Wanna go for a ride? Part II: Manners for Canine Car Rides

In a recent entry, I discussed safety options when taking your dog for a ride in the car. The entry was posted to my Facebook Networked Blog where some interesting comments were made about the various levels of safety for different types of car crates. If you missed out, make sure you check the comments on the NetworkedBlogs entry and leave your own if you have thoughts to share!

In this entry, we’ll be talking about canine manners for car rides. I figured I’d split the “car behavior” section into two separate entries, one discussing manners for dogs that are over-excited in the car and a separate entry addressing the behavioral needs of those dogs who are fearful in the car.

As I mentioned in my last entry, training for manners does not preclude the need for safe restraint in the car. Remember, you cannot train your dog to disobey the laws of physics. If your dog is unrestrained and flies through your windshield in a collision, she is not a bad dog or disobedient, she was improperly restrained.

Basic behaviors your dog should know for car manners include:

a) down

b) wait to get in/out of car

c) name response in new environments

d) relaxing while you are outside the car


My favorite way to teach down is using capturing. What can I say? Capturing really is the ultimate in arm-chair training. All dogs know how to lie down, whether they can do it on cue is a new story entirely.

To teach down using capturing, you’ll want to make sure that you charge the clicker in advance (for more information on how to get started clicker training, check out my blog It’s not Click/Treat, it’s Click Then Treat: Mechanical Skills for Clicker Trainers). Once your clicker is charged, go into a very boring, quiet room of your house. I like to take a good book, my dog, a pouch full of treats and a clicker into the bathroom, as there is generally very little going on in this room.

Then I simply wait. Ignore the dog reading your book until she lies down. As soon as her elbows hit the ground, click then toss a treat away to set your dog up for another repetition. (She can’t lie down again if she is already lying down!) Think of your clicker like a camera – you are using it to “take a picture” of your dog as she lies down.

The first time you do this, it may take ten, fifteen, or thirty minutes for your dog to lie down. (See why this might not make for a dramatically exciting television show on dog training?) If this is one of the first times you are capturing a new behavior with the dog, be patient. Do not say any words or attempt to entice your dog into position, just wait. If your dog takes thirty minutes to lie down, click when she does and throw a whole bunch of treats (jackpot!) and end the session for now…come back to it later.

Consider keeping records of the amount of time you are waiting for your dog to lie down. While initially you may be waiting ten minutes or more, as your dog gets the hang of it she will begin offering the behavior more quickly. To begin with, you may only get one repetition every twenty minutes or so. With practice, you should get to the point where your dog is lying down, getting clicked, getting up to get her treat and immediately returning to lie down after eating her treat. At this point, we can begin adding a cue to the behavior.

When you are adding a new cue, start saying it as your dog is offering the behavior then click and reinforce the completion of the behavior. If you are just starting to add a cue and your dog only offers a partial down, be sure to click it – she is trying hard to make the connection between your new cue signal and her behavior and needs encouragement.

There are other methods to teach a down (I like shaping and targeting, occasionally will use luring to “jump start” the behavior, and personally prefer to avoid molding/modeling – pushing or otherwise physically manipulating the dog into position), but capturing tends to be the easiest. For more on teaching this behavior to fluency, check out my article for Karen Pryor Clicker Training, Everything You Wanted to Know About Proofing But Were Afraid to Ask.


I usually like to teach “wait” outside of the context of car-training first, but in the interest of brevity, since this may turn into a long entry anyway, I’ll just talk specifically about training for “wait” to get into or out of the car.


Step 1:  Practice loose leash walking until your dog can approach the car calmly.

Step 2:  Loose leash walk to the car, cue “sit” (we’ll use “sit” for our examples) or “down” and click/treat.  Repeat until the dog can approach the car calmly and sit for a click and treat each time.

Step 3:  Loose leash walk to the car, cue “sit” and reach toward the car door.  Click and treat the dog for maintaining position.  If the dog begins breaking position as you reach for the door, begin with smaller movements toward the door and gradually increase your reach toward the car as your dog is successful.  Once your dog is able to sit calmly as you reach toward the car each time, move onto step 4.

Step 4:  Loose leash walk your dog to the car, cue “sit” and put your hand on the door.  Click and treat the dog for maintaining the position.  If your dog begins breaking position, do more practice at step 3.  Move onto step 5 when your dog is able to hold position as you touch the car door handle.

Step 5.  Walk your dog to the car, cue “sit,” and open the door a fraction of an inch.  Click while the door is open and reinforce your dog in position, then close the door and repeat.  As your dog is successful, gradually increase the door opening until the dog is remaining fully seated while the door is fully open.

Step 6:  Begin releasing your dog from the sit by presenting a hand target.  Have your dog follow the hand target into the car, click the dog for entering the car.


The steps for “wait to get out of the car” are very similar to the steps for teaching “wait to get into the car.”  You will want to practice these exercises with your dog inside the car, and the best part is that if you are restraining your dog appropriately in the car, you can manage for your dog’s safety during practice.  Nonetheless, it is best to begin practicing these exercises in a low distraction environment.  Best of all is if you can practice in an enclosed garage, then in your driveway, then in other locations of increasing distraction intensity.

Step 1:  begin with your dog restrained in the car.  Cue the position you’d like your dog to “wait for release” in (generally “down” or “sit”).  Click and treat.  Practice getting a nice response to your cue in the car while you are not even fussing with the doors.

Step 2:  Once your dog will reliably perform the behavior with the doors closed, cue the behavior, reach toward the car door, click and treat your dog for maintaining position.  Repeat until your dog is able to maintain the position reliably as you reach toward the door.

Step 3:  Cue the behavior, put your hand on the door handle, click and reinforce your dog for maintaining position.  Repeat until your dog is able to maintain the position reliably as you put your hand on the door.

Step 4:  Repeat step three, only this time you will be actually opening the door a bit.  Cue the dog for the position, open the door a fraction of an inch, C/T for position while the door is open, close the door and repeat until reliable.

Step 5: Begin increasing door opening gradually until dog is able to maintain position with door fully open, waiting for release. Repeat until reliable.

Step 6: Use a hand target to reinforce the wait and release your dog from the car when you are ready.


This is a great exercise I learned from Ali Brown, author of Scaredy Dog and Focus Not Fear. Ali is a fantastic behaviorist and owner of Great Companions, LLC.

Before beginning with name response in new environments, it’s best to train name response first in low distraction environments. Here are the steps, using the aforementioned skills of capturing and adding a cue.

Step 1: Begin in a low distraction environment. Give your dog a few clicks and treats to let her know you have yummy stuff.

Step 2: Click and toss a foot or two away from you. Allow your dog to go eat the treat.

Step 3: Wait for your dog to look back at you and “capture” or “take a picture” of the eye contact by clicking when your dog looks at you. Toss your treat away and repeat.

Step 4: Begin increasing the distance your dog travels to get the treat. Continue waiting for eye contact and clicking when she looks at you, tossing another treat.

Step 5: Once your dog begins eating her treat and immediately whipping her head around to you, begin adding her name as the cue. Toss the treat, let her eat it, and AS SHE IS TURNING HER HEAD TOWARD YOU, say her name. Click her for looking in your direction, toss a treat, repeat.

Step 6: Review for fluency as mentioned in the above article.


This is the part of the exercise I learned from Ali.

Step 1: Travel to a new, relatively low distraction environment with your dog in the car.

Step 2: Upon arrival, ask your dog to hold her designated “wait” position until released.

Step 3: Release your dog from the car, say her name once. Click when she responds. If she doesn’t respond within ten seconds, put her back in the car for thirty seconds and repeat. If your dog is consistently unable to succeed at this training goal, move to a lower distraction environment for more practice.

Step 4: Practice in a number of environments.

Step 5: As your dog is successful, adjust the amount of orientation time according to the level of environmental distraction. In a low-stimulation environment, you may want name response within four seconds. In a high distraction environment, you may want to give the dog the full ten seconds.

NOTES ABOUT NAME RESPONSE: Your dog should think that hearing her name is the most exciting thing in the world. NEVER pair your dog’s name with punishment or anything she doesn’t like, such as calling her away from favorite activities or to unfavored activities like baths. Practice the “name game” with your dog’s nicknames if she has any. Practice in a variety of tones of voice, gradually working up to the voice you’d use if your dog was running toward the street. We want our dogs to learn that even if we are yelling their name, it’s a great idea to respond with haste and enthusiasm. If your dog is afraid of loud noises or voices, raise sound level very gradually.


These tips won’t be geared toward dogs that are destructive in the car when left alone or injurious to self or property, as those issues deserve their own blog entry at the very least and at best the attention of a qualified behavior professional. Also, this is not meant to be an endorsement for leaving dogs unattended without any human supervision, as dogs can be stolen from cars, overheat or lose body heat in cars which are not appropriately temperature regulated, or can injure themselves through destroying car interiors.

The two simplest options to deal with dogs that are anxious when their owners are away from the car are:

a) Giving your dog something to do
b) Training a relaxation behavior or desensitization to gradually increasing absences

The easiest option is a) giving your dog something to do. Give your dog a stuffed Kong, marrow bone, bully stick, or puzzle toy when you are away from the car. Option a) is great for dogs who are generally fairly relaxed in the car when the owner is absent for brief periods as long as the dogs are able to be trusted safely with these types of toys and chewies unsupervised. This technique is generally not recommended for “power chewers” or “destructo dogs.”

Option b) is great for all other dogs and has a number of “sub-options.” I can’t really cover each in-depth within the context of this blog, but potential ideas include (and you may use any combination of these techniques or experiment to find which works best for your dog):

  • Teach an alternative, incompatible behavior and “proof” it to fluency.  Suggested behaviors include:  sit, down, go settle on a mat or in a crate.
  • Have a friend help with classically conditioning your dog to your absence.  Start out with you, your friend, and your dog in the car.  Have your friend immediately begin feeding your dog delicious treats as you open your car door, step outside the car, get back in the car and close the door.  Once your dog is comfortable with this, begin increasing the duration of your absences from your car.  Once your dog is comfortable at this stage, begin increasing your distance from the car.  Make sure you keep your criteria small enough and break the behavior into little pieces to avoid putting your dog in a situation where she has a “melt down.”
  • Practice controlled separation with a Manners Minder. Repeat the steps listed above for having a friend help with classically conditioning your dog, only using the Manners Minder remote control to deliver reinforcement instead.
  • These are basic car manners for having a safe and enjoyable car ride with your dog. If you find you need additional assistance, seek consultation services from a qualified behavioral professional near you.

    Happy travels!

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