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How to car train your dog

As published in Canadian Dogs Annual
How to car train your dog

As soon as you get ready to leave the house, your dog wants to tag along. Many of your trips together will include a ride in the car, so it’s important to car train your buddy as soon as possible.

If you have a new puppy who’s comfortable with the car, lucky you! You can skip directly to “Add things he loves” (see below). For pups or dogs who seem nervous of the car or suffer from car sickness, try to car train through Classic Conditioning to resolve their issues and turn them into road warriors.

Car train through Classic Conditioning

Conditioning works by stimulating the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls emotional reactions and the memory of emotions, especially fear and pleasure. Through conditioning, we access a dog’s amygdala by stimulating the pleasure centre when he is in a situation that would normally cause discomfort or fear. The fastest way to accomplish this is by using a high value treat. (If you are using kibble or treats for training, remember to decrease your dog’s meals accordingly.) While many dogs respond to food, some may feel more pleasure from toys, balls or objects of comfort, though the conditioning process may take more time.

Finding your dog’s threshold

When you’ve established the food or item that will trigger your dog’s amygdala, you need to identify his threshold for the car. The threshold is the line between where your dog is okay with a situation, and where it is creating too much discomfort for him to handle. Every dog is different, and we determine a dog’s threshold through observation. Signs of discomfort and stress can include whining, barking, yawning, scratching himself, drooling or throwing up.

Once we find the threshold, we start the conditioning work in the timeframe just before the threshold. So if the threshold is getting into the car, we would start the work outside the car. To begin, feed your dog outside the car with the door closed. Feed him for 40 seconds to two minutes while the car door is in sight. Then stop feeding and block your dog from seeing the car for an equal length of time.

Now back up a couple of feet so your dog is further away and sees more of the car door, and start feeding again. Next, change position so you are closer again, and blocking your dog’s view. Eventually, you will cross the threshold, but if you go too fast or don’t move back and forth, your dog could have a setback and the process will take longer.

Now open the car door and start the process from the beginning again. (If your dog is comfortable with the door open, you can start at this point.)

Getting your dog into the car 

Once your dog is comfortable outside the car, you can start placing food on the floor in the back of the car and encourage him to take it from there. Don’t push your dog to do this by placing him in the car. Let him get in on his own so he’s comfortable with doing so. If your dog is small or can’t jump into the car, you can use a ramp or small stool to assist him.

Add things he loves

When your dog is okay with getting into the car, you can start doing other things with him in the car that he loves — feed him a meal in the car, give him a chew toy, have him jump into the car before his daily walk, etc. All these things will make the car a great place to spend time in, and reduce his discomfort.

Create some movement

While your dog is with you in the back seat of the car, have someone else push on the hood or trunk to simulate small movements. While your friend is doing this outside the car, you’ll be conditioning your dog by feeding him only when the car is moving. When the car stops moving, you stop feeding him.

Start ‘er up

For the next step, while you’re in the back seat conditioning your dog, have someone start the car and then push the hood or trunk up and down.

Driveway jaunts

Bite-sized drives are best, once you get to this point. A short ride up and down the driveway is perfect. Have a friend drive while you’re in the back doing the conditioning. Eventually, you can switch it up and have your friend condition your dog while you drive around the block. Keep increasing the length of time in the moving car to get your dog slowly adjusted.

Every dog is different and will move through this process at his own pace. Observe your dog closely and, if he starts showing signs of stress at any point, go back to the previous step, ensure he is comfortable with that, and then move forward again.

Carsick dogs

Dogs experience car sickness for a number of reasons – stress, motion or unequal pressure in the car. There are a couple things you can try:

  • Looking out the side window could trigger a balance issue with your dog when she sees everything rushing by at high speed. Try using a crate in the back seat and locate it on the floor so your dog can’t see outside the car, or cover the crate with a light blanket (leaving the front uncovered) to limit what your dog can see.
  • Try opening the front window (while your dog is in the back seat) to equalize the pressure in the car. Have a vet check your dog’s ears for wax and keep them clear by using a canine ear wash.

If these solutions don’t help, try conditioning your dog to have a better experience over time. This cannot be accomplished instantly and should be done at a rate that is pleasant for your dog.

For safety

For your dog’s safety, it’s always a good idea to use a means of car restraint, and to prevent him from distracting you while driving. You can purchase a restraining harness (doggie seatbelt) or use a crate that is secured inside the back of the vehicle. If you choose to use a crate, please crate train your dog first so as you don’t add stress to the ride.



Jeff Anderson is the founder and owner of Interactive Dog. His philosophy is based on a respectful, bonding relationship that goes from trainer-to-dog and dog-to-trainer, and incorporates the teachings of Dr. Ian Dunbar, Karen Pryor and other leading behaviourists. He uses classical conditioning and clicker training, among other tools, to help dogs be the best they can be. Visit interactivedog.ca for more info.


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