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Training your dog to travel in the car

Car travel is an important part of life for many dogs as it enables them to explore new and exciting places. But it can also lead to them visiting the vet – which might not be quite so much fun! It’s important to make sure dogs are always safe and feel confident when travelling in the car, regardless of where they might be going.

Safety first

The Highway Code stipulates that dogs are suitably restrained so even before travelling you’ll need to teach your dog to feel relaxed in a comfortably-sized seat-belt harness, pet carrier, dog cage or in the boot behind a dog-guard. These must be securely fitted and positioned so your dog can’t interfere with the driver or hang out of windows.

Never leave your dog alone in the car and keep them as cool as possible while travelling – non-spill water bowls are helpful, as is planning toileting/exercise breaks for longer journeys.

Make the car an enjoyable place to be

Start by using your dog’s favourite special treats to reward them for being calm whenever they’re near the car, even just walking around it to begin. Reward your dog for sitting calmly before you’re ready to open the door and invite them inside.

Getting in and out safely

If your dog has travelled before and enjoyed it, they might be very excited about jumping into the car and out of it when you arrive at the park – but this isn’t a good idea as it can put them at risk of injury or accident.

Ask them to sit while you slowly open the door and give them a few treats to keep them sitting as you do. If you do this every time you arrive at the car they’ll soon start to automatically sit and wait patiently before you guide them in safely and under your control. Once they’re in, simply spend a little time sitting inside with them; giving them a safe and long-lasting chew to enjoy can be a good way for them to learn the car is an enjoyable place to be.

Likewise, teach your dog to get out of the car calmly and quietly by slowly opening the door just a little way and waiting for your dog to sit or stay still before you invite them out. Always reward your dog for their patience with their favourite tasty treat, or two. Our doorways training provides guidance for teaching a dog to pass through an open door while giving their owner full attention, and this teaching can be applied to the car door too!

Gradually introduce your dog to travelling in the car

It’s important to introduce car travel carefully, because for some dogs being in this confined space while it’s moving might feel very unusual to begin with, especially if they’ve never been in a car before. For example, all sorts of movement and activity happening outside, that they can neither get involved in nor get away from, might be worrying or frustrating.

They’ll need to get used to the sound and movement of the car slowly, because it’s a lot for their senses to take in. Giving your dog extra tasty treats whenever the car starts up and starts to move means they’ll begin to associate these changes with good things happening.

On the road…

Start with short, slow and gentle, familiar journeys that will allow your dog to get used to car travel in a positive way. Having a friend, who your dog knows well and is comfortable with, accompanying you can be helpful so there is someone to be beside your dog if necessary while you are driving. Drive smoothly allowing plenty of time for breaking, as a jerky or uncomfortable journey might make your dog less willing to travel next time!

If your dog is struggling in the car…

If your dog is showing signs of being frightened about travelling in the car never force them to travel, as this is only going to make them even more worried and they might feel trapped and panic. Either find someone to stay with them if you need to travel or avoid the journey/make alternative travel plans if possible. Avoid car journeys completely while you seek the guidance of an experienced behaviourist.

What to do if you see a distressed dog in a car

Use the following telephone numbers to contact the appropriate authorities for assistance and guidance:

  • Police – 999

  • RSPCA - 0300 1234 999

  • Scottish SPCA - 03000 999 999


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