Traveling in a car can be an exciting adventure for your furry friend, but for some dogs, it can be a bit overwhelming or scary. With the right training and preparation, you can help your dog feel comfortable and safe during car rides. This handout provides step-by-step guidance on teaching your dog to travel in a car and is designed to be practiced over a period of several months.
Step 1: Desensitisation
Start with a stationary car: Begin by introducing your dog to the car while it's parked and turned off. Allow them to explore the exterior of the car freely. Offer treats and praise to create positive associations with being near the vehicle. Scatter small pieces of food on the floor around the car but do not put food directly into the car as this can cause feelings of conflict.
Short sessions: Keep the initial sessions brief to prevent your dog from feeling overwhelmed. Five minute ‘sniff and eat’ sessions each day is a good starting point. Gradually increase the duration as your dog becomes more comfortable. You can begin to open the car doors and allow your dog to sniff the interior of the car as your progress.
Step 2: Getting in the Car
1. Some dogs prefer to jump into a car, whilst others may prefer (or may require a ramp). Introduce your dog to whichever option is most suitable for them at home away from the car. For instance, teach your dog to jump up onto low surfaces in the garden when you say “up”. Or lay your ramp flat on the floor in the garden and encourage your dog to walk up and down it. Practice jumping up or walking on a ramp for at least a week before practicing on the car.
2. When first practicing getting into the car, ensure the engine is turned off. Cue your dog to jump into the car and reward them when they do. If you are using a ramp, ask your dog to walk up the ramp and reward them in the car. Repeat this in short sessions every day for a week.
3. As your dog becomes more comfortable getting into the car, you can start to encourage them to spend more time in the vehicle when it is turned off. If your dog is comfortable, you could feed them a small meal in the car, or offer them enrichment such as a chew. Bring this into your daily routine for a week. If your dog is toy motivated, you can play a game of fetch, encouraging them to chase their ball in and out of the car.
Step 3: Gradual exposure to engine sounds
1. Once your dog is comfortable being in the parked car, start the engine without moving. Reward your dog for remaining calm and relaxed. Turn the car off after a few seconds. Repeat this each day for a few seconds with your dog in the car.
2. Gradually increase movement: Slowly start moving the car in short distances, such as backing out of the driveway moving a few feet slowly down the road. Always use a calm and reassuring tone while driving. It is helpful to have a second person with your dog who can reassure them and offer them food where appropriate.
Step 4: Gradual Progression
Start with short trips: Begin with short car rides to nearby places your dog enjoys, such as a nearby park or a friend's house. This helps your dog associate car rides with fun experiences.
Increase the distance: Gradually increase the length of the car rides as your dog becomes more at ease. Ensure each ride ends with a positive experience.
Step 5: Addressing Anxiety
Recognize signs of anxiety: Watch for signs of stress or anxiety during car rides, such as panting, drooling, whining, or restlessness.
Stay calm and patient: If your dog shows signs of anxiety, remain calm and avoid scolding. Punishment will only reinforce negative associations with the car.
Consult a professional: If your dog experiences severe anxiety or fear during car rides, consider seeking help from a professional behaviourist or a veterinarian who specializes in behaviour.
Step 6: Consistency
Regular practice: Practice car rides regularly to reinforce positive associations and desensitize your dog to the experience.
Be patient: Each dog is unique, and some may take more time to adjust than others. This is especially true if your dog has associated trauma with travelling in a car e.g. if they have been in a car accident, if they experience travel sickness, or if they underwent a long, difficult journey in the past. Be patient and understanding throughout the training process.
Create positive associations: Provide your dog with a favourite toy or blanket to bring on car rides. This familiar item will help your dog associate the car with comfort and security.
Secure your dog: It's essential to keep your dog safe during car rides. Use a crash-tested dog seatbelt harness, a secured crate, or a travel carrier to restrain your dog. This prevents them from roaming and causing distractions. Experiment with different areas in the car; some dogs prefer to travel low to the ground in footwells, whereas others prefer to be up high.
Never leave your dog unattended: Never leave your dog alone in the car, especially in hot weather, as temperatures can quickly become dangerous.
Remember, every dog is different, so be prepared to adjust your approach based on your dog's specific needs and responses. With time, patience, and positive reinforcement, you can teach your dog to love car rides and make traveling together an enjoyable experience for both of you. Happy travels!