Dogs and Fear of Riding in Cars

Puppy leaning out a car window

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How does your dog feel about riding in cars? While some dogs love car rides, others are afraid of the car. Is your dog afraid of car rides? Many dog owners look forward to taking their dogs with them on car rides. So, it can be disheartening to discover that your dog is terrified of riding in the car.

A fear of riding in cars is a very common dog phobia. Fortunately, most people are able to help their dogs overcome this fear. The key to getting your dog comfortable on car rides is to gradually introduce your dog to the experience while getting him to associate the car with good things. This includes lots of positive reinforcement. Here's what you need to know if your dog is afraid of riding in cars.

Causes of the Fear of Car Rides

There are several reasons a dog may be fearful of riding in the car, including one or more of the following:

  • Car sickness. Just like people, some dogs may feel nauseous or even vomit on car rides. That queasy, sick feeling may cause your dog to become fearful of riding in cars.
  • Fear of the unfamiliar feeling. Dogs who aren't used to going on car rides may be disturbed by the odd feeling of riding in the car. Cars usually have their own smell, and there is also the sound of the engine, the vibrations of the floor, and seeing everything whizzing past at a fast speed. All these things combined may make for a very frightening experience for a dog.
  • Association with negative experiences. ​For many dogs, the only time they set paw in a car is for a trip to the veterinarian. If your dog has negative feelings about going to the vet, he may transfer that feeling to car rides.
    If you adopted a shelter dog, there is also the chance that his only experiences with car rides were the trip to the shelter or rescue, and possibly a long trip from where he was dropped off at his new home. This frightening experience could certainly account for a car ride phobia.
    Even more traumatic, a dog who was involved in a car accident or hit by a car may have long-lasting fears about riding in a car.

    Dealing with Car Sickness in Dogs

    If your dog's fear of the car is related to nausea and vomiting he experiences when he goes for a ride, there is a fairly easy fix. Dogs are able to take some over-the-counter medications to ease motion sickness. Talk to your veterinarian about whether this is a good option for your dog and the proper dosage for this type of medication. It may also help to avoid car rides soon after your dog has had a meal.

    Overcoming the Fear of Car Rides

    If your dog's fear of car rides stems from more than feeling sick, chances are you will have to put a little bit more time and effort into getting rid of his phobia. The following steps can help you to overcome your dog's fear of riding in the car:

    1. Begin by luring your dog to the car rather than forcing him to approach it. Many dogs with a fear of car rides will put on the breaks as soon as the car comes into view. Instead of dragging your dog to the car, slowly lure him closer using lots of treats and praise. For a mild car phobia, you may be able to get your dog to walk up to the car in a few short training sessions. For more severe phobias, it may take several days or weeks to get your dog to the car. To make it worth your dog's while, use valuable, delicious treats or your dog's favorite toys.
    2. Continue using positive reinforcement to get him inside. Once your dog is comfortable approaching the car, you can begin to lure him inside. Start by opening up all the doors so your dog won't feel like he'll be trapped once he gets inside. Use treats and praise to coax your dog into the car. This often works better if two of the dog's favorite people work as a team. One can hold the dog on a leash on one side of the car while the other lies across a seat from the other side and uses treats and a happy tone of voice to encourage the dog to get inside.
    1. Have some special bonding time with your dog inside the car. Don't rush to slam the doors shut and start the engine the minute your dog finally hops inside the car. Instead, leave the doors open, and spend some time snuggling with your dog in the car. Slowly work your way up to sitting in the car with your dog with the doors closed. Again, depending on the degree of your dog's fear, this part of the process can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks or more.
    2. Start your engine. When your dog has become fairly comfortable hanging out with you in the car, you can start the engine. As soon as the car is started, give your dog some treats and talk to him in a happy tone of voice, and then turn off the engine. Repeat this several times until your dog is completely comfortable sitting in the car with the engine running.
    3. Start off with small trips. Don't make your dog's first car ride a long road trip. The first few times out of the driveway, you should probably drive no farther than around the block, giving your dog treats the whole way. Gradually work your way up to go longer distances.
    1. Take your dog to fun destinations. Your dog's first long car ride should not be to the veterinarian. Instead, take your dog someplace fun like the dog park, the beach, or to a drive-thru for a hamburger (just a small amount, though, so he won't get sick). Your dog will soon associate these fun times with going for a ride in the car.

    Remember to be patient with your dog. Some dogs will be able to get past their fears faster than others. Depending on the degree of your dog's fear, this process could take several months. Be consistent and work in short sessions. Keep things positive. End sessions before your dog goes into a full-blown fear mode. You may need to go back a few steps if your dog reverts to very fearful behaviors. That's okay; these things can take time.