’s world. They also love smells, good or bad. Riding in a car allows them access to a plethora of smells they would not normally get at home. Scientists have determined that dogs have about 3,000,000 olfactory senses in their noses. We as humans might be able to smell a teaspoon of sugar in our tea while dogs could smell a teaspoon in a million gallons of water. Think of how much they love the scents in your backyard or on their daily walks and then think about how many different scents they get just in one car ride. It is pure smell heaven. Dogs also enjoy a good hunt. Hunting to dogs does not mean stalking and killing prey; it is more about a symbiotic relationship with his prey that allows both predator and prey to feel each other’s movements. In doing so it gives a weightless feeling. Also in hunting, wolves will pool their energies through a phenomenon called physical synchronization. This allows them to work together to take down a prey that they would normally not be able to handle even in large numbers. They move together, twisting and turning in unison, just as we all do in a car. Car rides allow your dog to tap into this feeling of physical synchronization because he is moving with you at the same speed, distance and direction. That combined with the feeling of weightlessness, he is euphoric. He also does not know that objects outside the car are not moving with you, so he feels he is chasing them, which also triggers his innate sense of hunting.
Encouraging the Behavior
Right from the start you should take your pup with you on your outings wherever and whenever you can. His main goal in life will be to be with you and this is yet another way to establish yourself as the alpha, which will be essential in training him. Start with short trips and watch for signs of motion sickness or anxiety. While not common, it can occur.Teach him to stay in one section of the car and make sure he is safe. Allow him viewing access and lower the windows enough to allow all the scents to enter your car, weather permitting. Also in the beginning, if you can make a stop that is focused on him or provides him with some fun treats, do so. Be sure to bring a container of water and a bowl for these stops, as well as a leash for your destination. Some dogs, from negative past experiences or medical issues, do not enjoy a car ride. Do not force an adventure on him, but work to make it a pleasant experience. Often a trip to the veterinarian or groomer has put a bad taste in your dog’s mouth and his taste for adventure has soured. It is important to offer many opportunities to ride in the car outside of going to the veterinarian and groomer so your dog will associate road trips as a good thing. If he still fights you to go into the car, an experienced trainer can help you with modifying your pup’s behavior in an effort to getting him back into riding the friendly roads.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Safety should always come first when traveling with your best furry friend. His paws and head should never be allowed out of the window or sunroof and he should be restrained or contained in such a way that he will not cause a distraction to you while you are driving or become injured should you need to stop short. Dogs are safest in the rear of the car, either in a crate or harness. While it may be fun to have him in the front, unrestrained, with his head out the window it could cause injury to one or both of you. It is also not a good idea to have small dogs on your lap or beside you while you drive. Finally, do not leave your dog in a hot car or alone for extended periods of time.
Dogs love a good car ride because it feeds into their sense of adventure and love of a good hunt. It mimics their instinctual roots of riding in a pack, which brings them comfort and even a type of euphoric high. Riding in the car allows a dog to explore new sites, sounds and smells. It also allows him more time to be with you. All of these are a win-win for your pup.