“No Way Do I Want to Go For a Ride!” Part III of our canine car series, helping the car phobic dog

This is the third entry in our series on safety for dogs riding in the car. If you recall, our first entry was dedicated toward safety in the car through use of commonly available types of restraints. In our second entry, we discussed training your dog for basic manners and car travel.

These entries are meant to give concrete advice and tips for those dogs that will actually enter the car. But what about dogs who are absolutely terrified of the car? What about dogs who are so anxious they make themselves sick during car travel?

Initially, I’d planned on doing one entry on car behavior. Then I realized that the car-phobic dogs and the people who love them really do deserve an entry of their own, separate from an entry addressing the needs of those who just need to teach their pooch some basic car manners.

WHY DOES MY DOG HATE THE CAR?

Who knows, really? It could be any number of things…inadequate socialization with car rides (puppies should actually begin being introduced to being in the car, having the engine turned on, and car rides of various duration with the breeder before even leaving for their “permanent home”), or perhaps the dog has made the association that “the car makes bad things happen,” (the “every-time-I-go-for-a-ride-I-go-to-the-vet/groomer’s-and-get-poked-and-prodded-syndrome,” “whenever we ride, I slide all over the seat and feel unsafe,” “the car is loud and noisy with crazy rock music syndrome” or “the car makes me puke syndrome”), etc.

Regardless of the reason, there is much hope for car-phobic dogs.

IF YOUR DOG REGULARLY GETS SICK IN THE CAR

If your dog regularly vomits or has diarrhea in the car, make sure that you have a full veterinary evaluation and rule out any medical causes or contributing factors which may be exacerbating your dog’s gastrointestinal distress during travel. A nice early intervention is giving your dog a bit of ginger snap cookie – much like ginger ale can calm the belly of a human who isn’t feeling well, ginger can calm the belly of a nauseous dog or a dog that has loose stool in the car.

Do not scold your dog for getting sick in the car. Could you imagine how awful it would be if someone screamed at you when you were so sick you had diarrhea or nausea? Not cool, and certainly not conducive to you feeling better.

If ginger snap cookies do not help, you can try Immodium or other OTC stomach meds at the discretion of your veterinarian. Prescription medications are available for severe car sickness. You may also want to consider, at least until you have conditioned your dog to be more comfortable in and around the car, to only travel when your dog has an empty stomach/bladder.

Also, a negative association with the car can be developed from just one bad experience with nausea or diarrhea in the car (feeling sick is a universal aversive!). For instance, I have a friend who got food poisoning in Costa Rica. She always warns those traveling to Costa Rica to watch out for the food so that they don’t get food poisoning, even though 99.999999% of visitors to the country probably do not get digestive upsets for their visits. This experience was so aversive for her, she has vowed never to return to this beautiful country. Dogs can be the same way about car sickness, so it is important to have a lot of patience when helping them past this classically conditioned discomfort response.

TRAINING FOR CAR-PHOBIC CANINES

Any trainer worth their salt will affirm that there is always “more than one way up the mountain.” If you do not see results from any of the mentioned techniques within a period of a few weeks, try another technique or consider investing in the assistance of a qualified behavioral professional.

There are actually two stages to training a fearful dog to feel more comfortable getting into the car. The first is training your dog to approach the car with confidence, the second is actually teaching your dog to relax once inside the car.

There are a few different techniques you can use for getting your dog to approach the car with more confidence. You can:

a) Shape the approach. This may take a lot of patience, especially if you or your dog are new to shaping. Shaping is like the “hot/cold” game you may have played as a child. “Click” means “hot”, “no click” means “cold.” Remember that not clicking gives as much information as clicking. Your dog’s confidence level should be the determining factor in how fast the training proceeds. Keep sessions short, setting your criteria at a level where your dog is able to receive a high rate of reinforcement (lots of C/T per minute) If she needs lots of time, give it to her – this is not a race! Avoid dragging her to the car, luring her into the car, or trying techniques to “trick” her into the car.

b) Consider using Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) training, developed by Grisha Stewart to make your dog feel better about approaching the car. Grisha joined us recently on the Rewarding Behaviors forum as one of our weekly pet experts to answer our forum members’ questions on using BAT training. You can visit the thread here for more on BAT training, informative videos on how you may employ BAT training with your dog, sample record-keeping forms, etc. For more detailed information on how to use BAT training to help your dog feel better about approaching the car, you can check out Grisha’s new BAT video, available from Tawzer Dog videos or join the Yahoo group Functional Rewards.

c) Practice using targets (I like a hand target, but target sticks and discs will also work well) to get your dog to move around and approach the car. Once your dog is comfortable following the target toward the car, practice sitting inside the car and having her nose touch your target hand outside the open door. Once she is comfortable with that, slowly begin moving your target hand inside the car, first asking her to stretch her neck to touch the target, then perhaps lifting a front paw to touch the target, then two front paws, then four, etc. Keep sessions short, use a high rate of reinforcement, and if your dog begins to “shut down,” ask for one or two easy repetitions and end the training session on a positive note (jackpot!).

d) Use the car as a distraction for other training sessions. Don’t even focus on the car, just practice training and maintaining favorite behaviors with the car in the environment. This will create positive associations for the dog being around the car without any pressure to actually get in the car.

e) Train your dog to “go settle” on a mat reliably. This will be very helpful when we are teaching the dog to relax in the car later! Begin teaching the “go settle” behavior inside your home in a low distraction environment. Once you add a cue, begin proofing for fluency and distractions. Practice in a number of environments. Once your dog will go to the mat and settle down immediately in a number of less distracting environments, begin working with the mat using the car as a distraction – at whatever distance is necessary for your dog to be able to still relax and enjoy lying on the mat. Gradually decrease distance moving the mat closer to the car.

When you are practicing “go to mat” near the car, each time you toss your treat away from the mat to reset your dog for another repetition after clicking, grab the mat and move it – sometimes a bit closer to the car, sometimes a bit farther away. This is called “ping-ponging” your criteria – sometimes it is easier, sometimes a bit harder. Continually moving the mat closer to the car without sometimes moving it farther away can make dogs give up…”this always gets harder…isn’t anything ever good enough for you?!”

Once your dog will reliably approach and lay down on the mat very close to the car, practice having your dog go to her mat and lie down inside the car, tossing your treat outside the car to set up for another repetition. Gradually work up to adding duration on the mat in the car.

f) employ some reverse psychology. This is how I taught Mokie to want to go into her crate, and it may help your dog learn to go into the car. Take your dog’s favorite toy, chewy, bone, or stuffy. Make a big deal out of playing with it and then throw it in the car and shut the door. For dogs that are only marginally fearful of the car, there is a good chance they will approach or even paw at the door to try to get at their toy. If your dog approaches the car, immediately click, open the door, and let them retrieve or play with their favorite toy. Repeat!

RELAXING ONCE IN THE CAR

Using one or more of the six mentioned techniques should help you get your dog into the car (and if none of these work, a qualified behavior professional should be able to help you use other techniques) without stress. Be patient – for dogs with long-standing fear issues this may take some time to accomplish. The more you allow your dog to feel as though she is in control of how close she moves to the car and how quickly, the faster your training will go. Each time she is forced to approach the car or made to feel like she has no control, the training may be setback.

The techniques we will discuss for getting your dog to relax in the car are not meant to be an exhaustive list by any means. There are myriad ways up the mountain, and certainly other techniques may be employed in lieu of or in conjunction with those I’ll recommend.

CLASSICAL CONDITIONING

Those of you who know me well know I am a big classical conditioning nerd. I love CC for all its applications to help fearful individuals conquer their fears, be they two or four-legged. Classical conditioning means creating new associations with neutral or even fear-invoking stimulus through repeated pairing with positive experiences for the dog.

This is really easy stuff. If your dog is comfortable going to the car at this point, simply get her into the car and make that where she receives all her meals. If your dog is not comfortable approaching the car still, practice your classical conditioning at greater distances – feed her as far away from the car as necessary, decreasing distance as she is successful.

Open the door, ask the dog to “wait” while you put her food bowl down in the car, then release her to go eat. Start out with the engine off, allowing her to eat with the door open and get out when she is finished. Repeat until she is comfortable with this.

Then practice having her eat in the car with the door closed. You may start out in the car with your dog to set her up for success. Open the door immediately after she finishes her meal and release her to get out of the car when you are ready. If you started out in the car with her, progress to practicing where your dog goes in the car to eat and you close the door standing outside the car, ready to open immediately when she finishes her meal.

Further criteria-raising guidelines may include:

Repeat with the car idling.

Practice turning the car on while your dog eats, off when she finishes her meal.

Practice feeding your dog while you pull out of, and immediately back into, your driveway.

Practice feeding your dog while you drive around the block.

Practice slowly increasing the length of your trips.

THROUGH A DOG’S EAR

While classical conditioning is my favorite technique for getting dogs to feel comfortable around the car, there are some tools on the market which can assist your dog in feeling relaxed throughout the protocol. Examples include D.A.P. (Dog Appeasing Pheremone, a calming spray, collar, or plug in available which mimics the pheremones a mother dog releases to calm her puppies), massage, Tellington Touch therapies, and one of my favorite dog products ever, the Through a Dog’s Ear collection.

While I recommend the entire Through a Dog’s Ear collection, they do have a c.d. specifically for dogs that are fearful or anxious about the car called, Driving Edition: Music to Calm Your Dog in the Car. The c.d. comes with a great booklet with instructions on how to use the c.d. effectively to help the car-anxious dog. PLEASE DO READ THE BOOKLET IN ITS ENTIRETY BEFORE BEGINNING TO USE THIS C.D.

The c.d. also comes with a fifteen minute bonus track which you may begin to play before you take your dog for a ride to start calming her down before you even put the keys in the ignition. I will not delve deeply into the use of TADE to modify car anxiety behaviors because this is already a long entry and Lisa Spector and Joshua Leeds have already done a fantastic job explaining its use in the booklet included with the c.d. To purchase your own copy, visit www.throughadogsear.com.

RELAXATION PROTOCOL

As a final recommendation, I really like veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall’s Protocol for Relaxation. These exercises should be started in your home and eventually taught in the car as well. The protocol was originally published in Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals and is available online at the Dog Scouts of America website (link provided above).

Hopefully, the techniques discussed in this entry will give you and your dog the tools you need to work together as a team in conquering car phobia. Patience is always the key, and if your dog is not being successful in the training, it may be a sign that you are moving too quickly for her and need to find a way to break the behaviors down into smaller steps to make it easier for her. Changing old fears and bad habits takes time, commitment, and dedication.

Best of luck, and happy training!