8 Tips If Your Dog Is Scared of Getting in the Car

A dog scared of getting in the car is a big problem, especially that day you need to take your dog to the vet, daycare or boarding kennel. There is often an underlying cause at play, but finding it isn't always easy.

8 Tips If Your Dog Is Scared of Getting in the Car

A dog scared of getting in the car is a big problem, especially that day you need to take your dog to the vet, daycare or boarding kennel. There is often an underlying cause at play, but finding it isn't always easy.

Is your dog afraid of getting in the car?

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Why Is My Dog Scared of Getting in the Car?

Dealing with a dog afraid of getting in the car can be a very frustrating ordeal. The more you try to persuade your dog to get in, the more they put on the brakes and refuse.

It's sort of like dealing with a stubborn mule who won't budge no matter how hard you try—but why is your dog so afraid of getting in the car?

Dogs don't just refuse to do something for a specific rhyme or reason; there is always some underlying reason.

With reluctance to get to places or climb up, we must always suspect something unpleasant or negative about it. Otherwise, they would jump up with little hesitation, just as they do with anything they love.

So there is likely some type of negative association with getting in the car, causing your dog to hesitate and put on the brakes. The following are several potential causes.

1. Getting Motion Sick

Many puppies and young dogs are prone to getting car sick. While the most common sign of car sickness in dogs is vomiting, sometimes dogs don't get to that point.

Perhaps the car ride was too short, or your dog didn't have much food in the stomach to bring back up.

In any case, just because your dog doesn't vomit doesn't mean you can totally rule out motion sickness.

Many dogs get car sick, and they just get a little nauseous. Maybe there's some drooling or smacking of their lips, while others may keep panting and yawning.

These unpleasant sensations are often enough to make a dog associate car rides with something bad, and thus they'll not want to repeat the experience.

2. A Matter of Car Anxiety

To further confuse things, consider that many dogs are anxious when traveling in cars, and their symptoms may mimic car sickness.

These dogs may shake, salivate, pant and yawn, which are all things that dogs with motion sickness do too!

The similarities between motion sickness and car sickness lead to a compound situation or a chicken-and-egg scenario. Your dog may become anxious in the car because they're carsick or the other way around, and it becomes really difficult to differentiate which is which.

Dogs may be anxious in the car for a variety of reasons. The following are just some of the most common, and your dog may have multiple concomitant fears.

  • Fear of unsecured footing (like when you pull on the brakes, bumps)
  • Fear of car sounds (honks, traffic)
  • Fear of odd sensations (vibrations, driving on speed bumps)
  • Fear of being enclosed in a small space (confinement phobia)
  • Fear of visual stimuli (seeing trucks, motorcycles and cars moving fast)
  • Fear of going to scary places (more on this below)
  • Fear of Scary Places

If every time you get your dog in the car, it's to go to the vet or some other place your dog isn't too happy about (like the groomer or kennel before you go on vacation), with time, your dog will come to associate the car with those places. In turn, they might start refusing to climb in.

Scary places don't necessarily have to be the groomer's vet's office or kennel. To a fearful, under-socialized dog, even going for a walk to the park or visiting family members can be stressful, and they may never want to leave the comfort of the home.

3. A Reluctance to Climb In

Sometimes, dogs don't fit into any of the above categories. These dogs are reluctant to climb in the car, but once inside, they are chill and so relaxed that they'll even plan to sleep!

These dogs may be reluctant to climb in because they have maybe a bit of an odd conformation that makes it difficult to jump up, or they maybe have some underlying joint or back pain. Perhaps once squirmed a lot and missed their footing, and this experience was unsettling.

4. Waiting to Be Helped Out

And then you have some dogs who were helped to get in the car by being lifted up, and they have no clue how to get in without your help.

In turn, they just stand by the car and wait for your help, never trying to get on their own. In such cases, these dogs are just stuck in a habit and are helpless without your aid.

Many dogs dread car rides because of a history of feeling motion sick

How to Help a Dog Get In the Car

Helping a dog get in the car, whether they are afraid or not, will require a good level of patience and understanding.

Getting angry, frustrated or impatient will only make matters worse, further convincing your dog that the whole process of getting in the car is unpleasant and worthy of avoiding.

Following are several tips to help your dog get in the car.

1. Rule Out Medical Conditions

In this case, you want to rule out motion sickness and other possible pain-related causes (like joint pain, back pain, neck pain) that may cause your dog to feel discomfort when jumping in or traveling in the car.

Discuss with your vet your dog's reluctance to get in the car.

If motion sickness may play a role, your vet may wish to do a trial with motion sickness products (like Cerenia) to see if they provide any benefits and help ameliorate the situation.

If your dog is anxious in the car due to feeling unwell/sick, you won't make much progress unless you tackle the root cause.

2. Avoid Forcing Your Dog In

"You catch more flies with honey rather than vinegar," the famous saying goes, which applies well to dogs reluctant to get in the car.

Pulling your dog with the leash or pushing them gets them closer to something they fear or dislike. Therefore it is only normal for them to put on the brakes more as a knee-jerk reaction.

Picking them up will also not help, and a day may come when your dog may object to that as well—possibly even nipping your hands as you grab them.

Not to mention, picking your dog up can become habit-forming in some cases where fear is not involved.

So the ultimate goal is having your dog voluntarily get in the car because you have transformed the car into a wonderful place, which takes us to the next step.

3. Create Positive Associations

The goal is to make the car a wonderful place to be. Keep the car door open, grab your dog's food bowl, and let them watch you prepare something really, really yummy (like low-sodium organic beef hot dogs or break up some chunks of cheese) and place it in the bowl and then place the bowl on the car seat.

To make them even more motivated, place some toys they never get up there, and then step aside, away from blocking the door. See whether they finally get in on their own.

Once they go in, praise your dog and reward them with high-value treats in the car, but don't go on a car ride yet.

You want to establish a foundation of trust by transforming the car into a great place. Aim to create a conditioned emotional response with the car.

Then once out of the car, make all the fun things abruptly end. Things get ho-hum ... boooring. You want to make the contrast really obvious so as to make it crystal clear that great things happen only contingent upon being in the car.

4. Take Baby Steps

Once you have obtained an enthusiastic response to being in the car and your dog responds enthusiastically, eagerly jumping up, it's time for somebody to start the engine, but without going anywhere.

When the engine starts, feed tasty things; when the engine stops, stop feeding tasty things. Rinse and repeat several times, once again aiming to get a nice conditioned emotional response to the sound of the engine.

Once you have attained that, you can add some movement. Have somebody drive just around the block as you party with your dog, feeding them tasty things, and then make all the fun end once the car ride ends and your dog jumps out.

Rinse and repeat several times, once again aiming to get a nice conditioned emotional response to the sound of the engine.

You can then aim to increase the distance driven, but make sure your dog is having fun and looks comfortable. If at any time they look stressed, it's a sign that you have progressed too fast, so slow and steady wins the race here.

Make sure to do short rides to pleasant places such as a pet store to pick with your dog some new toys or goodies.

5. Encourage Your Dog to Jump In

As already mentioned, sometimes dogs may be happy in the car, but they still struggle with actually getting inside the car. Here are some tips for that: How to Train Your Dog to Jump in the Car.

Some dogs need a little extra encouragement—without picking them up—or for owners with troubled backs, it can help to use dog harnesses that go around the dog's chest and hips with handles on top.

I have suggested this to a client of mine who is a veteran with back issues, and it has helped her a lot.

You still have to do some lifting, but it does make it a bit easier on your back.

Make sure always to praise and reward them, even when you have to lift them into the car. Have a family member feed them treats every few minutes during the whole ride to keep those memories of being great in the car in their mind.

To make the treats extra appealing, you can schedule your outings first thing in the morning before breakfast when your dog is on an empty stomach and, therefore, hungrier.

Another strategy to try is building anticipation. Have a neighbor hold your dog on a leash and have them watch you and your other family members get into the car and start the engine acting as if leaving without them. Many dogs, at this point, will jump in on their own.

6. Make Sure the Car Is Comfortable

Cars can get quite hot as spring and summer approach. Dogs who are anxious or excited about being in the car can easily overheat. To help them, make sure to cool the car a bit before trying to get your dog in.

Also, remove strong odors like car deodorants and air fresheners, as this can be too much for dogs with sensitive noses.

7. Use Calming Aids

Sometimes, no matter what we try, dogs won't show any interest in the high-value treats or toys we offer. Often this is a sign of a dog being too over the threshold, which interferes with the learning process.

Calming aids may sometimes help lower the dog's threshold just enough to make them calmer. Here are just a few of the many calming aids available on the market:

  • Adaptil spray and collars, made of synthetic pheromones, can help dogs feel calm and relaxed during times of stress.
  • Small window shades can help dogs frightened by certain sights seen from the car. Thundercap or the Calming Cap reduces visual stimuli that may contribute to car ride anxiety. I sometimes suggest this latter for nervous dogs that are fearful and react to passing cars.
  • Using a crate may help your dog relax if you have dedicated time to conditioning your dog to enjoy being in it. Covering the crate with a blanket and securing the crate may help calm your dog further down.

8. Enlist the Help of a Professional

Severe cases of anxiety that don't respond to your interventions may require prescription medications to calm your dog down, along with behavior modification. Talk with your veterinarian about this.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2023 Adrienne Farricelli

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