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How to help dogs that get anxious in the car

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Many dogs and cats can get motion sickness like us humans, but there are also many dogs that get anxious in the car which can be a difficult dog behaviour problem to deal with when travelling with your dog.

Before we get into it though, remember that it is illegal to drive with a pet is on your lap or if it is deemed to be a distraction, so always ensure your pet is restrained in the back seat with a harness.  You can find out more about dogs and car travel safety HERE.

Is it motion sickness or anxiety?

If your dog or cat is prone to getting sick during car travel, then just give them a light meal before the trip, but plenty of water.

Stop every couple of hours for exercise and toilet and make sure the car is well ventilated or the window is down.

If your pet has motion sickness you might notice them looking listless or uneasy, licking their lips or drooling, or it can even develop into vomiting or diarrhoea. However, these signs and others such as shaking or whining might also indicate they have anxiety.

Create a positive association for dogs that get anxious in the car

If your dog is still a puppy or hasn’t done a lot of car travel, it’s important to create a positive association by taking slow, short and frequent trips in the car to fun places, gradually increasing the length of the rides and rewarding calm behaviour with treats or praise.

If your adult dog is stressed or anxious about car travel, then it is important to go back to the basics and re-introduce them to car travel in very small steps, to help overcome the negative associations. This is called desensitisation.  Watch the video on this page to help.

Step 1

You might even need to go as far back as just having them sit in the car whilst it is stationary, leaving the door open and giving them treats and praise without moving. Do this for as long as needed until they start to feel comfortable.

Step 2

Gradually step by step  take them a little further.  For example, simply start the car and leave the engine running with the door open, or sitting in there with them, and give them a toy or treat to help distract them and help keep them calm.   It is important to reinforce the calm behaviour and not inadvertently encourage their anxiety by mistake.  Find out how we can reinforce anxiety in our dogs HERE.

Step 3

Once they are used to the car vibrations and movement and are acting calm, your aim is slowly get them used to going further distances. Stop frequently, make it fun and rewarding and build on this over time to change their association with car travel which will help dogs with anxiety in the car.

Other tips to help dogs that get anxious in the car

It may also help to give your dog a special toy they really love, and save it just for car trips, or their favourite blanket to help create that positive association with car travel.

A pheromone calming spray such as Adaptil for dogs or Feliway for cats may also help keep them calm during car travel. The spray releases pheromones that mimic the chemical that a dog naturally produces, like a mother dog does to her puppies, to provide a signal of security and comfort.

Spray it in the car or on your dog’s car blanket 15 minutes before you leave to help reduce symptoms like panting, trembling or restlessness. Re-spray every 4 hours and never spray directly on your dog.

Take it slow

It takes time and patience, but it is really important you don’t force dogs that get anxious in the car too much, or go too far too quickly, as this will simply reinforce the fear.

For other tips for helping dogs with anxiety in general, CLICK HERE for more articles to help.

About the Author: Lara Shannon is a NDTF certified dog behaviourist and trainer, Executive Producer and Host of Pooches at Play on Channel 10 and editor of Poochesatplay.com. Lara also runs her own dog training and boarding business in Melbourne’s Bayside area and is the Author of Eat, Play, Love (Your Dog).

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