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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The Bowl of Happiness

The Bowl of Happiness
The Bowl of Happiness

I last left you with the advice to never let your puppy out of his confinement area, crate or tether without first having a specific answer to the question, “What will I give the puppy to do next that will set him up to succeed? What game, project, training session, edible toy or other ‘coloring book’ will I offer right off the bat?”

Yet it is one thing to remember to ask yourself this question, but how will you know how to answer it?

The answer to this question will depend on what your puppy likes, your mood, what you have time for, and even the weather. Perhaps you would like to teach the pup to play fetch or go to his spot. Maybe you would rather tether the pup with a stuffed Kong while you finish some emails. Or perhaps a puppy field trip would be a good choice to provide socialization and get you both out of the house.

Now, maybe you are like most people, who have a lot of things on their minds and don’t want to spend their days memorizing puppy games to pull out of thin air in a pinch. I’ve gotta say, that seems reasonable. I find it helpful to write each puppy-occupying game, skill or chew toy on a small piece of paper, put all the slips of paper in a bowl near the puppy’s crate, and fish one out before I release the puppy. I call this the Bowl of Happiness.

What’s that you say, you don’t have time to sit around writing down games on little slips of paper? Again, who could blame you! Not to worry, I have done it for you. Just click on the Bowl of Happiness image (above or on the Puppy Savvy page). You’ll find ready-to-cut-out tips to keep your puppy occupied. Draw one of these slips of paper from a bowl and you’ll have a plan before you risk letting the pooch run wild. These are things you may already have handy or know about; the rest are Magic Wand strategies, Life Lessons and Training Skills described in Puppy Savvy.

Presto! Even with a puppy in your house you can have peace, quiet and happiness. Ahhh…

What to do with a Kong

(This puppy is licking goodies out of her Kong instead of fussing during down-time at puppy class.)

If you have a new dog, especially a puppy or teenage dog, I bet everyone is telling you to get a Kong. Dog trainers are wild about Kongs, your veterinarian may even sell them in the waiting room, and every pet store stocks them in all sizes.

But let’s be honest, you have looked at a Kong and wondered what the big deal is. Maybe you even purchased one and brought it home. You put it in front of your pooch expecting a small miracle to occur. But your dog just sniffed it and walked away. You can’t help thinking, “Now what? Why all the hype?”

The truth is, the Kong is just a hunk of hollow rubber, unless you start thinking like a dog. Dogs like games and puzzles that engage their amazing brains. They need to use their powerful sniffers, their paws, and their jaws to scavenge and extract food from tricky places. The Kong is designed to make all of this physical and mental challenge happen in a way that does not involve your furniture, rugs, shoes, undies or other potential objects of fascination.

If your dog could talk, he or she would ask you to please stuff the Kong parfait-style: some smelly, gooey stuff in the tip (like cheese or peanut butter), layered with some kibble, then something globby like part of a banana, layered with a few dog biscuits or leftovers from last night’s supper (veggies are great, no cooked bones or toxic stuff, please), topped off with something easy to get started, like more peanut butter.

Now you’re on to something!

That should keep your dog quiet in the crate, or occupied while you prepare dinner or watch Dancing With the Stars (in which case you obviously cannot lower your eyes from the TV, even for a moment). You also get Good Dog Owner points for providing an outlet for your dog’s daily behavioral needs.

Fancy versions of this (because I know your dog is above-average smart):

  • Jam everything in as tight as possible by using the back of a knife
  • Prepare the Kong, then freeze it
  • Prepare the Kong, then nuke it for 15 seconds or so
  • Feed all regular meals as stuffed Kongs (use just a dab of PB mixed in to hold everything together)
  • Make multiple Kongs ahead of time (refrigerate) and hide them around the room/house before you leave

Yes, it’s gross, but your dog really will get every last morsel out (if not, adjust the difficulty by stuffing looser and using less goo). I put mine in the top rack of my dishwasher and, voila, they are sterilized and ready for another round. And I’ve had the same bloomin’ Kongs for 15 years.

If your dog has mack daddy chewing power, get the black Kong. If your dog is a girl, or boy, and color-coding is important to you, get the pink or blue Kong. But please, get a Kong. Your dog will love you for it. While your dog is munching away, please share your recipes, success stories and questions and comments below. There is likely another dog owner out there who would learn from your experience.

Housetraining Hint #4–last one!

It is time to wrap up the weekly series of housetraining hints. I had a few tips in mind, but it became obvious which one to share when a big issue came up several times in training appointments this past week. The trouble rears its head when you think you are a roll; house training is going well overall, yet you continue to find occasional puddles or piles your dog has left behind. If this is what you’ve been going through, then this hint is for you:

Until your dog is house trained, do not allow her to roam unsupervised indoors.wolfpeeing

That means your dog should be outdoors being praised the moment she finishes doing her business, indoors in her crate, or indoors under your direct supervision. This means you can see her every moment and you know exactly what she is doing between potty opportunities. If you get involved with your kids, your other dog, a phone call, or your computer, your dog can slip behind a piece of furniture, into the next room or find a little-used room (like a guest room or the dining room) to relieve herself.

Contrary to popular belief, she is not being sneaky, rather, she is trying to keep the areas in which you eat and socialize clean by going off to do her business. Don’t put her in that position and create housetraining problems. Make sure you can see her, so that if she gets restless and you suspect she may need to go, you can quickly get her outside to continue to build on success. In order to watch her closely enough, you may need to close doors, use baby gates or an exercise pen, or tether her near you with a chew toy to keep her busy. It’s a small, and very temporary, inconvenience for the peace of mind you’ll have knowing you’re on your way to a house trained dog.

Crate Training

Today is one of those days I’m glad my dog loves her crate. She is not a puppy, she has been house trained for years, and she doesn’t destroy anything in the house. But  boy am I glad I taught her to love her crate years ago, because today she needs to be in her crate. She injured herself while playing yesterday, and I have made an appointment for her to see her veterinarian today. In the meantime, she needs to rest comfortably and not move around.

Depending on what treatment she may need, she may have to spend time in a small cage at the vet clinic. safetyzone0004When you think about it, that’s very much like a crate. Yet another reason I am glad she feels relaxed about being confined to a small space like that; it will make her experience at the clinic that much more pleasant.

Finally, depending on what may be wrong, she may have to avoid activity for some number of days to come. And that means lots of time in her crate. But it won’t be a struggle and she won’t go stir crazy, because her crate is one of her favorite places. 

My dog is also used to riding in the crate in the car. This is safest for her (even a small fender bender could send her sailing through the windshield) and for me as the driver. For those with a baby or small children, the crate is the best place for your dog when you’re riding together in the car.

The crate also comes in handy when we visit friends and relatives, and we we stay in a hotel that accepts dogs. Because my dog likes her crate so much, I know she’ll be relaxed and at ease in the new environment because she can stay in her portable “room.” And I can avoid her getting into trouble or the embarrassment of her having chewed something up.

A crate can also double as a Safety Zone if you are have kids, if you are expecting visitors to your home who have kids, or if you are going to visit a household with children. Kids and their own dogs are in the highest risk group for dog bites (yes, they are at higher risk than postal workers or animal control officers), and a Safety Zone is an essential tool for decreasing the chances of a dog bite in your family.

Nowadays most people use a crate to house train a puppy or new dog, and to keep their pooch out of trouble when they can’t supervise. Crates are wonderful tools for both. Occasionally I encounter people who want to crate their dogs for hours on end, or who try to solve a serious problem like separation anxiety by keeping their dog in a crate. Those, of course, are ill advised and can border on abuse. 

How long can a dog reasonably be left in a crate (large enough to stand, turn around and lie down in)? The standard formula is hours = age in months plus one for puppies, with no dog spending more than about 5 hours at a time in their crate. (Picture being in a tiny coat closet for that long, with no way to relieve yourself, and you’ll see things from your dog’s point of view.)

Associate the crate with meals, treats, and feelings of calm (by building up the time gradually). Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re having trouble, since bad habits form quickly. I also think it’s helpful to put going into the crate on cue, so that you don’t have to push, carry or place your dog there. You can just say “crate”‘ and your dog will hop right in. To do that, hold your dog by the collar, facing the open crate. Toss a tidbit into the back of the crate. Pause. Say, “Crate,” and then (not at the same time) release the collar. Do that 6 or 7 times in a row. Then hold the collar, dog facing crate, say, “crate,” now watch your dog hop in and then toss the treat in to the back. Works like a charm. Be generous with rewards for a couple of weeks at least, and intermittently thereafter, and your “crate” cue will remain strong.

Provide a safe, edible chewy for your dog (see Busy Buddy toys in the links column to the right) when he’s relaxing in the crate. That prevents whining, keeps him occupied, and teaches him that wonderful things happen when he’s in his crate. You’ll be glad you put the effort into teaching your dog to love this valuable training and management tool. And long after he’s house trained, you will likely find all sorts of other uses for it.