Riding in cars with dogs


“We recently adopted a lovely dog of about two years old. When we brought Trixie back from her foster home, she was terrified and threw up on the blanket in which we’d wrapped her. We didn’t worry too much, since everything was new for her. But now, every time we try to get her back in the car, she whimpers, pants and shivers.

“What can we do to help her?”

Magdalena de Villiers, Kimberley

Claire Atkinson M.A. (Cantab.), Qualified Dog Behaviourist and Certified Tellington Touch® Practitioner, addresses this dog behaviour and what you can do about it…

While most dogs are eager to get into the car, some are not. It may be that Trixie had a bad experience with cars before you brought her home. Whatever has caused the anxiety the answer is to change her attitude to the car from something fearful to a (usually) happy experience.

Those times when she has to go to the vet, or for grooming, can also be made less unpleasant. The process is called desensitisation, whereby we slowly help the dog see previously scary things as the predictor of good stuff – usually treats.

Step 1: Making it comfy

You’ll need to make the car as comfortable as possible for Trixie. Many people like to use a crate, as it contains the dog and lowers the level of outside triggers such as passing cars. If you choose that route, you’ll need to crate train her before using it in the car.

An alternative is to use a bed with which she is familiar in the back of the car.

Step 2: Getting used to the car

The next step is to get her comfortable in the car without moving it. Take a favourite play toy and yummy treats, some of which you scatter on the bed. Place the bed so that she can get out if she wants to. Pick her up and let her settle in the bed.

Feed her treats often so that she comes to associate the space as a source of good things. Sit with her quietly, let her get out if she wants to, then repeat the process until she is able to settle comfortably.

Next step – close the door and move away a little. If she panics, stop and let her out. If she settles, go back to the car and lavish praise and treats on her. You do this once or twice a day until she is happy to get into the car and settle.

Step 3: Getting going

Now you start to accustom her to the noise and movement of the car. Get into the driver’s seat, talking to her in a soft, calm voice. You can also play some music or purchase specific CDs for this purpose. Keep talking to her and throwing treats to her.

Once she is comfortable with that, start the windscreen wipers. Then add in starting the motor, switching the lights on and off. When she’s comfortable with all this, gently move the car a very short way.

Stop if she gets anxious, and backtrack until she’s at a stage where she was comfortable. Build up the car movement to in and out of the garage, up and down the drive, then around the block.

If you rush this process, she will likely return to her old behaviour, so make the time, and have lots of patience with her.

Choose a special park or beach to take her to, so that she realises that the car (usually) means a happy place to play with you. Along the way, there may be things that frighten her. Stop and let her relax before going further.

Extra help

Speak to your vet about possible medication if she’s suffering from motion sickness, and if the anxiety is at a high level. S/he may recommend calming measures or use of herbal medication (Rescue Remedy – a flower derivative) or Tissue Salts 6 (Khali Phos).

It’s worth noting that the process of desensitisation is useful in any situation, such as fear of vacuum cleaners. If the problem persists, consult a qualified behaviourist for help.

Wishing you many happy, relaxed trips together.