How to Stop a Dog From Acting Protective of the Car

Updated on May 8, 2020
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Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."

Why is My Dog Protective of the Car?

What can I do to stop my dog from acting protective of the car? Many dogs become more aroused when dogs or other people come near the car, and dog owners wonder why this happens. There are several theories behind this behavior.

  1. Dogs are trying to just keep dogs and people away from their "turf"
  2. The may feel ''trapped'' in a car and therefore feel like engaging more in a "fight" since their flight option is removed.
  3. Some dogs, on the other hand, may develop what's known as ''barrier frustration." Since they are impeded from getting to the person or dog due to the car acting as a barrier, these dogs get frustrated and bark.

Many people assume the dog is protecting the car, but good protection dogs act protectively only when there is a real threat, not regular people coming and going out of stores.

The assumptions for acting protective of the car can be many. Regardless, of the cause, just as dogs being protective on walks or barking at the mailman, a dog acting protective of a car is often a dog's attempt to send the other dog away or person away, indeed, in most cases, the behavior stops until the dog or person is out of sight. Mission accomplished for the dog!

How to Stop a Dog From Acting Protective of the Car

A good way to reduce and stop this behavior is to get to the root of the problem and work on changing the dog's underlying emotional state. Most likely, your dog is barking/lunging/growling because he perceives the stranger as a threat.

Counterconditioning your dog to associate the presence of people near the car with treats is a good way to reduce the problem.

Items Needed

  • A volunteer to drive
  • Tasty treats
  • Treat pouch

Instructions

  1. Start this exercise at home. Equip yourself with good "ammunition like hot dog slivers, freeze-dried liver, chopped up steak, chunks of roasted chicken, etc. You want these treats to be soft and in small bite sizes so they can be delivered quickly.

  2. Fill your treat pouch with these treats and make a smacking noise with your mouth. (read about dog COR training).
  3. As soon as your dog looks at you, deliver the treat.
  4. Repeat, repeat, repeat. You want to do this until your dog automatically looks for the treat upon you making the smacking sound.

At this point, congratulations! you have classically conditioned your dog to associate the smacking noise with treats. Do this exercise several days ahead of the car ride.

Have somebody to drive the car and sit in the back seat with your dog. Park in a slightly frequented area. Every time your dog sees a person or other dog, make the smacking noise with your mouth and deliver a liver treat or other treat of your choice. Do this for every person you notice that your dog looks at. If the person or dog is approaching your car, deliver several treats in a row.

Changing the Emotional Response

After some practice, you may again start observing Pavlov's law: your dog may start drooling at the sight of people. Just make it clear that the closer people come, the more frequent and the higher value the treats become.

This exercise ultimately changes your dog's emotional state of mind, going from the aroused, "Go away, you are a threat" to the anticipatory, "I just saw a stranger, where's my treat, where's my treat!!?"

Note: It is very important to work under the threshold, this means from a distance where the dog is likely not to react. If people come too close at the initial stages of training, the dog may get too aroused and may be unable to cognitively function and take treats.

If you notice your dog is reverting back to her barking/lunging behavior, it's likely because you have gone too fast for your dog's comfort. Simply park your car in a quieter area. This work takes days, weeks and sometimes months of practice to start seeing some results, so take it slow.

Enrolling your dog in private classes may be a good start so to create a foundation of self-control and training. If you practice this enough, have good timing and are consistent, you will ultimately see results.

Dog Crates: A Great Management Strategy

While this training method may work, often, when dogs are left alone in the car, they may revert back to barking. This is often due to the fact that they feel more vulnerable when left to their own devices.

Ideally, somebody should always remain with the dog in the car and this person must be willing to practice every now and then rehearsals of the above training method discussed so to maintain the positive associations.

Try to, therefore, minimize the occurrence of leaving your dog alone in the car. Every time your dog gets to bark/growl/lunge, the behavior reinforces and is one step closer to undoing all the work and results you have accomplished so far.

So what to do, if you must leave the car? Invest in a dog crate. Most dogs automatically settle once in the crate. It may be worth covering the crate on one side with a blanket or towel if seeing strangers may cause your dog to bark from inside the crate. Many states require dogs to travel in crate anyway when in the car, so this may be necessary and provide a good solution to the problem.

Note for Puppy Owners

Puppies need loads of socialization, especially between the ages of 4 to 16 weeks. It is a good idea to include in your puppy socialization program having strangers come near the car as you deliver treats to your puppy.

Does your dog bark at strangers when in the car?

See results

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2011 Adrienne Farricelli

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    • profile image

      LitterHouse Pet Store 

      7 years ago

      Thanks for the tips. Oscar does not really bark, he just runs. I have been searching pet stores for pet products that keep him close to home. May have to do the invisible fence

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 

      8 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      We have a dog in the family that is over protective and very scary. But he's really quite gentle otherwise. Thanks for sharing!

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