Puppy Travel: Training Your Dog for Car Rides

Girl Playing With West Highland Terrier in back of car
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Puppy travel and car rides can be a hassle, especially if your puppy fears or hates the car. Some puppies throw fits, cry, and even get sick on the drive.

Why Puppies Hate Cars

The first ride in the car takes your puppy away from the only family he’s ever known. The next several car rides end up at the veterinarian for needle pokes for puppy vaccinations and unpleasantly cold thermometers inserted in uncomfortable places.

New owners want to comfort the frightened, fussy baby. But whining back at your cry-puppy can backfire. That tells the puppy that you agree that there’s a good reason to fuss and that car rides are indeed horrible!

6 Tips to Ease Travel Fears

Instead, associate cars with fun, happy experiences instead of just trips to the vet. The process, called desensitization, takes patience and time, but it works whether a pet acts scared, sick, or just hyper. Once your puppy realizes a car ride means wonderful things, she’ll look forward to every trip.

  1. Turn mealtime into car time. For very frightened pups, just set the bowl next to the car. After several days when she’s used to that, feed her in the back seat while leaving the car door open.
  2. In between feeding times, throw treats in the open car door for the pup to find, and play fun games near the car. She should learn that only these good things in life happen when you’re near the car.
  1. Next, when your pup’s eating or otherwise distracted in the back seat, get in the front seat behind the steering wheel. Just sit there for a while like it's no big deal, then get out, so she understands nothing scary happens when you’re in the car too. Do this for one day.
  2. The next day when you’re behind the wheel and your puppy’s munching treats in the back seat, start the car. Then turn off the motor and get out without going anywhere. Do this three or four times during the day until the pet takes it as a matter of course.
  1. Finally, after you start the car, back the car to the end of the driveway and stop—do this two or three times in a row, always letting the pet out after you return. If the puppy whines, paces or shows stress, you may be moving too fast for him. The process takes a while, but it works.
  2. Continue increasing the car-time by increments—a trip around the block and then home, then a trip to the nearest fun place like the park before returning home. Go somewhere you know your dog will enjoy—get him a snack from the nearest pet store or a doggy treat from the tellers at the bank. Make every car trip upbeat and positive so the experience makes the dog look forward to the next trip.

It’s a good idea to crate train and confine your puppy while in the moving car. A loose animal inside the car can be dangerous both to the pet and the driver, so invest in a seat belt, car barrier, and/or a kennel. Puppies can be crushed by airbags deploying, so keep the little guy in the back seat. Once she’s too big to fit in a car-size crate, consider installing a gated barrier or fit him with a harness and seatbelt him for safety.