How Do I Help A Dog Afraid of Car Rides?

by Britt
Photo credit: Andrey_Popov /

Do you dream of travelling the world with your best friend by your side, but your dog turns into a nervous wreck every time you approach the car? If so, you’re not alone! Many dogs experience car anxiety to some degree, ranging from those who are slightly unsure of the vehicle to those who experience severe levels of stress.

Luckily, there are options to manage your dog’s anxiety and even prevent it from happening in the future.

In this article, we’ll explore various ways to improve your dog’s relationship with the car, from gradual desensitization to the use of calming treats and other products to make your next road trip easier for everyone!

Is Driving Stressful for Dogs?

Whether your dog finds car rides to be stressful will vary from dog to dog. Many pups are excited by simply hearing the phrase “car ride” and love sharing that experience with their human family members. However, for some dogs, the idea of getting into a vehicle instantly triggers feelings of stress and anxiety.

As dog parents, the best thing we can do is pay careful attention to our dog's nonverbal communication and body language. Although dogs may not be able to speak English, they do a pretty good job of communicating how they are feeling if we know how to listen.

How Do I Know if My Dog is Scared in the Car?

Interpreting your dog’s body language often involves noting several different behaviors, as fear and anxiety can easily mimic excitement in many ways. For example, fearful dogs may whine when approaching a vehicle because they are afraid of getting into the car. However, approaching the same way with an excited dog may trigger a whine as they anticipate the fun ahead.

Other aspects of their behavior, like their stance (standing tall and confident versus hunched low to the ground with their tail tucked), can help you better translate what your dog is trying to tell you.

Some of the common signs that a dog is feeling afraid or anxious include:

  • Excessive panting or yawning
  • Licking the lips
  • Whale eyes (showing the whites of the eyes)
  • Large, dilated pupils
  • Ears pressed forward or back against the head
  • Cowering or attempting to hide
  • Tail tucked between the legs or up and stuff
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Submissive urination
  • Staring intently at the trigger
  • Displacement behaviors like sneezing or itching
  • Refusal to take treats (even if they are typically food-driven)

The most important thing to remember is that every dog is different. Your dog may display any combination of the symptoms listed above. No one knows your dog better than you. Trust your gut if you feel that something is off, even if it doesn’t fit the stereotypical fear response.

Why is My Dog Scared of Car Rides?

Anytime you are trying to help your dog work through stress or anxiety, the first step is to understand why that particular trigger bothers them. This allows you to focus on addressing the source of their fear for a long-term solution. A few of the more common reasons why a dog may be afraid of being in a moving vehicle include:

Lack of Previous Exposure

If your dog has little or no experience in a vehicle, everything about it is new and different. Just as many people are afraid of the unknown, so too are many dogs. Imagine never having been in a vehicle before and experiencing it for the first time. Your dog is suddenly thrown into a situation with new sights, sounds, and sensations. It can be overwhelming!

This is the easiest root cause to address. By introducing your dog to car rides in a safe and positive way, you can show them there is no need to be afraid and alleviate any concerns they may have.

Traumatic Experience

Do you have a dog that was once comfortable in a vehicle but now experiences extreme anxiety whenever you approach one? Take a moment to look back at what may have happened around the time this opinion changed. Traumatic events like a car accident may have a long-lasting effect on your dog’s opinion of cars and car rides. These fears can still be worked through, but they will likely take more work than those simply lacking exposure.

Motion Sickness

This explanation is often overlooked but can definitely contribute to anxiety about riding in a car. If your dog experiences motion sickness, that means they have a very negative association with being in a vehicle. They know that when they go for a car ride, they get sick. Therefore, the idea of going for a ride makes them feel concerned or anxious.

Unlike the previous explanations, you won’t be able to overcome this anxiety with basic exposure. Instead, you need to find a way to offer relief for the symptoms of motion sickness. This could include natural solutions, like the Thundershirt, or speaking with your veterinarian about medications to alleviate any suffering and discomfort.

Photo credit: trezordia /

What Will Calm a Dog for a Car Ride?

There are three main approaches to addressing car anxiety in dogs.

Prevention: Steps can be taken to prevent anxiety before it starts. These preventative measures aren’t guaranteed but can significantly reduce your dog’s stress level. Solutions in this category often focus on managing your dog’s experience and environment, setting their spot in the vehicle up in a way that makes them most comfortable.

Short-Term Band-Aid Solutions: If you need to take a car ride and don’t have time to work through a full treatment option, Band-Aid solutions offer quick relief. However, they are just that—a Band-Aid—and won’t actually “fix” the problem. These solutions are great for situations where travel is unavoidable, like moving or a trip to the vet.

Examples of short-term solutions include:

Long-Term Treatment: The ideal approach to your dog’s car anxiety would be to consider long-term treatment, which would set them up for success for the rest of their lives. These options are not a quick fix and won’t work overnight. Instead, they involve taking steps over time that have a more permanent impact on your dog’s mental and emotional state (or physical, if it’s related to motion sickness) when in a moving vehicle.

Some effective long-term solutions include:

  • Desensitization and counterconditioning exercises
  • Ongoing medical treatment for motion sickness
  • Anxiety medication from your vet

Do Dog Booster Seats Help with Anxiety?

If you haven’t seen one previously, a dog booster seat is a hammock or elevated box-like seat for smaller dogs. It helps to keep them contained in a designated area while also allowing them to see their surroundings out the window, which they may not otherwise be able to do due to their size.

For some dogs, having this smaller space provides a sense of security. They know it is their “safe place,” like the attraction dogs have to den-like locations. It also makes incorporating other comforting items, like a favorite blanket, easy.

The ability to see out the window may also help alleviate their anxiety. Dogs often fear the unknown, as they can’t spot a potential risk as it approaches. Simply giving them the ability to see their surroundings may make them feel more confident in their ability to keep themselves safe.

Can CBD Help Dogs with Car Anxiety?

There has been a significant increase in the number of products for dogs incorporating CBD, and for good reason. We have long recognized the calming and relaxing benefits of CBD for people, and now those same benefits are accessible to our pups. You can choose from many forms, including chews, treats, oils, and more.

Will My Dog Eventually Get Used to the Car?

Young puppies with car anxiety may grow out of their fear as they experience the world around them more. At this age, the stress they experience is often rooted in a fear of the unknown. However, not every dog will grow out of this struggle. For most dogs, you will need to take steps to help them overcome this fear or manage their anxiety for a comfortable road trip. Some dogs will never adjust to the point of being able to take longer trips without being sedated.

Tips and Tricks to Prevent Car Anxiety in Dogs

Now that we have broken down the essential facts regarding car anxiety, how to identify signs of nervousness in your dog, and the treatment options available – let’s focus on prevention. After all, avoiding any fear or anxiety entirely would be the best-case scenario.

It should be noted that while the following tips may reduce your dog’s anxiety, they aren’t a solution. These prevention tips are most effective in dogs who are nervous or experience minor feelings of fear and stress. In situations where a dog’s car anxiety is more extreme, these steps may not impact their experience.

Create a “Safe Space”

There are several ways to make your dog’s space in the vehicle more comforting to reduce stress levels. Make sure your dog can see at least one trusted family member. Include items that will soothe and comfort your dog, like a favorite toy or blanket with their scent on it. We use small blankets on all our pets’ beds at home that we can bring with us during our travels.

Consider Calming Music

Studies show that music can have a calming effect on pets, including dogs. This approach has been researched extensively and is often used to reduce stress and anxiety in shelters or kennels. Classical music, in particular, has been shown to offer the most calming influence on dogs. However, every dog is different. Try different musical selections while monitoring your dog’s body language to discover what will work best for them.

Work Up to Road Trips

If possible, avoid jumping into a 3-hour road trip the first time your dog is in the vehicle. Instead, slowly introduce them to the vehicle and create a positive association. This approach can also be used to help dogs who are already afraid of the car overcome their fears.

Start by sitting in the vehicle with your dog in the driveway with the engine off. You can feed your dog in this space, offer treats, or just enjoy some calm time together with praise and affection. This will help your dog see the vehicle as a “good” place where they get things they like, including your attention and their favorite treats.

When your dog is comfortable in the vehicle without the engine running, try starting the car during a session without going anywhere. This will introduce the sound and feel of the engine when it is running. Eventually, you can work up to just backing down the driveway, a trip around the block, and then a trip to your local pet store. Don’t rush this process. Take your time and lay the foundation for long-term success.

Keep Your Emotions in Check

When a dog becomes worked up or anxious, they may act up in ways you find frustrating or annoying. For example, your dog may whine constantly, bark, howl, pace, or paw at your arm from the backseat to get your attention. Pay careful attention to how you respond. If you become upset, your dog will feed off those negative emotions. Instead, speak in a calm, steady voice, avoid snapping or getting upset, and introduce a calming influence into the situation.

Use Calming Products as Directed

Take a moment to read the packaging of your chosen calming products. While some act quickly, others take time to be effective. We have had great results with the Zesty Paws Calming Bites, but it is recommended that they be given to a dog approximately 30 minutes before they are introduced to a stressful situation or trigger. This gives the chews time to take effect. So, we make a point of giving these chews to our boy Indy at least 30 minutes before taking him to the vehicle.

Final Thoughts – Dogs and Car Anxiety

If your dog struggles with car anxiety, you may be concerned that you will never be able to travel with your best friend by your side. Good news—there are options that can help your pup work through its fears and build a positive association with car travel.

Take a moment to consider your dog’s history with car travel. Was their body language communicating fear from their first trip? Were they once comfortable in the vehicle until a traumatic experience, like a car accident, changed their opinion? Understanding the possible causes and triggers for your dog’s car anxiety will help you determine the best course of action.

Desensitization or counterconditioning is the most effective approach to helping a dog overcome their nervousness about traveling in a car. This isn’t a quick fix and won’t make everything better overnight. If you need a faster solution for an upcoming trip, consider products like calming chews, pheromone collars, or a Thundershirt. Contact your veterinarian to discuss possible medical solutions if calming products aren't enough.

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Britt Kascjak is a proud pet mom, sharing her heart (and her home) with her “pack” which includes her husband John, their 2 dogs – Indiana and Lucifer – and their 2 cats – Pippen and Jinx. She has been active in the animal rescue community for over 15 years, volunteering, fostering and advocating for organizations across Canada and the US. In her free time, she enjoys traveling around the country camping, hiking, and canoeing with her pets.

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