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Driving Miss Doggy: here's help in getting your canine pal accustomed to car travel.

Like many of us, you may be including your dog in your summer travel plans. While most dogs love to be included, however, not all of them are comfortable and relaxed in the car. Some may bark at anything that moves, charge the windows or be restless and nervous.

A reader writes about her 10-year-old black Labrador retriever that does fine during short car rides from their rural home to town, but pants uncontrollably during the three-hour-plus trip to their son's home. Apparently, the dog has reacted this way since puppyhood.

We often never know why some dogs are anxious in the car. Few owners report that their dogs have had any kind of traumatic experience that predated the anxiety. Car sickness may contribute to some of these problems. It's not uncommon for puppies to experience car sickness, as my Irish setter, Coral, did until she was about a year old. If a dog anticipates not feeling well every time she gets in the car, it's easy to understand why car rides would produce anxiety.

Most puppies seem to "outgrow" this motion sickness, although we don't really understand the mechanism that allows this to happen. We would expect that, once the nausea abates, the nervousness would as well, since the association between car rides and feeling ill diminishes. In some cases, however, this may not happen.

One way to prevent car anxiety might be to manage a puppy's experiences in the car so that car sickness is prevented. Avoid feeding a puppy for several hours before taking her in the car. Start with very short trips, five minutes or less. Gradually increase the trip duration.

Comfort Is An Individual Thing

You may need to experiment with where in the car your puppy is most comfortable. Although a crate is a safe place for a dog to ride in the car, this seemed to increase Coral's car sickness. She does much better riding in the back seat, secured by a doggie seat belt. Our reader related that her Labrador did much better riding in the front seat, although this seemed to help for "only" about half of the three hour trip.

The fact that the dog does well for 90 minutes is really quite an accomplishment. Rather than viewing riding in the front seat as not working, the owners should look at building gradually on what their dog can tolerate. Taking frequent breaks may help this dog. Perhaps stopping every hour or so for a 10-minute walk would prevent her anxiety from kicking in.

While the Labrador does better looking out the window, for other dogs, viewing the landscape whizzing by can be part of the problem. In these cases, a Calming Cap[TM] might be helpful. Invented by trainer Trish King to help with car problems, the cap fits over the dog's head and eyes and filters vision. To the dog, it's like peering through blue gauze, softening and muting what they see.


Helping dogs overcome their car anxiety can be a tedious process. Usually this involves gradual exposure to car rides, and in severe cases perhaps just letting the dog sit in the car while it's parked in the driveway or garage. The next increment might be turning the engine on and letting it idle while monitoring the dog's behavior. A desensitization program such as this is most likely to be effective if the dog's anxious reaction can be prevented during the process. That means no car rides while you are stepping through these gradual increments.

Most people do not like to medicate their dogs for car rides. For frequent car trips, medication can be impractical. However, if you are planning a long vacation in the car and have little time to prepare your dog, you might talk to your veterinarian about short-acting anti-anxiety medication. Anti-anxiety medication is not the same as a "tranquilizer," which sedates your dog but doesn't decrease his anxiety.

As always, the best approach is preventing these problems, if possible, through socialization and by avoiding car sickness during puppyhood.

Dr. Hetts, a certified applied animal behaviorist, owns a behavior consulting practice with her husband, Dr. Dan estep, in littleton, Colorado. Send your behavior questions to: DogWatch, Box 7, Cornell university College of Veterinary Medicine, Ithaca, New York 148536401.

We regret that we cannot respond to individual inquiries about canine health or behavior matters. In this column, we often mention useful products to help with behavior issues, and they can be ordered at
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Title Annotation:Behavior
Publication:Dog Watch
Date:Aug 1, 2007
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