Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Helping dogs overcome their fear of car rides can be simple but it takes patience, time

From the time Gretchen was a tiny pup, she has spent time traveling in the car frequently. My desire to take road trips with her was a driving force behind that, so making even the shortest car rides a pleasurable experience was something that I worked at making happen.

In the 15 years since I brought her home, we've taken many trips — and there have been car rides to other people's homes, the park, the pet store and more frequently these days, trips to a local facility for laser therapy to address her advanced arthritis, which she enjoys (more on that later).

Through it all, Gretchen has enjoyed her car rides because almost always, good things happen (sometimes these days that means the two of us splitting a small order of fries from the drive-thru after laser therapy).

That said, a lot of people have dogs that they have welcomed into their family that are not so fond of a vehicular outing, and it's understandable: cars can be noisy, over-stimulating and disorienting — plus, there's the scary unknown. Bad experiences can result in lots of nervous panting, drooling or even vomiting on the part of our pet friends.

If you're in that camp, rest assured that you can help your reluctant pooch make friends with the thing on four wheels.

First, consider that your furry pal might have an aversion to car rides because of motion sickness or even anxiety, so a visit with the vet is in order to see if medication can help.

If not, the anxiety that they are feeling is likely because they are simply afraid.

Here's how to help mitigate any reservations that your dog might have:

  • Demonstrate that the car is something positive. Start by approaching your vehicle while it's parked and the engine is off. Playing their favorite game near it and around it will create a positive association, as will offering high value treats.
  • Give them autonomy. Open the doors of the car before you climb in calmly, but cheerfully. Invite them to join you in the same manner, all the while offering high value treats and praise. Consider feeding a favored food once they venture inside. Keeping the doors open allows your pet the freedom to make choices will help increase his confidence. It will also give you a barometer to measure how they're feeling about things,
  • A Kong toy filled with food to enjoy while in the car might further enhance positive associations. If your pooch decides to exit the vehicle, kindly retrieve the toy from them and put it in the car in plain view. This will demonstrate that the vehicle is the place where fun things happen.
  • Transferring a positive association can be helpful. If your dog has a good relationship with their crate, you might consider putting one that they're familiar with in the car. Be sure to keep the door to the crate open, as this will offer the autonomy to get in and out as they wish.
  • When you observe that your pet has made friends with the new environment, it's time to take the next step: being inside the car with the engine running. How you do this is crucial. With you and your four-legged friend happily settled in somewhere in the backseat area of the vehicle, (and making sure that the radio is off), have a person that your pet trusts get in and calmly start the car. Sit with them while rewarding with yummy treats, or play with a valued toy and praise. You won't be driving anywhere, just allowing them to get used to the sound and feeling of the running engine. Remember, it's all about positive associations.
  • Once your dog gets the hang of how that feels, you can begin taking short drives, (preferably where there isn't too much stimulation, like lots of traffic or people or animals), and then gradually increasing the distance and intensity of visual and auditory stimulation. (Some dogs do really well with the help of calm, relaxing music playing on the stereo during their car rides.)
  • Ensuring that these first outings always end on a positive note is key, so something like a walk in a favorite park or some interactive playtime back at home would in order.
  • After implementing these fun and easy tips, it isn't too long before the time comes when most dogs get really comfortable with the family vehicle and then of course you'll need to spell out C-A-R R-I-D-E.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer -- most recently as a regular contributor for The Ann Arbor News -- and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

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