Carsickness is only one of the problems that riding in a car can present when managing a dog. Some dogs leap all over the car, making driving dangerous. Some create noise that impairs safe driving. Aggression toward people through car windows makes a dog dangerous to take along. In most cases, transporting your dog in a car can be done safely and sanely if you take some basic precautions.
Young puppies often get carsick and then outgrow it as they mature. This may be related to the maturing of the ear canals, a process that also makes human children more susceptible to motion sickness than human adults.
You can often help a carsick dog by positioning the dog to see out the front of the vehicle in the direction of movement. This allows the eyes to help orient the confusing sensations from the ears. It also often helps to open one or more windows about three inches, to help equalize the air pressure.
Other Causes of Car Sickness
Consult your veterinarian if it seems a medical problem could be affecting the dog’s ability to cope with car riding. An ear infection is one example of a medical condition that can contribute to carsickness.
Orthopedic conditions can make getting in and out of a car and bracing against the car’s movement painful. If the dog feels profoundly ill or experiences pain with every car ride, the medical issue needs to be handled to relieve that before you’ll make much training progress.
Stress contributes to carsickness, and a dog who has lost a previous home via a car ride may be stressed by riding in your car at first. The same happens with dogs who have only been driven to the veterinarian’s office for treatment and never to places they enjoyed going.
More About Stress
You can help remedy the stress factor by taking the dog on short car rides to fun places. Make some of these enjoyable social outings to the veterinarian’s office for treats (and petting, if the dog enjoys it) from the staff when no treatment is scheduled. Call your veterinarian’s office about what times are convenient for such trips. You certainly would not want to interfere with the staff’s ability to provide essential care to other animals.
If you have another dog who loves car rides and gets along well with this dog, take the two on some rides together. If, on the other hand, the other dog dislikes car rides, avoid taking the new dog on rides with the other one! Every dog needs regular individual time with you anyway, and you’ll be better able to shape a positive attitude toward the car in the new dog if you avoid the influence of a dog who doesn’t like car riding.
If your dog has extreme problems with the car, you’ll need to start at the level that doesn’t trigger the problems and very slowly practice more and more success until the dog can go for rides without problems. In some cases it will take many “baby steps” (see below) to achieve the goal.
Taking the dog on a long car ride in the middle of trying to recondition the dog to riding in the car through baby steps can ruin the program. The goal is to systematically change how the dog experiences riding in the car, so of course it can create a huge setback if you put the dog into a situation that brings back all the original problems.
Some of the steps in reconditioning the dog for the car can include:
- Feed the dog outside the car, at whatever distance the dog will happily eat. Move the next meal closer. Gradually, meal after meal after meal, work your way up to having the dog eat in the car. At first have the car door open and the food barely inside. An intermediate step would be to gently close the door part way. Gradually work up to the food well inside the car and the door closed.
- Advance this only at the pace that keeps the dog happy for every single step. If the dog shows stress, including reluctance to eat, back up to an earlier step in the program.
- Sit in the car for a short time with the dog, without turning on the engine. Give treats. Work your way up to turning on the engine in future sessions. Eventually move the car a little. Next step might be down the block.
- Gradually increase the distance, while including treats as well as making the destination pleasant for the dog.
- One example for a dog who enjoys going for a walk would be to drive down the street, get out with the dog on leash and take a short walk, and then get back into the car and drive back down the street to your house.
- If the dog finds the engine a trigger to stress, you can turn on the car and do the feeding routine, starting at a distance and working closer, meal-by-meal, until the dog is eating happily inside the running car.
- Associate the rewards used in conditioning the dog to the car very closely with the car. If you take the dog for a short ride and then give a big reward AFTER you get back home, that’s rewarding being home, not riding in the car. Keep in mind what you actually want to reinforce, and make sure the happy things happen when the behavior you wish to reinforce is happening.
Other Car-Riding Problems
For the dog who leaps all over the car while you are driving, you’ll need a method of restraint. This is recommended, anyway, to keep your dog safe in case of an accident. The most secure restraint for the dog’s safety is a good dog crate.
If for some reason you don’t wish to use a dog crate, a dog seat belt harness is another option. Check your dog supply resources for one that fits your needs.
Some people may feel that a dog who behaves aggressively in the car seems like useful protection, but it’s more likely the dog will bite the wrong person than an actual criminal. Restrain this dog to protect your community–and your bank account.
Barking in the car can drive you nuts, and there is no perfect solution for this problem. Experiment with what the dog is able to see. Some dogs are stimulated by sight and will be much quieter in a crate or other situation that restricts their view. Make sure, though, not to overheat the dog. Give the dog something interesting to chew in the crate.
Citronella anti-bark collars can have some benefit with dogs who bark in cars. Keep the dog adequately restrained so that the collar won’t spray too near the car’s driver.
Use the ideas in the “Systematic Steps” to build your dog’s ability to remain calm and quiet in the car. Reinforce with treats and other things the dog likes when the dog is quiet. Avoid any reward when the dog is making noise.
If you are going to administer treats to do any other dog training in a moving car, make sure there is one person to drive and at least one other person to work with the dog. Dog training is a huge distraction from driving.
Dogs in Hot Cars
We can’t talk about transporting a dog in a car without mentioning the heat and oxygen problem that kills so many dogs in cars in warm weather. Dogs have to cool their bodies through respiration, which is an inefficient method. They cannot tolerate nearly the heat that a human can. Add the limited oxygen in a closed car, and your dog can quickly die.
Even if the car is not hot enough to kill the dog, excess warmth in the car will contribute to carsickness. For safety and to help create in your dog an enjoyment of car rides, keep it cool inside your car whenever you transport a dog.
It’s Worth It!
Every bit of effort you put into gently conditioning your dog to enjoy car rides will yield huge benefits. Essential tasks such as visits to the veterinarian will become more convenient and less stressful. You’ll be able to take the dog along on outings for fun, increasing the time you and your dog can spend together. Car rides make a dog’s life more interesting. In difficult times, such as a dog experiencing grief over a lost family member, car rides can actually aid recovery.
For most of us, having a dog who can ride safely and calmly in a car is so important that this is truly essential training. Start it as soon as possible with any new puppy or dog who joins your family. Remember to take the steps as slowly as necessary to keep the process enjoyable and not stressful for the dog. With care, you have an excellent chance of winding up with a dog who shows great pleasure when asked “Do you want to go in the car?!”