Car Karma: Solutions for Dogs Who Go Barking Mad On Car Rides

A covered crate helped this puppy relax in the car rather than erupt in barking at the sight of pedestrians or dogs.
A covered crate helped this puppy relax in the car rather than bark at pedestrians or dogs.

Imagine that you’re driving down the road with your best four-legged buddy. Sporadically you see him in the rearview mirror as he watches the world go by. All is well, that is until you pull up to a stop light. A pedestrian comes into view, perhaps walking a dog. Your stomach clenches; you know the jig is up. Fido goes berserk, barking, lunging, and covering the back window with slime. Your peaceful outing just became a hair-raising, aggravating and potentially very distracting driving experience. Your dog probably doesn’t feel all that great either.

It turns out that being confined sometimes makes otherwise easy-going dogs feel vulnerable, so they get their britches in a bunch when they see people or dogs outside the car and drama ensues. The object of their annoyance goes away when the pedestrian moves on or the light turns green and your car moves on, coincidences that potentially reinforce your dog’s overreaction (as though overreacting was what made the person go away) and make it likelier that a pattern is born.

If you have kids in the backseat, your dog may unwittingly smush or scrape them in his uproar. He may even be one who, frustrated and unable to reach his intended object, seeks an alternative onto which to redirect his emotional outburst, resulting in a bite to your child or another dog traveling with you.

Fortunately, you don’t have to live like this any longer. If you put just a little good energy into it, you will reap the karmic reward of a zen-like driving experience with your dog.

The following tips are designed for dogs who engage in this behavior only in the car, not when they actually meet people in real life (which calls for in-person professional assistance). Readers of Puppy Savvy will recognize the range of training options to choose from: Quick Fix, Make it Stick, or Extra Slick. As always, each previous level builds on the last, but you can choose any level you wish and stay there depending on how much time and energy you have.

Quick Fix

Drape a lightweight sheet over your dog’s crate so he can’t see things that upset him (this is a fine time to start crating your dog in the car if you don’t already, after introducing it indoors first). If needed, arrange a folded blanket underneath the crate to create stability. Boom. Done.

Make It Stick

Let your dog enjoy a stuffed Kong on each car trip. This will help replace his old habit of patrolling out the window to a new habit of relaxing while lying down. The long-lasting goodies will likely create a pleasant association with the car, and give your dog an outlet for any nervous energy he may have in the car. (He should be crated and covered as above.) Why not stuff and freeze the number of Kongs you’ll need at the beginning of the week? Then you can just grab-and-go.

Fifteen minutes before you leave the house, spray the bedding in your dog’s car crate with Adaptil spray. This can have a calming effect on dogs , especially those who react to challenging situations by barking. Or just use the Adaptil leave-on collar. (It’s thin, lightweight, and relatively inexpensive.) It can make a dramatic difference for some dogs.

If for some reason your dog cannot be crated, accustom him to wearing a calming cap (which reduces vision) during mealtimes at home, then transfer its use gradually to the car.

Extra Slick

Teach your dog to go to his spot on cue. This trick has so many uses around the house, once you teach it you’ll wonder how you lived without it. If your dog can relax on a dog bed or mat at home, and stay there for the time of an average car trip…you guessed it! He can stay on the mat in the car. Some dogs relish a job to concentrate on. This job will replace the old, upsetting habit of barking at passersby. As an added bonus, Go to Your Spot promotes relaxation and prohibits your pooch from gawking out the window.

To transfer it to the car, use the same mat you used indoors, at first rewarding him as usual with the car parked. Here’s the nifty part: to reward your dog with the car in motion, you’ll need a method that is both safe (since you’re driving and not training your dog at the same time) and efficient (since a sheet is covering the crate, it won’t be possible to toss a treat to him. And the thrown treat would likely bounce away if your luck is anything like mine). What is called for here is the world’s gentlest pea-shooter. Measure the length from the console between the front seats and slightly into your dog’s crate. Have a home improvement store cut a length of skinny PVC pipe, with a wide enough diameter for you to get a scrumptious-yet-dry treat like a Buddy Biscuit soft treat to roll down through the pipe. Make a cut in the crate sheet to pass the pipe into the crate, affix with a clothespins or twist ties, and angle it such that you can easily pop a treat in at your end and have it roll out for your dog on his end (I first heard this clever idea from agility trainer Melanie Miller). Then you can transfer your normal reward process into your travel set-up by stashing a cup of treats in the car’s cup holder. Use your normal reward word and pop a treat into the pea-shooter!

Somewhat more fancy training with professional help would involve teaching relaxation exercises and a Look At That game to your dog, which you then transfer to the car. But you may be pleasantly surprised at how well the above tips work.

Using any of these options, your dog may graduate to uncovered car rides, but it’s perfectly okay to use the Quick Fix as your sole method, indefinitely. Better that your dog should enjoy fun outings with you than be left at home because you feel the Extra Slick training is required. I hereby absolve you of that burden.

I’ll be interested to hear what success you’ve had with other gentle methods that curb this vexing issue. Happy training!

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