Photo credit Tim Mossholder
Your dog needs to learn two important things about the car:
1. Riding in the car is enjoyable
2. There are rules in the car (for safety and impulse control training)
Teach Your Dog to Like Riding in a Car:
Car rides can be overwhelming experiences for dogs, and continuous overexposure can cause a dog to become anxious, fearful, or out of control. Ideally you want to start car training when your dog is under 12 weeks (before the socialization window closes) and BEFORE your dog develops a negative emotional response to riding in the car. If your dog already has a negative emotional response to car rides or if your dog is anxious/fearful of new things (or if your puppy is in a fear period) you will have to be very observant and be very careful about taking things slowly. Watch your dog for subtle signs of stress and don’t push your dog too far in a session. Work with the dog you have that day. This means that some days your dog will be more anxious than other days and you will need to slow things down for your dog.
How long does it take?
This whole process could take 20 minutes in one session or it could take a few days or weeks. It takes as long as your dog needs it to take. You can’t rush it because it is dependent upon the dog’s emotional responses. Using food can help speed up the process.
- Find the starting point and begin to build a positive emotional response.
- Gradually increase the intensity of the experience by increasing exposure time and adding the elements (e.g. car, sounds, movement).
1. Find the starting point for your dog.
Find the point where your dog first figures out that the car is going to be part of the outing. For some dogs this happens when you pick up your car keys. For other dogs it might be when you open the garage door or walk towards the car. For dogs with no previous experiences with the car, it may mean walking up to the car door.
2. Build a positive emotional response to the car using food.
From the starting point, begin to associate food with each stage in the process of “going for a car ride.” Eventually you want to get to the point where you are standing beside the car door (car door closed). If at any point your dog shows any subtle sign of stress, back off and take a short break. When you try again, go more slowly. In cases of extreme fear, it might be that you are only able to open the garage door and let the dog look at the car. Treat. Then close the door. Repeat. Work gradually and at a pace your dog can easily handle. You can do things such as sprinkle a trail of food to the car, stick a piece of food in the dog’s mouth immediately after you pick up your keys or when he looks at the car, feed him a piece of food when your hand is resting on the car, treat as you open the car door a few inches, put pieces of food on the car seat.
Build up a positive emotional response to the car in these steps:
- Approaching the car
- Opening the car door
- Getting inside the car
- Being inside the car when it’s not running
- Being inside the car when it’s running but not moving.
- Being inside the car when it’s moving
Be sure to add elements slowly and try to reduce the intensity of some elements. For example, windshield wipers can be scary. Turning them on BEFORE your dog enters the car can make the sound and movement less intense for the dog, and making sure they are on a low speed will help. Another way to make them less intense is to shorten the duration. For example, if your dog is happy and calm, turn on the windshield wipers and immediately give a treat. Turn off the wipers after a second or so. Teach your dog that the windshield wipers are good things because they make treats appear. Do the same with various sounds and things that move in the car (e.g. windows).
Start with short sessions and increase the exposure time gradually before proceeding to the next stage. When you go to the next stage, you will have to decrease the exposure time. For example, if your dog is relaxed inside the car when it’s not running and you can hang out with him for 10 minutes (e.g. he’s enjoying a chew while you read), drop the time drastically when you move the next step of turning on the car. Turn it on briefly (e.g. 20 seconds) and sprinkle treats the entire time and then turn it off and stop the treats. Eventually you will not need so many treats and then none at all; continue to work on this stage (over days if you have to) until your dog is able to tolerate sitting in the running car for 5 minutes. When you first start to drive the car, drive down the driveway and park or drive down the street a few houses and return home. Leave the car and do something your dog enjoys.
NOTE: Your dog’s first car rides should be to places where he has a positive experience. (NOTE: you might think it would be a positive place for a dog, such as dog supply store, but if your dog is overwhelmed, then this is not a positive experience for the dog.) You can take him to the vet or the groomer to have a cookie and get some affection from the staff, and then leave. You can take him for a drive through a park. Have several positive experiences before he has to go for a car ride for something he doesn’t like.