Car travel with your dog – a dream or a nightmare?

June 29, 2022

Dogs misbehaving in the car can drive you around the bend! We often hear of dogs that make taking them anywhere by car a total misery, as they bark, whine or howl, jump about and pant continuously or get car sick. 
There are several main causes and working out why it is happening makes it possible to deal with it. This is not as difficult to cure as you may think!

Why does my dog misbehave in the car?    

Is Your Dog Fearful? 
One group of dogs is fearful of car travel because they have travel sickness. This is caused by continual rocking movement of the vehicle and the rapid passing of outside scenery.

This is similar to travel sickness experienced by people and many dogs thus affected will be nauseous and will vomit. This is not a pleasant experience for man or dog!


Perhaps your dog is overexcited by all the commotion that car travel involves. This can be caused by the excitement and commotion when preparing to leave, the joyful prediction of the fun of the destination; and the continual flickering movement of the scenery passing at 50 or 60 mph (a very unnatural speed for even the fastest of dogs!)
This could be making your dog ecstatic and it may be barking, whining and pacing for the whole car trip.

What About Territorial Aggression? 

Do you feel your dog is too territorial in the car and is being aggressive?

For some dogs, the car is an extension of their home range. When they see other dogs and or people passing, the dogs become territorial and will bark and growl, often quite ferociously. 

Some breeds have more problems

While all dogs can become sensitive to car travel, ‘visually-coded' working dogs, especially border collies, lurchers, terriers and cattle dogs.  Dogs of these types are very reactive to movement. That is why such dogs are useful for herding of cattle or sheep or hunting.
When in a car, they cannot fail to become over-stimulated by the continual movement of objects that flick by quicker than a supercharged sheep!

Travel sickness can be controlled, and lots of little journeys, or even practice sitting in the stationary car can help to reduce the fear by giving good experiences in the car. For travel sickness sufferers, chewing often has an anti-vomiting effect. Try giving the dogs a hide chew or pig’s ear to chew on while you are travelling. This will distract the dog, make it happier about car travel and has at least some stomach-settling effect. Moving them forwards in the car, and lower down can help them not to see the outside flick by, and reduce the rocking movement. Small dogs are often happiest in the front seat foot well.

A new motion sickness medication, Cerenia, is available from your vet. It is non-drowsy and has been shown to work for 12 hours, so there is some flexibilty in administration.

Treating car stress can be very tricky if for no other reason that when in the car, your duty is to drive safely.
You can't do this if you are also trying to make your dog sit, stay and shut up at the same time! Nevertheless, the following processes should resolve the problem.

Obscuring Vision. Firstly, because most of the stimulation for your dog's misbehaviour is the visual overload it experiences, try obscuring its vision outside the vehicle.

For small to medium-sized dogs, this is most safely achieved by having the dog in a draped transport cage or crate with semi-solid sides. With the dog in the cage, it cannot see through the windows.

You an also condition your dog to love the cage when it is at home so that it is more likely to enjoy the car when travelling inside the crate on the back seat. This also works well for many cats.

For big dogs, try tethering them with a harness as low as possible in the car. Attach this to the centre of the back seat or to the middle of the boot so they cannot get to the windows.

Positive Training
You can also try to modify your dog's behaviour by progressively desensitising it to car travel. The goal is to create calm behaviour away from the car first. Teach your dog by constant repetitions and reward to lie quietly on mat at home, using the same commands each time – like “Go to bed”, and then “Stay” and “Come”, gradually increasing the time he can do it for! Once this is working well, move the mat to the car’s back seat. Reward your dog for calm behaviour when it is in the stationary car with the doors open, and then with the door closed, then try a short trip and gradually increase the length of the trips as your dog learns to remain calm. It can take several days of regular repetitions and slow introduction of each stage.

In this manner, you are continually rehearsing the behaviour you want your dog to show when you are driving in the car, and your dog is enjoying it.
If your dog starts to get restless, immediately stop the car and command GO TO BED.
Wait for the calm behaviour to return, reward this behaviour, and continue with your therapeutic car trip.
Sure such processes are time consuming, but for many madly manic motorcar mutts this is the only way of getting them to over their travel terror! 

Will pheromones help?   
The use of collars soaked in Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) has proven effective. It has a calming effect on many dogs and can help if used while travelling.

Medication can be helpful in some cases.
For some dogs with entrenched habits, medication can be practical way of helping manage the problem. While some dogs may only require medication for the nausea, others may need quick-acting anti-anxiety medications. These can help to calm the situation while training techniques are used to get them used to enjoying the car.

If you are not sure what your own dog’s problem is then ask for help and advice – there is a lot that we can do to make travel fun for you and your dog!

Kate Carmichael MRCVS Flett & Carmichael Vets