Dear Dr. Sip and Melissa,
My boyfriend and I adopted a puppy from the shelter a month ago and we’re having a heck of a time getting her to ride comfortably in the car. Angie resists hopping in the back, she cowers on the floor, and drools everywhere. It’s super sad and we want her to love her car rides and weekend trips. Help!
--Kate, Tim & Angie
Melissa: Tell Angie she’s not alone! While many dogs have “born to ride” tattooed on their shoulder, some have a range of issues regarding travel. The trick is figuring out what the issue is.
Dr. Sip: Ask Angie if she suffers from carsickness, anxiety or over-excitement and can’t sit still. Oh, wait, she can’t talk. Welcome to our world!
Melissa: Carsickness or anxiety are not necessarily mutually exclusive events. This is why Venn Diagrams exist! Some dogs suffer from medical issues that make riding in a car uncomfortable. Some are anxious or nervous. Some, anticipating feeling nauseous, will start to suffer from anxiety about feeling ill, which makes them more nauseous…it can be a vicious, gross, messy cycle.
Dr. Sip: Even if a dog isn’t vomiting in the car, he might feel dizzy, nauseous, or otherwise uncomfortable. The first step is to consult with your veterinarian. If Angie has been dosed with Dramamine or a prescription canine anti-nausea medication (an appropriate dose should be recommended by your veterinarian), and you’ve done an anti-carsick dance under the moon at midnight while peeling an avocado (the internet is a strange, strange place!) then you can try some training techniques.
Melissa: Slowly acclimate your dog to the car (emphasis on s-l-o-w-l-y) and associate the car with only amazing wonderful things. If your dog cannot even go near the car, start indoors by pairing the jangling of keys to a tiny piece of cheese or jerky twice daily for two minutes. After a few days, consider feeding your dog this delicious treat near the car by asking for “sit,”or “paw” (notice we aren’t even opening the car door yet. S-l-o-w-ly is the key.) Provided this goes well for a few days and your dog seems eager to work, open the the back hatch or rear car door but don’t put your dog in the car. Continue asking for easy behaviors near the vehicle.
Dr. Sip: Assuming the cheese platter has worked its wonders, invite Angie into the car. Do not pick up, lift, or force her. She has to think this is where the party is all on her own.
Melissa: But if Angie still thinks the car is a dog-eating monster, it’s ok. You can call a certified professional dog trainer, or go back to an easier level. (We told you this would be SLOW). However, if your dog does well and goes into the car, feed your dog a Kong in the back seat. Don’t turn on the engine, don’t jangle keys, and don’t even get in the front seat. Just hang out with your dog while she gets acclimated to sitting in the car with her food toy.
Dr. Sip: Feed your dog in this way for several days. Once your dog is comfortable (tail wagging, happy dog!), turn the engine on but just hang out. Don’t put the car in drive, and don’t even think about cranking death metal through the speakers just yet.
Melissa: You guessed it, give it a few more days.
Dr. Sip: After the engine is on and Angie is looking forward to jumping in the car for a goodie, let her take the wheel and go for a spin.
Melissa: Wait, what?
Dr. Sip: Just making sure you’re paying attention. Next, you want to start gradually moving the car very short distances- back down the driveway and then go back to your parking spot.
Melissa: If Angie still has not fallen madly deeply in love with your car, or doesn’t progress beyond being able to walk near the car, then check out the following:
- Reach out to a science-based, positive reinforcement dog trainer (CCPDT.org, PetProfessionalGuild.com, KarenPryorAcademy.com, Positively.com are a few places I recommend)
- A certified animal behavior consultant (CCPDT.org, IAABC.org)
- A veterinary behaviorist (a veterinarian that is board certified in animal behavior, found only through DACVB.org.).
- Stay clear of self-proclaimed “behaviorists,” particularly if they don’t have any affiliation with reputable organizations like the ones listed above, or if the organization they belong to does not require continuing educational credits to keep their credentials.
Dr. Sip: Don’t look for a quick fix, or just “toss Angie into the car and she’ll get over it” because that will more than often backfire in the form of puppy puke all over your CR-V, or more complicated anxiety issues.
Melissa: And if at any point your dog does projectile vomit all over your car, we have you covered there, too.