Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
How to Calm Dog in Car
Dogs who are excited in the car are often the ones who love car rides so much that they are unable to contain their happiness. These dogs are always ready to hop in the car, often quivering in anticipation.
Of course, seeing a dog exhibit great happiness towards an innocent activity such as going on a car ride is endearing to many dog owners as it just goes on to demonstrate how much enthusiasm and joy dogs demonstrate in their lives. It goes to show us how important it is to live life to the fullest.
Yet, too much excitement can be counterproductive, especially when you need to concentrate on driving and can't focus because your dog is barking at the top of his lungs and pacing from one window to another!
Many dog owners would appreciate some calmer behaviors in the car. What makes dogs so excited about car rides, and most of all, what can be done to reduce their excited behaviors? Let's take a look.
Why Are Dogs Excited in the Car?
What causes car-induced excitement in dogs? There can be several reasons. Differentiating these reasons takes careful evaluation of your dog's body language and associated emotions. It also takes keeping into consideration several factors such as age.
Lack of Impulse Control
Many dogs who are super excited in the car are young dogs. Young dogs may not have much impulse control and therefore haven't learned how to cope with their strong emotions and keep them under control. These dogs may also act excited when they see the leash or when they meet other dogs on walks.
Many Happy Associations
Acting excited about going in the car of course also takes place because the car brings dogs to many happy, desirable places such as the dog park, daycare, the beach, to visit friends or pleasant hikes.
Dogs may get excited going in the car because of these many happy associations. Indeed, you may notice how smart dogs get more and more excited the moment you take that turn towards the park or when you hit the breaks announcing your arrival to their favorite locations.
Feeding Off Your Excitement
Are you the type of dog owner who talks to your dog in a very enthusiastic tone, revving your dog up? If so, your dog may be feeding off your excitement. Maybe, it's time to tone things down a tad bit.
One of my friends often complains her dog is too hyper but fails to realize that often she's the one riling her dog up with her excited tones of voice and fast movements.
She shouldn't be surprised when Jumper starts acting all hyper when she tells him "Wanna go on a car ride? Wanna go to the dog park! Yay! Now, who's a good boy? Who's the good boy?"
Sure she gets a lot of entertainment from just watching her dog act silly and bouncy, but she fails to realize how her behavior impacts him! She hasn't ever asked for my help though, although I see her struggle at times, so I don't feel like giving her an uninvited lecture until she sees a problem.
An Element of Anxiety
Sometimes, among the excitement, there may also be an element of anxiety. So make sure your dog is comfortable being in the car. Anxiety in the car may be due to fear or uncertainty about the destination. If you take your dog to the park and then sometimes to vet visits, your dog may be anxious not knowing where he's about to go. Should he be happy or worried? Life is full of uncertainties!
On top of this, some dogs are anxious in the car because they get car sick. If your dog drools when he is in the car, your dog may be suffering from motion sickness mixed in with anxiety.
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Sometimes, dogs who get motion sick never escalate to the point of drooling and vomiting, but rather just act restless, panting and pacing, therefore these cases may be easily confused with anxiety/excitement.
Not Without Challenges
A dog's eagerness and excitement to get in the car is in great contrast to dogs who are terrified of car rides, shaking from fear and forcing owners to pick them up to endure a car ride.
Some dogs may be truly anxious about the ride itself, while other dogs fear jumping into a car or are scared of going to the vet. Other dogs, as mentioned, have come to associate the car ride with being carsick which exerts a compounding effect.
While dealing with a dog with a car phobia may be frustrating enough, dealing with a dog who is overly enthusiastic about car rides has also its challenges. Often these dogs are constantly whining, barking and pacing back and forth making riding in the car a challenge. Fortunately, there are several options that can help calm these dogs down up a notch.
12 Ways To Help Dogs Too Excited in the Car
There are several strategies you can try to help your dog calm down in the car. Consider though that dogs who are too excited in the car are often dogs who are young and in need of training. This means that you won't likely see results overnight, but in the meanwhile, you can reduce your dog's hyper behaviors in the car by using management techniques.
1. Provide Exercise and Mental Stimulation
Many dogs display hyper behaviors because they are full of energy and haven't exercised their minds much. Make sure to walk your dog daily but also provide ample opportunities to keep your dog's mind active. Mental stimulation may be as tiring as exercise. Brain games, food puzzles and interactive toys can help tire your dog out so he's not always over the top.
2. Introduce Impulse Control Training
As mentioned, many dogs who act hyper in the car or on walks, are dogs who are young and haven't attained yet much impulse control. This is OK, it takes time to master this just as children learn to calm down as they mature. You can help your dog though through several impulse control games that you can easily incorporate into your dog's everyday life.
3. Tone Things Down
As mentioned, many dog owners fail to realize how their excited tones and movements impact their dogs. If you match this profile, it can help to start acting calmer in certain situations. Sure, you can rile your dog up when you want, but leave that for times at home when you want your dog to play and have some fun.
So when it's time to go on a car ride, try to just grab the leash, ask your dog to sit and snatch it on, then take him to the car, tell him to sit, open the door and then give him the OK to climb up. You should notice a difference over time.
4. Avoid "Lecturing" Your Dog
It may be tempting to scold, or worse, hit your dog when he acts hyper in the car, but this fails to address the problem, and actually risks making problems worse.
When your dog is in such an excited state of mind, he's most likely over the threshold and therefore he might not be able to pay much attention to you. But even if your dog isn't over the threshold, and he is able to focus, your yelling or hitting will likely only teach your dog that you are an unpredictable being and not worthy of trust.
This means that you risk increasing his anxiety if he is already anxious, and if he is not, you risk adding an anxious element at some point, so that now he's acting anxious in the car on top of being excited. Now you're stuck with a double whammy issue to deal with.
5. Take Them on a Car Ride Just for Fun
An astute strategy to tone down a dog's excitement is to take him on several car rides without going to places your dog loves. In other words, take your dog on frequent car rides where you just ride around the block. Take different routes every time, but never go anywhere exciting for some time. Do this until your dog starts acting calmer in the car (make sure to praise your dog for being calm, but use a calm tone to avoid exciting him!).
You want to obtain a neutral conditioned emotional response where your dog thinks of car rides in terms of "Meh! Nothing special happening here!"
6. Split Things Up
Some dogs need baby steps before they can go on a full car ride around the block being calm. So if your dog's excitement gets over the top when he hears you turn on the car, turn it on several times a day without taking him anywhere. Wait for him to calm down. Next, turn the car engine on and walk your dog toward the car and then take him back inside the house. Do this several times, until he grows bored of this too.
Then progress to turning on the car, walking him there and then letting him climb inside. Let him stay there with you (make sure he's not hot!) until he calms down. Then take him back inside. Then once he's calm start your destination nowhere trips.
7. Use the Premack Principle
The Premack Principle in dog training is at its core a method where you reward your dog for exhibiting desired behaviors. The Premack Principe is also known as Grandma's Law, simply because it's based on the philosophy of "eat your broccoli first, and then you can have ice-cream."
So how does it work in this case? After your dog has grown bored of going on trips around the block, start increasing the length of his trips (always ending nowhere) and then at some point start approaching the dog park (or any other destination that makes your dog excited), but be ready to turn the moment he acts hyper again.
Repeat several times until you can park at the location and let your dog out only if he's in a calm state of mind. In this case, you are telling your dog "we can have fun (ice-cream) in the park, but only when you act calmer (broccoli)."
8. Provide Alternate Activities
Once your dog is calmer in the car, start providing him with calm activities to engage in while being in the car. For example, try providing him with a stuffed Kong, Licki-Mat or long-lasting chew to gnaw on so he focuses on this rather than pacing back and forth.
Another option is cracking open the window just a little bit so that your dog can focus on analyzing all the smells. Some dogs may do this for a long time. It's as if your dog has a medley of smells that reach him without much work on his side. However, see how your dog responds. Some dogs may get overstimulated and hyper when they sense certain smells.
9. Invest in Calming Aids
Sure, your dog might not be able to brew a soothing chamomile tea, but nowadays, there are many calming aids crafted for anxious or excitable dogs. Calming music (Through a Dog's Ear), calming dog supplements (like those containing L-theanine), calming shirts (Thundershirt, Anxiety Wrap), and calming caps (Thunder Cap, Calming Cap) may turn helpful.
If there's an element of anxiety, your vet may also prescribe medications to help him calm down as you carry out behavior modification. If there's a possibility that your dog has motion sickness, your vet may prescribe meds for this too.
10. Crate Your Dog
Sometimes, your best bet is to simply manage your dog's environment so that your dog doesn't get to rehearse the problem behavior. In this case, you can crate your dog and possibly place a blanket over the crate so as to reduce visual overstimulation. A crate is also important considering that a dog who moves freely in a car can pose a big danger to you and other drivers.
While some dogs may get calmer in a crate, some dogs may not. So this is something to consider.
11. Try a Seat Belt Harness
Some dogs do better being attached to a seatbelt harness. These dogs are unable to pace back and forth between windows and therefore they learn to sit and relax.
12. Blacken Your Windows
Some dog owners have noticed improvements in their dogs by blackening their windows. They use special cling window films so that their dogs aren't too attracted to visuals on their trips.
As seen, there are several things you can do to kick your dog's enthusiasm down a notch. For severe cases of anxiety, please enlist the in-person aid of a dog trainer/dog behavior consultant.
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.
© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 13, 2020:
Hi Billybuc, sometimes, there's a low level of car sickness at play or other dynamics such as unease when the car slows down, car noises and car smells.
Billybuc on August 30, 2020:
Great discussion! We have two dogs, siblings from different litters. The three-year old female loves going on car trips. Her brother, two-years old, hates car trips, and we have to really work at coaxing him into the car. He's only been to the vet what, three times, vs dozens of trips to the dog park or other places where he can play, so I'm not sure why he has such a problem with cars.
Sigh! Anyway, I enjoyed the discussion and appreciate your expertise.
FlourishAnyway from USA on August 23, 2020:
I love how you see it from the doggy’s perspective and provide so many options. I can tell who really loves animals. I hope no one would ever hit their dog in frustration.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 19, 2020:
Sp Greaney, restraining dogs in cars is important and it's good that they are enforcing such laws in your area. I find it great that you have enjoyed reading the destination nowhere approach. I use a similar approach with dogs who follow owners around the home or who are too excited of going on walks.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 19, 2020:
Hi Peggy, a lovely trait of dogs is that they all come with their own unique personalities. Our dogs loved car rides, although I can see how some may come to dread them if they get car sick or don't like to go to the vet.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on August 19, 2020:
Useful tips for dogs in the car ride. It is a difficult and anxious time for a dog if they have to be in the car. I like that you covered all aspects of dogs in such situations.
Sp Greaney from Ireland on August 18, 2020:
It's great that there are so many things that you can try to assist with an excited dog during car journeys. Here it's the law that you have to use a seat belt harness if you have your dog in the car.
But I love the destination nowhere approach though. It's a great way to get them used to the car without them actually ending up anywhere but back home.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on August 18, 2020:
I enjoy reading your advice when it comes to all kinds of tips regarding dogs and their behavior. Most of our dogs rode beautifully in the car without getting too excited, except for our last one. He never liked car rides even though some of them were to dog parks. We could never have taken him on a long trip.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 18, 2020:
Hi Pamela, many dogs are crazy for going on car rides and some dread them. Hopefully, if you get a dog you'll have one in the middle. It helps getting them used to the car from a young age.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on August 18, 2020:
Adrienna, This article is full of great suggestions tomake those car rides more pleasant. I don't have a dog right now, but if I get one I wi be looking back at all of your good articles.