Here at Pawsitively Intrepid, our goal is to help dogs live adventurous lives right alongside their humans. And for better or worse, adventure often involves some car travel. Whether you want to take your dog on a cross-country road trip or just want to drive an hour to a really cool trailhead, it is hard to adventure easily with a dog who is anxious or reactive in the car.
So how do you get your dog to relax in the car? Here are a few helpful tips.
1. Rule Out Motion Sickness
A dog that can’t settle down during a car ride is typically suffering from one of two things: behavioral concerns (meaning anxiety, over-arousal, etc) or motion sickness. The two can overlap of course. If you got motion sick every time you rode in a car you would likely have some anxiety about getting into a car. But when it comes to helping your dog ride more comfortably, the first step is ruling out motion sickness.
And before you say that your dog isn’t motion sick because they aren’t vomiting, please remember the times in your life when you felt nauseous but didn’t vomit. Nausea comes before vomiting but doesn’t always result in vomiting.
Signs of nausea in dogs can include whining, pacing, drooling, and licking of lips. If you are familiar with stress signals in dogs, you can see how these signs of motion sickness overlap with signs of anxiety.
So start by ruling out motion sickness, especially in younger dogs who are more likely to experience motion sickness.
Talk to your dog’s veterinarian about treatment options. Many veterinarians will prescribe a medication called Cerenia (maropitant) that helps reduce nausea.
There are also over-the-counter medications that can help reduce nausea in dogs. such as meclizine (Antivert) or dimenhydrinate (Dramamine). But ask your veterinarian for dosing and recommendations before giving your dog any over-the-counter medications.
If administering an anti-nausea medication (and potentially also with-holding a meal before traveling) doesn’t help improve your dog’s car anxiety, then move on to the following tips.
2. Exercise Your Dog Before Travel
One way to help your dog relax (especially if their car anxiety stems from some overstimulation) is to make sure your dog has an outlet for their energy prior to getting in the car.
This could include playing a game of fetch, going on a walk, or even holding a training session before getting into the car. Whatever you choose to do, there are studies (including this one on how Early Life Experiences and Exercise Associate with Canine Anxieties) that highlight the importance of exercise in dogs’ welfare and suggest a potential anxiolytic effect of exercise through the serotonin pathway.
If you aren’t familiar with serotonin, here is a quick definition: Serotonin is a type of neurotransmitter that has several biological functions that include modulating mood, learning, memory, and numerous physiological processes.
But overall, even if you don’t exercise your dog long enough for them to be really tired, exercise before a car ride can potentially help reduce anxiety. And is likely part of the reason that many dogs are crazy balls of energy on the way to a hike, but will settle just fine on the way home.
3. Utilize Calming Supplements
For mild car anxiety, there are also several calming supplements that can be used to help your dog settle. My favorite is a product called Adaptil, which is a dog appeasing pheromone. It comes as a spray or a collar, but the spray is specifically designed for travel. Simply spray your car or a blanket your dog will ride on in the car about 10 minutes prior to travel.
The last time I checked, Adaptil sprays were available on Amazon.
Please be aware that if you click the link to Amazon above (or any of the ones below), I am an Amazon Associate and earn with qualifying purchases. However, I truly do believe in Adaptil and use the spray regularly to help calm dogs at the veterinary practice where I work.
There are several other calming supplements available, including products like Thundershirts that help some dogs. But many supplements that are taken orally work best when given regularly. And if your dog does not have anxiety on a day-to-day basis, you may not need those. But brands I consider for my dogs are listed below (all links are to Amazon). Some come in different sizes, so verify dosing before ordering.
4. Block Views and Sounds to Prevent Overstimulation
For dogs that react to visual stimuli outside of the car (aka bark at certain trucks, etc), blocking the view can help them relax. Obviously, you can’t cover all of the windows in your car, but utilizing a car window shade on the side windows nearest your dog can help reduce visual stimulation.
If your dog rides in a kennel, you can cover the kennel with a blanket to block your dog’s view. Just make sure you keep the car cool and that your dog still has good airflow. Also, make sure your dog doesn’t grab and chew the blanket when they are anxious.
Similarly, noise can be a big trigger for many dogs. Keeping windows closed and playing calm music in the car can help mute sounds that cause your dog to bark or otherwise react.
5. Restrain Your Dog in the Car
Since pacing and jumping around in the car are often part of the symptoms an anxious dog exhibits in a car, it is very important for everyone’s safety to keep your dog restrained.
There are two main ways to restrain dogs in a car: with a harness attached to a seat belt or in a kennel. Which one you choose will depend on your dog.
Generally, I recommend using a kennel for anxious dogs. If your dog is well kennel trained, then being contained in a familiar and safe environment with a bed that smells like home can really help reduce anxiety.
There are several kennels designed for travel, but I haven’t personally used them. So I am going to recommend that you check out this article “The Best Dog Crates for Car Travel” by Long Haul Trekkers.
If your dog has anxiety related to being kenneled, then you may want to opt for a harness attached to a seatbelt. I recommend purchasing a safety-tested harness designed for dogs, such as a travel harness from the brand Sleepypod.
6. Counter-conditioning and Desensitizing Your Dog to Car Travel
This is the most important part of reducing your dog’s anxiety in the car, but it takes a lot of work to do this well. You will need to make all associations with the car a positive one by pairing all car exposure with a good reward and not pushing your dog past his or her thresholds for anxiety.
If you want more details on counter-conditioning methods, check out our post “Using CARE to Help Your Dog Live a Less Reactive Life.” But below is a quick overview of some steps to use to help acclimate your dog to car travel.
- Find a good reward. I typically say to use your dog’s favorite treat, but be cautious about over-feeding if your dog has any motion sickness.
- Reserve this special reward for only when you are working on your dog’s car anxiety.
- First, give your dog the reward for simply being around the car. When your dog gets excited about seeing the car and can calmly approach, slowly increase the challenge.
- Is your dog still relaxed when you open the car door? Are they happy to jump into the back seat if the engine is off? What about if the engine is running? It could take weeks before your dog is relaxed about this.
- Take it slow and practice in short 5-10 minute sessions. You may need to pledge to not drive your dog anywhere until they are ready. Find good walks close to home and don’t schedule any trips or vet visits until your dog is ready to travel.
- Once your dog is comfortable getting in and out of the car without any anxiety, it is time to start moving the car. This part of the training may work best with two people. One who is working on training and deliviring rewards to the dog and the other who is driving the car.
- Keep everything slow and stop if your dog demonstrates signs of stress/ is approaching threshold.
- Start by just easing the car back a few feet? If your dog is still calm and relaxed, back out of the driveway. After your dog can handle that, drive around the block. Slowly increase the duration and speed of your drives until your dog can handle longer trips.
7. Consider Medications
If your dog is continuing to show signs of stress and doesn’t seem to be making any further progress, I highly recommend consulting with a veterinary behaviorist (or a trainer recommended by a veterinary behaviorist) and considering anti-anxiety medications.
Anti-anxiety medications won’t fix your dog’s anxiety alone. You need to also be working on behavior modification (such as counter-conditioning and desensitization). However, they can help reduce the intensity of your dog’s anxiety and make it easier to create positive associations with the car.
The goal is to use anti-anxiety medications for as long as needed until your dog has learned how to self calm and associate car travel with good things.
Common medications used for anxiety related to car travel are Trazodone and Alprazolam. Consult your dog’s veterinarian to discuss if either of these medications (or another medication) is right for your dog.
Help your dog enjoy the car
Using the tips above can help your dog learn to enjoy car rides so you can get out and travel far to amazing destinations.
Have you worked with a dog with car anxiety and have some great tips to share? Let us know in the comments section below.