Some dogs are easy going when it comes to getting in the car. All you have to do is open the door, they jump in, and sit down. However, for many, it isn’t that simple. The car can cause dogs to behave or feel poorly; from motion sickness to anxious pacing. While on the surface it may just seem irritating to have your car companion barking or throwing up in the back seat, it can make things more dangerous for both of you.
The key to good car safety for Pets is to assess what your dog’s main concern is. Do they get anxious, motion sick, or move around too much? After that, it is much easier to create an ideal safety plan for you and your pup.
This is one of the most common safety concerns for Pet Parents in the car. Pacing can look like many things, but we tend to hear owners discussing jumping, getting into the front seat, and too much cabin exploration. Getting into the passenger or driver seat while the car is moving is a big safety concern, but luckily one of the easiest to fix. A simple barrier will keep you and your dog safe. There are many barriers specifically made for dogs, made from all kinds of materials (mesh, cloth, metal, etc.). These also make it easier for you to dictate where your dog’s space is in the car. Maybe you just want them to stay behind the driver, in which case you can place your barrier right behind your seat. If your vehicle has a hatchback, you can even sequester your furry friend to the safety (and easily cleanable) trunk.
Some dogs still manage to squeeze through, or continue to move so much they are distracting to the driver. In this case, there are some excellent, car specific, traveling crates that keep your pup contained and safe. While there are some other alternatives, including Pet seatbelts, we recommend you talk with your veterinarian or trainer first. These alternatives only work if they are the correct shape, size, and design for your Pet and your car.
Behavioral issues tend to be another big problem for Pets in cars. If they aren’t pacing, they are barking at pedestrians or other cars, scratching or biting the seats, or whining. These behaviors can be distracting for the drive, as well as a contributing factor to unpleasant trips with your pup. One of the leading causes of bad behavior in vehicles is anxiety. If you can lower your Pet’s car anxiety, you both can travel with more ease. The ultimate goal is to calm your dog and build their car confidence.
Here are two tricks to try to lower your Pet’s anxiety while in the car:
1. Minimize movement
For some dogs, especially small ones, the car is an obstacle course of unpleasant surfaces. The seats may be slippery, the floor too far down, and the collection of unfamiliar scents overwhelming. While some dogs find their vehicular “sea legs” easily, others just never seem to be able to. In their minds, the car is just a great opportunity to hurt themselves. Fortunately, many of the same tricks that work for Pacers also works for worriers.
Make a space in the car specifically for your dog. It should be small, manageable, familiar, and consistent. If you use a travel kennel, make sure it’s always in the same spot in the car, comfortable, and perhaps even equipped with a soothing item like a toy or blanket. If you decide to use a harness or special seatbelt, again, put it in the same spot every time, and make sure it is properly fitted and attached. Some Pet Parents also like to use backseat Pet hammocks. These simple seat attachments are easy to place, easy to clean and add both security for your Pet and a small barrier between them and the driver.
2. Undo bad memories
This technique is key for a chronically car-anxious dog. In many cases, your dog isn’t afraid of the car itself, but of where it may be going. If they have only ever been in a car during a traumatic or stressful trip, they probably think that’s all the car is for. For this technique, it’s important to start small and work your way up to more lengthy trips. First, start by just sitting in the parked car with your dog. You don’t need to go anywhere, just sit with the doors open and the engine off so the dog can explore at his leisure without feeling trapped. You can even sprinkle a few treats around the car to encourage exploration and positive association.
Next, start feeding meals in the car. First without the engine on, then with it on. Encourage and reward calm, confident behavior at each additional step. Once your dog starts feeling more confident, go for quick drives around the block or to the park. Bring treats and make these trips calm and stress-free (that might mean keeping the kids or other dogs home at first, and then slowly adding them into the mix). As you start going on longer rides, make sure you are doing a mix of activities. That means taking the dog with you to fun outings like the park, beach, or family gatherings, but also more stressful activities like the store or the veterinarian. Do this slowly so they don’t go back to associating the car with going to “bad” places.
Motion sickness in Pets is far more common than people think. In fact, most service animals have to pass a motion sickness test to be certified because so many Pets get sick in moving vehicles. Common signs of motion sickness including drooling, excessive panting, whining, swallowing, lips pulled back, and vomiting (but not always). An easy first step in preventing car sickness is having your dog ride, restrained, in an elevated Pet travel seat. This helps alleviate some of the sensory signals in Pets that cause them to feel sick or vomit.
Another great preventative measure is to have your pup travel on an empty stomach; especially if they are prone to vomiting. However, some dogs need a little something in their stomach to decrease the chances of nausea and/or vomiting. Try both, and observe which works best for your dog. Just like humans who experience motion sickness, opening windows to get fresh air is also helpful to combat sickness.
If your Pet still is experiencing severe discomfort in the car, you may want to discuss medication or supplements with your veterinarian. They can prescribe things like Dramamine, Cerenia (Pet Dramamine), Benadryl, even a bit of ginger. It’s extremely important to talk with them before giving your Pet anything. Proper dosage is the difference between helping your dog and making them sicker.