Does your dog like going in the car? Potentially not. Up to one in four dogs have travel related problems and two-to-three in 20 suffer from motion sickness.
Yet, the number of cases presenting to behaviour referral practices with travel related problems is less than 1%.
What is happening for all the other cases? As this occurs commonly does this mean we can turn a blind eye to it? In that light, 40-50% of dogs and cats are estimated to be overweight in the UK but as this is more commonly recognised as a significant health problem there is a greater effort to address obesity in our pets.
So why is your dog barking, crying or trembling in the car a problem?
First, it can be very distracting to your driving, and this is a risk to you and your dog.
Second, their behaviour is a reflection of how they feel – distressed, scared, anxious or nauseous. These are emotions and feelings we shouldn’t ignore.
Problem behaviours in the car can be separated into three main categories
1. Feeling nauseous– signs more commonly seen are salivating, vomiting, avoiding going in the car, hiding and cowering in the car. (Importantly vomiting does not have to occur for your dog to be feeling unwell)
2. Feeling scared or anxious – trembling, licking, yawning, trying to get close to the owner, panting and being easily startled.
3. Over excited behaviour (unable to stay calm)– constant barking, whining, jumping, vigilance, restlessness, running.
So, what are our options?
1. Do we really need to take our dog on that journey? Do they really want to see your mother-law and get too many kisses? - They probably also prefer to stay at home and lounge on the couch😘.
2. Location within the car
There are many options for where to have your dog in the car, but we do need to consider safety. The Highway Code says that drivers must ‘make sure dogs and other animals are suitably restrained’ in your car.
For dogs that feel nauseous it can be helpful for them to see out the front of the car to view objects in the distance. Therefore, possibly sitting on the back seats would be better for them than in the boot.
For very excitable dogs or dogs that are worried by certain things (e.g. other dogs) it can be helpful to restrict their vision either having them lower than the window or using a window shade.
- Support and padding is important to consider as the movement of the car can be unnerving for some dogs, especially if they have any pain as the vibrations through the car could be irritating their sore joints. Ensure they have a soft surface to lie on that can absorb some of those vibrations. If they are in a cage or carrier, it can be helpful to have a cushion/towel/something providing insulation to those vibrations under the cage as well as in the cage.
- Road use and driving style. A study found that a dog’s heart rate was lower when cruising more slowly compared to normal driving and frequent turning. If you have a choice of routes to take, consider the one with less turning and more even speeds.
This means getting your dog used to being in the car so that it is no longer a big deal.
This process can be done, but it is not a short journey and warrants a whole article in itself. Here I am going to outline some considerations to think about. Before embarking on a desensitisation programme, I recommend you speak with your vet or a qualified behaviourist.
Desensitisation begins from where your dog feels comfortable i.e. if your dog pulls away from the car when near it then you need to start at a distance from the car. Or, if your dog will calmly be near the car but not get in on their own, consider starting outside the car and work on a way that your dog can choose to get in when they are ready.
Once your dog is super comfortable with the current starting point (e.g. relaxed ear position, relaxed shoulder muscles, tail in line with body) you can very slowly build the progress.
It is possible to sensitise your dog (make them feel more worried rather than less) when doing a desensitisation program which is the opposite of what we want. Sensitisation occurs when we increase exposure (more time in or near the car), but it continues to be a level that is too difficult. They become more sensitive to the clues that indicate they might be going in the car. For example, they might notice when you pick up the special treats for the car work or you move the car before starting training; previously your dog didn't notice these actions but now these cause anxiety before even getting to the car. Again for this reason before starting a desensitisation program I recommended to speak with your vet or a qualified behaviourist.
5. Addressing the underlying problem – For example if your dog feels unwell or vomits in the car please speak with your veterinarian about options for medications to reduce the feeling of nausea.
6. Helping them feel calmer – Often additional help is warranted to assist your dog in feeling calmer and more positive about the car rides. If you would like further information, please discuss with your veterinarian or veterinary behaviourist about options.
So what changes are you going to try for your dog?
1. Gandia Estellés, M. and Mills, D.S., 2006. Signs of travel‐related problems in dogs and their response to treatment with dog appeasing pheromone. Veterinary Record, 159(5), pp.143-148.
2. Mariti, C., Ricci, E., Mengoli, M., Zilocchi, M., Sighieri, C. and Gazzano, A., 2012. Survey of travel‐related problems in dogs. Veterinary Record, 170(21), pp.542-542.
4. Skånberg, L., Gauffin, O., Norling, Y., Lindsjö, J. and Keeling, L.J., 2018. Cage size affects comfort, safety and the experienced security of working dogs in cars. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 205, pp.132-140.
3. Comfort in the car
Car movement (turning, stopping and starting), temperature and noise are all going to play a part in how safe and secure your dog feels in the car.
Possible changes to consider are:
- Air flow by having windows on both sides of the car down a little can be helpful for dogs who feel nauseous just like it does for us.
- Temperatures in the car can get very hot cars not just when we leave them in the car if it is stopped, but also when moving. Is your air conditioning that you are enjoying reaching your dog who is in the boot?