Help Your Dog Overcome Car Anxiety

Nero feels safe with a car seat belt harness and a comfortable seat cover

Does your dog come with you in the car with a smiley face, full of enthusiasm and a waggy tail?  Or do you have a dog who upon hearing your car keys jangle and before even seeing your car starts to run in the other direction an hide?  Some dogs experience a fear of cars and are frightened and anxious.  The whole experience of taking your dog in the car is unpleasant for both your dog and you.

Does this sound familiar?

Of course the easiest option is to avoid taking your dog out in the car.  But there are always going to be times when you need your dog to join you on car journeys.  You will most certainly need to take them to the vet at some point, you may not live close to a park or the countryside to walk your dog.  You may want to take your dog away with you or simply show them a world outside of your home.

This guide will help you help your dog overcome their anxiety and by following some simple steps, time, patience, understanding and positive reinforcement you will be able to enjoy car journeys with your loved furry family member.

Symptoms of Car Anxiety

  • Refusal to get into the car
  • Excessive salivating
  • Excessive panting
  • Vomiting
  • Whining, barking or crying
  • Destructive behaviour
  • Panic

Getting to The Root Of the Problem

What does your dog associate with car journeys? What is it that makes them so fearful of travelling in the car or even getting into the car?  Some dogs unfortunately will associate the car with negative experiences which if not dealt with can develop into a fear.  Others may not be used to travelling in the car and find the different smells, the sensation and the motion frightening.

It is helpful to determine what it is that makes your dog so fearful of the car so that you can establish the best way to help them.

  • Trips to the Veterinarian

Does your dog only travel in the car when you take them to the vets? For many dogs a trip to the vets is not an enjoyable one and may associate a car journey with the unpleasant experience.  Imagine if the only time we used our cars was to go the dentist or the doctors.  Our association with a car wouldn’t be positive one.

  • Traumatic Experience

If you have adopted a rescue dog from a shelter, sadly it may have been abandoned from a car.  Either taken somewhere by car and dumped or taken to a rescue by car.  Your dog may therefore associate any car journey with a fearful experience from the past.

  • Car Accident

Your dog may have been hit by a car at some point or been in the car during an accident.  This is a traumatic and scary experience which your dog may  associate with all car journeys.

  • Sensory Overload

Your dog may find all the different smells, sounds as well as the motion too much to take in and an unpleasant or frightening experience.

  • Car Sickness

If your dog suffers from car sickness when they travel, of course they are not going to enjoy going in the car.  Fortunately there are simple and straight forward solutions to helping your dog with car sickness which are explained below.

Tom keeps an eye on the road

Keeping Your Dog Safe in the Car

  • Crate – if your dog is crate trained this can help your dog feel safe and comfortable in the car.
  • Car seat belt harness – this will ensure your dog is safe and secure on the back seat of your car.
  • Water – Some dogs don’t like the taste of water not from your home or drinking water out of an unfamiliar bowl.  Make sure you take some water from your home and a bowl they are used to.
  • Keep the temperature cool – Make sure your car is at a comfortable temperature for your dog.
  • Towels or paper towels – just in case of any accidents,
  • Dog Poo Bags – these are useful not only to clear up any dog poo but also in case your dog suffers from car sickness.
  • Extra lead and collar – you can never have too many spare leads and collars in case one gets dirty.

Important: Never let your dog have free range of the car!

Treating Car Anxiety

The aim is to help your dog associate the car with positive experiences, this is called Positive Reinforcement.   Working with your dog to make getting into the car a more pleasant experience can be achieved by taking the following steps:

Step 1

  • Walk your dog to the car on a lead.  Take a really nice treat from the seat of the car and give to your dog.
  • Do not attempt to get your dog into the car
  • Repeat the above steps up to 5 times throughout the day.

Step 2

  • Once your dog looks calm by your car and accepts treats without hesitation (positive association) sit in the car and continue to give your dog treats and plenty of calm praise.
  • Continue the above but do so moving further into the car.
  • The aim is for your dog to freely climb into the seat next to you in your car.
  • Repeat the above steps up to 5 times throughout the day for a week.

Step 3

  • By this stage hopefully your dog will climb into the car seat next you.  If they don’t gently lift your dog into the car next to you.
  • Sit with your dog for a few minutes with treats and positive, calm praise
  • With a cue word such as “let’s go” or “okay” get out of the car and take your dog for a short walk. This will be another positive association with the car, a nice walk.
  • Keep practicing at regular intervals throughout the day.

Step 4

  • Once your dog is comfortable getting into the car, give them their meals there.
  • Practice attaching your dog to their car seat belt or harness belt.
  • One finished use your cue word and go for a walk.

Step 5

  • Repeat step 4 but this time turn on your car engine – do not go anywhere in your car.
  • If your dog doesn’t eat their meal turn off the engine, get out of the car using your cue word and go for a walk.
  • If your dog does eat their meal, also get out of the car using your cue word and go for a walk.
Travelling without fear in the car opens up exciting days out for your dog

Step 6

  • You will need to introduce a higher value food if your dog stopped eating with the car engine running.  This can be anything that your dog loves but isn’t normally given.
  • Go through step 5 again and again with a really high value food until your dog is comfortable eating with the car engine running.

Step 7

  • Now it is time to go on a short car journey
  • Go to the car together as you have been doing in previous steps.
  • Get into the car and star the engine
  • Make sure your have your dogs high value treat or dinner with you.
  • Do not give your dog the food just yet
  • Attach the car seat belt.
  • As you start to drive talk to your dog calmly and praise.
  • Keep the car journey to a maximum of 5 minutes.
  • As soon as you arrive home, give your dog their meal in the car with the engine running.
  • When finished, turn off the engine, use your cue word, get out of the car and go for a short walk.

If at any time whilst you are driving your dog starts to display symptoms of stress and anxiety, stop your car, use your cue word to get out and take them on a short walk before returning home.

Practice, Practice, Practice

It is really, really important to practice with your dog. The more you practice, the more your dog will start to relax and associate the car with positive experiences.  Each time your practice you can increase the amount of time you go out in the car.  It is vital not to push your dog to the point where they begin to show signs of stress.   Ensure the car trips are to somewhere enjoyable.  They can be short and often but not to somewhere unpleasant such as the vet until your dog has spent many, many, many enjoyable car journeys with you.

A trip to the beach or somewhere fun can help your dog overcome any negative association with a car journey

Preventing Dog Car Sickness

Do not feed your dog before going on a car journey.

Make sure the windows are open to provide fresh air for your dog (not too wide!)

Start with short car journeys to help them become accustomed to the motions of a car.

Try and avoid roads with too many bends or bumps.

Your vet can also make suggestions for anti-sickness medications or natural remedies available over-the-counter or by prescription.


Be patient and consistent with your dog and work in short sessions.

Keep things positive and end each session before your dog has a chance to go into full-blown fear mode.

All dogs are different, and depending on the degree to which your dog is afraid, you can expect it to take a while for your furry friend to conquer their fear.

The work you put in with your dog will be so worthwhile when the end result is being able to venture out and about in the car together making fantastic, happy memories!