Taking your dog in the car should be an enjoyable experience for both of you. However, many dogs become anxious, restless or even aggressive when riding in vehicles. This can make car trips stressful for you and your pet. The good news is there are things you can do to teach your dog to stay calm during car rides. With proper training and techniques, you can help your dog become comfortable and relaxed in the car.
Understand Why Your Dog Gets Anxious in the Car
Before you can train your dog to be calm in the car, it helps to understand what's causing their unease in the first place. There are a few common reasons dogs get anxious during car trips:
Unfamiliar surroundings. The inside of a car is an enclosed, confined space your dog isn't used to. They may pace, whine, drool or pant as a reaction to this unfamiliar environment.
Motion sickness. Just like people, dogs can experience nausea and dizziness from car rides. The motion of the vehicle can overwhelm their senses and make them anxious.
Lack of control. Dogs feel more secure when they're in control of their environment. In a moving car, they have no control over the situation which can make them distressed.
Past negative experiences. If your dog has only ridden in the car for unpleasant experiences like going to the vet, they may associate the car with those memories and become upset.
Separation anxiety. Dogs who struggle with separation anxiety may become extremely stressed if they're separated from their owner in the confined space of a car.
Knowing the source of your dog's unease is the first step toward relieving their anxiety.
Begin Training in a Stationary Car
Don't expect your dog to magically stay calm during car rides without proper training. Start small by teaching them to be relaxed and comfortable in a non-moving vehicle first. There are a few ways to do this:
Feed your dog meals in the car. This creates a positive association with the car environment.
Give your dog high-value treats like chicken or cheese only when they're in the car. This teaches them the car equals good things.
Practice basic obedience commands like sit, stay and down while your dog is in the car with the doors open. Reward and praise for calm behavior.
Encourage your dog to explore the car at their own pace, sniffing around and checking things out. Let them become familiar with it.
Play calming music to mask outside noises that could agitate your dog. Speak in a happy, relaxed tone yourself.
Try applying a calming essential oil like lavender or chamomile to a bandana for your dog to wear in the car. Smell can impact mood.
The goal is to make the stationary car a place of comfort, security and positive associations before ever turning the engine on. Take your time and be patient during this foundational training.
Take Short Drives to Start
Once your dog seems relaxed hanging out in the parked car, start taking them on very short drives around the block. Just a minute or two at first. Stop the car before your dog has a chance to become anxious. Gradually work up to slightly longer drives of 5-10 minutes. Return home and reward your dog with treats and praise for their good behavior.
Other tips for early driving sessions:
Bring a familiar chew toy to help distract your dog from the sensations of the moving car.
Make sure your dog is properly secured in a carrier, crate or harness made for car travel. Feeling unstable adds stress.
Lower the rear windows a few inches so fresh air circulates and your dog can catch interesting smells.
Have a "second driver" come along to offer treats, petting and reassurance.
Choose times with less traffic and fewer stoplights. The smoother the ride, the better.
End on a positive note with play, affection or a walk around the block.
The goal of short drives is to slowly acclimate your dog both physically and mentally to the car ride experience. Be patient and understanding if your dog still shows some reluctance.
Teach Settled Behavior
As car ride durations increase, teach your dog to settle down and stay in place instead of pacing, standing or trying to climb into your lap. Have your dog enter the car and get comfortable on their bed, cushion or carrier. Reward with treats when they lie down in a settled position.
Use commands like "settle" or "lie down" then reward compliance. If your dog remains settled for the majority of the drive, stop occasionally during the ride to praise and give treats. Use high-value rewards at first to capture this desired behavior.
Gradually expect your dog to remain in a down-stay for longer time periods before treating. Work up to giving them a treat only at the end of the drive for staying settled the entire time. This teaches your dog to maintain the calm behavior without constant rewards.
Use Appeasing Pheromones
Specialized products containing dog appeasing pheromone (DAP) can help relieve stress during car rides. DAP releases chemicals that mimic the pheromones from nursing dog moms that reassure their puppies. Products like DAP diffusers, sprays and collars can make your dog feel more secure.
Place a DAP diffuser in the back seat where your dog rests, spray some DAP on their bedding, or have them wear a DAP collar. Using pheromones along with training helps reinforce calmness. Consult your vet first to make sure it's suitable for your dog.
Try Anxiety Relieving Supplements
Certain supplements may help reduce your dog's car anxiety when used with behavior modification training. Two types that can be effective are:
Melatonin: This natural hormone has relaxing properties. Give your dog melatonin 30-60 minutes before a car trip. Get proper dosage instructions from your vet first.
Ginger: Ginger can ease nausea associated with motion sickness. Give ginger treats, capsules, or add powder to your dog's food before driving. Check with your vet on suggested amounts.
Always get your vet's guidance before giving your dog any supplement, especially if they're on other medications. Supplements should complement training, not serve as a sole solution.
Practice Car Manners
Good car manners go hand in hand with staying calm. Once your dog is comfortable riding in the car, implement rules to keep them (and you) safe:
Teach your dog to wait for your cue before jumping in the car. No bolting out doors.
Reward sitting, lying down or staying in a carrier; no pacing or standing.
Practicing impulse control. No barking or whining.
Settle down for naps or chew toys on long rides.
Politely accept occasional restraint: windows up, no hanging head out the window.
Socialize your dog to be comfortable around car hazards like honking horns or squealing tires. Get them used to loud noises and challenges while in the safety of the stationary car first.
Reinforce these manners with positive training during and after car rides. Dogs appreciate structure.
See Your Veterinarian If Needed
If your dog's car anxiety seems severe and they still won't settle down with training, talk to your veterinarian. Medications may be prescribed in extreme cases of canine car sickness, phobias or separation anxiety. Some options are:
Benzodiazepines: Minor tranquilizers like alprazolam that provide a calming effect.
Acepromazine: A sedative that reduces overall anxiety.
Anti-nausea: Medications like Cerenia to treat motion sickness.
Medication can be used with behavior modification for short term help. Always be cautious with dosage and side effects. Focus on training as the long-term solution.
Be Patient and Consistent
Some anxious pups may require more time and training than others. Stick with it and try to pinpoint the triggers that cause your individual dog the most distress. Maintain a calm, assertive energy yourself. Stay positive and patient.
With consistency and effort, you can teach your dog to ride calmly in the car. Start small, reward progress, and don't give up. You'll have a happy canine companion for all your future travels.
Car rides can be nerve-wracking for dogs if they haven't been properly trained. Motion sickness, unfamiliar environments and separation anxiety are some common triggers for canine car anxiety. However, you can help your dog learn to stay calm and relaxed during trips by using positive reinforcement training, pheromones, supplements and consistent practice.
Start with short drives close to home and work up to longer distances. Reward calm behavior in the car and correct unwanted whining or pacing. Be patient—some dogs may require more time and training than others. With a customized approach tailored to your dog's needs, you can teach them to be safe, polite and stress-free passengers. Consistency is key. The effort will provide a lifetime of smooth, peaceful car travel with your furry friend.