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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Doggie Habits Annoying You? This Trick Is Spot On

Imagine how useful it would be if your puppy or dog knew that when you say, “Spot,” he should lie down and relax on his mat.

Teaching “Spot” means you won’t have to deal with your dog doing any of the following:

  • Going berserk when someone rings the doorbell
  • Sampling snacks off your coffee table
  • Hanging around the dinner table or under your baby’s high chair
  • Putting paws on the counter while you prepare a meal
  • Bothering your kids or guests while they are seated or standing
  • Pestering other pets in your household
  • Dropping toys in your lap while you try to relax after a hard day of earning money to buy dog treats
  • Jumping up on people you meet on the street
  • Straining and whining at other dogs or people in the veterinarian’s waiting room or in puppy class

None of those aggravating things can happen if your dog is lying quietly on a mat, so teaching this one skill will be of benefit to you in many ways. Your dog will benefit because he will earn plenty of rewards in the form of praise, petting, treats, a stuffed Kong, being included in more activities and having a chance to chill out.

Believe it or not, this is not advanced training. It’s the kind of basic skill (like sit or come) that any dog can learn.

You’ll need a bath mat to start (later you can transfer the skill to a mat as tiny as a washcloth, and just carry it with you!), soft yet non-crumbly treats in a contrasting color to the mat, and an indoor location free of distractions. Some practice teaching “down” is a bonus that will speed the process. Use a leash or train in a powder room if you think your pup may wander off.

Here’s how to teach it. For more details and troubleshooting tips see Puppy Savvy, and ask questions in the comments section below.

Session One

Have a few treats ready in your pocket. Be prepared to say “yes” and bowl the treat onto the mat as soon as your puppy looks at the mat. Why will he bother to look at it? Because you will start by spreading out the mat, standing two feet away and looking at it yourself. He will look, and you will reward immediately by saying “yes!” and tossing the treat onto the mat. When he is finished eating his tidbit, encourage him off the mat by patting your leg and saying “ok” (in the video I say “free,” which happens to be Ruby’s release word). Repeat 2-3 times.

The hardest part of this training is resisting the urge to convince your dog to look at the mat by pointing, leaning, or outright bribing with food. If you do this, the training will take ninety-two times longer, and his skills will never be as strong as they could have been. Just stand there and look at the mat. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Session Two

Warm up with a few reps of the above exercise. Then allow your pup to look at the mat, but don’t say a word. Just wait. His wheels will turn and he will walk over to the mat (because that’s where his reward has been magically appearing). When even one of his paws touches it, say “yes!” and feed him a treat. On each subsequent repetition, withhold your reward until another paw touches the mat (such that by the fourth repetition, he is leaving you, walking up to the mat, then putting all four paws on it).

Session Three

Start right where you left off. Spread out the mat and wait. Your pup will look at it, walk to it, and stand on it. Reward as usual. On the next repetition, count to one or two and then reward. Woo hoo! He went to his mat and stayed for two seconds. Now anything is possible! Repeat a few times, encouraging him off the mat in between repetitions.

Take a short break and play with a toy, or just run around the room and act silly together.

Back to training. Go near the mat. Wait. After he is standing on it, wait some more. Don’t say anything. He will likely plop his butt into a sit, because by now he’s figured out from your other training that sitting pays the big bucks, and that staying on the mat is also highly rewarding. Say “yes” and feed him several treats like it’s a big deal (which it is!).

Only do a few of those because the goal is for him to lie down, right?

Session Four

Repeat the last exercise, but this time wait for a down position (this will go quicker if you’ve already started teaching “down” separately). Instead of staring into the pup’s eyes, look at the spot you want his elbows to land. When he goes even partway into the down position, lavish him with praise and treats fed low between his front legs. Remember to release with “ok” before he has a chance to hop up.

Final Sessions

Now we make it look like real life. For the next few sessions, practice in several different places in the room. Then try your body in several different positions (sitting in a chair or lying on the couch—good practice for when you have the flu and don’t want your dog disturbing you). Work up to different rooms in the house and you standing at varying distances from the mat. Use awesome treats. If you get stuck at any point, try again, but do make it a wee bit easier if you get two failed attempts. 

When to say “Spot!”

When you can roll out the mat, in any room of your house, with you sitting or standing, from any distance you like, and your pup trots right on over to the mat and lies down, waiting for your release before he gets up (after a few seconds), then you are ready to add the magic word to cue him to go there. Just say, “Spot!” right as he’s about to do it and he’ll start to associate the word with the action he already knows.

You can add to the length of time he is able to stay there by counting more seconds before you feed his treat in the down position.

Soon he’ll be lying there for 30 minutes at a pop, perhaps enjoying a chewy while you have cocktails with your friends. It might even make you nostalgic for the days when he was so young and naïve, all cute and eager to learn this handy, new trick.

Don’t Throw the Puppy Out With the Bathwater: Body Handling in the Age of Hands-Off Dog Training

Dog training has become more sophisticated and much kinder. Now we can take into account the science behind how dogs learn, what they are capable of, their individual personalities, and how their learning experience can and should be one free of coercion, pain or fear of consequences.

This is wonderful, no doubt about it. It is the right thing to do to extend the same respect and empathy to others, including dogs, which we would want shown to us if we were learning something new.

In fact, it is possible to teach virtually any skill or trick without ever laying a hand on your dog. Dogs are great at puzzling things out and, generally speaking, stronger and more reliable training comes from letting the dog put the pieces together without us pushing, pulling, or punishing, but rather rewarding incremental progress toward a finished behavior. (Just like being pushed on a swing does not teach a little kid how to “pump,” however if left to experiment with shifting their weight and kicking, they figure out what to do with their body to make the swing go. Click here for more on this type of training.)

But…we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because we don’t use our hands for physical coercion in training any longer does not mean dogs are never faced with human hands coming at them. Puppies and dogs cope with human hands petting, holding, restraining, grooming, lifting, grabbing and touching in all kinds of ways. We should take care to prepare them for lots of different types of body handling, especially now that our training has become so hands-off.

Can you imagine how strange it would seem to have someone brush your teeth, take blood from your arm, or put ointment on your head if you were never shown how benign, even pleasant, touch can be? You might become afraid, strongly object, or develop stronger and stronger defensive reactions over time. Some of us might just judo chop the other person right off the bat.

Let’s not put our dog in this position, feeling like they have to flee or fight when faced with everyday touch, handling and restraint. It is so simple to accustom dogs to body handling, and our dogs are counting on us for help with this. I imagine not only your dog, but your dog’s veterinarian, his groomer and his class instructor will appreciate it as well.

Get started with this short video lesson that shows Parts I and II (of III). For full instructions and how to adapt the process for Bold or Bashful puppies, see Puppy Savvy.

Many thanks to Sandi and Logan the Dreamboat for their help with this video lesson.