When my dog Barnum was about two years old, he started to become impossible to drive with. About twenty minutes into any car trip, he would pace, drool, and shriek continuously. It was horrible for both of us. He seemed like he was having a panic attack, and nothing I did could soothe him — not chews, not treats, not training, not comforting words. Soon, he started to freak out as soon as he was in the car — before I even turned on the engine.
One day, I mentioned the issue to the behavior consultant I was apprenticing with. She suggested that my dog was actually car sick. That turned out to be the magic answer. That idea had never occurred to me because Barnum didn’t vomit. He seemed to just suddenly “freak out.” Once I took steps to address my dog’s car sickness, it really turned the situation around.
A dog that is motion sick does not always vomit, so signs of motion sickness may be misinterpreted as a behavior issue. These can include
- Whining, panting, or other vocalizations
- Hunching, lips pulled back, tight facial skin, whites of eyes showing, etc.
Symptoms may start as soon as the car moves or may emerge only after a specific period of time or only on bumpy or windy roads, etc. Some dogs seem fine in the car but after arriving at their destination, refuse food, don’t follow cues, lick their lips, yawn, or act tired. I see this sometimes with dogs in class. If they are given anti-nausea remedies before class or get half an hour to recover from nausea before class starts, they are able to work.
Additionally, once a dog has experienced feeling sick in the car (especially repeatedly), she may make an emotional association between feeling ill and being in the car. This can result in anxious-type behavior and refusal to get in the car, etc.
If you suspect your dog has motion sickness, your first step is to speak to your vet to diagnose or rule out a physical cause to a behavior issue. Trial and error is sometimes required. They may suggest Dramamine, Benadryl, ginger, or other remedies. Sometimes the only treatment that works is a prescription medication, such as Cerenia, which is specifically for nausea in dogs.
Adjusting the environment with regard to noise, air, vision, and vibration may also your dog ride more comfortably. In Barnum’s case, what worked the best was to prevent him from looking out the windows. I believe his motion sickness is the result of an inner ear/balance issue that was caused by a year of severe ear infections. For many dogs, putting them in a plastic crate or putting a towel over a metal crate works to block the nauseating visual stimuli. However, putting Barnum in a crate made the situation worse. What has worked the best is having him tethered to a zip line for safety while lying on a thick foam mat that absorbs sound and vibration. To prevent him from looking out the windows, I have him trained to lie down instead of sitting or standing. Different training and environmental options will work for different dogs, depending on their physical and behavioral needs.
Once your dog is physically comfortable, start building a positive association with the car. Start training by rewarding your dog for looking at the car, moving toward the car, jumping in the car, etc. First do this while the car is turned off and all the doors are open, then with all the doors shut (but engine off), then with the car idling in the driveway, before finally taking short trips around the block or to places your dog loves.
Note: Never coerce the dog into the car (tug the leash, scold, etc.), as this tends to make dogs more resistant and suspicious.
Once your dog is happily jumping into the car, it can help to give special treats in the car. Giving a dog a great chew, such as a bully stick or a stuffed Kong, while you read in the front seat is often helpful. Later, a chew can help to keep them from looking out the window, but if the dog is still experiencing an upset stomach or is too anxious to eat, this may backfire. With time, patience, and help from your veterinarian and trainer, your dog can enjoy riding with you again!