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Desensitizing the Car Experience

Do you find yourself panting and moving around the car when your hooman takes you for a road trip? How about stubbornly pulling back when your hooman walks with you towards the car? Let’s be honest, do car rides make you scared?

A while ago Mom started to notice a pattern with my behavior every time she took me for a ride in the Mini Cooper. The routine started at home, whenever she said “Let’s Go!” I’d react extremely excited and followed her on leash toward the garage. She’d open the car door and ask me to jump inside, only to be met with my hesitation. I used to freeze-up, not wanting to go in. Back then it was not unusual for my mom to be late to wherever she was going, so she’d give up easily, pick me up and put me inside the car herself, rather than wait for me to work with her.

Because I like to be close to mom, my preferred spot has typically been the passenger seat right next to her. But as soon as I started getting comfy Mom would start driving and suddenly my anxiety started to build up again. By the time she hit the freeways I found myself panting, drooling and fidgeting around the car, trying to jump on Mom’s lap, seeking comfort.

The car rides became a nightmare for me and it also became apparent that they brought a lot more stress to Mom. Not only was she struggling due to possibly being late, but my behavior added to her stress and made her nervous and even distracted her from paying attention to the road. In an effort to calm me down, Mom would place her right hand on my head and pet me while using her left hand to steer the wheel. Sadly this multitasking skill didn’t help either. As you can see, this was not an ideal scenario on many levels, for neither of us.

Most hoomans might think that it’s normal for dogs to get stressed out during car rides and there are a lot of products out there to ease dog anxiety as a result of this. Believe me, Mom tried them all - on me of course. But they didn’t work.

If you give this scenario a deeper look, you’ll realize the actions that needed to change:

1. Mom saying “Let’s Go!” in a very excited tone while getting my leash built up my energy, so I left the house extremely excited mostly thinking we were going for a fun walk rather than for an anxious car ride.

2. The fact that Mom was running late already created stressful energy for her, which by default also affected me.

3. When I didn’t follow Mom’s request to jump inside the car because I was scared of car rides, she’d pick me up instead. In my eyes being picked up by mom is a “Reward”. As a result, Mom was basically rewarding my fear of the car ride experience.

4. In the car I rode around without a seatbelt! This clearly made it even easier for me to move around the car, reacting to my stress and making Mom feeling nervous while driving.

5. Petting me while I was already in an anxious state, Mom was unintentionally rewarding my stressful behavior, further reinforcing this continued behavior.

Interesting right? It definitely took a lot of trial and error before Mom learned to modify our unwanted behaviors.

So, furriends, as a good rehab'd Chihuahua, I’d like to share my "8 Car Trip Guidelines" with your hoomans so that next time they take you on a roadtrip you feel safe and calm, which I believe should be the GOAL in mind.

1. When scheduling plans that involve a car trip with your dog, schedule them in your mobile calendar with a notification reminder, adding at least 30 minutes before your drive time with your dog.

2. Before putting on the leash and leaving the house, ask your dog to sit in a calm manner. Once your dog listens and is calm, you can put the leash/harness on and walk out the door. Remove words and sounds that create excitement.

3. WALK YOUR DOG before going for a car ride. At least 15 - 30 minutes. This is their way to release stress, to go potty, sniff around, stretch their bodies and feel like dogs :)

4. Approach the car from a place of confidence, showing your dog that is safe to go inside the car. Before you open the car door, make sure your dog is calm (no panting, excited or pulling). Ask your dog to sit next to the car and stay by his/her side breathing softly. When your dog is calm, open the car door and only ask him/her to jump inside once you see that they are calm.

5. If you have a large dog, buy them a harness that attaches to the car seatbelt. If you have a small dog, consider a car booster. They can easily be attached to the seat belt as well. The safest place for your dog to sit inside the car is behind the passenger seat. This will give you peace of mind while driving and provide safety to your beloved dog.

6. If your dog becomes anxious during the ride and is making you feel stressed out, STOP the car and pull over! Breathe, don’t yell or be upset with your dog. It’s your responsibility to provide a calm environment so that your dog can feel safe.

7. Practice these steps at night or over the weekend when you are not in a rush to go somewhere. The more times you repeat it, the better the results.

8. If you have a pattern of being late, start changing it. Tardiness is a negative behavior that creates stress for you and your dog. Not to mention those waiting for you at the other end. Work on your habit and see how everything turns for the best.

Practice definitely makes perfect. Mom and I continuously work on these steps and I’m happy to report that I now enjoy our car rides. Because I don’t feel anxious any more, Mom leaves treats in my car booster and I enjoy eating them while heading to our new adventures.

If all else fails, remember the following quote: “If the plan doesn’t work, change the plan, not the goal”.

Love & Paws,


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