Let’s Go for a Ride…or NOT!


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Starting December 2023

When going for a ride isn’t nearly as fun for your dog. Over the past few months I have had a number of clients who have had puppies that get car sick. Often the puppy will grow out of it, but sometimes the puppy will need a little bit of help to overcome it, and sometimes it will turn into full blown car anxiety. Let’s discuss the differences and how you can help your puppy love the car!

Motion Sickness vs. Car Anxiety

There are two types of car sickness. In my experience, the most common type of car sickness is actually motion sickness. Puppies do not generally go for car rides when they’re still in the litter, so a puppy has never experienced such odd motions of the car. There are many reasons motion sickness can cause car anxiety, but there are plenty of ways to help prevent car anxiety too!

Motion Sickness

Motion sickness occurs when there is conflict among your senses. Your eyes, muscles, and ears are all sensing different things. Your puppy’s brain is unable to process all of this information, so the body does the best it can to protect itself, which can cause excess salivation and upset stomach. With time many puppies will adjust to the movement of the car and “grow out of it.”

Signs of Motion Sickness

  • Restlessness
  • Excessive shaking
  • Excessive panting
  • Excessive salivation/drooling
  • Vomiting

Car Anxiety

Car anxiety is typically what occurs when a puppy is not able to “grow out of motion sickness.” There are many reasons for why motion sickness can turn into car anxiety. For example, only taking the puppy in the car to go to the vet. Veterinarian appointments are few and far between and can be stressful. If the puppy has only been in the car to go to the vet, there are not many opportunities for the puppy to get used to the motion of the car. Another reason, is because the puppy associates the car with making him or her feel sick. Anytime we anticipate something unpleasant, we begin to have anxiety. For example, when the boss calls you into his or her office, you get that pit your stomach. That’s the same feeling your puppy or dog might get when you “go for a ride.” Car anxiety can be very difficult to overcome, but with proper desensitization and counter conditioning protocols we can help make car rides fun.

Signs of Car Anxiety, same as Motion Sickness plus

  • Refusal to load into the car without help
  • Picking the dog up (especially larger dogs that should be able to load up on his or her own)
  • Leading with a leash
  • Refusal to approach the car
  • BOLTING out of the car if given the chance

Preventing Car Anxiety

Because simple motion sickness can easily develop into full blown car anxiety, it is important to try prevent motion sickness from getting worse. The following tips can help with preventing car anxiety:
Teach your dog to happily approach the car

  • Approach the Car Game
  • I’m marking (happy YES) when Scout looks at the car. I’m also feeding the treat where she can reach it ON the car. Notice what happens towards the end of the video.

Teach your dog to happily get in the car

    • Get in the Car Game
    • In a later training session with Scout, I wanted the approach to the car to look more normal, so we went back and forth with me opening the door. She was eventually very excited to get into the car.
    • Disclaimer: If you are playing this game with a puppy (dogs less than 12 months old), please help them get out of the car
    • Let your dog eat a few meals in the car
      • A couple of times a week have your dog eat a meal or two IN the car
      • Have a family member, or friend, call your dog into the car, and out then other side
      • Again, help your puppy under 12 months old to get into and out of the car
      • Take your dog on trips to nowhere
      • Such as the bank, pick up takeout/fast food, run a quick erred where the dog does not come out of the car until you get back home
      • This is a great idea for dogs who get too over aroused or anxious when they get to their destination
      • Don’t feed your dog an hour or so prior to taking a trip
      • Discuss with your Veterinarian some options to help with Motion Sickness if it doesn’t go away on its own

Treating Car Anxiety

Once a dog has full blown Car Anxiety it can be tricky to work through it successfully! Using a systematic approach known as desensitization and counter conditioning is the best method for helping with this type of anxiety. It is VERY important to not move through the steps too quickly. It is also important to recognize when you need to go back a step for a little bit. Not all dogs learn in a linear manner.

  • Do NOT take unnecessary car rides while working on this!
  • You may want to discuss medication options in case car rides do become necessary while working through this
  • Go at the dog’s pace
  • Do NOT force the dog to move closer to the vehicle
  • If possible, don’t use a leash when doing this training
  • If you must train outside, in a non-fenced in area use a leash
  • If you must use a leash, keep it loose, no pulling on it! The leash is only to keep the dog safe from running off

The Steps

  • Step 1: Find the Trigger Line
    • The Trigger Line is how close you can get to the car before the dog begins showing signs of stress or anxiety
    • The Signs Include: stopping forward motion, running away, shaking, panting, etc. Basically if your gut says “this is the point” then that is the point.
  • Step 2: Close the Gap
    • During this step we are going to feed the dog yummy treats as close to the Trigger Line as possible, but without pushing the dog to the point where he or she gets worried.
    • The Trigger Line will constantly be moving.
    • I generally try to play games, or do tricks, the dog knows well, such as: hand touches, circles, Figure 8s between my legs.
    • If your dog is too stressed to play games, just offer food/treats.
    • Do this 3-5 times per week for 2-5 minutes at a time (set a timer if you need too).
    • This is not a marathon game! You’ll get more out of very short training sessions
    • Each time you play this game, try to inch closer to the car.
    • If your dog gets worried, go back to the original starting distance, then work back towards closer to the car.
    • It could take 1-2 weeks to get within a foot of the car. Do not move on to Step 3, until the dog happily gets within a foot from the car. Don’t RUSH this step!!!!
  • Step 3: Get Close
    • Only move onto this step when your are able to get happily within a foot of the car.
    • Drop treats close to the car, but be sure they do not roll under the car. This is Classical Conditioning. The dog just needs to eat food close to the car.
    • Move around the car with the dog having a loose leash while randomly, but at a high rate of reinforcement, dropping treats near the car.
  • Step 4: Find the Trigger Line – Door Open
    • To help build more confidence, go back to Step 1, but this time you’ll have the car door open.
    • This is an important step since the picture is changing. The car door open may trigger stress or anxiety in your dog.
  • Step 5: Close the Gap – Door Open
    • Repeat Step 2, but with the car door open.
    • Ideally, you’ll move through this step fairly quickly, but you still need to go at the dog’s pace.
  • Step 6: Get Close – Door Open
    • Repeat Step 3, but with the car door open.
    • If your dog happens to jump in the car, give praise, and treats then end the training session.
  • Step 7: Look at the Car/Approach the Car (with the door open)
    • If your dog looks at the car, mark the behavior (click or happy YES), then put the treat on the door frame.
    • DO NOT put the treat on the car seas, or IN the car. You should be able to place it on the bottom of the door frame.
    • When your dog gains more confidence he or she might put her feet where the treat has been placed. If that happens, JACKPOT (give 3-5 treats individually) onto the car seat or floor board (where ever your dog can easily reach).
    • This is demonstrated in the first video.
  • Step 8: Get In the Car
    • See the Second Video Above.
  • Step 9: Play in the Car
      • This is when you can start playing the games in the “Prevent Car Anxiety” section above!
      • You may even have to let your dog eat his or her meals in the care with the car turned on vs. it not being turned on.
      • It is important to make car trips VERY short at this stage.

    When you get through all of these steps make sure car trips are fun, non-stressful, and be prepared to work through the steps again. It is very important that you take your dog’s emotions into consideration when doing this training. Do not push your dog! If you try to rush this training it will take longer and longer to help your dog. What has helped you overcome motion sickness or car anxiety with your dog?

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