Car Anxiety in Dogs

So, Michga is not exactly the calmest dog in the world. My mom says she’s neurotic; my aunt says she’s just mean (she calls her “Bitchga”); my brother says she’s a “schizoid.” I say she may not be exactly perfect, but we do not need to go putting labels on her, okay? She’s just got a couple of nervous habits.

One such habit, as we’ll call it, is her tendency to be a bit… overdramatic… when it comes to car rides.

THE PROBLEM

Okay, let’s be honest – she’s got a serious case of car anxiety.

The weird thing is that Michga seems to forget how much she absolutely does not like car rides until the actual moment we get into the car. If I say “time to go for a ride” or “who wants to go for a ride,” she is up and running around and barking to get in the car and acting like she has literally never been as excited in her entire life as she is in this exact moment.

CAR RIDE CAR RIDE CAR RIDE

CAR RIDE CAR RIDE CAR RIDE

This good mood, sadly, only lasts until we get in the car. Almost the second I shut the door and buckle up, she’s shaking or panting or both. I don’t know how she works herself up so quickly, but all the sudden she’s gone from a kid in a candy store to a kid at the dentist.

Then, after a couple of seconds or minutes, the noise starts – the tragic, pitiful, high pitched whines; the little yips and howls she throws in here and there. Perhaps she’s singing the song of her people as a cry for help, or trying to burst my eardrums as punishment for putting her in this position.

Possibly both.

don't worry, I wasn't the one driving

don’t worry, I wasn’t the one driving

Michga usually does calm down, but only after half an hour or so (she’s mostly only in the car for long drives). She stops with the whining, but the shaking or panting typically persists a bit longer.

And it’s not that this annoys me. It only concerns me for her, and how distressed she must be by this anxiety. I want her to be able to ride in the car without working herself up into a state of pointless panic.

THE SOLUTION (?)

In my attempts to solve this anxiety, I have tried a couple of simple solutions, such as giving her treats in the car, rolling the windows down, or wrapping her in a jacket that smells like me to calm her.

Unfortunately, she refuses to eat the treats. Having the windows down helps sometimes, but not always. And the jacket thing only worked for about 30 seconds.

I don’t want to medicate her just to calm her down. I’ve seen dogs on calming pills, and it’s a pretty depressing thing to watch. I have a friend whose dog is afraid of fireworks. They have to give him drugs so he doesn’t go insane on the Fourth of July. He walks around in a half-awake state, his legs collapsing underneath him; unable, sometimes, to even stand properly. You can tell how confused and distressed he is by the condition he finds himself in.

So unless it’s absolutely the only way to solve the problem, I would really rather use some other technique.

The best solution I found when I researched the problem (read: Googled “car anxiety in dogs”) was to drive your dogs to fun places, like the park, so that they associate the car ride with happy times. This is a bit of a challenge. Michga’s anxiety extends to more than the car – she is wary of strangers, other dogs, sudden noises, suspicious-looking trees; all of which she would most likely encounter at a park.

hmm... this plant smells suspicious

hmm… this plant smells suspicious

Another piece of advice I found was to put them in a crate or some sort of restraint in the car, so that they are held still in the moving vehicle. But Michga is not crate trained – I let her be free in my room when I’m gone.  So she would not see the crate as a safe place. Plus, when she’s scared she would much rather be in my lap than anywhere else. I’m afraid separating her from me to put her in some sort of doggy car seat would only make the problem worse.

I’m stumped. Anyone got any better ideas? Or have you had a dog with car anxiety? I’m sure Michga would appreciate any help.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Car Anxiety in Dogs

  1. I know my dogs like watching the road to know where they’re going. Encouraging Michga to look out the window might help since she can see what’s happening. My sister’s dog, a Staffordshire Terrier, has pretty bad anxiety but she loves car rides as long as she can cuddle with someone or put her head out the window.

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    • Sometimes this works for her! But only for a minute or two usually, because she’ll get bored or something and stop looking. Plus, sometimes the car is just going too fast (like on the interstate) for me to let her stick her head out.

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  2. Oh I feel your pain. Woody and Ellie are REALLY bad in the car, but Mindy is super good. She hasn’t ridden with either of them yet, so I don’t know if she’d pick up their bad habits. We have the whining, crying, panting, jumping between seats problem as well. I can usually get Woody to calm down, but Ellie doesn’t listen to reason. Our solution: Only drive with the dogs when we absolutely have to! (I know-not helpful).

    Ellie is my anxious dog and because of a persistent hot spot on her leg that she wouldn’t leave alone, my vet recommended a couple products for anxiety-reduction. She had also developed a fear of our morning walks because of a freak thunder storm/lightening episode over a year ago. The first one, Xylkene (over the counter) really didn’t do anything and the second one, Chlomicalm (prescription) worked to keep her from gnawing her foot, but didn’t really help to reduce other anxiety. I’m like you-I don’t like the idea of medicine for this, but I was desperate with the hot spot especially. Thankfully it’s healing well, she’s walking with us again and she’s managing the meds really well-no zombie dog.

    I know not everyone is a fan of the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Milan, but I’ve found many of his training methods very helpful. http://www.cesarsway.com/ You can find his shows on Youtube. There’s one episode in the first season, I think, where he helped a great dane with some major anxiety issues.

    Without question, anything you do behavior wise, will take tremendous commitment and patience on your part, but it sounds like you’re already that kind of person.

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    • Thank you for this! I don’t know a whole lot about Cesar – I read a couple of chapters of his book once and had mixed feelings – but I’m amazed at some of the stuff I’ve seen him do on his show. So I will definitely look for that episode! I really do love what he says: that he doesn’t train dogs, he trains people.

      I do have trouble not giving into her, so I’m sure you’re right, anything will take a lot of effort from me. But I will certainly try.

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  3. Poor Miss Michga. I’m afraid I don’t have much helpful advice–I love riding in the car even though I don’t get to do it very often. My old obedience trainer once suggested that humans give their dog friends a few drops of Bach’s Rescue Remedy to ease anxiety. But I’m not sure it does anything–it’s an herbal mixture.
    When I used to get separation anxiety, the Lady would give me a small Kong with some frozen (unsalted) peanut butter in it, and that would keep me occupied long enough to keep from losing my marbles when my People left the house. But if Miss Michga is not responding to treats, I don’t know if that would work.
    Good luck!

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    • I’ve never actually tried to give Michga a kong before! That’s an interesting idea. Maybe if it was peanut butter or something like that it would work better than treats. She DOES calm down when I have human food in the car (well, she uses her energy to beg instead of be anxious), so maybe peanut butter would work the same way.

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