Some dogs have no problem hopping into the car or a carrier for plane travel, while others turn tail and head for the hills at the first ominous jingle of car keys. Even if you have a scaredy pup, there are some effective ways to make traveling with dogs less stressful for both of you.
Here are some essential tips for traveling with dogs:
Use Positive Reinforcement
It’s never too early to start positive reinforcement to get ahead of dog car anxiety. If you have a new puppy, make getting into the car an occasion for treats, praise and good things. Once the car itself isn’t an object of fear, start taking quick trips, gradually increasing in length as your dog’s tolerance grows. Some dogs may be fine with trips of any length almost immediately; others may need time to work up to it. Be aware that puppies may be prone to motion sickness stemming from their undeveloped ear structures, which throws off their equilibrium. In this case, keep the trips short and smooth, and continue building up to longer trips as your pup gets older.
If you have an older dog, do the same thing to get them used to traveling. You may not know the history of a dog that came from a shelter or rescue, so positive reinforcement may take more time. Even if the dog has been in your home since he was a puppy, age-related ailments can cause or exacerbate travel anxiety.
Work on Counter Conditioning
If your dog displays reluctance or fear around cars or their travel carrier or crate, you’ll have to work on counter conditioning and desensitization. Start with the lowest level of fear (e.g., the dog can see the car or carrier but isn’t close enough to display a fear response like stiffening or lip licking), and give them treats and praise. Move a little closer, observe their body language, give them treats and praise for being near the object, and repeat. Keep the sessions short, and plan to spend a fair amount of time on this.
If your dog’s anxiety is extreme, you may want to call in an experienced dog trainer or veterinary behaviorist for help; you could miss the very subtle signs of fear during the counter-conditioning process and risk making the anxiety worse.
Try Medication and Calming Supplements
If your dog responds favorable to calming supplements or other alternative therapies, you can use them to help him get to a calmer state where counter conditioning and positive reinforcement will be more effective. If the anxiety is severe, talk to your vet about over-the-counter solutions for travel, like benadryl or prescription medication.
Consider Alternative Solutions
If your nervous dog is completely overcome by anxiety with every visit to the veterinarian or groomer, look into alternative means of transport. Securing your dog in a covered crate in the back of an SUV or van may be easier on him than a clip-in harness in the backseat of your Mini.
Finding a vet or groomer within walking distance is also something to consider (though it’s obviously a more feasible option for urban dwellers). You can also see if the service provider will come to you, some vet practices offer in-home appointments, and mobile grooming units are popping up everywhere.
Additionally, if you’re headed out of town and decide that bringing your dog with you will cause more harm than good (traveling with dogs can be stressful for everyone!), consider using an in-home pet sitter or boarding facility to keep everyone more comfortable.
Create Visual Barriers
Using a covered or solid-walled crate to reduce what your dog can see out the car window can make a huge difference for dogs who tend to get overstimulated. If a crate won’t fit into your car, try a pet harness or clip that will keep your dog in a more or less prone position on the seat, below the eye level of the windows.
Remove Visual Barriers
On the other hand, if you find your dog does better during travel with external distractions, use equipment that will allow him to see out the window. Larger dogs can be accommodated with a clip in harness that allows upright seating; smaller dogs may need a booster seat with appropriate safety restraints.
Note: when traveling with dogs, never let your pet roam free in a moving vehicle, especially if you’re driving solo. The possibility for distraction and injury is too high with an unsecured dog and not safe for either of you or other drivers.
Don’t Feed Your Pet
In general, the less food and water inside your pet results in less food and water that can come back up during travel. Don’t overfeed or overwater your pet before trips, and line your car seats with puppy pads to absorb accidents.
Create a Pleasant Environment
Heat and humidity can make stress and motion sickness even worse, so keep the temperature cool and the windows cracked just enough to keep fresh air circulating (but not so much that your dog can stick his head out of the car). You might even try a car-adapter version of a dog pheromone diffuser to help take the edge off. Favorite toys or one of your old t-shirts can also help keep your pup distracted and more comfortable.
Plan Your Itinerary
If you’re traveling with an anxious dog, they may need more frequent breaks, so plan your itinerary accordingly. If you have to stop every few hours to let your dog shake off the anxiety, plan your route to take advantage of appropriate rest stops. Remember to keep your dog’s collar and tags on at all times; don’t open the car door until the leash/harness is absolutely secure and you have a firm grip on the leash. A stressed out dog is more likely to bolt, so exit on the side of the car away from traffic or activity.
Bring a Friend
It’s okay to reassure your dog when he’s stressed; comfort isn’t a reward for unwanted behavior, but rather a tool to help you manage your dog’s anxiety. However, comforting your dog while driving is a major, and dangerous, distraction. If you have a friend who can ride shotgun and provide calm reassurance, ask them to join you on the road trip!
Talk to Your Vet About Traveling with Dogs
If you’re planning on traveling with your anxious dog, take him in for a vet visit to rule out any physical problems that could be the root cause for anxiety. It’s always a good idea to have proof of vaccinations and up to date certifications when traveling with pets, especially if you’ll be crossing state lines. It’s rare for anyone to be asked for pet travel papers, but better safe than sorry.
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A graduate of The University of Chicago, Melanie worked in academia and finance for many years before joining the companion animal community. She believes that a good education fosters compassion, informed advocacy, and a deeper understanding of animals as they really are. She is passionate about effective communication, and in addition to her freelance writing and editing gigs she has a burgeoning career as an instructional designer. Melanie lives in Chicago with her overlords—a flock of super-smart companion parrots and a Chi-Puggle mix named Hattie.