Helping a dog enjoy riding

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 4/29/07
By: Gail T. Fisher

A reader asks: “My dog has pulled tendons in his rear leg, and cannot jump into the car. He doesn’t like to be picked up, or enticed to get in. Any suggestions for dealing with his reluctance to go for a ride?”

Part of this question jumped out at me: the dog doesn’t like to be enticed into the car. That makes me think he either doesn’t enjoy riding, or associates the car with pain. When a dog doesn’t enjoy a ride the car, it is usually for one of several reasons. He gets car sick, he has had a bad experience in the car that he’s generalized to riding, or he associates rides with something unpleasant. Let’s look at each, with some possible “cures.”

Some dogs, like people, get motion sickness. While many puppies outgrow it, a few don’t. Some dogs do better riding in a crate or the floor of a van without being able to see out the windows; while others do better looking out the window. Try giving the dog ginger, which settles the stomach. Try a few Ginger Snaps, to see if it helps. Sometimes car sickness isn’t motion-related, but is an emotional reaction to an unpleasant association with the car – the other reason for not enjoying a ride.

If the dog had a bad experience, such as a car accident or sudden stop that threw him onto the floor or against the dashboard – especially as a puppy – the dog may develop a generalized fear of the car. The same happens when a dog forms an association with car rides that nearly always end in something undesirable, like a trip to the vet. Consider if the only time you ever rode in the car was to visit the dentist. You’d likely dislike car rides, too.

Undesirable associations, whether from a generalized fear or from unpleasant destinations, may benefit from behavior modification to teach the dog that the car is a good thing, and that riding ends with fun. While you’re undertaking this program, avoid taking the dog for a ride until you’ve worked through it.

Start with the car parked, engine off, and all doors open. Encourage the dog to get in and immediately give him a treat – a really good one. If he won’t get in on his own, gently lift him in and give him the treat. After he eats the treat, let him get right out again if he wants to. If he doesn’t jump right out, give him a few more treats, then have him get out. Don’t reward him for getting out – that’s rewarding enough. Repeat this a few times, then take a break. Do this for as long as it takes for the dog to willingly and happily get in on his own, then go to Step 2.

Next, close the doors on one side, and repeat the exercise until he’s happily getting in. Next, close the doors, give him treats, open the doors and let him out. Next, turn on the engine while he’s in the car, give him treats; then turn the car off, let him out, and repeat it until he’s comfortable with the engine on. Then take a short drive – a really short one. Maybe just to the end of your driveway and back – or a short way down the street and back. Let him out when you get back home, and this time, play with him when he’s out of the car. The new message is after a car ride, there’s something fun to do.

Over time, increase the distance you drive, and include a stop along the way at a park or other fun spot where you can take the dog out to do something he likes such as go for a walk, play tug o’war, chase a ball, go for a swim, or something else enjoyable. Following this plan, your dog believes that going for a ride is fun – even if sometimes it does end up at the vet’s.

Finally, if the dog is in pain getting into the car, consider a ramp or steps that he can negotiate on his own. It’ll save your back, and your dog will appreciate it, too.

For his many friends: Britannia Sweet Talker – “Mayday” – February 2, 1992-April 24, 2007. Thank you for many wonderful years. You are loved.

Copyright © Gail T. Fisher, 2007. All rights reserved.
For permission to reprint this article or suggestions for future topics, please contact us.