You want to take your dog on the road. After all, who doesn’t picture great adventures with their pup?
Going on hikes, to visit friends, and camping can be great if your dog loves to travel.
But what do you do if your dog gets anxious in the car before the fun even starts?
In this article I’ll answer the question: why do dogs get anxiety in the car. And I’ll explain what you can do to help alleviate that anxiety–and even help your pup enjoy his car rides.
Why Do Dogs Get Anxiety in the Car?
There are many behavioral reasons why your dog may exhibit anxiety while in a car. They range from a lack of familiarity to having a bad experience with the car.
If possible, start getting your dog accustomed to the car in a positive way from puppyhood on.
But don’t despair if your dog is anxious in the car.
There are measures that you can take to help the situation. And to even teach your dog that your car may be his best friend!
Reasons why your dog may be anxious in the car include the following:
1. Motion sickness
Differentiating between motion sickness and anxiety can be difficult.
Although motion sickness is a physical illness, it can also trigger a dog to have anxious behavior when in the car.
Many dogs with motion sickness have nausea and may even vomit. If this has occurred on car rides, a dog will remember that he felt ill.
And during the next car ride, he may be anxious that the sick feeling will occur again.
2. Prior negative experiences
If a dog has had a bad experience associated with a car, he may become anxious during subsequent rides.
This can include having a bumpy or noisy ride, including sounds from the engine or the road. Or the negative association can be from the final destination, such as a vet visit.
3. Fear of being trapped in the car
Some dogs don’t like confinement and may have a fear of small spaces. They may not be accustomed to a crate or other type of confinement.
A dog with separation anxiety may be scared to be trapped in a car.
Or a dog may have been left alone in a car and subsequently develop a fear of abandonment while in one.
4. Generalized fear and anxiety
Some dogs are fearful in general. This may occur if they haven’t been socialized properly–or at all–to new experiences.
5. Puppy fear period
Your puppy may be having anxiety in the car because he’s in the midst of a puppy fear period.
6. Fear of the unknown
Some dogs are fine with everyday life and aren’t generally anxious until something new–like a car ride–comes along.
7. Fear of noises
The noises of the car’s engine, the road itself, traffic, and people and animals outside the car can cause some dogs to experience anxiety while in the car.
8. Feeling unstable
The motion of the car can cause a dog to be bounced around, causing anxiety,
9. Sensory overload
There’s so much to take in while riding in a car.
All of the noises, the sights outside the car, and the smells that the dog can be exposed to all can cause a sensory overload and accompanying anxiety.
A dog may feel that he has to defend the car and its occupants. This will cause the canine to be anxious.
11. Pain or discomfort
If your dog has some pain or discomfort, this can cause a negative association with the car. This can be from age or illness.
And if the car isn’t comfortable to him, it may exacerbate the pain or sickness causing car anxiety.
Or it can occur from the area being too small, such as a compact car with a large dog.
Anxiety can also arise from difficulty or pain getting into the car itself.
Symptoms of Anxiety in the Car
If your dog is anxious in the car, he will exhibit certain symptoms.
These range from mild to extreme. And he will probably show more than one. They include:
- Yawning when not tired
- Vocalization (whining, barking, howling, whimpering)
- Resisting entering the car
- Trying to escape from the car
- Pawing at doors and windows
- Salivating and drooling
- Lip licking
- Trembling and shivering
- Fidgeting or pacing
- Tense body language
- Chewing or licking self
- Inappropriate urination or defecation’
- Destructive behavior
My rescued Aussie mix Millie used to have horrible anxiety in the car when she was a puppy.
She drooled so much that the bed in her crate would be wet when we arrived at our destination.
Part of her anxiety was due to multiple vet visits when she was a pup.
Of course she had the traditional check-ups and vaccinations. But she also had a recurrent bladder infection for which she had a number of vet visits.
After a specialty vet figured out how to treat it and she became well, over time she started to associate the car with positive things, such as treats and going to fun places like training class and the pet store.
Treatment Tips for Canine Car Anxiety
Don’t despair if your beloved dog is experiencing anxiety while in the car!
There are ways that you can help alleviate it. And, hopefully, even make his car rides enjoyable.
You will probably need to do more than one of the aids listed below.
1. Get medicine for motion sickness
If you’re unsure whether your dog suffers from motion sickness or anxiety, consult with your vet whether you should give your dog medicine for motion sickness.
Motion sickness is a physiological condition. But sometimes it can lead to anxiety regarding the car because the dog remembers that he felt ill on a previous car trip.
So treatment for motion sickness can help with either cause of car anxiety. But, if the cause itself is anxiety, you will probably have to also add one or more of the below methods to treat it.
2. Exercise him prior to the car ride
For anxious dogs, taking the edge off their anxiety prior to a car ride by providing physical and mental exercise can help.
So go for a walk or have him fetch. Or do a few obedience exercises or have him work on a puzzle toy he likes.
You don’t want him to be too tired that he becomes “grumpy” or over-stimulated but just want to help him be calm for the car adventure to come.
3. Train your dog
A dog who performs obedience commands can often be redirected to help alleviate anxiety. And training helps a dog have confidence,
4. Socialize your dog
Socialize your dog to all that he will face in everyday life: new sights, sounds, odors, people, and animals.
This will give him confidence and make the world less scary when faced with something new.
I realize that this may be difficult when a dog has anxiety regarding a car.
But you can still take him places on walks while you’re working with the issue.
5. Don’t feed your dog prior to the car ride
If your dog feels anxiety in the car, it’s best to withhold food prior to the trip so that he doesn’t become nauseous.
6. Add familiar scents
Making the car welcoming and a positive experience can be as simple as adding recognizable scents that the dog likes.
This can be a bed or blanket with his or your scent. Or toys that he’s played with and loves.
7. Go positive, fun places
Take it on the road!
Of course you may have to first counter condition and desensitize your pup’s negative response to the car.
But the more positive experiences that your dog has regarding the car will help him accept–and even look forward to–riding in it.
So go to places that your dog loves, such as a walking trail, a park, or a pet store.
8. Use a safe method for him to ride in the car
If your dog feels insecure in the car, use a method to transport him that will make him feel protected.
This is also important for his and your safety so that he won’t become a projectile who could potentially be injured.
9. Lower the window
Some dogs like getting a little fresh air.
Of course, the window should be lowered only a very small distance, no more than a couple of inches.
It shouldn’t be lowered so much that he could put his head out of the window or even jump out.
10. Use a ramp
If it’s difficult for any reason for your dog to get into the car, have him use a ramp designed for that purpose.
Of course with some dogs, they may have to be conditioned to the ramp too.
11. Keep car trips short
While you’re getting your pup used to car rides, keep the car rides short.
12. Drive carefully and on smooth roads
If possible, while you’re conditioning your dog to get used to car rides, drive on smooth roads without obstacles and not on highways.
13. Give your dog something to occupy him
You want your pup to associate the car with positive things.
Of course, you don’t want to give him too much to eat during the car ride, so just use a few kibble or treats or just put a little stuffing in the Kong.
QUICK RECOMMENDATION: Puzzle Toys, KONGS, and other plushies are great to help your puppy during car rides. However, one of our favorites for crate training and car rides is the Calmeroos Heartbeat Puppy Toy with heat pads.
14. Use holistic aids
There’s also a product called Adaptil, which mimics a dog mother’s pheromones and comes in a collar, spray (for objects, not on the dog), and a plug-in for the home.
You can also try the ThunderShirt, which is like a hug and, when introduced properly, can help alleviate a dog’s anxiety.
15. Play calming music
Calming sound can help lessen a dog’s anxiety. There’s even a product called Through a Dog’s Ear that was developed to help alleviate a dog’s stress.
16. Have a comforting person or pet accompany you
Sometimes having someone or another pet near the dog who he loves can help alleviate his anxiety. Of course this is only true if the person or pet is a calming presence and not anxious.
17. Remain calm
It’s natural for you to feel stressed if your dog is anxious. But, as much as possible, remain calm.
Dogs can read our tone, body language, and scent. So if they sense that we’re stressed, it’s likely to cause them to be or to exacerbate their anxiety.
18. Make sure that the temperature is appropriate
If it’s too hot out, have the air conditioning at an appropriate temperature. And if it’s too cold, have the heat turned on so that he’s warm but not too hot.
A dog can develop a negative association with a car that’s too hot or cold. And some dogs may shiver because they’re cold rather than because they’re anxious.
Of course no dog should be left in a car that’s too hot or cold.
19. Do behavioral work
You often will need to counter condition and desensitize your dog’s stressful response to car rides.
This means that you’ll need to retrain his brain to associate the car with pleasure rather than fear, discomfort, or pain.
First introduce the trigger (the car) at a low enough intensity that he shows no signs of anxiety.
Part of this is giving him things that are familiar and that he likes such as a blanket or bed with familiar scents or toys. But that can only be done after he associates being near and in the car with positive things.
PRO-TRAINER TIP: Have a supply of great, yummy treats that your puppy can’t resist ready as a reward. They should be small, no larger than a pea. Always have your reward treats ready before giving your obedience cue. Using a special treat such as small pieces of cheese or boiled, deboned chicken can help a dog have a positive association with something.
Depending on how stressed your dog is regarding the car, you may have to even start with the presence of the car being positive.
Don’t rush the process. Each step of the process may take days, weeks, or even longer depending on the anxiety your dog feels towards the car.
If at any stage your dog seems anxious, go back to the step where he wasn’t, then move ahead as he can handle more exposure to the car.
If your dog is on lead while working with him, make sure that the leash isn’t tight so that it doesn’t convey to him that something’s wrong.
First, you’ll need to do the following regarding him having a positive association with the car:
- Have your dog at a distance from the car at which he’s not stressed but can see it. Give a few tasty treats even when he realizes that the car is present.
Over time, give treats when he looks at it. Just do this for a few glances, then lead your pup away.
Depending on how anxious your dog is, you may have to repeat this training session for days or longer before moving onto the next step.
- Over time, as your dog can handle it without showing anxiety, you should be able to get closer and closer while your dog looks at the car.
Praise and reward positive interactions.
- Eventually, over your sessions, your dog should want to start investigating and even move towards the car. Encourage him with praise and yummy treats.
- After your pup is comfortable investigating the car, open the car door and encourage and reward with praise and treats any interaction with the car.
Note that you may have to open it when he’s not near it if he’s really afraid.
- Praise and reward any interaction with the car’s interior, including if he wants to enter it.
Over time, when your dog’s able to handle it without being anxious, you can even place a few great treats on the edge or immediate interior of the car’s floor.
Just be sure that the car door is held open by someone so that it can’t close on him or move and accidentally frighten him.
- Over time, eventually your pup may want to enter the car. If he does, you should praise and reward him.
If he doesn’t seem to be stressed, you can even try luring him into the car by having or tossing a few yummy treats into it.
A person who your dog likes and who’s in the car can even try luring him in and rewarding him.
- After your pup is used to getting into the car, do some sessions where you just sit in the car with him and give him a few treats or a safe chew or frozen stuffed Kong.
- Next step is getting him used to the car running without moving. Praise and reinforce calm behavior.
Then turn the car off and exit with your pup. Don’t make getting out of the car more fun than being in it.
- After he is used to the sounds, smells, and vibration of the car, just drive a short distance–such as down the block. Praise and treat calm behavior.
- Over your sessions, get your pup used to longer distances. Just increase it slowly so that he doesn’t become anxious. Praise and reward calm behavior.
- Take the show on the road–literally. Start going places. Fun, positive places.
- Congratulate yourself for a job well done!!
20. Get professional help
If your dog still remains anxious in the car even after your valiant attempts to help alleviate his stress, get professional help.
You should have your vet examine your dog for any physical issues, including pain.
You may also need the services of a positive reinforcement trainer or behaviorist to work through the issue.
A veterinary behaviorist can also prescribe behavior medications if needed in addition to helping you develop and perform a behavioral plan.
What NOT To Do: Don’t Try This at Home
The important thing to remember is that your dog isn’t being difficult when he’s anxious in the car.
He’s suffering for some reason. So don’t just put him–or force him–into the car for a ride if you don’t have to.
The exception, of course, is when he must be taken somewhere such as the vet. And don’t rush the process in trying to counter condition and desensitize him to the car.
My dog won’t get in the car. Should I just pick him up and carry him in?
No. Counter condition and desensitize him to the car so that he sees it as a positive place.
The only exception is when he needs to be somewhere in the meantime, such as the vet. Try luring him in with yummy treats at first rather than carrying him into the car.
Why does my dog shake and tremble when in the car?
He can be suffering from anxiety. If so, you’ll have to do behavioral work and make the car a welcoming place.
My dog vomits when he’s in the car. What could be wrong?
He may have motion sickness. Or he may have anxiety associated with the car.
Talk with your vet to see if medication is appropriate. And work with your dog to make the car a welcoming, inviting place.
There are many behavioral reasons why a dog may be anxious in a car. He may also show distress because of motion sickness.
So try to figure out why he doesn’t like the car and use the above aids in helping him overcome his anxiety. Then you can both have the fun adventures you envisioned.
Is your dog anxious in the car?
If so, what have you done to help him?
Tell us about it in the comments section below.