Preventing and Treating Travel Anxiety in Dogs

Travel anxiety can ruin a road trip before you even hit the highway. Dogs can be great travel companions, but before you gas up the car and back out of the driveway, there are a few things you can do to make your dog’s trip in the car smoother, safer, and more enjoyable for everybody.

Car Sickness in Dogs
Dogs can get car sick while riding in the car, and often this leads to travel anxiety. Feeling sick whenever they are in the car doesn’t help build a positive association for your dog, which contributes to the anxiety they feel when they have to go for a car ride.

Help Your Dog Feel Comfortable in the Car
For many dogs, a trip to the vet is the main reason they get to ride in the car. Therefore, many dogs make the association that car ride equals a vet visit. This is called “classical conditioning”. Many dogs don’t always love what happens at the vet, is it any wonder then, that getting in the car can often trigger stress and anxiety for so many dogs? Other dogs become anxious in the car because of previous bad experiences in the car, such as being left alone or a scary event such as a car accident.

Desensitizing a Puppy to Enjoy Riding in the Car
Start with the car parked and turned off. Sit next to your dog in the area you plan on having them regularly ride. Give your dog pets, praise, treats … whatever they love! Do this for just a few minutes at a time. After a few sessions in the same area as your dog, introduce being behind the wheel while your dog is still in their area. You can toss treats back to them and praise them whenever they are quiet and calm. 

After practicing with the car turned off, start to introduce turning the car on. Keep your own energy and attitude neutral while you turn the car on, wait a brief moment, and then turn it back off. The noise can be a little disconcerting at first, so toss a treat right after it happens. Start to increase the amount of time you leave the engine running, all the while making sure your pup is calm and happy with verbal praise and the occasional toss of a treat.

If at any point you notice a fear response during this process, don’t panic! Your dog might back away, their ears might go back against their head, or they have a closed mouth and wide eyes. If you see them trying to avoid moving closer, trying to move further away from the car, or trying to jump out, that’s a sign that they’re stressed.

Other subtle signals of stress include yawning, lip licking, or what are called “displacement behaviors.”
Displacement behaviors are otherwise normal behaviors being performed out of context when your dog is feeling emotionally conflicted, and include things like sniffing the ground, self-grooming, licking, sneezing, and scratching. Keep your energy positive to show your pup there’s nothing to worry about and offer some comfort. Then go back a step or lessen the intensity of the step you’re on.

Start to add in more and more of the car ride process, making sure to reinforce calm behavior with praise and treats throughout. You can simply back out of the driveway before pulling back in or do a quick trip around the block before taking longer and longer trips. Go to lots of fun places with your puppy that they enjoy so they learn that car rides predict awesome things!

Counter Conditioning Your Dog to Feel Better About the Car
The biggest difference is that your dog already has a negative association with being in the car versus a puppy who hasn’t built any associations (good or bad) when you start introducing them to the car. For this reason, you want to focus on rewarding your dog’s choice to move towards the car in these steps.

Don’t try to lure with a toy or treat or force them closer with leash pressure. Their confidence around the car will grow if they are given the choice to approach or get in the car, and that choice is rewarded with things they love. The more a choice is rewarded, the more they will choose to make it. Patience is key!

Preventing and Treating Travel Anxiety in Dogs

Start Slow

Some dogs need to begin this process without even getting into the car. If your dog has extreme anxiety and starts to stress before they even get in the car, begin outside of the parked car. Any time they look at the car, offer them a treat and praise! If they take a step towards the car, treat and praise. Or if they like toy play, play some tug with them in the vicinity of the car. Do this for just a few minutes the first time, or even just a few seconds depending on how stressed they are around the car. Do this daily, or every other day, for a few weeks.

Build Confidence
You can then have the car door open and repeat this process of giving high-value rewards for looking at and moving towards the car. You don’t want to force them into the car — instead, you want them to choose to go towards the open door on their own and then reward them.

Reward Continued Progress
Once they’ve shown more confidence in approaching the open door, you can add in the step of jumping in (or being picked up and placed in the car, if they’re small enough). Give lots of praise and a high-value treat when they put their feet in the car, and then let them jump out (or take them out) immediately if they’d like. Practice this step until your dog is showing confidence in getting in the car and doesn’t show signs of immediately wanting to get out.

Sit in The Car With Your Dog
Then, with the car parked, go into the back seat (or cargo area) with your dog. Pet them, praise them, and give them high-value treats (like little pieces of cheese, hot dogs, or whatever you know they really love).
Build Duration: Gradually increase the amount of time you’re both spending in the car. Consider feeding them regular meals in the car, or sit with them calmly giving praise and pets.

What you’re trying to do here is change your dog’s previously bad association to a positive one. All of your dog’s favorite things now happen in the car — and positive experiences in the car abound. 

Alternatively,  if you decide not to take your pooch on vacation with you because it will be too stressful – call 204-813-9054. We’ll be happy to show them around our Pawsh Dog Hotel, a safe and luxurious home alternative for dogs. Or The Pawsh Dog also offers private training and daycamp socialization to prepare your dog for your trip.  Whatever you decide – our professional staff will gladly answer any questions you may have so that you can comfortably find a solution for your anxious dog.