Q: Dear BooneDogs:
I love to take my dog with me when I travel, but he gets so excited in the car I'm afraid he's going to cause an accident. He pants, whines, barks and runs back and forth. He's also on a few occasions jumped into my lap while I was driving, making me almost swerve into oncoming traffic or off the road. I definitely don't want to leave him at home but also don't want us to be a danger to ourselves or others. Help!
A: I'm so glad you sent this question to me! This is a very common problem for dog owners who like to travel with their pets, and you're right, it is extremely dangerous. Out of control dogs cause hundreds of accidents every year, and some of them are fatal
One of the easiest remedies, of course, would be to restrain your dog. Traveling with your dog crated or in a seat harness will make you and others much safer while you are on the road. Crating him may also relieve some of the anxieties he has about traveling, especially if he is crated sometimes at home, as well. There are a variety of seatbelt-type harnesses on the market right now, so you are bound to find a style and size that suits him.
But while restraining your dog may protect you from accidents, it will likely do little to address the troubling issues he obviously experiences while traveling.
Most dogs that behave badly in vehicles do so out of inexperience, excitement or anxiety. A dog that has never been in a moving vehicle will undoubtedly experience feelings and types of motion he has never felt before, and this can be a very scary — or exciting — thing.
Many dogs will, over time, get used to the particular movements and motions associated with travel. However, other dogs may continue to exhibit inappropriate anxiety or excitement-based behaviors regardless of how many times they travel via vehicle, and in some cases, this inappropriate behavior can actually worsen if left unchecked.
One of the best things you can do to prevent this unwanted, dangerous behavior is make sure that your dog is calm before you load him into the vehicle. If he enters the car in an excited state, he is likely going to remain in an excited state. If he enters the car while calm and relaxed, he is more likely to stay relaxed.
Because I frequently travel to our area's many awesome hiking trails to exercise my dogs, one of the first commands I teach a new foster dog is "Load up!" This command lets the dog know that he or she is being asked to get into the vehicle with my dogs so we can go for a ride. At first, I will lift the dog or puppy into the vehicle while giving the "Load up!" command, to literally show them what I want to them to do when I give that particular command. Eventually, I'll use the command and expect them to hop in on their own.
Asking a dog that is highly aroused, anxious or excited about traveling to "Load up!" while he is excited is only asking for trouble. If your dog shows any type of arousal or anxiety during the loading process, it's best to calm him down prior to loading. When I have a dog exhibiting anxious or excited behavior while we are loading, I will shut the vehicle door, lean up against the car and quietly wait for the dog to relax so we can try again.
Sometimes using a calming command, like "Easy" or "Wait," will help to calm the dog. I'll repeat this as many times as needed until the dog realizes that he is not allowed to load and the ride will not commence until he is in a calm, quiet state.
Once the dogs load and pick a spot, I ask them to remain in that spot by praising them — “Good dogs!" — and then I give a "Stay" command.
However, with a new dog who may not know our routine, I may have to return to the dog several times to repeat the "Stay" command in a calm, quiet voice (to prevent arousal), if he or she starts to wander around the vehicle, or jump from seat to seat, making forward progress chaotic and dangerous.
I only start the car and begin to pull forward once the dog appears to understand that he is to remain in "his spot.” He can sit up, lay down, sniff around, look out the window; he's just not allowed to run around or vocalize.
If he moves from his spot, I will find a safe place to pull over, will place him back in his spot, giving the "Stay" command once again and will not move forward again until he remains stationery. If he begins to bark or whine, I will give the "Quiet" command, pulling over and putting my hands or a leash on him to calm and quiet him if needed.
If your dog has been behaving this way in the car routinely and for an extended period of time, it may take a little longer and a little more effort to teach him to be calm in the car. In extreme cases, I have spent hours teaching this without ever leaving my driveway (I have a long driveway).
In some cases, we've only made it around the block during the first few lessons. You may have to plan blocks of time where you really don't plan on going anywhere but instead can focus on truly helping your dog learn this important lesson.
If you attempt this lesson several times and your dog is still refusing to remain stationery, or if he continues to bark and whine, ignoring your "Quiet" commands, you may want to hire a professional trainer or enlist a friend experienced in working with dogs to assist you.
Either way, it is important that you not move forward until the dog is calm and collected. Most dogs love to go for rides, so moving forward while he is behaving badly (and dangerously) only rewards him for bad behavior and prevents him from learning appropriate behavior while in the car. If your dog is one of those extreme cases, and he sounds like he may be, be prepared to have lots of patience while teaching this, but if you put in the effort, I promise you that your patience will not go unrewarded.
BooneDogs is a weekly column provided by Melissa Bahleda, a certified canine behavior counselor and the founder of PARTNERS! Canines, a nonprofit shelter dog rescue organization located in Boone.