Dog Car Anxiety – How To Fix It

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Are you trying your absolute best to cope with your dog’s intense fear of travel, but you just don’t know how to help cure dog car anxiety? Does it seem like every car ride, no matter how short, is incredibly stressful for you and your dog?

Dog siting in the car, panting with tongue hanging out, lots of orange camera flare from the sunset.

How to Calm a Dog in the Car

Why is your dog so anxious in the car anyway? When did this dog car anxiety get so bad, and what led to it? If you’re wondering how to calm a dog in the car, consider why he is upset in the first place.

Find the Cause

You’ll need to understand the root cause of your dog’s fear before you can truly begin to change this unwanted behavior. In fact, this is true of nearly any unwanted dog behavior. Without understanding the exact cause, you’re shooting in the dark.

Motion Sickness

Does your dog become queasy, sick, or disoriented when traveling in your car? Have you noticed your pet vomiting during car rides? Maybe your suspension isn’t that great, and the ride is just very rough. Perhaps you’ve slammed on the brakes too many times, sending your furry friend catapulting into the back of your seat.

Ensuring a smooth ride is probably the best way to teach your dog to love car rides in this case. Your veterinarian may also suggest 1 mg. Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) per pound of bodyweight to help calm your dog and eliminate motion sickness simultaneously.

What About Dog Car Seat Covers?

You might think about purchasing ‘dog car seats’ that provide cushioned barriers between the front and back seats and attach well to your vehicle thus preventing movement. You can even find comfortable ‘dog seat’ restraints that latch to your seat buckles.

Fear of Confinement

Your dog might simply consider the car one big, unnatural metal cage. After all, moving at those speeds is an experience very few animals would ever endure had we never entered their lives.

Unfortunately, when dogs aren’t able to escape a frightening situation and don’t know how to respond defensively, they can become very anxious. If the dog anxiety in the car is bad enough, it might continue to build on itself until impacting your dog’s physical health.

This is sometimes seen in extreme cases of separation anxiety when dogs will cause tremendous bodily harm to their mouths and paws trying to break out of a metal crate.

Large white poodle sitting in the front drivers seat of a car, and looking at the camera.

Post Accident Trauma

Think of a dog fight survivor (i.e. a ‘Bait’ dog), or an abused shelter rescue cowering in the corner of his cage in an attempt to seem as small and non-threatening as possible. In both of these cases, the dogs would have developed an intense fear of their tormentors.

That bait dog will have such an intense fear of other dogs, not even the most educated behaviorist in the world will have an easy time curing it completely!

Dogs can suffer from PTSD just as easily as humans can! Unfortunately, they lack the same coping mechanisms we’ve spent hundreds of years developing. The tormentor is the car this time, instead of other dogs or abusive humans. 

Coping with Past Trauma

Like nearly any other traumatic situation, it may take very slow desensitization work (see below) from an experienced behaviorist to diminish fear at this level. Forcing trips might only make your dog’s intense anxiety worse, no matter how gentle you are.

For extreme situations like the examples above, you might want to discuss anxiety medication with your veterinarian.

White short haired dog, sitting in the passenger seat of a car, looking out of the front windscreen.

Relates Car to Punishment

Have you ever become so frustrated with your dog for refusing to hop in the car, you’ve lost your temper? Has this dog been screamed at or punished for refusing to leave? Though no one wants to actually admit to it, this type of aversive punishment will nearly always increase a dog’s anxiety toward the car.

You want your dog to feel like car rides are rewarding! Your pet is being treated to this amazing new experience, as opposed to dreading a fearful punishment.

How to Cure Dog Car Anxiety

Despite any one of the issues above, you can still teach your dog to love car rides! Through careful, gradual training, help your pet form positive associations with the car and car rides.

Congratulate your dog for getting into the car with enthusiastic praise! Entice your dog with tasty food rewards and treats! Provide plenty of entertaining toys!

By using reward-based positive reinforcement, you can easily teach your dog to love car rides. In other words, your goal is to calm your dog in the car by creating enjoyable situations.

Desensitization: In simple terms, desensitization dog training involves gradually introducing a normally disliked stimulus at a very slow pace, building familiarity until your dog no longer dislikes that stimulus!

Counter-Conditioning: You’re changing the way your pet feels toward a situation or object (in this case the car). You would accomplish this by combining something your dog enjoys more than his fear of car rides or that enjoyment outweighs the discomfort.

Small white dog, licking her nose, and standing on the passenger seat of a car with a very bright pink and white interior.

Teach Your Dog to Love Car Rides!

Is your dog suddenly scared of car rides? If you are trying to figure out how to cure dog car anxiety, desensitize your dog to car rides through counter-conditioning!

  • Begin by gradually and subtly re-associating your car with pleasant memories. Have your pet sit outside the car and give your dog a high value treat like a piece of chicken then go for a short walk then come back to the car. Open the rear door. See if your pet goes in. If not, try to lure your pet by placing a high-value treat on the rear seat not too far from the door for your pet to easily take it. If your pet jumps in the seat then go inside to sit with him but if not, go for another short walk. Do not force your pet to get in the car. Doing so will only increase their anxiety. For older and very small dogs, consider getting a ramp.
  • Come back to the car and open the rear door and sit down. Try to lure your dog by placing another high-value treat on the seat. If your pet jumps in, give him some more treats and play with him gently for a few minutes. Make sure the car is not too hot and the engine is turned off. Keep doing this until your dog looks comfortable.
  • Exit the car then go for another short walk then come back. Open the rear door and place another treat. Allow your pet to jump in. This time start the engine then gently drive a short distance. Ideally not more than a few minutes. Try to drive as gently as you can. When you get back, give your pet another high-value treat and give lots of praise. Be patient and remember that it might take some time before your pet re-adjusts. If your dog refuses to cooperate, save it for another day.
Black and white image of a dog on the back seat of a car and resting his chin on the edge of the door window.

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DOg Car Anxiety – top tips

  • Put 2 drops of Bach’s Rescue on your pet’s water bowl to reduce anxiety
  • Do not smoke in the car
  • Crack the window to get some fresh air. If you’re not able to crack the window then set the a/c or heat to a comfortable temperature.
  • Do not give your dog a full meal before getting in the car to prevent motion sickness and vomiting.
  • Leave some poop bags, some paper towels, and bottled water in your glove compartment just in case you need to clean up
  • Let your dog eliminate before getting in the car to prevent accidents.
  • Try to wear a Thundershirt on your pet to reduce anxiety
Golden Labrador wearing a grey Thundershirt with orange piping.
  •  Play music from the i-Calm.com car version. This psychoacoustic music has the right balance to keep the driver alert and your pet relaxed.
  • Do not force your pet to get in the car. Doing so will only increase your dog’s anxiety. Your dog must do this willingly. Resist the temptation to punish your dog if it has an accident in the car. It is not the dog’s fault and will make him associate your car with a negative experience. Let your dog relieve himself before getting in the car.

Medication for motion sickness

A 250mg bottle of CBD oil from Hemp My Pet next to its green cardboard box.
Advert showing a happy Jack Russell dog, text says "Homeopathy works for dogs too!" and "Click here to find a remedy".

Conclusion: Curing Dog Car Anxiety

In most cases, it really isn’t difficult to calm your dog in the car as long as you are careful. Instead of the fear or discomfort your pet felt before, relate wonderful things to the car! Always be enthusiastic and optimistic! Try singing songs with a cheerful voice, and incorporate new toys or treats.

Disclaimer

All information in this post is for educational purposes only and is not meant to replace your veterinarians’ advice.

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Pinterest pin showing a dog sitting in a car

24 thoughts on “Dog Car Anxiety – How To Fix It”

  1. I really had no idea that this was such an in depth issue. We’ve had six dogs over the last twenty three years and none of them have had any issues whatsoever with being in the car, we’ve obviously been very lucky. Still, I was glad that I read the article, as I now feel somewhat more prepared than I was before, should I ever have the misfortune to have an anxious dog.

    I’ve bookmarked the page as my wife helps out at a ‘dog rescue’ and is always moving them around. I didn’t realise there was specific music available to help keep them calm. You are so right with the negative associations, they have a kind of sixth sense, certainly when it comes to visiting the vets and on one occasion when the one had to stay a few nights in a kennels. We always have a supply of ‘Rescue Remedy’ on hand, should the need arise. 

    Reply
    • Hi Twack, we also use Rescue Remedy. It’s powerful stuff and its safe. Im glad you found this article to be helpful and yes, dogs are smart. Sometimes almost telepathic

      Sunny

      Reply
  2. This site effectively addresses a specific pet concern – anxiety.  Even more attention is focused on fear of riding in cars.  

    The reasons for the development of these anxieties are identified, and particular methods of dealing with them are set out, including a description of hands-on training, and the use of various medications for anxiety.  

    The navigation of links to these medications is very well developed.  The site will be helpful for those seeking answers on this subject.    

     

    Reply
  3. Thank you for this guide to how to fix dog anxiety in a car. I found it very helpful 

    I have a dog (Boby) that I took to the supermarket once in my car, but I had a bad experience with him. It was the worst part of my day! So I stopped going out with him in the car a while!

    I’m going to try to apply the tips you shared with us to see if I can get a good ride with him.

    Thanks!

    Reply
  4. Before I had my Shiro I used to have a German splitz name Pang. Pang used to freak out every time when we took him somewhere and he would throw up because of the motion sickness as well, poor guy. Thank you so much for sharing the tips. Luckily my Shiro loves riding and has no problems with motion sickness. But I know some of friends dog have the same problem. I will share your post to them.

    Cheers!

    Reply
  5. This is a very interesting article on anxiety in dogs (and it could be other domestic animals as well I guess). I find it fascinating that you mention that CBD oil can be sued to calm your pet down, as I would not have thought about it. Do you have any strong feelings about using a travel box? 

    I would think that way your pet will not be “thrown” around the vehicle, so I would like to hear what you think about travel boxes.

    Reply
  6. These are some very helpful tips. We’ve had many dogs over the years, and we normally didn’t have any problem with getting them to ride in the car. However, we did have a German Shepherd that we took everywhere with us, but as he got older, he became wiser and somehow knew when that car ride was going to take him to the vet. Believe me, it’s not easy getting a 120 lb. dog into a car when he doesn’t want to go.

    Your best tip (at least for me) is to not give them too much to eat before a long trip. I can vouch for that from personal experience. My dog didn’t get car sick, but we did have to make an emergency stop on the side of the road.

    I would recommend anyone who is struggling with getting their dog to ride in a car to read this. I’m sure one of these tips can help.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your insightful comment, Willow. 120 lbs! holy smokes that’s a huge dog! Our labradoodle is only 70 lbs and he’s fully grown

      Sunny

      Reply
  7. Hello Sonny. From what I have read so far, I can conclude that dogs are very cautious animals and wouldn’t want to get hurt again, therefore they avoid every scene, location and situation that caused them pain before. So we should treat our dogs with love, tenderness and with patience. Thank you for sharing this guide to help reduce our dog anxiety in car.

    Regards!

    Reply
  8. Many thanks to you for sharing such an excellent article with us .I have a dog and he is a very good friend of mine .So I very much want to take him to my car on my next long drive .But I am very worried about my dog’s Anxiety .Because I brought my dog from a shelter .I must follow your tips and try to get my dog to my car .And I would definitely put Rescue 2 drops and water in the bowl .I certainly wouldn’t force my dog to do anything. Because I don’t want her to be harmed. I must work patiently. 

    I will definitely benefit from following your tips to reduce my dog’s anxiety and will share my experience with you soon.

    Reply
    • Hello Shanta, 

      Thank you for commenting on my posts. I really appreciate it. Yes, those Rescue drops are very effective and safe

      Sunny

      Reply
  9. EPerhaps now I understand a little about the reason my brother’s dog gets really tensed whenever they have to go out. I think the dog has probably associated the car with a memory that caused him some kind of uneasiness. This information is really valuable, I think every dog owner should see this. 

    By the way Sonny, I’m thinking of getting a dog for myself 💁‍♀️. What do you think?

    Reply
  10. I’m wondering what a thundershirt is?  My dog used to get sick in the car when he was a puppy and going to the vet and hasn’t been in a car since.  A year later, now, I have to take him in again.  I sure hope he won’t get sick again.  I don’t want him to associate car rides with unpleasant things.

    Reply
    • Thank you for asking what a Thundershirt is. You gave me an idea for my next post!

      Its basically a vest for dogs that is used to calm them down in stressful situations.

      Sunny

      Reply
  11. We had to do the memories re-association exersice with Tobby. We had a long trip to do, so we created an agenda of getting with him into the car for some time after his daily walk. This worked great as far as the car was parked.

    Once getting in motion we needed to tie him to avoid incidents, but he seems to be suffering when that happens. Do you know about any probable side effects reported from the use of Cerenia?

    Thanks for a very helpful post!

    Reply
  12. I am happy that I encountered your post about dog anxiety in a car. Luckily, my cavalier loves to drive in the car. But my friend’s dog is the complete opposite – she fears a car ride like nothing else. You provided some of the suggestions I am sure she still did not try out – like using Cannabis Oil or playing special music. Thank you for the ideas!

    Reply
  13. Thank you very much for this article.
    I have a labrador of 2 years old and I want to say that he is the most beloved dog in my family. But he has this problem with the car and we cannot go to longer distances with him. Reading your article I realized the cause. We adopted him from a family that didn’t want him at all. He was in a very terrible condition, weak and hurt. I will try your explanations on how to handle this problem. Until now, I thought that this will be forever and that we have no solution. Thank you very much for your help. I will come back with the results in the coming days, i hope it will definitely be better. Thanks and good luck! 

    Reply

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