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5 Tips for Dog Car Travel

Road trip season is coming up! Here’s what to know about dog car travel and ensure that you and your pup have safe, happy and healthy car rides.

Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA  |  May 17th 2019


I’ve helped train some interesting and memorable dog car travel issues for clients in the 20 years I have been training dogs and their people. Some issues associated with dog car travel that stick out include: „

  1. a long-haul trucker whose Heeler was scared to jump in or out of the truck cab „
  2. a Lab-Boxer mix who barked incessantly whenever the owner was away from the car „
  3. an Irish Terrier who had severe motion sickness reactions since she was a puppy „
  4. a Standard Poodle who barked at anything and everything that moved outside of the car „
  5. a herding breed rescue of my own who developed tremendous anxiousness traveling by car.

Every dog is an individual, and it’s important to acknowledge that. Having said that, there are some general tips for dog car travel that we humans can try:

1. Never force a dog into a car if you don’t have to.

Dog in passenger seat

Dog in passenger seat. Photography ©alexkich | Getty Images

Of course there are exceptions, such as finding an injured stray dog that you need to get to a vet or shelter, or getting your own dog to the vet in an emergency. Other than true emergencies, consider your dog’s needs first and foremost. Forcing a dog into doing something is not helpful. If you do force a nervous dog into a car, you might just have created a lifelong concern for your pup! Slow and steady, and moving forward at the dog’s pace wins the day.

2. Make dog car travel fun from the very first trip.

If you only put your dog in the car to take her to the veterinarian — where they have to do things that might cause fear or pain, such as vaccinations — why would she enjoy the car? Would you? When it comes to dog car travel, the first few trips are crucial to success. Take very short trips at first — perhaps just around your block. End the trip doing something fabulous, such as a novel treat (if the dog is willing to eat) or a new toy given inside the car.

3. Dogs learn in part by pairing events.

It’s vital to pair an outing in the car with a great time from the dog’s perspective, particularly at first. For example, if a doorbell sound ringing in the background never means someone is at the front door (it’s just a sound with nothing happening after the doorbell ring), most dogs will learn to habituate and ignore the innocuous doorbell noise. But dogs are clever, and in very short order they pair the ding-dong sound with a new friend or a potentially scary stranger at the door.

4. Give your dog an outlet for any travel nervousness by exercising her prior to a car trip.

Dogs travel through the world nose first, so take your dog on a walk in your neighborhood and make sure she has plenty of sniffing time. You can also play a game of “Find it!” where you hide toys or even hide yourself in your home for a few minutes if your dog loves this game.

I don’t recommend feeding a meal or lots of treats prior to a trip if you’re concerned your dog might vomit in the car. However, if you’re certain that won’t happen (from past experience), then it’s helpful to pair a trip in the car with some excellent, novel treats.

5. Additional help from medication, natural remedies, etc.

If your dog is showing physical signs of travel anxiety, she might very well benefit from additional help in the form of medication, natural remedies or solutions. Get a veterinarian’s assistance if your dog exhibits such things as pacing, excessive panting, drooling, out-of-control barking or vomiting. The sooner you get that extra help for your dog, the better.

I helped the extremely motion-sensitive Irish Terrier by taking her veterinarian’s advice and making sure she had both an anti-nausea medication (Cerenia) and an anti-vertigo medication (Meclizine) well before a car trip, and we worked on her emotional discomfort by taking very shorts rides and pairing those trips with wonderful things.

I helped my Heeler rescue deal with his sudden-onset travel anxiety by getting him a Thundercap (which filters a dog’s vision in order to reduce visual overstimulation) that helped to block the outside movement once I figured out that movement was stressing him out.

Plus, check out some gear to make driving with dogs safer >>


What about flying with a dog?

Traveling by plane with your dog

Traveling by plane with your dog. Photography ©alexkich | Getty Images

I have never put a dog in a cargo hold of a plane, and I never will. That’s my personal choice. I do not feel that a loud, vibrating, not well-ventilated cargo hold is an ideal place for a dog stuck in a crate. What if the dog panics? What if the dog in the crate next to your dog panics? Emotional contagion is a real thing. I also have a personal rule that I follow: I will not put a dog in a situation that would not be healthy for a human toddler.

However, if you are going to put a dog in the cargo hold of an airplane, check with the airlines about their regulations. And be prepared to help your dog with any possible fear or stress issues that may arise when he arrives after a trip on a plane. I have several clients who have routinely flown their dogs in the cargo hold, and they tell me their dogs handle it just fine. Dogs are individuals, and it is certainly possible that such an experience does not faze some dogs. That’s a choice only an owner can make. Please choose what’s in the best interest of your dog.

Thumbnail: Photography ©kosziv | Getty Images. 

About the author

Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a professional dog trainer based in Utah. She is a force-free trainer specializing in working with troubled dogs. She is the author of The Midnight Dog Walkers: Positive Training and Practical Advice for Living With a Reactive or Aggressive Dog. For more information, visit phenixdogs.com.

Editor’s note: This article appeared in Dogster magazine. Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? Subscribe now to get Dogster magazine delivered straight to you! 

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