Mike's Q&A

An interactive question and answer forum with expert dog trainer Michael Wombacher for all of your most pressing dog behavior and dog training-related questions.

Terrified of the Car

Question: Our mini labradoodle, Maggie, goes into (what seems like) an anxiety attack every time we put her into the car. Driving her to the groomer...to the local pet wash...or even just to drive to the grocery store-she starts shacking and whining and it seems like there is no calming her. It almost seems like a panic attack. Is there anything we can do to calm her nerves? I should mention-nothing bad has happened in the car or after a car ride....ever. Hope you can help.

Answer: Phobias are the most difficult things to deal with in dogs and generally systematic desensitizing is the only way to get reliable long term results. In your situation that would mean doing things like feeding your dog all its meals in the car, with the car turned off and parked wherever its parked. It would mean playing games with her in there and doing anything she likes and associating it with the car. Once you've established some baselines try turning the engine on without driving the car and repeat. Once you've gained some ground there try driving a very short distance, and I do mean very short, like out of your driveway and back in while the dog is doing something she enjoys, like eating a bone.

Once you can make some progress with all this, which definitely takes time and can prove challenging, then be sure to start taking short drives with great experiences on either end. Like drive to the end of the block and get out and give her tons of treats, a game with a favorite friend who you've arranged to meet there, another dog buddy to play with...whatever is going to turn her on. When you get home again have some awesome experience waiting for her. 

That all said, I do realize that we may actually have to take the dog somewhere before all this desensitizing, which can take a fair amount of time to produce results, kicks in. There's nothing to do about that although it might set your efforts back in the short run.  

The final possibility involves what's called flooding in behavioral lingo. If you're planning a longer road trip, say down to LA, take your dog with you. Extended exposure with you and the car being the only consistent reference points in an otherwise rapidly changing environment can totally change your dog's view of the car. 

Hope this helps.