Why Do Dogs Get Scared in Cars?

Adrienne Farricelli

Dogs get scared in cars for various reasons and sorting through the various causes often requires putting on your investigative hat and turning a bit into a detective. Is your dog anxious of getting inside the car? Does he dread movement? Does he get car sick? Or does he specifically start acting anxious when you make that left turn that brings you straight into the veterinarian's parking lot? In order to better understand the behavior, it therefore helps paying close attention to what seems to trigger your dog's fearful behavior in the car.

Many dogs get scared in cars and this can make traveling for both dogs and owners quite a miserable event. Affected dogs pace back and forth, pant, whine or bark for the entire duration of the car ride. Truth is, car rides can't be avoided for a lifetime, there is always a time when your dog must be taken somewhere. What can you do to help your furry friend? Fortunately, there are many things you can do to make your dog's life less stressful. It all starts though with identifying exactly what triggers your dog's fear. 

Past Negative Experiences 

Believe it or not, dogs have a very strong perception of things and many dog owners swear their dogs know the way towards the vet's clinic and the way towards the dog park. When turning towards the vet, these dogs start panting and shaking, when turning towards the dog park, they start acting excited with happy anticipation. 

It therefore makes sense that, if you take your dog too often on car rides that lead to the vet's office or groomer, and he dreads those events, he may start disliking going on car rides.

Wise dog owners will therefore remedy this by making sure to take their dogs also on car rides that lead to pleasurable places, but there's a potential flaw with this approach: at some point, dogs may start acting anxious of being in the car just out of mere uncertainty.

 "Is this car going to to take me to the vet or to the dog park?" Uncertainty can sure be disconcerting because it’s often the not-knowing that’s the worst.

 Dogs may not think too ahead of time and in the same critical way humans do, but they surely are capable of associating one event with another. These associations are often so strong, that  just the mere fact of being in the car may evoke the same fearful reaction as being at the vet, even if the dog is in reality being taken somewhere else!

Did you know? Some dogs are so paralyzed of going to the vet, that they have to be dragged or carried inside. Often times, what really helps in the long run is going to the root of the problem: making those vet appointments less scary in the first place! Fortunately, more and more vet clinics are committing to provide less scary environments through their Fear Free programs.  

A Matter of Car Sickness 

Often, rather than suffering primarily from anxiety, dogs get scared in cars secondary to car sickness. Often car sickness and motion sickness go hand in hand, leading to a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma (dogs can even have a combination of both!), but often behind a case of car phobia is a case of car sickness acting as the leading culprit.

Dogs are naturally prone to car sickness because their sense of balance in their brain is much better than ours so they become particularly susceptible to the motion of cars, explains veterinarian Dr. Kara. Puppies are particularly predisposed to car sickness, and many luckily outgrow it with help, but not all dogs outgrow it as they mature. 

Dogs prone to car sickness tend to salivate excessively, lip their lips, yawn and drool. They may also pace, pant, shake, and swallow often, and some even manage to vomit. 

What makes things particularly challenging though is the fact that dogs who are primarily anxious, also tend to drool, pant, shake, whine and pace when stressed, so often it is not possible to entirely distinguish one case from the other. 

In general though, dogs who are motion sick tend to feel better once the car stops moving although it may take a little bit of time to feel better.

   "Dogs that are fearful may vomit because they are frightened, not necessarily because of motion sickness. This is why it is important to desensitize puppies to car rides. If an older dog is fearful, it may be difficult to determine whether the vomiting is from motion sickness or from fear. A behavior evaluation may be necessary to determine why the dog is vomiting."~Amy Newfield, CVT,

Other Fears at Play

Sometimes, dogs may act anxious in the car for other reasons not related to being car sick or being taken somewhere scary or where unpleasant things take place. 

For example, if you got your dog from the shelter, there may be chances your new dog has never ridden in a car before or perhaps your dog was driven somewhere only to be abandoned, leading to a negative association with the car that has left quite an impact. 

Some dogs may be primarily scared of getting inside the car or truck and need to be lifted or carried inside. These dogs in general are just scared of jumping into the car, but then do well once inside. 

Other dogs who are noise sensitive may act fearful upon hearing car honks, the sound of traffic and even the clicking turn signal. Some dogs are scared of rumble strips and speed bumps. And then, some other dogs may be afraid of their insecure footing, like when you use the brakes and your dog doesn't expect it. 

 Attention should be paid on whether dogs anxious in the car appear to act fearful of specific stimuli or situations they are exposed to when in the car. 

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With the right tools, you should be able to help dogs who are anxious in cars gain more confidence

Now That You Know...

As seen, there may be several causes for dogs acting anxious of car rides. Treating the anxiety therefore varies based on the underlying cause. Below are some general tips that tackle various underlying causes of fear of car rides in dogs. 

  • If you suspect motion sickness, avoid feeding your dog at least a couple of hours prior to the car trip. Vomiting is more likely to happen when your dog travels on a full stomach.
  • Motion-sick dogs may benefit from breathing some fresh air. Keep a window lightly cracked open, enough to allow some air in but without allowing your dog to stick his head out. 
  • Schedule frequent stops to help your dog feel better and avoid roads with too many bumps and curves. 
  • Motion sick dogs may also benefit from antinausea medications. Ask your vet for help on dosages and the right medications for your dog. Medications may include diphenhydramine (Benadryl), dimenhydranate (Dramamine),  meclizine (Bonine) and a prescription medication known as maropitant (brand name Cerenia). 
  • For anxious dogs, you may need to implement behavior modification using desensitization and counterconditioning. This entails taking baby steps in a systematic way while also creating positive associations. 
  • Start by allowing some fun time in the car while it's stationary. Give toys and treats and then end all the fun once your dog is asked to go out of the car. Rinse and repeat several times. 
  • Eventually, turn on the car, while offering some high-value treats and lots of praise. Stop feeding the treats, once your dog is asked to get out of the car.  
  • Progress gradually to driving the car for just a few seconds while a helper feeds treats or gives the dog a fun toy. Gradually increase the length of these trips, but randomly mix in some short trips as well. 
  •  If, at any point, the dog shows signs of anxiety, the process should be halted and the exercise must resume at a level the dog was able to tolerate and gradually built from there. 
  • Consider that behavior modification may take weeks or even months of daily training. 
  • Calming aids may be necessary for anxious dogs. Adaptil pheromones, Bach flowers calming shirts (Anxiety Wrap, Thundershirt), calming music and calming supplements may help. For severe cases, your vet may prescribe  Alprazolam (Xanax), trazodone (Desyrel) or other medications meant to help your dog relax. 
  • If your dog shows fear of occasional events or specific stimuli such as the sound of the car honk or driving over rumble strips, have a helper sit next to your dog and feed a high-value treat every time the car honks or you drive over the strips. If you dog won't eat, it's sign that he's too over threshold so you need to take a moregraded approach. Consult with a behavior professional using force-free methods for the correct implementation of behavior modification. 
  • Dogs who pace and act restless or don't like the sensation of insecure footing and being moved about, may benefit from being crated. A crate also keeps you and your dog safe. 
  • Dogs afraid of jumping into a car or truck benefit from training. Here's how to train a dog to jump into a car or truck. 

References; 

Signs of travel-related problems in dogs and their response to treatment with dog-appeasing pheromone. Gandia Estellés M, Mills DS Vet Rec. 2006 Jul 29; 159(5):143-8

 

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