Why Does My Dog Panic When I Leave the Car?
If your dog panics when you leave the car, rest assured, you are not alone. Many dog owners struggle with dogs freaking out when their owners leave the car. To better understand the behavior, it helps taking a closer insight into what happens to dogs when they are left in the car alone.
Fear of Being Left Alone
If your dog panics when you leave the car, there may be chances your dog may be suffering from separation anxiety. Suspect this, if your dog also struggles being left alone in the home. The best way to discover this is by recording your dog's behavior when you leave the home and then watching the recording.
If your dog whines, barks and howls, paces back and forth, scratches windows and doors, pees or poops in the home, drools and acts restless when left alone in the home, there are some good chances separation anxiety may be at play.
Dogs with separation anxiety tend to develop a dysfunctional attachment with their owners and will develop the canine equivalent of a full-blown panic attack when they are separated from a particular person. This can happen when they are left alone in the home, but even in the car.
Dogs with isolation distress instead tend to cope well when their owner leaves, as long as they have somebody with them. This person can be either a family member, pet sitter or a friend. They still develop panic though if they are left alone with nobody to console them.
Worthy of mentioning is that not all dogs with separation anxiety or isolation distress struggle when being left in the car. These dogs may fair well because most dog owners who leave the car do so just for no more than a handful of minutes.
However, expert on separation anxiety in dogs Malena DeMartini-Price in her book: Treating Separation Anxiety In Dogs, warns that leaving dogs in a car for longer and longer durations can eventually poison their feeling of safety inside the vehicle, so this is something that needs to be considered.
A Matter of Barrier Frustration
If your dog is used to join you often when you take him on car rides, he may get very frustrated when he's left behind and cannot follow you. He may even want to meet and greet other people and dogs he sees from the car window, but gets frustrated when he realizes he cannot.
This internal emotional turmoil often leads to dogs "venting" by barking and sometimes even trying to jump out of cars.
Similar behaviors are seen in dogs who are kept off leash, meeting and greeting every dog on walks, and then when they're on leash, they get frustrated because they no longer can rehearse their greeting behaviors.
A Matter of Confinement Phobia
And then you have dogs who struggle with being confined in small places. It can often happen that dogs are misdiagnosed with separation anxiety when they actually have issues with confinement. Such dogs may therefore struggle being confined in crates, play pens, small rooms and sometimes even within cars.
Fear of Being in an Unfamiliar Place
Many dogs cope well being left alone in the home, but don't feel safe being left alone in a car. They may perceive the car as an unfamiliar place, with no established reinforcement history.
In simple words, it's not considered a reassuring living quarter. Some dogs may feel the same way being left in a car as being dropped off to a kennel when owners go on vacation or left at the vet's office for some procedure.
Dogs may get anxious being left alone in a car because they may be frightened by certain noises such as the sound of traffic, construction work or people entering and exiting cars or walking by the car.
Many dogs feel safer when their owners are with them, but when the owners leave, it's as if they are suddenly left alone to fend for themselves in a big, scary and unfamiliar world.
Now That You Know...
As seen, dogs have their own reasons for getting very anxious when being left alone in the car. If your dog freaks out when left in the car, you may be wondering what you can do to help them cope better with their anxiety. However, before reading on consider safety: dogs can easily overheat in cars when the weather gets warmer! Following are several tips.
Desensitize your dog to being left alone. The good thing about anxiety in the car is that usually you don't leave for too long. So this works to your advantage.
To help your dog cope, you would therefore have to start with very brief absences (like just 1-2 seconds) and keep coming back making sure to not cause your dog to go over threshold.
In your dog panics the moment you close the car door, you may therefore have to just start by walking around the car and entering it repeatedly before progressing to leaving out of sight.
Repeat several times until he seems comfortable with that. Then gradually increase criteria, by increasing distance a bit, maybe walking in a larger circle around the car and then coming back. Once he's OK with that, you can start walking farther away in one direction, but then coming right back. Then move on to briefly being out of sight for a second but coming back.
Important: Keep increasing distance and duration, but make sure to also mix in shorter and briefer absences into the mix so that your dog doesn't panic because he senses the increase in difficulty.
Create Positive Associations When you work on desensitizing your dog to your brief absences, it's also important to create positive associations with them, by giving your dog some super duper high-value treats to give while you leave. Make it clear that the treats are given contingent upon your leaving.
Ideally, it may help if your dog is trained to start eating when you tell him it's OK to. Simply place the treat in front of him, move away and right before going out of sight, tell him it's OK to start eating. Estimate how long it will take your dog to eat the treat and strategically come back when he's done eating.
As you make your absences slightly longer, you can try giving treats that are slightly bigger or that take longer to eat. For example, a stuffed Kong or a Lick mat smeared with some peanut butter or canned food may work out.
If your dog is too stressed to take treats, then that means he's too over threshold and you'll have to split the exercise into easier steps. Take a few steps back and make your absences shorter until he's fine with that before increasing the level of difficulty.
At some point, you may be able to go to a store to make a quick purchase and come back to a dog who is relaxed and just finished enjoying a goodie.
Graduation time: go to a drive-through. Once your dog gives signs of tolerating your longer absence it's time to pat yourself both on the back and celebrate. Go with your dog through a drive-through and get yourself and your dog something high value like a burger (if it's safe for him to have that). Let the burger release the tasty aroma for the drive and build your dog's anticipation. Then eat your burger nearby your dog making him hungry. Then go run your errand in a store and give your dog the burger to eat and enjoy while you're away.
Use remote monitoring: to further kick things up a notch and know how your buddy is doing, invest in some remote monitoring gadget to watch how your dog is doing while you are in the store. This offers you the advantage of knowing when you can return. Nowadays, technology has gone a long way. There are even great cameras that allow you to talk to your dog and even deliver goodies while you are away. One such camera is the Furbo camera, which has rave reviews from many dog owners.
Provide the Safety of a Travel Crate. Some dogs get anxious when they are left in the car because of scary sights. Keeping them in a crate with a blanket on top can help some dogs feel calmer. This works best with dogs who have been strongly positively conditioned to enjoy being in the crate in other settings.
It is also safer for your dog as dogs who panic have been known to jump out of windows or even get their heads trapped in a window that was closing because they stepped on the window-closing buttons. A crate can also prevent a dog from getting in the driver's seat or turning projectile in case of an accident. It would be important to secure it as well so that it doesn't move around.
For owners of larger dogs and a small car where a crate won't fit, the use of a dog car barrier can help keep the dog under control.
Consider Calming Aids. There are several calming aids on the market that can help dogs who are anxious about being left alone. Here are a few ideas:
Leave your dog with an article of clothing that smells like you (even better, a bit stinky, so check your laundry basket). Leave your clothing only if you're absolutely sure your dog doesn't ingest it or eat parts of it.
Play some calming music when you must leave the car. There are several CDs made to calm down dogs. Through a Dog's Ear, is one of them. On top of calming dogs down, music can help buffer outside noises.
Try a calming shirt. These are snug-fitting shirts meant to apply pressure to various pressure points, creating a sensation similar to swaddling a baby. A popular brand is Thundershirt which can also be used to treat car anxiety and separation anxiety.
Experiment with pheromone-based aids. These are synthetic versions of special chemicals that helps calm and soothe dogs. You can find them under the form of sprays (spritz some on your dog's blanket prior to car travel) and collars.
Consider calming supplements. Some mild cases may benefit from some calming supplements that are sold over the counter. Examples include Vetriscience Composure, NaturVet Quiet Moments and Zesty Paws Calming Bites.
Seek the aid of a dog behavior professional. It goes without saying that in some cases, the anxiety be just too much and the dog may refuse food and be unable to relax no matter how hard we try. Seeking the aid of dog behavior professional such as board-certified veterinary behaviorist (DACVB) or a Certified Applied Animal Behavior Consultant (CAAB) would be important. These professionals can guide you through the correct implementation of behavior modification and may also prescribe medications to help lower your dog's threshold so that it becomes easier to work with them.