Dear Beast Mode,
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that my 4-year-old German shepherd–husky mix grew up in the car. From his earliest puppy days, he always came along for lengthy road trips and nearby errands no problem. However, in the past year or so, a switch has flipped in his brain where he is now tremendously anxious and unhappy in the car. He is pushy about getting in the passenger’s seat (whether someone is sitting there or not), but even when he’s up there, he is obviously very uncomfortable.
This breaks my heart! It is inevitable that he will have to ride in the car at least once a week. He now rides with treats, toys, and his bed, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference. I have tried sedating him, but I worry about the long-term effects. Is there anything I can do to help my best buddy ride a little easier?
—The Fast and the Furry-ous
Dear The Fast and the Furry-ous,
The best, most permanent fix I can recommend relies on collectively stigmatizing automobile travel to help shift America’s priorities away from car-based infrastructure and toward sustainable public transportation. Unfortunately, this may take a few too many dog years to be an effective solution for your pup. Even if that weren’t the case, he still might not enjoy riding the light rail.
It’s pretty amazing that any dog is willing to endure car travel in the first place. Cars combine so many things they hate—noise, unpredictable movements, not being made of cheese—but dogs rarely have a choice in the matter. Your pooch’s automotive anxiety isn’t going to go away on its own. The only hope is for you to be a patient chauffeur.
“A lot of people want a quick fix, but with behavior there is no such thing,” Courtney Briggs, owner of Devoted Dog Training, tells me. While it may seem like your dog started to hate the car overnight, that’s not really how it works. “There’s no switch,” Briggs says. He’s likely been stressed in the car for a while, and he’s just exhibiting his anxiety in more noticeable ways now.
“Dogs don’t have a right or wrong,” Briggs says. “They have safety or danger, and when something’s dangerous they’re trying to get to safety.” In other words, your buddy likely believes the car is a very bad place, and being stuck inside it only makes matters worse.
To get him to relax during car trips, you’ll need to first get him comfortable when you’re not even moving. Sit with him in the car for five-minute intervals, and don’t turn the engine on. Give him his favorite treats and try to make the environment as pleasant as possible. If he starts to get anxious, calmly take him back inside so he thinks he has some control over that “flight” response.
Consider these driveway moments as flight simulations. He’s learning all his controls so he won’t be taken off-guard when it’s go time. Once he’s able to relax in the car with the engine off, sit with him while it’s idling. Once he gets used to that, graduate to short trips around the block.
During these sessions, make sure your dog has long-lasting treats to keep him busy. You can also give him a thunder shirt to help with the stress. (Briggs recommends that you, the human, wear it overnight so it soaks up that nice person smell dogs love so much.) There are even soundtracks that can help calm your pup; a series called Through a Dog’s Ear was recorded just for this purpose. The songs are simple piano compositions, and they make for good driving music with or without the pooch. I’m listening to it right now, and my dog is conked out on the couch. (This may be a case of correlation over causation, so feel free to ignore this data point if you want.)
Mainly, you’ll want to make your dog realize that he’s safe in the car. Sedatives are a mixed bag, and I’d defer to your veterinarian’s advice in administering them. There are alternatives, however. Briggs mentions CBD oil as a safe tool to help your pup as he’s learning to relax. You can buy tinctures that are just for dogs, and Briggs says these work as a mild training aide. (Edible CBD treats, unlike oils, go through the dog’s digestive system and may not be as effective.) The oil won’t knock him out, and that’s a good thing. “[CBD] is not psychoactive, so the dog can think through whatever he’s doing in the moment,” Briggs says. “It’s not changing its thought process at all.”
Your dog has a long road ahead, and he needs you to be his calm driver on this journey. Humans often rush into car rides (as evidenced by everyone who’s ever shaved, put on makeup, or eaten breakfast behind the wheel), but he’s on a different timeline. Stay in the slow lane for a while. Your co-pilot will let you know when he has the all-clear.