Car Rides A Nightmare?

Car Rides A Nightmare?

February 01, 2024

When dogs are scared of car rides, their and their human world can shrink quite significantly 


When working with a Roxy that was afraid of car rides, we first established that the issue started when she was a puppy and was repeatedly sick in the car. This can happen with puppies who are more prone to motion sickness which can have to do with the parts of the inner ear involved in balance not being fully developed yet. For that reason it's always good to keep car rides short and successful while the dogs are getting used to them. However, sometimes we have a dog that's already scared and we need to work backwards, so this is how we went about it with Roxy.

While Roxy appeared to have outgrown her motion sickness, she had created very negative associations with the car and would avoid getting in the car and pant and drool hard on every car ride while pacing frantically.
Everything related to the car and car ride was serving as a fear trigger to Roxy: putting on shoes, getting the car keys, getting the lead and harness, leaving the house with Roxy, walking towards the car, getting in the car, attaching the seat belt attachment to the harness, closing the car doors, starting the car, the sound of the engine, the movement of the car.

After deciding that Roxy will not go in the car for the duration of the systematic desensitisation programme, unless it was a true emergency (in which case it’d be important that the setup was completely different to the one they’re working on), the first parts of putting on shoes, grabbing the keys, harness, lead and leaving the house with Roxy to walk past the car and take her for a walk were successfully addressed within a couple of weeks, without putting any active training steps in place. Roxy disassociated these triggers from car rides and instead learned they were safe.

Parallel to this, Roxy's guardians started teaching Roxy in the living room to relax on a blanket that was to become her travel blanket, sprayed with Adaptil Travel Spray. She was wearing her harness for this which was attached to the seatbelt attachment. Initially she’d always have some spreads on a LickiMat to help her relax and once that was finished she’d be rewarded just for being relaxed on the blanket. They started with continuous reinforcement for relaxation before moving to variable reinforcement and eventually to intermittent reinforcement. Once she was happily relaxing on that blanket, they added in a low volume recording of the sounds of the inside of the car when starting and driving. Over the course of a few sessions they were increasing the volume of that recording ensuring Roxy remained calm throughout the process. These sessions were repeated in different locations with the blanket, inside the house, in the backyard and in the driveway.

Once Roxy was happily going on her walks past the car, the guardians started adding in a jump into the car and back out before every walk. Initially shaping and lots of rewards were required but quickly it just became part of her walking routine.

Now it was time to move the blanket into the car. The same exact setup as in the living room was provided: blanket sprayed with Adaptil, Roxy in her harness on the seatbelt attachment (not clipped into the seat belt buckle) and LickiMat and afterwards intermittent rewards for relaxing. For a few sessions the setup didn’t change much other than that over time the guardians started closing the car doors and sitting in the driver and passenger seat rather than in the back with Roxy and that the seatbelt attachment got clipped into the seat belt buckle.

As Roxy was habituated to that setup the low volume recording was introduced again and they were able to increase the volume quite quickly. The next step was to actually turn the car on. The guardians made sure to turn it on and leave it running only for the duration that Roxy still had plenty to lick on her LickiMat, then they turned it off, spent some more time rewarding her for being calm and finished the session. Over time they progressed to having the car running beyond the LickiMat duration. Once they were able to have the car running for 5 minutes, they started the car and after about half a minute drove a few metres within their driveway before ending the rest of the 5 minutes just parked up. Gradually they increased how far they would drive before finishing just parked up.

They had a roundabout about 50 metres from their home and once they could make it there, they would go into the roundabout and drive back home. Until that point they would stop the session wherever they ended up and walk Roxy back home and get their car by themselves after, to avoid backing up and turning around movements. Once that roundabout milestone was achieved the progress from there was pretty quick, but still always ensuring to only increase duration at a level that doesn’t cause any stress to Roxy. Roxy now happily goes on car rides, even further trips for holidays, etc.