Back to Behaviour

Anxiety in a Car

There are three points to consider when breaking down the cause of your dog’s anxiety when in a vehicle:

  1. The physical ailment
  2. The emotional connection
  3. The visually or audibly stimulated dog

 Journey was my first dog and together in my first jeep, we used to relish the freedom of driving with the top down. It was summertime and we were both young and eager to hit the open road. We cranked the tunes (Purple Rain) on the radio, Journey was fetching in her stylish red bandana, and my blonde locks were blowing in the wind. We were such a cliché but what can I say, it was the 80s!

One of the many joys of dog ownership is that it allows us to recreate some of our greatest moments. Even though every new dog brings new joys and different experiences, we also get to repeat some of the best ones. My fondest memory of Jack is also from the time we spent together in a vehicle. It was now the 90’s and we had a mini-van (condolences appreciated)! He travelled with me daily as we visited schools to teach children dog bite prevention. There are so many wonderful moments with this dog, yet the one I always recall is him sitting next to me by the driver’s seat with his chin gently resting at my side, his day’s work wasn’t complete until we pulled in our driveway ~ just a simple memory of an amazing dog!

Not that any one dog should ever hold the title of being the best; however, there will be those that give you some of the best memories! Kobe is our most recent dog and he has already brought us so much joy. Unfortunately, this dog hates car rides…not by choice but he suffers from serious motion sickness. It took a while but we finally convinced him to jump in on his own. We recognized that our old van gives him a better view of the horizon and possibly a more grounded feeling than that of the new car. He actually seems to enjoy riding in the van now, even though he is likely to end up losing some or all of his lunch! But this very gentle and obedient dog will balk and refuse to get into the car on his own. There is no gradual desensitization program, treat-based positive reinforcement technique or authoritative demands that are good enough to convince him that the new car is going to feel safe. It is clear to anyone watching that this becomes a truly physically distressing experience. He trembles, is overwhelmed by nausea, and needs to pin you to the ground in order to feel safe. This bizarre behaviour is truly out of his control, it is neither defiant nor manipulative.

A dog who displays similar behaviour might be demonstrating a more calculative mindset than Kobe but could still have good reasons for doing so. He could have recognized that one vehicle had a more pleasant final destination than the one you took him to the vet’s in.  Or he finds comfort and security in the seat closest to the driver…not because he is temperamental or spoiled but because he might be insecure having come from an unstable background. This milder version of anxiety can be difficult to fix only because you have an unreasonable request. This is again not an intentional act of defiance or manipulation in a negative way. If you are able to determine that the cause for the odd behaviour is a negative emotional association, then you can begin a program to help him. Unfortunately some dogs, like Kobe, may never be perfect. So it’s important to determine who benefits from fixing this problem. I could go back to the drawing board and work with Kobe everyday, use a sedative, and introduce different types of vehicles until we finally cure his motion sickness. Or recognize he will give me wonderful memories elsewhere and as long as the old van still works I will take him along when it suits us both. Sometimes, even I will accommodate a behaviour just because it’s easier! If your dog needs that little bit of reassurance being beside you in the car, no harm done, most of our spouses already recognize they take a backseat to our dogs!

If you don’t believe your dog has a physical or emotional cause for his anxiety, than you may be dealing with a much more serious behavioural issue. Dog’s who become overstimulated by visual or auditory triggers can often become loud, violent, stressed-out nut jobs! They can be in danger of harming themselves or anyone who tries to stop them. They might appear calm and happy when first entering the car but with the turn of the key they quickly become agitated. For some dogs it is the rev of the engine or the movement that elicits a response. While others it could be the sound of a passing vehicle that causes the dog to lunge, twirl or even bite at himself. This is difficult to work through due to the quick escalation of behaviour. Even once you have established the earliest trigger, it isn’t possible to recreate it without losing the dog’s control. Some dogs will improve once their senses are taken away. A covered crate in your vehicle can improve some dog’s reactions. Some will need an intense obedience program to keep their mind active and distracted, while others will require a long drawn out desensitization program that truly works at curing the issue. In a world of quick fixes and instant gratification I have found this last technique to be the most difficult to persuade.

In conclusion it is necessary to note that in any behaviour modification program you must be aware of routines and the effect anticipation has on your dog’s anxiety. As all dogs are skilled at recognizing patterns of events, it is even more important to note their dependency on it. This means picking up the car keys, whether or not you are taking the dog, may be an early trigger of your dog’s anxiety. If you are working towards correcting this, you have to start at the beginning and change the meaning of the trigger. So now picking up the car keys means you are going to ask the dog to do some of his best tricks (with reward). Then move onto some general obedience, while you (and your dog) go out the door towards the car. Your next change of routine might be introducing a prolonged ‘wait’ command while you start the car with the doors open. These changes help to bring your dog’s brain back into the picture. It appears he’s been on auto pilot far too long.

by Cat Cino - Cat & Jack K9 Safety