How to Stop Fear of Car Rides in Dogs

Puppy leaning out a car window

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How does your dog feel about riding in cars? Some dogs love a road trip and will jump right in. Others are afraid of the car, struggling with you to get them in and whining or acting up the whole way. Not only is that distracting and an unsafe way to drive, but it can also be disheartening to discover that your dog is terrified of riding in the car.

This is a very common dog phobia. Fortunately, most people are able to help their dogs overcome this fear and become comfortable on car rides. The key is to gradually introduce your dog to the experience while associating the car with good things, including lots of positive reinforcement.

Why Do Dogs Fear Car Rides?

There are several reasons a dog may be fearful of riding in the car. The first step is trying to figure out which is affecting your dog so you can figure out your next steps.

Car Sickness

Just like people, some dogs get car sick. They may feel nauseous or even vomit on car rides. That queasy, sick feeling may cause your dog to become fearful of riding in cars.

An 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.

Negative Experiences

Some dogs associate the car with negative experiences, which can easily develop into a fear. ​For instance, the only time many dogs set paw in a car is for a trip to the veterinarian. If your dog has negative feelings about going to the vet, those feelings may be transferred to car rides.

If you adopted a shelter dog, the chances for traumatic events that you don't know about increases. It's possible that the dog's only experiences with car rides were the trip to the shelter and the long car ride to a 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 cars in general.

Next Steps

If your dog's fear of the car is related to car sickness, 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. It may also help to avoid car rides soon after your dog has had a meal.

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:

  1. Begin by luring your dog to the car rather than forcing it to approach it. Many dogs with this fear will put on the breaks as soon as the car comes into view. Instead of dragging your dog to the car, slowly lure it 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 make it worth your dog's while, use valuable, delicious treats or their favorite toys.
  2. Continue using positive reinforcement to lure the dog inside. Start by opening up all the doors so your dog won't feel trapped once 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, using treats and a happy tone of voice to encourage the dog to get inside.
  3. 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. Slowly work your way up to sitting in the car 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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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 should probably be no farther than around the block, giving your dog treats the whole way. Gradually work your way up to longer distances.
  3. 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 each session 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.