How can I make my dog not freak out in the car?
February 25, 2009 6:47 AM   Subscribe

A couple of months ago, our 3-year-old spayed female beagle-terrier mix started shaking every time we went for a ride in the car. We're picking up a new vehicle today - what, if anything, can we do to make this car a 'happy place' and avoid the shakes?

For the first year and a half after adopting our dog, she *loved* car rides. Then about 6 months ago, out of nowhere, she started shaking, panting, and trying to jump into the front seat (where she has never been allowed). We've taken the Caesar Milan route of ignoring the behavior while driving so as to not reinforce it, and also tried desensitizing her to it by giving her treats in the car while it's not moving, to make it said 'happy place'. When we asked what causes this, the vet and the shelter that we got her from both said "sometimes it just happens" Now that we're picking up a new car tomorrow, is there anything that we can do to prevent transfer of the behavior to this car? Some more specific facts:

Currently, she shakes in every car she travels in - our current vehicles are a 98 corolla, which is where the behavior first happened, and an 05 highlander. She has trouble holding on to the seats in the highlander, but that never bothered her before. The new car is a mazda3 hatchback.
She does still get excited if she realizes we're going somewhere that she likes (the park, the lake, my parents' house, etc...). Then the old behaviors come out and everything's ok
The behavior literally started overnight - one day she was fine, the next she was freaking out. It has gotten better in that she's not panting as heavily, or trying to jump in the front seat any more, but it's still evident.
She's only allowed in the back seat of any car she's in.
She's more attached to my wife than to me, but she shakes for both of us

posted by um_maverick to Pets & Animals (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is she crate trained? If so, you could try placing her crate in the backseat of the car. Keep the crate door shut at first, and then open it once she's calm, allowing her to venture out if she chooses (but really, she's safer in it anyway).
posted by amyms at 7:13 AM on February 25, 2009

Data point: I have a much older Beagle (she is now 12), who will shake if she is in the car and recognizes that she is going towards either the kennel or the vet (don't ask me how she knows). She will shake at the mere mention of going to the vet (or getting a bath for that matter). Otherwise, she loves car rides.

Have you taken the dog for an unpleasant vet visit in the car? Maybe the dog is associating every car ride with an unpleasant visit to the vet or some other such "trauma" that the dog did not enjoy. I don't ascribe human behavior to dogs, but they are way smarter than you might think.
posted by PsuDab93 at 7:29 AM on February 25, 2009

Is it possible that her tail or paw got "bit" by the power window closing or the door closing? If that is the case, there may be a way to desensitize her.

As a temporary relief from her anxiety, try going to McDonald's drive-thru window. Get her a plain burger. The smells at McDonalds are specially engineered to be distracting and enticing. My dog forgets all his anxiety whenever he sees or smells a McDonalds. We go there directly after a visit to the vet.

My dogs wears a special travel harness that attaches to the back seat safety belt. Doggie is free to sit or lie down, but he is not thrown about in the car. He feels more secure. He loves putting on the travel harness. Also, we are all much safer in case of an accident.
For my big dog, I've been happy with the heavy-duty Champion harness. Beagles are small -- you can probably use a less expensive travel harness from a pet supply store.
posted by valannc at 7:32 AM on February 25, 2009

she is crate *trained*, but she doesn't particularly like it - i have friends/family whose dogs voluntarily go in the crate to sleep or just hang out...this one's not a fan. She pretty much only goes in there to eat, or when we need to put her in while we go to work (maybe that's why she doesn't like it...)
posted by um_maverick at 7:33 AM on February 25, 2009

My dog loves the McDonalds drive-thru too. He doesn't get any food but the smells seem to make him happy.
posted by Bunglegirl at 7:41 AM on February 25, 2009

Sometimes these sprays help.

Also, not related to your question, but I have and love DuraGear car covers.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:58 AM on February 25, 2009

Hang out in the car, for desensitization. Get a book, sit in the car with the dog, and read. No treats, no fuss, just be in the car and be normal. Take the dog for rides around the block, or to a dog park, or friend's house.
posted by theora55 at 9:45 AM on February 25, 2009

Based on the sudden onset of the fearful behavior, it really sounds as though something unpleasant happened to her that she now associates with the car. I know you didn't notice anything, but there are many possibilities that she could perceive as being traumatizing even if they don't register that way to most humans. Perhaps she got left for too long in a hot car, and you didn't noticed that she wasn't feeling well when you got back? Maybe a child relative rode in the back with her and tormented her? I suggest you think very carefully about everything that might have happened to her around the time the shaking started, and then you can test things that would be associated with different stressors to narrow down the cause. Until you understand what's going on in her head, you can't know how to make it better.

"For the love of a dog" by Patricia B. McConnell has a section on phobias in dogs. It describes similar situations--sudden onset of fearful behavior in response to particular stimuli--and how the problems can broaden and get worse on their own or be resolved through gentle re-acclimation. I highly recommend it.
posted by Cambrian_Sea at 11:45 AM on February 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

bingo, cambrian_sea. one of the various patricia mcconnell books has a brilliant bit specifically about helping a dog have more focus when out and about, and the whole process starts with feeling 110% comfy in the car. I'll have to jog my brain for the exact title, though.

in any event, mconnell is your girl. she's spot on.
posted by modernpoverty at 7:58 PM on February 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

A similar thing happened with my dog. I found that driving him to the park to play frisbee (even though it's well within walking distance) seemed to alleviate a lot of the fear that he used to feel after getting into the car by associating it with something that he loves.
posted by underdetermined at 4:53 PM on February 27, 2009

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