Nervous energy is transferable. Do you agree? When you’ve got a nervous dog in the car, you can bet you can find yourself a bit on edge too, trying to make sure your dog is okay. So what do you do when your dog is rapidly panting, crying, and you’ve got 8 hours to get where you’re going? You can’t solve the anxiety right now, but you can make it better. Here’s 3 things to consider:
1) Seating Arrangements
First of all, you’ve got to place your dog just right. The safest place for your dog to sit is in the back seat, diagonal from the driver. This is perfect so you can easily glance back to see your dog, and your dog can see you. In the front seat, you’ve got the air bags to worry about. For a good car rider, this is ideal. However when you've got a nervous Nelly, there's a few things you need to think about.
What’s your dog’s anxiety level like? Are you going to spend more time looking back to make sure your dog is okay rather than looking at the road? Does moving your dog to the middle seat give you better access? Or, does your dog need to be in the front seat, next to you for lower anxiety levels all around?
Is it safer for you both to be up front together - so you can focus on the road and help calm your dog as needed? Would putting your dog in the back seat open up the possibility of your dog getting tangled up in the seatbelt and then you'd need to pull over? Or is the anxiety mild enough for your dog to be safe sitting in the back, and you'd still be able to focus on driving?
It’s a case-by-case basis, and no right/wrong to it.
Keep in mind though, this is not a substitute for car training. It's important for your dog to eventually be buckled up in the backseat and be able to ride there. Once you’ve arrived at your destination, be sure to get your dog into that back seat and start some car training.
That’s the ideal location, and safest place to be in case you and your dog are ever in a crash.
2) Car Snacks
You officially have permission to eat your emotions. Well, your dog does. It’s important to have high value treats in the car. Good food just makes things better. It'll help your dog build a positive association with the drive, and lower stress levels.
Of course you're not going to continuously feed your dog for the whole 8 hour trip. But do periodically give your dog yummy treats in the car. Especially at the peak of the heavy panting, so you can bring your dog back down to a slower breath and lower heart rate.
You'll have to be sure to have bite-sized pieces ready to go, so you're not trying to break the pieces up as you drive. If you can reach, directly feed your dog the treat. Otherwise, tossing it will work too. Just be sure to aim well so your dog isn't getting tangled up trying to get the food.
Be sure to use your dog's very favorite foods. The best of the best. You're going to have a very stressed out pup and you need the good stuff. When you're stressed, do you crave a salad or a bag of chips? Most likely the chips, right? Bring your dog's "bag of chips" for the car ride.
If your dog gets carsick, here's food for thought. Your dog is queasy because of all the anxiety around the car ride. The vomit is probably going to happen anyway along this 8 hour trip. How often will depend on how stressed your pup is.
So, is it better to try to calm your dog with food to ease the stress of the car ride, which might decrease the frequency of the vomiting (although those treats are coming back up...), or is it better to let your dog work himself up into a stressed out frenzy, with a definite chance of throwing up, maybe multiple times (less chunks to clean up, but more frequent...)?
Just something to think about. Food could be more helpful than harmful here!
3) Frequent Breaks
Be sure to stop at every rest area - don't even think about skipping one. Give your dog a break out of the car every chance possible. Walk your dog and explore the new surroundings. Take your time, letting your pup take in all the new smells. Allow your dog to fully relax before returning to the car.
Don't forget to offer some water, but don't be alarmed if your dog doesn't drink any. Some dogs get too nervous to take any food or water. That's why it's a good idea to give your dog a leisurely break out of the car.
Plan to spend 10-20 minutes at the rest area. It's important not just for your dog, but you too. Remember that energy is transferable. You've got to be relaxed in order for your dog to be too. It's easy to rush in and out of there so you can get to your destination quicker. Just don't forget to enjoy the journey as you go. Take the time needed for you and your dog to recharge your batteries for the next leg of the drive.
When you're ready to head out again, give your dog treats outside the car and after hopping in as well. Make sure you're set with the treats you need for the next part of the drive. After everyone is buckled up, give one more treat, then off you go.
So, hang in there!
Driving long distance with an anxious dog isn't going to be perfect, let alone easy. But if you put these strategies in place, the drive becomes pretty manageable. The days leading up to a trip or move are always chaotic, so don't plan on doing any car training with your dog on these days. Best case scenario? If you've got a dog with car anxiety, work on it now, in order to alleviate struggles in the future.
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How We Used These Tips:
River and I barely made it out of our apartment and down to North Carolina. I couldn't figure out how to make everything fit. It was already noon, and all our things were strewn across the garage parking lot and still oozing out of the car. No matter how things shifted, I couldn't make it fit and still see out the side mirror.
Then I realized the only thing to do - move River to the front seat, so I could pile the backseat up to the ceiling. Oh, I completely cringed at this, knowing what I know about car safety.
But, I had to assess my situation. Either River sits in the front seat, or I waste more time figuring out what to leave behind/how to shove things into the car. We had to make it to North Carolina that night, and hadn't even hit the road yet. So, the switch was made.
River wasn't crazy about this. The new seat caused her so much anxiety, and she's usually a chill rider. She was panting heavily for the majority of the ride. We stopped by Chick-Fil-A before getting on the highway, and thank goodness for chicken nuggets. I broke these up into little pieces and gave it to her periodically on the trip. It really helped to briefly settle her and give a little relief!
We stopped at almost every rest area and with each stop, River more readily hopped back into the car at the end. If I had a treat ready for her, this moved things along for sure! I skipped one rest area, and somehow River knew this. The moment we passed the exit, she whipped her head around and glared at me, as if yelling, HEY, YOU MISSED IT!!!
With River being this anxious, it's a good thing she was in the front seat. I can't imagine trying to drive at 70mph constantly looking back to check on her, if she had been sitting in the usual back seat spot. With her next to me, I could keep track of how heavy the panting was, feed her to calm her, and ensure she didn't get tangled in her seatbelt.
Her new car anxiety caused me great nervousness when we first set out, but with the help of good ol' Chick-Fil-A nuggets, 5 rest area stops and having River in my eyesight, the ride was actually manageable. Now we'll be working to reverse the anxiety as she returns to the backseat!