Managing Car Anxiety in Dogs A Comprehensive Guide

Dog sitting calmly in a car, looking out the window

A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding and Managing Car Anxiety in Dogs


Understanding the Origins of Car Anxiety

Every behavior in dogs, including anxiety, has an origin. Whether it’s an evolutionary trait, an individual experience, or a combination of both, understanding the root cause helps tailor the solution.

Puppyhood experiences

Young puppies have malleable minds, and their early experiences can set the tone for their adult behavior. A puppy that hasn’t been introduced to car rides in a positive manner may grow up associating the car with unfamiliarity or fear (Coren, 2001).

Reference: Coren, S. (2001). How Dogs Think: Understanding the Canine Mind. Free Press.

Past negative experiences

Dogs remember negative experiences, and a traumatic event associated with a car – like an accident, a visit to the vet, or being left alone – can lead to long-lasting anxiety.

Natural predisposition

Some dog breeds or individual temperaments may be more prone to anxiety than others, suggesting a genetic or inherent component to the behavior (Overall, 2000).

Reference: Overall, K. L. (2000). Natural animal models of human psychiatric conditions: assessment of mechanism and validity. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 24(5), 727-776.

Physical Aspects of Car Rides

Understanding a dog’s sensory experiences during car rides can provide insights into potential anxiety triggers.

Perception of motion and noise

Dogs have different sensory perceptions compared to humans. The motion of the car, combined with the sounds of traffic and the engine, can be overwhelming for some dogs (Horowitz, 2009).

Reference: Horowitz, A. (2009). Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. Scribner.

Comfortable seating and temperature

Just like humans, dogs need to feel physically comfortable during the journey. A dog sliding around the backseat or feeling too hot/cold can contribute to anxiety.

Effects of long vs. short trips

The frequency and duration of trips can have different impacts on a dog’s anxiety level. Regular short trips to fun destinations can help in desensitizing and conditioning the dog positively towards car rides.

Dietary and Nutritional Solutions

Food and nutrition play a more significant role in a dog’s behavior than most pet parents realize. The right diet and specific supplements can potentially soothe anxiety during car rides.

Calming Treats and Supplements

There are several products on the market, both natural and pharmaceutical, formulated to calm dogs. Ingredients like chamomile, valerian root, and L-Theanine are known to have calming effects on dogs (Landsberg, Hunthausen & Ackerman, 2013).

CALM DOGS The World's Best Calming Aid for Dog Anxiety


Reference: Landsberg, G., Hunthausen, W., & Ackerman, L. (2013). Behavior Problems of the Dog and Cat. Elsevier Health Sciences.

Effect of Feeding Schedules

Feeding a dog right before a car ride can exacerbate motion sickness, which can elevate anxiety. On the other hand, a hungry dog might also feel more anxious. Thus, it’s vital to find a balance – perhaps feeding them a light meal an hour or two before the trip.

Holistic Therapies

In addition to traditional methods, holistic therapies can offer non-invasive options to help dogs with car anxiety.


Certain essential oils, like lavender, have shown potential calming effects on dogs. However, they should always be used in consultation with a vet, as some oils can be toxic to dogs (Graham, Wells & Hepper, 2005).

Reference: Graham, L., Wells, D. L., & Hepper, P. G. (2005). The influence of olfactory stimulation on the behavior of dogs housed in a rescue shelter. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 91(1-2), 143-153.

Music Therapy

Studies suggest that certain types of music, especially classical, can have a calming effect on dogs. Playing gentle tunes during car rides might help some dogs relax (Bowman, Dowell & Evans, 2017).

Reference: Bowman, A., Dowell, F. J., & Evans, N. P. (2017). The effect of different genres of music on the stress levels of kennelled dogs. Physiology & Behavior, 171, 207-215.

Massage Techniques

Like humans, dogs can also benefit from the soothing effects of a good massage. Specific massage techniques can help relax a dog before a potentially stressful car ride.

Training Techniques

Training is an essential tool in reshaping any unwanted behavior in dogs, including car anxiety. A structured approach combined with consistency can offer positive outcomes.

Gradual Desensitization

Gradual desensitization involves exposing the dog to the source of its anxiety in small, manageable doses, increasing the exposure as the dog becomes more comfortable. Car anxiety, could start with simply sitting in the car without it moving, progressing to short trips around the block, and then longer journeys as the dog becomes more accustomed (McMillan, 2016).

Reference: McMillan, F. D. (2016). Behavioral and psychological outcomes for dogs sold as puppies through pet stores and/or born in commercial breeding establishments: Current knowledge and putative causes. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 16, 13-26.

Positive Reinforcement

Always reward positive behavior. If the dog gets into the car without showing signs of distress, they should be praised and given a treat. This reinforces the idea that good things happen when they get into the car. Over time, this positive association can help alleviate anxiety (Zak, 2017).

Reference: Zak, J. (2017). Dog Training Revolution. Ten Speed Press.

Cues or Commands

Having a set of commands that the dog is familiar with can be useful during car rides. Commands like “settle” or “quiet” can provide direction to the dog when it starts showing signs of distress.

Case Studies

Real-life experiences can often offer invaluable insights. Here are hypothetical examples based on common scenarios:

Bella’s Story: Bella, a 3-year-old Golden Retriever, had a severe car accident when she was a puppy. This traumatic experience led to her deep-seated fear of car rides. Through a combination of gradual desensitization and positive reinforcement, Bella’s pet parents were able to help her overcome her fears over time.

Max’s Journey: Max, a Dachshund, was adopted from a shelter. His new pet parents soon realized that he would become extremely anxious and aggressive during car rides. After consulting with a behaviorist, they learned about the benefits of music therapy. Playing soft classical tunes during drives helped Max relax and even sleep during longer journeys

Medications: When and How to Consider Them

Disclaimer: The following section provides general information on medications sometimes used for dog anxiety. It is crucial to understand that the writer is not a veterinarian, nor does this article serve as medical advice. Always consult with a licensed veterinarian before making any decisions regarding medication for your pet.

In some severe cases of car anxiety, behavioral interventions, and natural remedies might not suffice. Medication becomes a potential option to consider, but it should always be a last resort and approached with caution.

Vet Consultation: The First Step

Before any medication is given, it is crucial to consult with a veterinarian. They will conduct a thorough assessment of the dog’s health, weigh the pros and cons, and determine if medication is indeed the right choice (Horwitz, 2008).

Reference: Horwitz, D. F. (2008). Behavioral and environmental factors associated with canine anxiety. Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice, 38(5), 1063-1076.

Common Medications Used for Dog Anxiety

Several medications can be prescribed for anxiety in dogs:

  • Benzodiazepines: Such as diazepam (Valium), are sometimes prescribed for dogs to relieve anxiety. However, they come with potential side effects like lethargy or increased appetite.
  • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs): Fluoxetine (Prozac) is an example of an SSRI used to treat chronic anxiety in dogs.
  • Tricyclic Antidepressants: Drugs like Clomipramine can be used for situational anxiety in dogs, including car anxiety.

All these drugs have potential side effects, and the risk versus benefit should be thoroughly assessed (Overall, 2007).

Reference: Overall, K. L. (2007). Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats. Elsevier Health Sciences.

Monitoring and Adjustments

If a decision is made to medicate, constant monitoring is essential. Any signs of side effects or unusual behavior should be promptly reported to the vet. Furthermore, dosage adjustments may be required based on the dog’s response to the medication.

Proactive Measures: Prevention Over Cure

While it’s essential to address existing anxiety, preventing the onset of car anxiety is equally vital for new dog pet parents or those with puppies.

Early Introduction: The Puppy Phase

Introducing puppies to car rides in a positive, calm environment can set the stage for a lifetime of stress-free travel. Short, enjoyable trips, paired with treats and praises, can create a positive association from the start.

Consistency is Key

Maintaining a consistent routine around car rides can help. This includes using the same commands, sticking to a particular seating arrangement, and ensuring the car’s environment remains as consistent as possible.

Social Exposure

Dogs that are well-socialized and exposed to various experiences from a young age are generally more adaptable and less prone to anxiety (Appleby, Bradshaw & Casey, 2002).

Reference: Appleby, D., Bradshaw, J. W. S., & Casey, R. A. (2002). The relationship between problematic behaviour patterns and age, duration of pet guardianshipship, training techniques and other behaviour patterns in the domestic dog. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 7(2), 77-83.

Seeking Professional Help: The Role of Behavioral Experts

While many dog pet parents are equipped to manage minor behavioral issues, the expertise of a professional can be invaluable in more challenging cases of car anxiety.

Behavioral Consultants vs. Trainers

While both are essential in the dog world, there’s a distinction between certified dog behavior consultants and trainers. Dog trainers primarily focus on teaching dogs specific behaviors or commands. On the other hand, behavior consultants specialize in understanding, managing, and modifying problematic or undesirable behaviors in dogs (Horwitz & Mills, 2009).

Reference: Horwitz, D., & Mills, D. (2009). BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine. British Small Animal Veterinary Association.

Benefits of Seeking Professional Guidance

  1. Personalized Plans: A behavioral consultant can craft a tailored approach based on the dog’s unique behavioral patterns, triggers, and reactions.
  2. In-depth Analysis: With their expertise, they can often identify underlying causes or issues that might be overlooked by the average dog pet parents.
  3. Continuous Support: As with any behavioral modification, challenges can arise. Having professional support can provide reassurance and guidance during such times.

When to Consider Professional Help

  1. When previous interventions haven’t shown significant improvement.
  2. If the dog’s anxiety is so severe that it poses a risk to itself or others.
  3. When the pet parents feel overwhelmed or unsure about how to proceed.

Towards Happier Car Rides

Car anxiety in dogs is a multifaceted issue that requires patience, understanding, and sometimes professional intervention. By recognizing the signs early, employing various techniques, and remaining consistent, dog pet parents can significantly improve their pets’ experiences during car rides. The journey to overcoming this anxiety is often gradual, but the destination – a relaxed, happy dog that enjoys car adventures – is worth every bit of effort.