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Creating Calmness in the Car

Places like the beach, doggie daycare centers, dog parks, or a doggie deli seem to add the most challenges for humans as their dogs start to anticipate arriving at their favorite places, blocks before reaching the destination. It's as if your dog can pick out the landmarks, and read street signs, and, yes, it's dangerous to travel with a dog that is bouncing all over the car, barking, whining, not to mention embarrassing the heck out of you.

 Barking, bouncing off the windows, or shoving you out of the way to get out of the car once you stop and open the door is not what most pet parents had in mind when they envisioned fun car rides with their pooch.

What can you do? 

  • ​Teaching your dog to relax in the car is the beginning of teaching your dog how to get calmer in the car, and not be more wound up as you get closer to your destination. Practice relaxing without going anywhere—just go to the car with treats and a towel, soft blanket or the Outward Hound Auto Backseat Hammock, turn on some nice music and, reinforce all calmness. Do this with your dog on the leash and work toward you dog lying down on the mat. Be sure to place the mat in the area where you would ultimately like him to ride and tell your dog, “All done,” when you are finished, and then take your dog back into the house. (Take your time on this. It might take several days or weeks depending on how practiced the old behaviors are.) Once you have your dog successfully resting on the mat while the car is sitting still, do it with the car running, then progress to driving a couple of feet or so (just so you simulate going for a ride), stop and train again.  
  • Use management techniques to prevent the behavior in the first place. Dog seat belts and using a crate in the car are good ways to confine your dog and prevent him from bouncing all over when he is excited. These are also recommended for safety sake. Dogs are projectiles during a sudden stop and have been known to go through windshields. I recommend some sort of restraint when traveling with a dog. In addition, dogs allowed to bounce about the car, and possibly on to the driver can be another hazard. Furthermore, if you were in an accident, and your dog was loose in the car, someone coming to your aide might let your dog out trying to rescue you. If your dog is secured in the vehicle, he will not be able to bolt if you or anyone else opens the door.  
  • Resolve to prevent your dog from jumping out of the car in an aroused state. All the training time you have put into teaching your dog to sit, lie down, wait, etc. should not be lost when you get into a car. Teach your dog that the same rules apply in the car as in the home. Practice your dog's skills by doing them in the car. This is a great way to generalize these behaviors to another location. Train and reinforce the same as you did when you started teaching the basics. Continue until you can see that your dog can sit down and wait inside the car, then drive a block and do them again. For safety, be sure to work with your dog on leash, and you might even want to tether him somehow in the car while working on wait as you open the car door; that way he can't bolt out of the door. Make your goal the destinations that gets your dog excited, but always be willing to drive away if you can't get him to calm down once you have arrived. If that is the case, this just means that you need to go back and train for more fluency, but where it's easier before going to the high distraction areas. You may also have to step up your rate of reinforcement and increase the value of the treats as you train closer to the final destination. This will be important to continue until your dog learns that it's not all of his antics that will “make” you open the door, but the calmness and focus.
  • Don't stop there. Once you are to the point where your dog can remain calm after you have arrived at the final destination, keep going! Just because you arrived and achieved the calmness doesn't mean your dog now gets to bolt out of the car and drag you to the dog park. In fact, this is the time when you should switch your training into high gear and the second you let your dog out of the car, drop really high-value treats on the ground so he can stifle the rush of chemicals by eating. Keep dropping the food until you can see his body start to relax and then you can work on some trained behaviors such as sit. The message in this is--If your dogs wants something that much, he will get there faster by calming down and focusing on you. He still gets what he wants, but in a much more cooperative manner that both of you can live with. 

Trainer’s Tip: Don't burn your dog out on training! Count out 30-50 (pea-sized) treats or so and go as far as that will take you in a session. It's important to stop training when you have had a good success. If you count out your treats, it will help you to stop when you are ahead. It will also disappoint your dog a little that you said, “All done,” since he should be having a good time at this stage of the training. As they say in showbiz, “Always leave them wanting more.”

Article by Nan Arthur, CDBC, CPDT, KPACTP www.wholedogtraining.com  
Courtesy of : Scotty Valadao - Canine Behaviorist