Dog car anxiety - how to travel with an anxious dog

Dog Car Anxiety: How to Travel with An Anxious Dog

Does your dog suffer from dog car anxiety?

If they don’t, consider yourself lucky because travel anxiety in dogs can make road trips challenging at best and impossible at worst.

Whenever someone mentions the term “dog travel anxiety”, I’m immediately reminded of one of my former daily dog walking/pet sitting clients, Bailey.

That’s because it was impossible for the family to take their pup along on any road trips as Bailey suffered from severe car phobia.

So whenever they hit the road for their summer family vacation by the beach, I watched Bailey in the comfort of her home.

Just recently, I was reminded of Bailey and her aversion to cars when one of my readers, Elizabeth, asked if I could write about what to do with a dog that’s nervous in the car.

Particularly on longer car rides.

She mentioned that they have a huge problem with one of their dogs when they travel between their summer and winter home.

So this blog post is for Elizabeth as well as anyone else whose dog is a nightmare in the car!

That said, I’ll cover the following:

  • Why does my dog pant and shake when riding in the car: Dog car anxiety symptoms & causes
  • What calms a dog with anxiety in the car: Resources for dog travel anxiety treatment
  • Do dogs outgrow car anxiety?
  • How to desensitize your fearful dog to car rides & preventative approaches
Dog car anxiety - how to travel with an anxious dog

Disclaimer: This blog post contains affiliate links. I may earn compensation when you click on the links at no additional cost to you.

Why Does My Dog Pant & Shake When Riding in the Car: Dog Car Anxiety Symptoms & Causes

If you’re not entirely sure if your pup experiences anxiety in the car, the following are dog travel anxiety symptoms:

  • Panting
  • Drooling
  • Shaking
  • Trembling
  • Whining
  • (Lip) licking
  • Excessive barking
  • Pacing
  • Vomiting

A word on excessive barking and pacing in the car: Did you know that being overly excited can also contribute to a dog’s anxiety in the car?

Some dogs act up in the car because they don’t know any better and/or because they have pent up physical energy.

It’s our job as dog people to teach our pups polite behavior in the car and to provide proper exercise PRIOR to road trips.

How do you teach your pup polite behavior in the car?

For example, you could ask your pup to sit while you open the car door and only get in once you ask them to. Likewise, ask them to stay before racing out of the car.

Reward their polite behavior with a tasty treat and/or verbal praise. I’m linking to a training video later in this blog post, so keep reading.

Good boy – OK, hop in/out!

Once they’re in the car, it really does pay off to restrain them with a dog car seatbelt or a crate if you have the space for one.

That way, they can’t pace back and forth and distract you (or whoever’s doing the driving).

This approach is also going to prevent them from racing out of the car the moment you open the car door!

A word on vomiting in the car: Vomiting CAN also be the result of dog car sickness. Also known as motion sickness, it can be caused by the conflicting sensory signals ( moving, but not really) a dog may be experiencing in the car.

Especially if they can’t look out the window.

-> Ginger can help with dog car sickness!

It also helps not to feed your pup a full meal prior to a car ride. However, a few bites may actually prevent the feeling of nausea.

What can I give my dog for car sickness?

Here’s something you can try: Mix a little raw ginger in with a couple teaspoons of your pup’s food. Offer the mix half an hour before you expect your pup to hop into the car and up to 3 times per day.

You can simply mince some fresh ginger root (without the skin) for this purpose. You can also repurpose the ginger root you used to cook fresh ginger tea. According to Dr. Demian Dressler, DVM, you can give:

  • 1/4 teaspoon of fresh ginger for dogs under 10lbs
  • 1/2 teaspoon of fresh ginger for dogs between 10-35lbs
  • 3/4 teaspoon of fresh ginger for dogs over 35lbs

Caution: Don’t feed ginger if your pup takes diabetes-, heart- or blood pressure meds, is pregnant or lactating. Also avoid giving ginger 10 days before your pup is supposed to have surgery. That’s because it can thin the blood.

But What Causes Travel Anxiety in the First Place?

There are several different reasons why your dog may be experiencing dog car anxiety.

For example, they may get car sick whenever they’re on the road which they remember and which can contribute to the feeling of anxiety in the car.

Maybe they’re suspicious of the car because they only associate scary trips to the vet’s and/or the groomer’s with being in the car.

Maybe they had a bad experience on a road trip where something fell on them in the car.

Or maybe they were never properly socialized to being in the car!

If your dog has been with you since they were a tiny puppy, you can probably figure out the reason why they act up in the car.

It’s going to be trickier to find clues if you’ve adopted your pup, but there are still a few scenarios that come to mind.

Maybe they remember that their previous human(s) dropped them off at the shelter, drove off and never came back for them.

Maybe they went on a long rehoming journey across the States.

Or maybe they got hit by a car or experienced an accident while they were in the car.

Whatever the reason may be, let’s try to find a solution for your pup’s travel anxiety!

What Calms A Dog With Anxiety in the Car: Resources for Dog Travel Anxiety Treatment

We’ll cover ways to desensitize your pup to the car here in a little bit, but this approach won’t be a quick fix.

In the meantime, let’s look at things that have the potential to quickly calm a dog with anxiety in the car:

The Calmeroos heartbeat puppy can help with dog car anxiety

Benadryl continued: The pink pills are usually available as 25mg pills. You can give your dog 1mg of Benadryl per pound of body weight. So if your dog weighs 25lbs, give them 1 pill.

If they weigh 50lbs, give them 2. If they weight 35lbs, give them 1.5, etc.

What calms a dog with anxiety in the car?

Benadryl is also said to help dogs who suffer from motion sickness, so it’s worth running it by your vet to see what they say about it.

Additionally, Benadryl also works great for allergies in dogs, just as it does for us humans.

My late pup Missy once had a terrible case of hives and Benadryl was a life saver as this happened on a weekend, of course!

That said, it should totally belong in your pet first aid kit.

Missy with a case of hives
Missy covered in hives – Benadryl helped get rid of them!

Also:

  • Roll down your windows regularly to let your pup take a good whiff of where they’re at.
  • Frequent stops are important to give your pup (and yourself!) a potty & water break, stretch their legs and take a sniff of where they’re currently at.
  • Sitting close to their human(s) if possible could help too. Obviously I don’t mean letting your pup sit on the driver’s lap – that’s super dangerous and distracting. Rather, see about having them sit next to a family member who can provide some reassuring words and pets every so often. Especially if a comforting Thundershirt is not an option!

Also consider seat belting them if you don’t have the space for a car dog crate. It’s so much safer than letting your dog loose in the car!

Traveling with Wally in his crash tested car crate
Wally in his car dog crate on our summer trip from Germany to Croatia
Missy and Buzz wear their Ruffwear harnesses on a car ride which help with dog car anxiety
Missy wearing her Ruffwear Front Range harness & Buzz wearing his Ruffwear Load Up harness. Buzz is secured with the car’s seatbelt and Missy with a separate dog car seatbelt.

Next, let’s look at a few more options that may help calm your dog down in the car.

Natural Remedies vs Medication for Anxious Dogs

The following natural remedies are all known as natural dog anxiety treatments. They can work if you’re traveling with an anxious dog, but they can also help decrease your pup’s anxiety at home:

Essential lavender oil continued: Alternatively, you can use lavender oil on your dog’s coat. However, you should dilute it with a carrier oil such as avocado oil, almond oil or jojoba oil.

Use 10 drops of essential lavender oil with 1/2 oz of the carrier oil.

Other essential oils that help calm dogs with anxiety are:

You can also mix them with Essential Lavender Oil.

Tip: Start giving your dog the natural remedies of your choice several days up to 1 week before traveling. That gives them time to get used to them.

Besides Benadryl that you can get without a prescription, the following are examples of sedatives your vet can prescribe for severe cases:

  • Trazodone
  • Gabapentin
  • Alprazolam
  • Lorazepam

Obviously, you’ll have to take your pup in for a vet visit to get a prescription.

Do Dogs Outgrow Car Anxiety?

Whatever the reason, it’s likely that your dog’s car aversion can be modified over time.

Of course the quick fix approaches I mentioned above are helpful, especially if you don’t have much time for counter conditioning.

But wouldn’t it be easier if your pup didn’t have any car aversions all together?

Enter behavior modification training.

Now, this will take time, patience and consistency, just as any dog training. If you feel overwhelmed trying to tackle this on your own, consider hiring a dog trainer who’s well versed in behavior modification.

I’m sure that it would have helped my former client pup Bailey as well, but her family didn’t explore this option.

To give you an idea of how to go about this on your own, check out the video I link to in the next section.

How to Desensitize Your Fearful Dog to Car Rides & Preventative Approaches

Practice, practice, practice and break up the whole trip into tiny pieces, then desensitize your pup to them one at a time. For example:

  • Putting your luggage into the car
  • Leashing your pup with a specific leash or car harness
  • Picking up your car keys
  • Opening the car doors

There’s an excellent training video that demonstrates very nicely how to practice calm behavior prior to getting the dog into the car – check it out below:

YouTube video How to help Ruby reduce car anxiety

That should give you an idea of how to work on all the little steps that lead up to loading your pup into the car.

Do the same with every little step of YOUR particular habits!

Once your pup’s in the car, reward her calm behavior, then get back out without driving anywhere or even starting the car at all.

Practice this as many times as necessary for your pup to understand that nothing bad is happening!

If she acts up as soon as the car starts rolling down your driveway, practice this particular step as long as it takes for her to stay calm.

You’ll need someone to help you with this as you won’t be able to drive your car AND safely reward her for cooperating.

Tip: Your pup is much likely to be calm after a good long walk!

If your pup’s not used to being in the car a lot, also work on creating positive associations with car trips.

So, don’t just take your pup to the vet’s or the groomer’s, but to:

  • The park
  • A drive thru where they get a treat
  • A pet store
  • Doggie friends, etc.

Bottom Line

I hope that some of these dog car anxiety tips are going to help your pup be calm(er) in the car!

Remember that practice makes perfect. That said, make some time to work on polite behavior in the car together with your pup. She’ll definitely need your guidance with this one!

In order to reduce travel anxiety in dogs, I recommend at least an hour of exercise before asking your pup to hop into the car.

Additionally, you can try giving them an over-the-counter dog sedative for car travel, such as Benadryl.

Combine it with a thunder shirt and essential oils such as lavender, and you should soon be on your way to enjoying car rides with your pup!

If none of my suggestions work, see your vet about a prescription drug to help your pup relax. However, this should be a last resort approach as regular medication is anything but healthy for our pups.

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Barbara launched her blog K9sOverCoffee in 2014 and has been feeding her dogs raw dog food since 2015. As a former professional dog walker, she’s passionate about balancing species-appropriate exercise with healthy dog nutrition. Barbara is raw dog food nutrition certified from “Dogs Naturally Magazine” and the author of several e-books about minimally processed, balanced raw dog food.


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