Photo credit Wade Lambert
First off, it’s essential that your dog does not have anxiety/fear associated with car rides. See this post for how to condition a dog to enjoy car rides.
It’s best to have your dog secured in a travel crate or a suitable dog seat belt. A loose dog has the potential of becoming a “flying projectile” resulting in serious injuries to the dog and the other occupants. Consider crash-test rated equipment. Most dog car harnesses and crates do not pass crash-tests, despite the product’s marketing claims.
A barking dog, a major distraction for the driver, is a sign that the dog is stressed (due to anxiety or over stimulation). If your dog is barking because he LOVES car rides, you need to teach him that his barking makes the car stop (or makes him have to leave the car if the car isn’t moving). Resume immediately when dog stops barking so your dog learns that his behaviour can make good things happen. If your dog is barking because of anxiety about being in the car, then you need to teach him to enjoy the car rides through a gentle desensitization program. If your dog is barking because of the things he sees out the window, then teach him to ride in a crate to block much of his view. Working separately on desensitizing him to the things he sees out the window can be another approach but it is beyond the scope of this post.
1. Wait for Permission to Enter/Exit
PROTECT GROWTH PLATES IN PUPPIES: Lift your puppy in/out of the car until your puppy reaches a certain height or when growth plates fully close.
Once you and your dog have reached the car on a loose leash, instruct your dog to wait or stay (if he knows the commands); if he doesn’t know the commands, ask for a sit or lure him to sit with a treat while you and he are in front of the car door. When the dog is not moving towards the door, begin to open the door. If at any point he moves towards the door, stop and gently close the door (not on his head or nose). Reset him (or wait for him to self-correct after some repetitions and he’s starting to “get it”). When he’s not moving towards the door, then start to open the door again.
Once you are able to open the door all the way, give your dog permission to enter the car. Don’t make him wait too long with the door open at the beginning; it may be too difficult for him. As he improves, you can extend his wait time with the open door to a second or two or more.
You can help your dog through the early stages by opening the door only as far as your dog is able to remain in the stay position. (Reaching for the door handle might be your starting point.) Close the door (or remove your hand from the door handle) and give your dog a small piece of food while he is still in stay position. Each time you go a little further towards being able to open the door all the way.
Exiting the Car:
Use the procedure above and don’t begin to open the door until the dog is NOT moving towards the door. Ideally, your dog will be secured in a crate or by a seatbelt. If your dog is not secured inside the car, be sure to use your body and block your dog from escaping while you attach his leash. If your dog tends to bolt, secure his leash before you exit the car, then you can grab his leash when you open the car door a few inches. You can then hold the door shut while you hang onto your dog’s leash and work on opening the door slowly while your dog stays and doesn’t move toward the car door. Practice this at home before trying to teach this in an exciting location.
2. Wait for Instruction After Exiting Car
After your leashed dog exits the car, stop and wait for your dog to turn to look at you. When he looks at you, say “yes!” to immediately mark that behaviour and give him a piece of food within one or two seconds. Be sure to bring out the food after he turns to look at you.
It’s important to set things up so your dog is able to figure things out without any prompting. If your dog frustrates easily or if the environment is super exciting to your dog, you can help him a bit by sticking a piece of food in front of his nose immediately after he exits the car (or as he exits the car) and luring him to face you and then letting him eat the food.
After several repetitions, your dog will begin to predict that a treat is coming and within 3 seconds will turn to look at you (if only for a split second). You can extend that attention to you from a split second to a few seconds by giving him a few pieces of food in a row. Eventually you will fade the food and his behaviour will be maintained over time because you will consistently wait for him to look at you before proceeding. If he wants to proceed further, he will have to look at you and wait for you.
TIP: to help teach him to wait for you while you lock the door, etc. give him little bits of food in between the small actions. For example, lock car. Treat. Put keys in pocket and adjust clothing, dog equipment, etc. Treat. Wait for dog to give you attention before proceeding on your way. Treat and then go. Fade treats gradually when the dog is consistently performing to an acceptable level of performance.