Expert Q&A: Travel Anxiety

Many dogs love to travel, but for some the experience can be a more stressful one. Fortunately, there are lots of things you can do to help your dog cope with car travel. Sara Rosser, Head of Welfare and Adoption at Hope Rescue Animal Charity, answers the questions commonly asked about travel anxiety and gives advice on how you can reduce the symptoms.

Why does my dog have travel anxiety?

Dogs may feel anxious on car journeys for a number of reasons. Some may not have had much experience of travelling in a car and may become anxious because they are unfamiliar with what is happening to them. Other dogs may have learnt to associate that car journeys mean a trip to somewhere they find unpleasant such as the vets. Travel anxiety is distressing for both dogs and owners and can really limit the walks, holidays and activities you are able to do together.

How can I tell if my dog has travel sickness?

A dog who has travel sickness may vomit but there are lots of other signs too. The dog may pant, tremble or shake, vocalise (can range from whimpering and whining to barking), urinate or soil in the car, appear agitated and unable to settle, try to escape or may salivate excessively.

How can I keep my anxious dog calm in the car?

Reducing your dog’s stress levels will not only help them to feel less anxious but usually also improves sickness too. There are a few things you can do to try to help your dog feel better about travel:

  • Ensure your dog is secure when travelling. This is important for safety but also will make your dog feel less vulnerable. Some dogs may be happy secured with an approved car harness, others will benefit from a crate so that they are able to lay down comfortably. A fixed crate will reduce the amount of movement they feel and reduce the likelihood of sickness.
  • Blocking the view of outside may also help reduce anxiety and sickness. A crate with the sides covered is ideal for this. You must be careful of this in the summer with this however and ensure the dog has proper ventilation.
  • Giving a dog something to eat when travelling may seem counter productive if they are going to be sick, but giving them something else to focus on can actually be effective as a preventative measure. A kong stuffed with tasty treats is ideal. However if your dog is very anxious then they may be too stressed to eat in the car and will need extra help to feel calmer.

What can I do to help reduce my dogs travel anxiety?

To reduce the dog’s anxiety about travel we need to change the way the dog perceives the car from a negative into a positive environment. The best way to do this is to pair the car with something the dog enjoys, such as food or toys. Keep your training sessions short initially, a couple of minutes at the most for each. You can have a few sessions in a day as long as the dog is happy.

Every dog will work at a different pace depending on how severe their anxiety is, some may take a couple of days to reach each stage of the training, others may take longer. The key to success is that your dog should be happy and relaxed at each point, if they show signs of anxiety such as yawning, scratching, ears back, tail tucked in, reluctance to approach the car, reluctant to eat or play or show any of the behaviours mentioned above, the training is moving on too quickly for them and you need to go back a few steps.

  • Begin with the car stationary. If your dog is reluctant to approach the car then you will need to spend time giving them tasty treats or a fun raggy game simply around the car for a few days, before moving on to doing the same with the car door/boot open.
  • Encourage the dog to explore inside the car. You may need to reward smalls steps such as head inside the car, one paw inside, two paws inside etc over a few training sessions.
  • Once the dog is entering the car confidently you can begin shutting the door/boot behind them for a short moment before opening again, rewarding and allowing the dog to jump out if they choose to.
  • Repeat the above step slowly increasing the amount of time the dog is in the car each time over a number of sessions.
  • Next step is to start to turn the engine on, reward and then allow the dog to leave the car if they choose to. You can again increase the amount of time the engine is on each session. If your dog is happy with this you can drive a few feet before stopping and rewarding. Remember to keep giving your dog the option to leave the car with you after each step so they never feel trapped. If you have someone to help you they can intermittently reward the dog as the car is moving.
  • Decide on a journey which is a few minutes long at most and ends somewhere positive, ideally a walk your dog enjoys. You could also walk the dog home from your destination if you have someone else to drive the car back. This will teach the dog that not only is being the car lots of fun as you get rewarded but journeys also take you great places!
  • Slowly build up the length of the journeys. It is sometimes worth keeping a diary so that you remember which stage of the training you are at. It can also be useful to look back and see what good progress your dog is making.

Don’t worry if you do need to take a few steps back — remember if your dog has been anxious about travel for a substantial amount of time it will take longer for them to begin to see the car as a positive.