Do you struggle to get your dog in the car, or does he seem nervous as soon as he’s in the car? Expert Kate Ellam offers some tips on how to teach your dog that the car isn’t anything to be afraid of…
Q) We have a year-old yellow Labrador who was rehomed to us when he was 10 months old. He has settled in very well, but he won’t get into the car. The first couple of times he was very reluctant to jump in but eventually did, and was subsequently sick on the journey. Now he backs away and rears up; he is a big Labrador and I cannot pick him up. We’ve tried treats, toys, and someone sitting in the car to entice him. It’s a big issue as he is missing out on so much!
Kate says: Have your dog examined by a vet to rule out any potential medical cause that might be underlying this type of reaction.
The vet might be able to give you advice on travel sickness, too, as your dog is now likely to be associating the car with the feeling of being ill. Your vet should also be able to refer you to a certified clinical animal behaviourist registered with the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour or the Animal Behaviour and Training Council, who will be able to help you teach your dog to feel differently about travelling in the car.
Initially, avoid taking him in the car unless you absolutely have to, and if you do, use an ‘emergency’ method for this. For instance, if you would like him to travel in the boot long-term, then for emergency trips have him in a harness attached to a seat belt on the back seat. This gives you a way of transporting him if you absolutely need to but the context is different to the one in which you will start to train him. In an emergency situation, you could use a large piece of some really strong-smelling food to lure him quickly to the car, giving him the food once he’s in.
With your training for the boot, go completely back to basics, reintroducing the boot as somewhere he can enjoy and feel safe. This means lots of practice without going anywhere at all and the car remaining completely stationary. Start by walking him to the car and simply feeding him his meals next to it, scattering treats on the ground nearby for him to enjoy sniffing out and eating, or playing with his favourite toy next to the car — as long as it is safe to do so.
Over time and repetition, he will not start to become worried, or over-excited at the prospect of car travel, but will feel good about being around the car. Progress to opening the boot while you do this, so he learns that the boot opening means he gets a fun game and/or tasty treats. Stay at each stage for as long as he is comfortable and only move on when he’s not showing any signs of becoming too excited, aroused, and/or stressed.
The next step is to get him to go into the boot to enjoy a safe, long-lasting chew or some treats scattered in there for him to sniff out and eat. Once he seems comfortable, give him a long-lasting food-releasing toy, such as a Kong stuffed with his normal diet or treats, and start to lower the boot door, building up to entirely closing it.
The next step would be to do the same, but turn the engine on, remembering that this is likely to make him react as he did previously. Don’t rush this stage, simply keep giving him fun things to do until he is visibly comfortable being in the boot with the door closed and engine on. Now, you might be ready to drive a short distance along the road, stopping if he starts to react, and then next time going back to the previous step for a little longer.
Take this very slowly, and seek the help and guidance of a professional behaviourist.