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Safety tips for road-tripping with pets in the car

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(iStock)

DETROIT – “Who Wants to Go Bye Bye in the Truck?”

The mere mention of those words creates chaos in my house. Both dogs go a bit nutty, one running back and forth from the door to me; the door to me.  The other dog twirls in circles like a spinning top. Then, both dogs leap happily into my car, excited for the potential adventure to come. 

With nicer weather finally here, many of us love to take our dogs on road trips.  Unfortunately, not all dogs enjoy car rides as much as mine.  If you have a dog who isn’t crazy about being “on the road again,” you may find some of the following tips helpful.

Before we dive into helping the reluctant canine traveler, there are a few safety considerations to keep in mind when taking your dog for a ride in the car.

1)      PLEASE do not drive with your dog on your lap.  This is so dangerous for you and your pet, and a quick stop or turn could cause your dog to fall, getting tangled in your feet, or in your hands on the steering wheel…

2)      Use a proper restraint.  There are doggy seatbelts that can work really well.  It’s important to keep your dog from falling on the floor – or worse – as the result of a quick stop; or accident.

3)      Consider using a crate.  Many people place their dogs in crates for car travel.  Dogs who are comfortable and enjoy their crates can benefit from being crated in the car. Crates can provide a familiar, calming place.  They can also prevent your dog from being thrown about the vehicle in case of an accident.

With the important safety basics in place, let’s walk through some training tips and tricks that may help those dogs who would prefer not to travel by car.

Dogs who shake, drool and/or get sick during car rides are probably afraid of the experience.  To help them become more comfortable in the car, let’s consider some options to help alleviate their fear – keeping in mind that each dog is different and what works for one, may not work for another.

1)      Comfort Zone – A calming spray, this can be helpful.  A couple of sprays on a blanket the dog lies on in the car, or just sprayed inside the car can help provide some relief to dogs with lower-level fears.  Simply follow the instructions on the package.

2)      Lavender – Many people believe in the power of essential oils in both animals and humans.  Lavender in particular is known for its calming ability.  These oils are to be treated with respect, as they are potent and can be misused.  Speak with someone qualified in their use.  I find lavender to be effective with my dog’s “home alone” phobia…and my house smells lovely, which is a nice side effect.

3)      Speak to your veterinarian – Dogs with severe fear of the car may benefit from something a bit stronger than sprays or oils.  In those instances, it is best to speak to your veterinarian about possible prescription medications that can take the edge off and allow your dog some comfort during car travel.

For some dogs, using one of the options above is all it takes to help ease their car phobia.  Other dogs can overcome their fears with some basic “conditioning”– that is, they can learn to enjoy the car if we are able to pair the car with things the dog enjoys.  Many dogs are successful with one (or more) of these tricks.  Other dogs find success using a combination of the above and some of the training below.  Just remember, when considering use of any sprays, oils and/or medications, your veterinarian is your best resource.

As for some training tricks:

1)      Up and Down the Driveway – Short trips are best.  Super short “trips” are the way to start.  And SLOWLY work your way up to longer trips.  Happily get into the car with your dog.  If your dog is comfortable enough to enjoy a snack or two in the car, give some super tasty treats before you start the car.  Then start the car – don’t drive yet – and give some more treats.  Drive down the driveway – give treats – and stop.  Give treats.  Drive back up the driveway.  Treats.  Get out of the car and enjoy the rest of your day.  If you can practice like this a couple times a day – GREAT.  SLOWLY take longer trips.  Very slowly.  If your dog seems happy with the driveway trips, you can try a car ride around your block.  But watch your dog.  Any shaking, drooling, etc. and you’ve pushed your dog too far.  Take note of how far your dog can go before the signs of stress appear.  Don’t go further than that.  The best way to conquer fear is provide happy things before the fear appears.

2)      Tennis Ball Toss – Some dogs need help just getting into the car.  And some will get in, but can’t relax enough to take treats.  For those dogs, just a quick “pass through” the car is a great way to start.  Does your dog love to chase a tennis ball?  Have another favorite fetch toy?  Open both of your car’s (preferably back, if you’ve got them) doors.  With your dog on one side of the car, engage him in play with his favorite fetch toy.  When he’s completely engaged in the game, toss the toy through the back seat of the car to the other side.  Some dogs will jump right through the car to get to the toy.  You can also try tossing the toy onto the back seat so that your dog will need to jump into the car in order to grab the toy.  Allow your dog to immediately leave the car.  Continue to enjoy the game, tossing the toy in and through the car as your dog enjoys play.  Of course, this game should be played in a back yard, or with your dog on a long line so that he doesn’t get carried away and decide to go visit the neighbors.  Once your dog is comfortable jumping into the car to grab the toy on the seat, practice playing with your dog in the car.  When your dog is good with that, try tip #1…up and down the driveway.  You can use treats or the toy as the reward.  And yes, two people are best to accomplish these training tricks.

3)      Calming Cap – “Horse people” will understand the concept here.  The Calming Cap is a soft, fabric “cap” that goes over your dog’s eyes.  Dogs can see, yes, but not clearly.  Many people have success using Calming Caps for dogs during nail trims, veterinary visits, and car rides.  They can be purchased on line and I believe should be used along with the training tricks above.  In fact, you may be able to use the Calming Cap (or another object, like a specific blanket or the dog’s crate, etc.) as a bridge to pleasant car rides.  For example, you could start by putting the Calming Cap on your dog (NOT in the car) and giving your dog fabulous, awesome dog treats while the Calming Cap is on.  When your dog sees the Calming Cap and gets excited because he has made a positive association between the Calming Cap and great things happening, you can bridge that to car rides.  Put the Calming Cap on your dog, give a few treats, put the dog in the car and give more of those tasty treats.  Then use the driveway trick.  Once you start that part of the training, only use the Calming Cap when getting into the car.  You may find that using the Cap will allow you to progress to longer trips a bit more quickly.

Best of luck in preparing your dog to enjoy some fabulous summer road trips with your family.  And yes, while sometimes you do have to drive your dog to the veterinarian – or some other place your dog isn’t crazy about -  just be sure to take a few trips that end in something fun for your dog.  Even if it’s up and down the driveway…

“Who wants to go bye bye in the truck?” I gotta go.

Happy Trails!