Riding in the Car

Today’s guest blog is written By Katie Brennan of “Boundless Canine” in Levittown, Pennsylvania.  Thank you Katie; so many people struggle taking their dogs in the car and I appreciate the time you took to pull this together!


by Katie Brennan

Almost all dogs will have to ride in a vehicle at some point in their lives. Whether you’re a weekend warrior who likes to take frequent trips, or someone who only drives with your pup for the occasional outing to the park or vet, it’s important to make sure you and your dog are safe and comfortable.

There are quite a few places for your dog to spend their car time.  My most recommended mode of travel is in a crate. It makes sure your pup won’t go anywhere and can help a more nervous dog feel more safe while in motion. Plus, any treats or chews given will not go flying around the car! Seat belt harnesses can be useful in the back seat, and I will recommend those over having a dog riding loose. Hammocks that separate the back seat from the front and provide a cover for the floor space in between are an option for someone who only takes short trips and who has a dog that is not going to be moving around a lot, or for an owner that refuses to crate a dog or use a seat belt. The following links outline crash study results for various harnesses and crates/carriers. I’m not sharing these links with the intention of scaring you! I simply want to give you an idea as to how you can make your car a safe place for all to travel:




There are some dogs that display signs of carsickness. This post is not meant to address that, so here is a wonderful blog post on the subject from Amanda Povraznik CPDT-KA of Cloud Nine Canine:


Some dogs cannot physically hop in to all vehicles for whatever reason. Rather than making it a huge deal, I prefer to help them out either by using a ramp/step stool to give a bit more assistance, or I teach this “paws up” cue that my dog Bubbles demonstrates in the following video:


This lets her know that I will pick her up in a moment (I conditioned a positive response to being picked up as a separate thing at first), and it also gives me a bit extra help in doing so since she sort of “hops” in to my arms! Then I can either close the crate and go for our ride, or continue our training session.

So now that your dog has a safe place to travel, and hopefully is not suffering from any carsickness. What’s next? If you have a reactive dog (a dog that barks and lunges at other dogs or people), you know that it can be stressful and potentially loud! This is definitely not the type of thing you want to have to deal with while driving. I like to use the Look at That game in the car to help with such an issue. Here’s a video by Donna Hill that goes over what this protocol is, as well as how to train it:


To take this idea to the car environment, I start without the car moving, and in an environment appropriate for your dog’s level of reactivity. Here’s a short video of Bubbles working on relaxing/looking at people and dogs while she is in the back seat. At this point, I’m just throwing treats back there for her to search for a bit:


As she gets better at looking and not reacting, I’ll work more on waiting for her to sit calmly and look, and finally to lay down and totally relax.

For dogs who are a bit anxious to get in to the car in the first place, or for those who will dash out as soon as we arrive at our destination, I will use Susan Garrett’s Crate Games (http://susangarrettdogagility.com/) as the basis for my vehicle training. Here is my dog Kimma demonstrating a couple of the steps in Crate Games:


Now she actually DOES have an anxiety about riding in the car, as well as a bit of a crate phobia. In the video above, the first time she goes in, she does not even eat any treats (and trust me, she’s quite the foodie!). Taking note of that, I released her to get rid of some of the tension, then when she goes in for the second time and she takes treats no problem, I know that we can begin our game. Working on these games has helped her immensely as car time is associated with getting a lot of good treats. Plus she knows that when we go for rides we are most likely going somewhere enjoyable, like a park, or to training class! (If you only ever take your dog for rides when it is time for the vet and your dog does not enjoy going to the vet, there might be a problem eventually!)

If you do not wish to use a crate for whatever reason, that is fine! But I still want my dog to be able to wait nicely while I open the door and hook on their leash and/or unhook a seat belt harness. Again, I use the Crate Games idea in that training. Here is another one of my dogs, Jari, demonstrating:


I could also use a “wait” cue if I needed to, and if he were new to the game in this context (as opposed to a regular crate in the house) I would also keep my body close to the door as it opens so that I can block the exit if need be.

For a dog with severe anxiety, I would take things nice and slow, possibly only working on getting in the car in any capacity for a few weeks before beginning to even turn the car on. Forcing them in will only do more harm than good in the long run! “Meals on wheels,” in which the dog can eat an entire meal either piece by piece from hand or all at once from a bowl, is a tactic I use to get a nervous dog used to just eating comfortably in a stationary car. I add turning the car on, then movement and distance of travel as I can, but never too much too soon if I can help it!

As always, keep training sessions short, fun and upbeat. Your attitude while working with your dog can make a huge positive difference. Safe travels to all!

Katie Brennan CPDT-KA




About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.
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