Please help our dog chill out in the car again!
July 9, 2017 6:17 PM   Subscribe

We spent last week driving across the US with our dog, who is 8 years old and has always been fine (if a little excitable) in the car. About halfway there, I drove over a rumble strip; it made a scary noise for maybe 3 seconds, and now our dog is INTENSELY FREAKED OUT every time she's in the car. Please help!

We drove this far because we were moving from Pittsburgh to Eugene, OR, so the last few weeks have been fairly stressful for Mozilla regardless - she's a sensitive pup who needs routine, and unfortunately we couldn't give her much of one as we packed and got ready. We took her to doggy day care for the three days right before the drive so she was good and tired as we started out, but unfortunately we didn't get her super long walks during the drive. The day after the Scary Noise Incident we realized that she hadn't slept off her newfound car terror - instead of napping in the backseat with her adorable puppy face up on the console between us, she was throwing herself around the backseat, panting, shaking, and just obviously miserable. We stopped to try to give her as much of a walk as we could, and got some Benadryl to try to help her at least sleep, but this had only minimal effect. The next morning I called our vet back in Pittsburgh and they said I could give her one of my 1 mg Ativan pills (anxiety runs in the family!), but that didn't work, either. We pretty much just had to white-knuckle the last 2.5 days of the drive with a freaked-out dog.

Now that we're in our new home, we first tried a few short trips around town, but she was just as panicked as ever. At this point we're trying to start from the ground up: twice a day my wife gets into the back seat with her and feeds her smelly treats as I drive halfway around our block, stop so we can get out and walk, and then we repeat the process to drive the few hundred feet home. I'd love to keep this up - VERY short trips building up slowly, lots of treats when she'll accept them (though at times she gets too panicked to eat), someone in the back seat with her for comfort, etc - but we need to be able to take her to the vet and would like to get her into doggy day care again ASAP (not to mention, we'd wanted to take her to the parks, beaches, etc!).

Are there things we aren't doing that could help? We've considered using a doggy seatbelt to help her feel a bit more "secured," and have contemplated a Thunder Shirt, but they seem rather expensive if they don't work - thoughts? What about dog pheromone products - I know they exist, but are they helpful the way Feliway seems to be for cats? Behaviorally or medicinally, are there other things we should look into? We'll certainly get her a vet here soon and will talk to them about this as well, but in the meantime, we just want to help our dog feel comfortable in the car again.

One constraint: our car is a 2-door Civic and her crate is rather large - I don't think I can get it in or I would do so. Thanks for any suggestions you can provide!
posted by DingoMutt to Pets & Animals (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If she is getting panicked on the short trips, I would practice just getting in the car, getting a treat and getting out again. At least with humans, you want to keep it down to mild anxiety at each step.
posted by metahawk at 7:04 PM on July 9, 2017 [5 favorites]

Can you manage to get a pet hammock and the dog into the backseat? It will help keep your doggo safely cuddled in the back seat, instead of thrashing wildly, and you can pad it out with blankets and pillow so it's super cozy.

Also, have you tried a thundershirt? They are very helpful for anxiety.

Start slow with all this -- metahawk is correct, train her out of her anxiety while the car is not moving, with whatever treats she likes best. Then move to having the car on, then short trips up the street and then home, etc.

Best of luck, she's a cutie :)
posted by ananci at 7:08 PM on July 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Do you need to have her in the car right away for your routine? Like a daily dog day care or the like? Because if not, I think I'd first focus on getting her regular daily routine established since basically everything about her life has changed right now.

And then, when she's generally feeling better about things, I'd start as the above posters mentioned, with extreme baby steps.

I can't tell how big she is from the photo, but both my pups have booster seats that give them a secure spot, and get them up high enough to see out of the car. This is the one I like best.
posted by pixiecrinkle at 7:42 PM on July 9, 2017

Oh, and this thundershirt faking technique has been a staple in my household due to fireworks in the last week.
posted by pixiecrinkle at 7:43 PM on July 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the advice so far! I can definitely see where it would make sense to start off with simply treating her in the car without it even being on, but the reason I haven't done that so far is that she actually does still get excited when we ask if she wants to go for a ride, and she jumps into the car with no problem and will sit and be fine as we back out - it's really only once we're moving forward that the panic sets in. Because of that we figured it made sense to begin at that stage - with the treats and short drives; should we still take it back a few steps? If so, if she already seems fine sitting in a parked car, what signs should I look for to indicate it's time to move on to the next step?

(And pixiecrinkle, thank you for that fake thundershirt technique! Stupid question: what do you use as the fabric - a scarf?)
posted by DingoMutt at 8:01 PM on July 9, 2017

We've done the fake thunder shirt wrap on our dog, using a big wide ace bandage.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 8:39 PM on July 9, 2017

Rather than just a really short trip around the block, how about a short trip to somewhere she will like such as a park. Get her to associate car with good again.
posted by AugustWest at 11:57 PM on July 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

So she's cool with reversing? Or is it when you get out on the street (still reversing?) Or is it forward driving only?

Maybe you could reverse into your driveway so you could do little bit forward drives?

Could you record a rumble strip sound (or find one) to play (not in the car) to help her desensitise to the sound?
posted by freethefeet at 4:48 AM on July 10, 2017

If you don't have an Ace bandage, you could also try a child's t shirt that would mimic the hugging effect. You could get one at a thrift shop pretty cheap.
posted by not that mimi at 5:10 AM on July 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

You mention that your dog is a dog of routine. When we moved 30 minutes away, our then 8-9 year old lab was freaked out and trembling the first day or two, and still very weirded out for a good week. I think it took her about a month to really settle in to the new house.

I'd probably nix the car rides since they're freaking her out, and she might not be even comfortable at home. After about a month, then start with the "just getting in car for lots of treats" and expanding on that. It's good that already she's excited to get in the car, but really keep doing the small stuff just to fully build up her confidence and prevent the stress freakouts.
posted by nobeagle at 6:08 AM on July 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

This might not do anything (or it might be worse) but have you considered trying to work on desensitization in a different car or truck not associated with the scary stuff? If you can't borrow a car, some rental car companies have pet-friendly policies.
posted by R a c h e l at 9:38 AM on July 10, 2017

Well, my dogs are both little, and I never remember to find anything better until they are freaking out due to thunderstorms or fireworks, so I am currently using folded bandanas tied end-to-end.
posted by pixiecrinkle at 12:24 PM on July 10, 2017

What a cutie! I feel your pain -- we also have a dog that goes nuts in the car. The seatbelt and the hammock haven't made much of a difference to our dog, except it makes it a harder for her to get into the front seat, so we feel a little safer. We actually drove from SD to LA and back, and she ended up on the floor in spite of the seatbelt and the hammock, and seemed to prefer it there.

Ours does a hundred times better on the freeway than on surface streets, so it might be worth toughing it out and seeing if she does better with the smoother ride. Ours also seems calmer at night, though I don't know if that's because she can't see as much or because she's exhausted from her training class (that's the only time we've had her out at night).

I'm definitely going to try the ace bandage thundershirt!
posted by natabat at 8:17 AM on July 11, 2017

Thanks again for all the great ideas, everyone! We'll definitely be trying out the makeshift thundershirt (though at 55 lbs, I think Moe will probably need that wide Ace bandage and can only hope she looks as cute/comfy in it as pixiecrinkle's pups looked in their bandanas).

My wife and I have talked it over, and agree that giving her time to settle in to everything else going on in her life right now is probably for the best before we really try tackling this car issue again. Unfortunately in the meantime she's also developed a wonky, squinty, possibly pink eye, so we're going to have to take her to the vet for that (argh), but we'll load up on smelly treats and thundershirts and see if we can get a different car to take her in.

At least in the meantime my wife and I are both home during the day for now, so she's got plenty of company and snuggle time. Hopefully we'll have her back in driving shape again over time - thanks again!
posted by DingoMutt at 9:14 AM on July 12, 2017

So, we're a month out from when I posted this question and I thought I'd share my happy update: Mozilla is SO much better in the car again! I think that simply giving her time to adjust to all the immense changes we'd all gone through was key - we held off on taking her in the car until she was settling in to our new home, then did a few very short trips until she was relatively cool with those, and since then have been bringing copious yummy, stinky treats with us to help calm her down. We'd had a dog behaviorist once recommend tossing a bunch of very small treats onto the ground (or car floor/seat) to encourage sniffing around, which she said is soothing for dogs - so Moe has been doing plenty of "find it"s in the car.

Overall she still seems a little more active/anxious than she once had been, but there's no more shaking, much less bouncing around, and no sheer terror in her eyes. She seems much happier. We were even able to take her on a 2-hour drive to the beach last week and she LOVED it - I think we'd all agree it was worth the drive.

So we'll keep on working with the treats and reassurances, and we'll keep on driving her to dog parks and beaches and places she loves. Thanks, everyone, for the help and ideas - things are much better now!
posted by DingoMutt at 1:50 PM on August 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

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