Two dogs looking out rear car window

Your Dog’s First Car Ride– Make it Calm, Safe, and Fun!

Taking your dog out for his first car ride to a new adventure can be one of your most exciting and bonding times together.  But it is very important that you ensure your dog’s comfort, especially if your dog has any unease or anxiety about riding in a car. 

Some dogs or puppies may be anxious, even terrified of riding in a car. They may have had past experiences that were traumatic or very unpleasant. Unfortunately, a lot of dogs only get to ride in cars when they go to the vet or groomers.  But with a little effort and kindness, you can help recondition your dog’s response to his first car ride with these simple steps:

  1. First, get your new dog used to just sitting in the car
  2. Next, move the car a very short distance with your dog inside
  3. Safety: Secure your dog away from the driver’s seat
  4. Give your dog a potty break before the ride
  5. Take very short trips initially
  6. Accommodate for car sickness
  7. Use treats or chewy toys liberally to keep it fun
  8. Be sure to take your dog to a fun place frequently!

This may take a little time, but it can make all of the difference in the world in how your best new furry friend experiences outings and new adventures!

First, Just Have Your Dog Sit in the Car

Before you even begin to drive, make sure your dog is comfortable with just sitting in the car. If you keep your car in a garage, keep the garage door closed and simply open the doors to your car and see if you can encourage your dog to jump in. If you park outside, then just keep your dog on a long leash.  You may want to sit in the backseat for a while and see if he will join you.  If not, you may need to entice him with treats or favorite chewy toys.  If your dog is small, you may need to boost him or pick him up to assist getting inside.  But if possible, let him do it on his own. 

Make it feel like a new game.  You can keep both of the doors open and let him go in and out.  If you plan to have him ride in the cargo area, you can sit or lean there and let him jump in and out.  You may even need to hide a few treats in the car to make it more fun. 

2. Move Your Car a Short Distance with Your Dog Inside

Next, once your dog is used to being inside the car, shut the doors and move your car a short distance down the driveway or parking lot.  You could even drive a half of a block and back.  If he starts to exhibit some anxiety or whining, it may be helpful to have a friend or family member sit in the back with him and continue to feed a treat or two. 

It is very important to speak in a calm, but upbeat voice.  Make sure he knows this a good thing and not just a ride to the (dreaded) vet.  When you come back to your parking area or garage, praise him as he jumps out.  Try not to scold or use a harsh tone.  Remember, this can be a big deal for a dog or puppy to ride in a noisy, metal contraption on wheels where he is confined and has no control!

3. Safety Always!

For your dog’s first car ride and for all subsequent rides, safety is paramount! Not only is it dangerous, but you could get a traffic ticket for not securing your dog away from the driver’s seat.  Your dog should ride in the back seat or cargo area.  There are many options for securing a dog to keep him both safe and prevent him from jumping into the front seat.  Pet stores and other retailers sell a variety of screens and metal grates that can be installed to block access from the back seat and cargo areas.  Hammock-like covers can also be installed in the backseat area to keep your dog from falling onto the floor and to protect your seats.

Charlotte and Georgia riding safely in cargo area of Kia Soul with  safety grid.
My dogs are ready for their first ride in the cargo area with a safety grid installed.

Please note that dogs should not be placed in the front passenger seat. Inflated air bags can cause serious injury or death. 

Harnesses

Although seat belts have not been invented for dogs, some very good seat harnesses are available to help secure your dog.  A few of these harnesses have been tested and certified as crash proof.  The American Kennel Society has a great post on Dog Road Trip Safety https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/dog-road-trip-safety-tips-for-a-fun-and-safe-car-trip-with-your-dog/

Their post features Sleepy Pod harnesses which carry a certification.   They are cushioned, come in a variety of colors and sizes, and can be secured to the seat belt in the back seat.  They are flexible so the dog can move around, but they don’t allow the dog to climb into the front seat.  So your dog will be protected from being thrown forward and also cannot wander around the car. 

I love the concept of this type of harness and there are now several brands to choose from.  This type of harness eliminates the need to buy special grates or mesh dividers which can sometimes obscure vision.  I bought the Sleepy Pod brand for my two medium sized dogs.  Unfortunately, one of my Cattle Dog mixed breed dogs is quite the Houdini, and managed to escape from the harness!  I even measured her to make sure I had the right size.  Where there is a will, there is a way!  So, these harnesses may not work for all dogs. 

Seat Belt/Collar Connectors – Dangerous!

One word of warning is to never connect your dog’s collar to a seat belt!  Even though some pet brands offer a snap-on connector, it is a bad idea. Using something attached to your dog’s collar or harness that is not approved for car safety, could choke or harm your dog in the event of an accident.  I always cringe when I see dogs riding in an open truck bed with a rope attached to their collar!  This scenario is totally unsafe for poor Fido!

Crates

Most dog trainers recommend transporting your dog in crates. Crates and car baskets (for smaller dogs) are by far the safest way to transport a dog.  They come in metal, hard plastic, and soft mesh styles.  They contain your dog from moving around the car or getting thrown around, and they can be secured to a seat belt or snugly fitted into the cargo area. Crates may be especially helpful on your dog’s first car ride

The down side, is that your dog cannot see out the windows very well and may not enjoy the trip as much.  However, if your dog is used to sleeping in a crate, he may feel more secure in your car inside a crate. 

Another problem with crates is that they may not fit into your car. 

What works for My Car and Dogs

I have a Kia Soul and two medium sized dogs.  I could not get two crates for their size to fit in my car. So, I mostly use the backseat with a screen divider and a hammock which you can see at Amazon. I started out using the small cargo area with a grated divider, but I always worried about getting rear ended and the trunk flying open.  Also, I had to hang part of their leashes outside the closed cargo door. That was only way I could access the leashes when I raised the door before my dogs lunged out of the car.  Their “wait” command training has not been 100% perfect! However, the cargo area works well on short trips or when I have passengers. See this nifty Kia Soul after market cargo guard at Amazon.

Charlotte and Georgia are ready for their ride in the back seat with a safety hammock and screen divider installed.

4. Be Sure to Give Him a Potty Break Before a Ride

Riding in a car can be very stimulating for your dog, and he may need a potty break. You may have to make a pit stop shortly after you get started even if his had a break before the ride.  I could not figure out why my two seven year old dogs would whine, cry, and jump around so much, until I realized this.  No matter what time of day, something about a car ride caused them to need a bathroom break after about 10 or  fifteen minutes in the car.  So, I have learned to put them out in the backyard for a few minutes before we leave , and I also make a pit stop at the local park before  heading off for our longer outing.  That usually takes care of the whining for at least an hour. 

5. For Your Dog’s First Car Trips Take Short Trips Initially

Unless your is one of those rare dogs who just absolutely loves to go for a car ride (and some do), make your first few trips short—under 30 minutes.  Frequency is also important.  The more he rides with you, the faster he will learn that this is not such a bad thing! 

I recently went through a period of walking everywhere with my dogs and not driving to the more distant parks and hiking areas.  When I did put them in the car again, they had some of the initial anxiety they exhibited during their earlier car rides.  So, I had to make a couple of extra pit stops and reassure them with treats. The finally settled down and loved their hike once we got to the trail!

When you do decide they are ready for a longer ride such as a day trip, make sure you make plenty of pit stops. Put together a doggie road kit to carry all of their important supplies—water, bowls, food, treats, poop bags, extra leashes, and first aid supplies. 

6. Car Sickness

The motion of travel can make both people and dogs feel queasy. If your dog vomits or seems to look a little green around those furry gills, you might need to change where he rides in the car. The cargo area will be a little bumpier than the back seat. The back seat may be a better option. 

My dogs do not seem to get really car sick, but they do seem to be happier sitting closer to me in the back seat than in the cargo area.  They tend to whine less and I can talk to them to calm them down. They can face forward rather than backward and don’t get jostled around as much. 

If motion sickness seems to be an on-going problem, your vet may also be able to prescribe a medication such as Cerenia (maropitant citrate). This will be especially helpful if you need to take your dog on a long trip.  Make sure that you do not feed him a heavy meal right before heading out in the car.

7. Treats, Treats, and More Treats!

With the exception of causing car sickness, you really can’t overdo it with treats to make car rides more tolerable!  I always carry bags of very small bite-sized treats like Charlee Bears which have few calories and are great for training and car rides. The best way to a dog’s heart and head is through his stomach!  I guess we all like comfort food now and then.

8. Be Sure to Take Your Dog Out for Fun Adventures!

A  dog’s world can be very small.  Unless you have a big yard, or you live on a ranch or farm, your dog’s daily routine may be restricted. He will only have your home or apartment and possibly a small yard or patio to run around in. 

In addition to a daily walk around the neighborhood, try to take your dog out periodically on a hike in your regional park, in the woods, to the beach, or maybe to a fun dog park.  Make sure his car rides involve more than going to the vet or  groomers or some other dog-forsaken place!

Your newly adopted dog is going to be your new best friend.  He will want to go where you go as much as possible. So, include him with you on as many adventures as you can. 

Once you follow these simple steps to get your dog used to traveling in your car or truck, your travels together can be extensive.  Enjoy your new adventures together!

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