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Are We There Yet? How to Ease Your Pet’s Travel Anxiety

Filed in - Special Situations
Originally published on 08/01/2011

Travel trouble

Summer is in full swing! With many pet-friendly resorts, parks, and other destinations available, you may be thinking about fun outings with your furry friend. But what can you do if your pooch loves being at the park but hates getting there? Luckily, there are several ways to help ease a dog’s discomfort in the car.

dog with head out of car window

Travel anxiety is common in dogs and occurs for many different reasons. Some dogs have had no experience riding in a car and are unfamiliar with what is happening to them. Many dogs associate car rides with unpleasant events such as trips to the veterinarian or groomer. Other dogs remember being thrown from the seat in a sudden stop or a car accident.

Symptoms of travel anxiety range from mild to severe, and may include panting, pacing, shaking, hyper-arousal, vocalization, salivation, vomiting, and, possibly, urination and defecation. None of these symptoms make travel fun for you or your pet!

Travel treat

Plan some short trips that focus on doing fun things with your dog.

Sometimes mild travel anxiety can be cured with successful short trips. Plan some short trips that focus on doing fun things with your dog. Just as a dog can associate unpleasant events with car rides, a dog can build an association with enjoyable events as well! What is your dog’s favorite activity? Ball? Frisbee? Playing with other dogs? Take your dog for short rides, building a strong association with that favorite activity. Sometimes this effort is enough to spark a new interest in travel.

Click your way to cruising

You can use your clicker and some treats to teach your dog that car rides can be enjoyable. The following guide has many steps. But by clicking and rewarding several times for each step, your dog will earn multiple rewards, and will build a strong and positive association with the car.

  1. Begin by walking out to the car. Click and reward (C/R) for walking calmly to the car.
  2. Once your dog is trotting to the car happily, repeat the step with the car door open.
  3. When your dog walks calmly to the open car door, pause by the door and C/R when the dog sniffs the seat or places his nose anywhere in the car.
  4. Shape getting into the car by clicking for sniffing, then for the dog’s head inside, then for one paw in, then for both paws in, and so on. Speed up this process by teaching your dog to target your hand with his nose. Gradually place your hand further into the car each time, asking for nose touches, until your dog is jumping into the car happily.
  5. Once your dog will enter the car, work on shutting the door with your dog inside. Begin by closing the door for just one second; reward your dog with a click, treat, and a chance to exit the car. Slowly build up the amount of time your dog spends in the car with you standing outside, until your dog can wait patiently for several seconds.
  6. Sit in the driver's seat and C/R your dog for calm behavior.
  7. Start the car, C/R, then shut off the engine and allow your dog to exit the car.
  8. Start the car, drive it several feet, C/R, then shut off the engine and allow your dog to exit the car.
  9. Slowly increase the distance you drive. It may be helpful to have a passenger/assistant click and reward for any calm behavior along the way.
  10. Take short trips to fun locations. Let your dog find out that not only is riding in the car very rewarding, but the destination can be lots of fun, too!

Music to soothe your dog’s soul

Studies have shown that classical music arranged in particular ways can help decrease anxiety in both humans and dogs.

Studies have shown that classical music arranged in particular ways can help decrease anxiety in both humans and dogs. An arrangement of music has been developed specifically to soothe dogs that display anxiety during car rides. Through a Dog’s Ear, Driving Edition is a selection of classical piano arrangements that are enjoyable and soothing to you and your dog.

For dogs with mild anxiety, just playing this music while you drive can have a calming effect. If your dog suffers from moderate to severe anxiety, Through a Dog’s Ear offers a step-by-step system for using the music. A travel-prep CD is provided to calm your dog during the 20 minutes before you leave the house. Recommendations for when and how to play the music are also supplied.

Comfort under pressure

The Thundershirt, a body wrap of durable, washable fabric that is made to fit snugly around a dog’s torso, is a fantastic tool for decreasing anxiety in dogs. When fitted correctly, the Thundershirt applies gentle, constant pressure to your dog’s nervous system and produces a calming effect. Thundershirts are easy to put on your dog and come with a 100% guarantee! They can be useful for many other forms of anxiety, such as thunder phobia, noise phobia (including fireworks and gunfire), separation anxiety, and crate anxiety. When you are working to reduce travel anxiety, place the Thundershirt on your dog several minutes before you get in the car. The Thundershirt will help your dog achieve a calmer state even before entering the car.

The Thundershirt will help your dog achieve a calmer state even before entering the car.

My Rottweiler, Story, came from the local shelter. At 14 weeks of age, she was taken on a car ride and abandoned on a roadside. Story was then brought to the shelter where she waited several weeks until I adopted her. From the shelter she rode directly to the vet for her spay surgery. She was then picked up by a stranger (me) and brought to her new home. Needless to say, Story’s experiences with car rides were not pleasant, and left her with an understandable fear of, and aversion to, car rides. She would shake, drool excessively, and vomit in the car even for trips as short as ½ mile from our house. If I asked all of my dogs to go for a ride, Story would hide in her crate while the other dogs danced around me.

The first time I used a Thundershirt was on Story. After just one trip, I was sold. Story stretched out calmly on the seat and fell asleep. No vomiting. No shaking. Just sleep. What a moment of beauty! A Thundershirt, in combination with Through a Dog’s Ear music, created serenity for both of us!

Keys, please!

Investing in training time produces lasting effects. Upping the odds of success with music and the calming pressure of a Thundershirt can also be smart. With these efforts, both dog and owner will find car rides so much more enjoyable. Without the fear of, or reality of, a puddle of drool or the sounds of retching, it is likely that you and your dog will embark on more trips. More trips mean more fun, so watch for your dog to start grabbing the leash and the keys!

About the author
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Rebecca Lynch is a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner. She is an experienced dog trainer, veterinary technician, and K9 Search and Rescue officer. Founder of K9 Clicking dog training, Rebecca's goal is to strengthen the bond between human and animal through positive training and communication.

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