By Barbara Cannon
When most people imagine a life with a new puppy, they can see themselves out together taking trips to the beach, to the park, or even on the road visiting new destinations. So, it can be a sad day when you discover that your puppy doesn’t like riding in the car. Now what do you do?
There’s lots of reasons that puppies develop an aversion to car travel. The most common one is motion sickness. Your puppy might have experienced motion sickness even before he comes home to you, or possibly on the way to your house. If your puppy is experiencing motion sickness, especially vomiting, talk to your vet right away about ways to prevent it. A puppy who gets sick in the car is never going to build a positive association with car rides.
And that is the key. As with all positive reinforcement training, we want to make sure our puppy has a positive association when he goes for those rides, and even before if he is nervous about getting into a car. If you have taken care of the motion sickness, here’s a plan to help create a positive association with the car.
Start with taking your puppy and putting him in the back seat of your parked car. Take a lot of good rewards and high value treats and some fun toys. Have a play session in the car without turning on the engine. Do this several times before moving on. (Note: if your puppy is nervous about even getting in the car, start this exercise outside of the car first.)
Do the same exercise but this time, just turn on the engine while you play. Don’t go anywhere yet. Make sure you do this in a well-ventilated location.
In these next steps you will need a helper. The helper will sit in the back seat with the puppy and play games and deliver treats while you back the car forward and back on a driveway. Don’t go anywhere! Just let the puppy experience short periods of motion.
Next, do the same exercise while driving around the block. (We will talk about safety in a minute.)
Next, take your puppy to someplace fun, preferably not too far away.
Finally, slowly build up your time on the road, associated with fun toys and treats.
Take your time with these steps and don’t move forward too quickly. Think about what could be making this experience difficult for your puppy. Puppies can quickly make associations with seemingly (to us) insignificant events. Try to avoid JUST taking your pup to the vet. Turn on soft music in the car. Watch your own language and behavior. A puppy doesn’t know if you are angry at the car that cuts you off or at him and may experience your behavior as a negative experience.
Another useful tip: if you know someone who has a confident dog that loves car rides, it may be useful to borrow that dog for a few car trips. Many puppies who are reluctant to ride in cars find it much more fun when they have a buddy who comes along with them. Dogs learn from other dogs (good and bad!) so this may be a way to teach your puppy that riding in a car can be fun, especially if your end destination is a dog-friendly spot such as a beach or park.
Now a word about safety. We strongly recommend that your puppy be restrained in some way while the car is moving. There are several options. A crate or travel carrier is the safest way to transport a puppy. It should be in the passenger seat with a seatbelt attached to keep it from moving. There are also booster seats with harnesses that keep your puppy safely in the car seat. In any case, we don’t want your puppy to move should the vehicle experience any sort of impact. Accidents are just that – events that happen unexpectedly. Safety first. Looking back at our plan, I would suggest that once you start driving (step 4) your puppy should be secured somehow in your car.
It can be such a joy to travel with your dog! We truly hope that these steps will help make the experience a happy one for both you and your puppy.