My dog is afraid to get in the car...
January 13, 2015 2:53 PM   Subscribe

My dog (seven year old heeler/aussie shepherd mix) is afraid to get in the car. She's a shelter dog who came with some nervous issues (other fears include bathrooms, abandonment, and strange men, especially with hats or beards), but she has made amazing progress over the last year or so... except when it comes to getting in the car! She'll sit outside the open door and tremble, roll over in abject surrender, etc. How can I help her?

Getting her to hop in is always a slow and painful process. Our usual routine is: I talk up RIDES! and going OUTSIDE!!!, then I take her on the leash out to the car. She starts off excited, but gets more and more avoidant/pathetic as we approach. Then I open the car door, kneel or stand next to it (facing in) and gesture & call for her to get in, trying to be as excited/cheerful as possible. She often trembles, crawls up to me, and puts her paw on me for comfort. At this point I call and call and try to entice her in. If that doesn't work, it seems to help to get in the car and call her in to me, but she's still super afraid to get in. 95% of the time she WILL get in eventually, but it's torture getting there for us both. She doesn't seem afraid of being in the car, though, as much as she is of getting in: once she's inside she acts a bit frantic/wiggly, but not terrified like before, and she's always glad to get where we're going.

Things I've tried:
-food rewards with clicker training. She's usually too scared to eat in or close to the car, and making it into a rewarding game seems to backfire and cause even more fear and drama (maybe she thinks I'm tempting her into a trap?)
-a dog trainer. The trainer could get her to hop right in, but didn't seem interested in helping me learn how to do it, other than recommending rewards as above. Other people do tend to have more luck, and other vehicles are also easier: I think "me + my car" is probably a fear trigger at this point.
-dramamine, as recommended by a vet. This made her sleepy during the day, but didn't change the carfear. I think she could be a little carsick, but not more than is normal in dogs; she pants and seeks the open window, but she's never thrown up or drooled excessively.
-thundershirt. The car is just way too much for a hug from a shirt to overcome.
-short rides to fun places. Our commute is only 20 minutes, and she loves being an office dog... but no joy, mornings are the absolute worst. Five-minute trips to the park don't seem to help, either.
-moving the car. Changing where I park helps a bit, maybe, but before long it's right back to normal.
-leaving her at home (no drama, just a brief chance to hop in and then "ok then, you have to stay!") This was the single most effective strategy. When I stuck with it for a week, it made a big difference, but she hates to be alone and I hate to go to work without her... :(
-picking her up and putting her in. She really hates this and it seems like an obvious source of stress/fear, so I've left it as the last resort. Fortunately she seems less afraid of the car at the office or out-and-about than she is at home(?), so I rarely have to resort to it.

Any ideas? I try really hard not to lose my patience with her, and I love her to bits, but I'd give anything to fix this!
posted by grey_sw to Pets & Animals (19 answers total)
Is she in a carrier in your car, or loose? Maybe put a nice carrier in the car, with a towel that smells like you, put some treats in there and a lovie-toy. It can be her den in your car and she may like it better than wherever she is now.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:58 PM on January 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: She is loose in the cargo area behind a dog barrier (I can't put her in the front seat or in the back sans barrier, she wants to jump in my lap on the freeway!) I did try a crate for a few weeks, but it seemed to make things even worse.
posted by grey_sw at 3:01 PM on January 13, 2015

Best answer: grey_sw: "The trainer could get her to hop right in, but didn't seem interested in helping me learn how to do it, other than recommending rewards as above. Other people do tend to have more luck, and other vehicles are also easier: I think "me + my car" is probably a fear trigger at this point."

This suggests to me that you are (subconsciously) communicating some of this fear to the dog. I suspect you are so stressed out over the prospect of stressing her out that it worries her. I think that's also why the "no drama" approach worked - you were changing up your attitude so much that she wasn't as worried. I'd suggest changing your mental approach. Really convince yourself that she IS going to get in the car before bringing her outside. Be super positive and brusquely forceful, as if you will brook no disagreement. If "me + my car" is the problem, try changing what "me" looks, acts and sounds like.
posted by Rock Steady at 3:01 PM on January 13, 2015 [14 favorites]

Did you ever use that particular car to drive her to the vet? My aunt has a dog who won't get in the car they used to take him to the vet. He gets excited for walks and parks, but when they get to the car, he flat out refuses. They've tried everything. He'll ride in their truck, though, as happy as can be.

So one thing to try is to see whether your pup ride in a friend's car, maybe, to see if it's the car and not the combo.
posted by mochapickle at 3:07 PM on January 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Re: clicker training and food: This really does work, but you are pushing her too fast. Take a step back and get her as close to the car as you can while still keeping her relaxed enough to eat.Then you click and treat every time she looks at the car and gradually move forward, always rewarding for progress towards the car. If she is too stressed out to take treats, back up and move away until she relaxes enough to be interested in food. Your goal is to move slowly and get her to associate car time with snacks. If she's too stressed to be interested in the treats, you back farther away and try again. If that means you're sitting on the stoop of your house with the dog on a leash looking at the car while you click and treat, so be it. Slow is the name of the game with anxiety. Also, make sure your treats are REALLY MEGA AWESOME--no milk bones, please!

I also have been known to bypass the clicker and just straight up toss bits of meat and cheese at my car, just close enough for the dog to approach it.

I had great success doing this with my own dog, who also absolutely hates the car and has since I got her. It was suggested to me last week that part of the problem might also be that she slides around too much in the car and doesn't feel safe, so we're also looking into a doggy seatbelt sort of solution so that she feels she can brace herself in place and not move around while the car is in motion. (Currently she rides in the trunk of my hatchback.) Still, the place we're at is "looks miserable, but will approach the car and get in voluntarily", so that really is an improvement from where we were before.

Also, second the suggestion to quit making such a big fuss as you approach the car. Project "this is boring and relaxing" and maybe just stop showing emotion. In separation anxiety, prolonged goodbyes and a ton of fuss from the human who is leaving usually serve as great big neon signs to the dog that OMG THE AWFUL THING IS GOING TO HAPPEN OH NOOOO I HAVE TO BUILD UP MORE ANXIETY NOOOO NOT THE AWFUL THING. It sounds like all your praising and trying to get her in a happy mood is having the same effect--if you only do this when you're going to get in the car, of course she's going to start going "oh no not the car" as soon as you start, which gives her more time to get worked up and dwell on how anxious she feels. You want to keep her distracted with nice things as you approach the car instead, and praise alone generally is not sufficiently nice for anxiety in dogs.
posted by sciatrix at 3:10 PM on January 13, 2015 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I'm going to reference what Rock Steady mentioned alongside something you mentioned:

Our usual routine is: I talk up RIDES! and going OUTSIDE!!!, then I take her on the leash out to the car.

The combination of these factors is likely something that you don't repeat for any activity other than getting in the car, no? As such, you may be inadvertently signaling to dog that a car ride is imminent. We unknowingly do this to dogs, a lot, with our undying interest in talking to them as if they were fully versed in human syntax (without fail my partner does this with our lovable mutt anytime we're leaving the house for a few minutes and can't take her, and she immediately cowers and gets nervous with the awareness).

Another possible factor that seems to get a lot of dogs freaked is the weird sensation of riding in a car. A thundershirt, a crate, or just free-wheeling throughout the car while in motion can be very freaky for them. We use one of these and it mellows our lady out quite a bit--it seems like it just gives her a better sense of the car's motion without making her inner ear deal with all that complexity on its own. Not to mention, it's just a good idea to secure a dog in a car like any other person (or massive object in general).

That said, some dogs never get to a point of comfort with cars. If you have to pick her up to get her into a car, that doesn't pose a tremendous task (even if she seems to really hate it). If you're securing her in a seat with a car harness, it may even be an ok thing to go through until she habituates to the routine. Of course, if she's so scared that she bites then this is a moot point.

Those would be my two-ish best suggestions: cool it on the prep talk for her, just put her in a harness and either walk or lift her into the car, secure her in place, and let her try the ride.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 3:19 PM on January 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I had this problem when I first adopted a very anxious dog who was afraid of stairs. This was a problem because I live up a flight of stairs.

We solved it with copious rewards. I figured out that he loved bread, and I'd give him a pea-sized bit of a slice of bread with every step he climbed. Within a week he was bounding up the stairs. Within two weeks it wasn't necessary to use rewards at all.

You mention that she's too scared to eat in or near the car, but what about starting the rewards before you get that far? If she's nervous as soon as she realizes where she's headed, start rewarding her progress and general good/non-anxious behavior before she even sees the car. Work up gradually, so that she can first associate being in sight of the car or being around the car with yummy treats, and THEN progress to actually getting in the car.

In the meantime, does your dog really "hate" to be alone? How much of this is you projecting this onto her? Is she doing anxious/upset behaviors when you're not around, or is it just that you think she must miss you and get lonely during the day? Because the first thing I'd do is stop reinforcing her anxiety by forcing her to do this every single day. Unless shoving a terrified dog into your car every morning is better than the alternative, yeah, just leave her at home unless absolutely necessary until you can gradually get her to be OK with the car.

(Also, there's a lot to be said for the brute force of just putting your dog where she needs to be -- for the first week I had my anxious little nutcase, he needed to get into the house and could not do it without climbing stairs. So I carried him up the stairs until the bread trick produced results. And this was a 60 pound dog.)
posted by Sara C. at 3:22 PM on January 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I did try a doggy seatbelt: she flipped out and somehow managed (through much violent thrashing and frantic MREEP MREEPing) to try and hang herself over the back of the seat >< She seems to prefer being in the cargo area (it's the back of a hatchback with the seats folded down, with a dog bed back there) over the crate or the backseat/cargo combo, so I'm guessing sliding is not the issue?

Picking her up is a tremendous task, unfortunately. It freaks her out big time, she plays keep-away with much rolling/mouthing/panicking, and if that doesn't work she just screams like I'm stabbing her...

I bet you're all right-on with the idea that the equation is "my attitude/subconscious-cringing plus her anxiety equals terror feedback loop", but I just can't seem to break it. So yeah, the solution is probably leaving her home but nooooo my doggy etc ;___;
posted by grey_sw at 3:25 PM on January 13, 2015

Also, can she ride close to you? My anxious guy really liked to be in the driver's side foot-well area in the back seat, immediately behind me curled up very small, and if I could tell he was freaked out during the ride (as he was the first few weeks I had him) I could give him reassuring pets at red lights and he could hear my voice and feel my presence through the seat.
posted by Sara C. at 3:32 PM on January 13, 2015

If you can possibly get your own frame of mind into "we are going to go get in the car like we always do and it's not a big deal [with the exception of this VERY high-value treat I'm going make sure she smells and sees me toss in]", that's the best thing.

You could maybe start with going out without her, open the door/hatch*, go back in, get her, take her away from the car for a sniff and pee, then simply walk toward the car with no intention to get in, sit and treat nearby, then walk away. That way both of you practice a calm confident demeanor.

*She might literally be afraid of the motion of the door, the unusual nature of the door, or the transition area into the car. One of my dogs will rocket-launch herself in as soon as you open the door, and all of them only need to be asked once to jump in the back hatch, but the other two are wary of the door frame/passenger/seat matrix into the back seat.

Even if you don't want her riding in the front, if she is any more willing to get in the front, just practice getting in there first. In, treat, out again, treat, and done for the day. Then move to the back seat.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:45 PM on January 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

Can you sit outside with her & the car without trying to convince her to get in the car? Just hang out by the car so she learns that cars with open doors are no BFD.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 4:01 PM on January 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm not quite sure what the logistics of this would be, but have you tried allowing her to back into the car, rump first? My boyfriend's dog is a fan of this method for getting off beds and couches. She kind of slides. It's fairly amusing. Plus, this dog.
posted by lesli212 at 4:14 PM on January 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: OK, so my new plan is: let her stay at home as much as possible (should I give her one brief shot at the car each morning, or is No Car For Now a better idea...?) for the next few weeks. In the evenings I'll play the clicker/treat game with her near the open car, starting at my front door, also with no drama. She loves to do tricks for training treats, so maybe we can start with that and work up to getting closer and closer to the car. Hopefully enough treats and calm vibes will reset her brain... any suggestions on how best to go about this are welcome! She's my first dog, I'm more used to cats!
posted by grey_sw at 5:59 PM on January 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

It is good that you hired a trainer, but I'm sad to hear that they didn't do their full job! It's actually a good thing that the trainer can get your dog to enter the car -- that means this situation is totally workable.

We MeFites can all guess and hem and haw across the internet about what in particular gets your dog nervous when you go near the car, but we're just making educated guesses. I suggest hiring the same trainer for one or two more sessions with the goal of training you and your dog to happily get to the car together. This may start with you bringing your dog to the car while the trainer observes. Your trainer should be able to observe in real-time what's going on and can offer rapid feedback and suggestions on when to stop, when to move forward, when to give a treat, and so on. The end goal is for you and your dog to feel excited to go to the car without the trainer present; your trainer should be very capable of getting you to that point. (And if not, hire someone else.)

Good luck!
posted by nicodine at 7:21 PM on January 13, 2015

Response by poster: Ha! I just tried clicking/treating one more time, and she was totally willing to hop in the car and snuffle around as long as there was a) absolutely no pressure and b) absolutely no words (guess the latter is key!) She still seems nervous about being closed in there, so I didn't even try to close the door, but hurrah! Maybe if I'm super beep-boop-emotionless about things, she'll relax...
posted by grey_sw at 8:32 PM on January 13, 2015 [8 favorites]

Crate training!

Dog in crate. Crate in car. Boom.

Crate training will help with other behavioral issues, too. It's a totally legit training tool. It's not a one-shot deal, though. Make it part of a bigger strategy.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:54 PM on January 13, 2015

Aw. I'm glad your your beep-boop tactic is helping. That's what I did about a few things my dog was afraid of (la-di-da ho hum *yawn* nothing scary happening here...) and she eventually got over most of them (still hates water hoses).

If you haven't yet, you might also try having a blanket or cushion that's definitely *hers* and a soft toy or two that are her things that you keep in the back of your car (once you break them in as "her stuff" inside). You can just let them be there, without trying to get her excited about them, just as comfort items.

Some possibilities that might have started her off on the afraid-of-getting-in-car thing at some point in her past (aside from fear of going to the Vet) might be: she jumped in the car and someone yelled at her or punished her for it; she jumped in the car after it had been sitting in the hot sun, and got a burning feeling from the hot seat; the car door closed on her tail, or similar; the sound of the car door slamming scared or scares her.

I mention the last because many things my dog was afraid of came down to loud and/or sharp sounds, like her former fear of the dumpster where I throw our trash. I thought it was because it is big, dark, scary and weird-smelling (who wouldn't be afraid!), but it was because when it was empty and I threw a trash bag in there, it made a really loud noise. So she would cringe and lie down on the ground and refuse to move every time we came near, but because it only made the loud noise sometimes, it took a while for me to put it together.

Glad you're making progress!
posted by taz at 5:23 AM on January 14, 2015

Response by poster: I thought it was progress, but after using it to get her in the car this morning (with minimum fear!) she played the "my back feet are definitely not entering the car as I stretch for these treats" game this evening outside work, and then had another total meltdown after all the treats were gone. She's obviously way too wary to be tricked, so "pushing too fast", "no car rides for now", and "tons of no-pressure clicker sessions at home" are the only answer, I guess... I'll try a trainer again, too.
posted by grey_sw at 6:01 PM on January 14, 2015

A good trainer should teach you how to work on this, not just get the dog to do it and walk away.

But also, keep in mind how people and animals learn - it's often a sine wave, not a straight line up. This is going to take weeks minimum, not days.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:15 AM on January 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

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