Ways to Help Your Dog Have a Positive Association with the Car | Pupford
August 31st, 2023
Filed under Training
When we talk to members of our community, it seems like dogs fall into three main camps when it comes to car rides:
- BEST DAY EVER!!!!!!
- THIS IS THE WORST!!!!!!!!
- And the rare, but possible, ~completely unaffected~
If you’re in boats one or three, car rides probably aren’t a source of stress for you unless your dog gets over-excited (but that’s an issue for another time!)
But for those with dogs who hate the car, things can be really difficult. Necessary outings become things of dread, and you avoid taking your dog places they’d otherwise enjoy. That’s no fun.
Luckily there are things you can do to help your dog have (and maintain) a positive association with the car – we’ll talk about them today!
And NEW PUP PARENTS, this is a great way to help lay a solid foundation for car rides with your dog to prevent car issues in the future.
If you want your dog to look like that every car ride, you’re going to want to read on!
Related Reading: Why Is My Dog Scared of Other Dogs?
HOW DO DOGS FORM ASSOCIATIONS WITH THE CAR?
Before anything else, let’s take a step back and talk about why dogs behave certain ways in the car.
Dogs learn by association, which is why they tend to have the same reaction every time they go in the car.
This is thanks to a little theory called Classical Conditioning. Let’s break down an example of classical conditioning in the context of your dog in the car:
- You put your dog in the car.
- You drive your dog to the vet.
- Your dog has a not-so-fun time at the vet (in his mind – we love our veterinarian readers!).
- Eventually, your dog starts to associate the car with the not-so-fun times he will have at the vet.
- Now the car ride itself brings on the same stress as the not-so-fun vet visit.
While that’s an oversimplification of the psychology behind classical conditioning, it’s a good way to explain why your dog may not like the car. And also why they may enjoy the car – they could associate it with super fun adventures, Pup Cups, or going to visit Grandma.
TLDR: Your dog forms an association with the car based on what happens during and after the ride… for better or worse.
HOW TO TELL IF YOUR DOG HAS A NEGATIVE ASSOCIATION WITH THE CAR
Forming an association with the car is natural, and not necessarily a bad thing. But you’ll definitely want to know when the association is a negative one so you can take action and correct it, or at least know what to look out for.
Dogs who have a negative association with the car will show signs of stress when approaching and in the car. These include:
- Being hesitant/refusing to get in the car
- Whining, crying, barking
- Drooling, panting, lip licking, yawning
- Shaking or shivering
- Trying to escape the car
- Excessive licking or paw biting
- Destructive behaviors like clawing at the seat
Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list, but just a general guide. Your dog’s specific stress signals could differ based on their individual body language cues.
If that’s what your dog looks like when riding in your car, there’s a pretty good chance they don’t love it.
HOW TO HELP YOUR DOG FORM A POSITIVE ASSOCIATION WITH THE CAR
Whether you want to help reverse a negative correlation or you want to lay a positive foundation with your dog, you can follow the same steps to help your dog form a positive relationship with the car.
1. ADDRESS MOTION SICKNESS
Sometimes dogs learn to dislike the car because it makes them physically sick. Yes, dogs can get car sick like people can!
While it’s common for dogs to outgrow it once they reach adulthood, some dogs will continue to be affected by motion sickness their whole lives.
If they vomit or seem dizzy/unsteady during or after each car ride, motion sickness might be the culprit. Talk to your veterinarian about treatments for a carsick pup, which might include medication and/or supplements – and make sure your dog has an empty stomach for all car rides.
2. HAVE THE NECESSITIES ON HAND
A dog that has their basic needs met is less likely to feel anxious, especially in an environment like the car. Keep a car ride kit in your trunk that has all the necessities:
- A portable water bowl
- A bottle of water (just make sure it isn’t left in a hot car for too long)
- A comfort item like a plush toy or blanket
- An extra leash and poop bags for walk breaks
- Treats (Pro tip: treat sample packs are perfect for a car stash)
- A few servings of your dog’s food and a toy for longer road trips
Having these on hand helps your dog feel more comfortable in the car because if they have a physical need, they know it will be met. This changes the association with the car away from that of being a place of discomfort from hunger, thirst, or unfamiliarity.
3. START THE CAR RIDE IN A RELAXED STATE
Start the car ride on a positive note by having your dog in a happy and relaxed state when they get into the car.
Offer exercise and mental enrichment shortly before a car ride to get rid of pent up energy and give them a serotonin boost.
This doesn’t have to be anything extravagant – something simple like a neighborhood walk followed by a puzzle toy can make a huge difference.
4. REWARD YOUR DOG FREQUENTLY THROUGHOUT CAR RIDES
Make sure to have plenty of high-value training treats on hand for car rides. That way you can give frequent rewards to help your dog learn that being a passenger in the car is a good thing!
Note for carsick pups: try to avoid the treats, and reward in other ways like petting and reassuring words.
5. DRIVE TO ENJOYABLE DESTINATIONS
If you only have your dog in the car for things they don’t enjoy (the vet, grooming, etc.), they will have a really hard time forming positive associations with the car.
However, if you take them to places they love or activities they enjoy, it can help their relationship with the car. Make sure that for every not-so-fun car destination, you’re including a fun one too.
This can be as simple as taking your dog for a drive to a different part of the neighborhood for a decompression walk or a visit to a friend’s house.
6. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
Associations don’t form overnight. It will take a lot of practice to get your dog to have a positive relationship with the car, so try not to get discouraged.
This may mean having to work through stress, anxiety, and discomfort together. It can be hard, but with the right reinforcement, your dog will learn to trust you and the car as an enjoyable – or at least not unenjoyable experience.
Before you know it, you’ll dog will be like this in the car:
Have you worked on strengthening your dog’s association with the car? What were your biggest challenges? How is it going now? Tell us about it in the comments!