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How to Treat Car Anxiety in Dogs

Updated on February 26, 2012

Does your dog suffer from anxiety or stress when taking car trips? Some dogs stress by riding in a car from puppyhood. Others develop the fear after a scary or traumatic experience. Either way, it can make trips to the vet or even the dog park a negative experience. Learn how to treat the car anxiety, so your dog may again be more mobile, and you don't have to scramble for a dog sitter every time you go out of town.

Instructions

  1. Put your dog on a 4' leash. Walk her around the car and encourage her to investigate. Give verbal praise and a treat for any non-aggressive contact with the car.

  2. Open the car door. Walk around the car with her on a leash. Encourage her to hop in when she is ready. Reward her with verbal praise and a treat for any progress.

  3. Put her in a dog safety harness or travel crate and buckle her in. Get in the car with her and close all doors. If she starts to panic, stay calm. Give her a stern UH-UH if she begins to claw at the seat, windows, or you. If she starts breathing heavily or quickly, talk to her in a calm, normal voice. You may lay your hand on her, but do not pet her or try to console her. Dogs view both actions as praise and will think you are encouraging them to panic.

  4. Start the car and let it run for 5 minutes while you are in it.

  5. Drive around the block. Slowly up the distance. My dogs like to visit the vet, so we go their often to get weighed. Other dogs may like trips to the pet store or dog park. If the vet tech or store employees do not have dog treats, hand them one and ask them to give it to your dog. The goal is for them to see positive experiences happen when they get in the car.

  6. Each step will take anywhere from 15 minutes to a few weeks to complete. There are no short cuts. If your dog digresses and starts showing anxious behaviors after graduating to a new step, go back a step or two. Set her up to succeed.

Remember

  1. Always place dogs in a safety harness or travel crate when they are in the car. Unsecured dogs can cause drivers to become distracted, and dogs are more likely to become injured during car accidents or should you need to stop suddenly.

  2. Treats work great, but verbal and physical praise work better. Most dogs give unconditional love and devotion for an enthusiastic "atta boy," backscratch or positive physical contact.

  3. Avoid consoling dogs experiencing car anxiety or other undesirable behaviors. They see it as praise and will learn to do the negative behavior more often.

Medication

If training does not relive your dog's car anxiety, you may want to speak with your vet about over-the-counter or prescription medication. However, as with all medications, it should only be used after trying behavior correction training.

Thundershirts - A personal story

After being diagnosed with canine epilepsy in 2011, Mireille, my 2 year old Jack Russel Terrier mix, started showing signs of anxiety and stress. Warned that any stress could trigger more seizures and cause further set backs in her health, I purchased a Thundershirt at the suggestion of the Emergency Room veterinarian.

The Thundershirt works similarly to hugging your dog or swaddling a newborn baby. When worn appropriately, it applies pressure at strategic pressure points to relieve anxiety and stress. Though skeptical at first, I am now a believer. For the first few weeks, I placed it on her anytime I thought she might be entering a stressful situation and while I was at work. She showed a marked difference in personality while wearing the Thundershirt during that time.

NOTE: Thundershirts should never replace dog training, however they work well in conjunction with training when dogs are put into stressful situations that may include fireworks, riding in a car, vet visits, etc.

Read more about Mireille's battle with canine epilepsy....

Mireille wagged her tail again for the first time wearing her Thundershirt.

Mireille wagged her tail again for the first time wearing her Thundershirt.
Mireille wagged her tail again for the first time wearing her Thundershirt.

Please let me know you stopped by. Feel free to share you advice or stories about your dogs or how they overcame car anxiety.

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    • JimHofman profile image

      JimHofman 4 years ago

      Great info here! Linked to my DogCarTravel lens. Love your photos!

    • profile image

      jimmyworldstar 5 years ago

      I've seen some dogs bark and just get scared when they're inside the car. I keep the drive nice and slow and eventually they become acclimated to it.

    • ChrissLJ profile image
      Author

      ChrissLJ 6 years ago

      @Virginia Allain: When I first got my cat, he too would have car anxiety. I adopted him when he was about 2 years old so have no clue as to the cause of his car anxiety. I used steps 3-6 on him (as I never leashed train him), and he's now able to take trips without problems, too.

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 6 years ago from Central Florida

      I wonder if these techniques would work for my cat too. She used to have total panic attacks in the car and I worried that she would have a heart attack.