So much of what you will do with your dog over the course of her/his life involves riding in a car to get to the place where the fun happens. Almost always, your pup will also ride in a car to go to the vet, do errands and live everyday life. This is why it is so important that the car be viewed as a good place – not a scary or bad place.
Unfortunately, the first car ride for most pups is immediately after they are separated from their Mom and sisters and brothers. That’s not very happy. Or, in some cases, the first car ride might have been to be taken to a shelter. That’s also not that happy. For many pups, the second car ride is to the vet. That first-time vet visit can be a scary thing too -- no matter how nice your vet is. The result – many pups need some level of rehabilitation related to cars even before they start Puppy Kindergarten. Here are some things you can do to make sure your pup likes the car from the start.
1. Spend a little time in the car with your pup every day, starting the day after you bring her/him home.
2. Make sure the car is comfortable before you and your pup get in. If it’s a hot day, go start the car and cool it off before you get in with your pup. Turn the engine off before you get in and before you bring your pup close to the car.
3. It’s best if your car is not parked in a garage but instead is outside unless you live on a very busy road with lots of traffic noise or have no other option.
4. For the first few days just spend 5 minutes or so in the car with your pup with the engine off – no radio, no blowing air, no wipers going – just be in the car with your pup and one of her cozy toys. Give her/him treats in the car and put a nice soft blanket down where you want her/him to ride.
5. If you plan to eventually have your pup travel in a crate in the car, don’t involve the crate at this stage. First get her/him used to just being in the car. Remember, only stay for a few minutes and never leave your pup alone in the car at this stage – always be with her/him and make it a cozy, safe place. You can play quietly with your pup in the car but no rambunctious play. Remember to give treats. You may want to do this exercise just before the normal meal time so your pup will be more interested in the treats.
6. After 3 or 4 days of doing this exercise, now turn the engine on while you both are in the car. Don’t drive anywhere, just sit in the car with the engine on doing the same things described above. Make sure the radio is off and there is no strong air blowing.
7. Once you see your pup is totally comfortable with the engine on (this may take several times of turning the engine on and off and several days of doing this), you can drive a very short distance (at most one block). It’s best if you don’t have to back up before you start driving forward so you might want to position your car accordingly before you put your pup in.
8. For the first week or so, it’s best if your pup can sit on someone’s lap while you drive.
9. Talk normally to the other person in the car and do not put excessive attention on your pup. Don’t use a reassuring tone if your pup shows any fear. Instead, talk in a normal voice and maybe even sing a soft little song.
10. Gradually, day by day, increase the distance you drive.
11. Drive a little with your pup every day. This is important as even if a pup has shown no fear of the car from the start, pups, like children, go through different developmental phases and may develop new fears. If you drive a little every day, this is very unlikely to happen.
12. When you are putting your pup in the car or taking her/him out, do this methodically, never rushing to close the door, always using the same phrase just before you are about to close the door (I use the phrase “Watch your nose” spoken in a soft happy tone). Instead of closing the door right away once your pup is inside, take a few moments, pet her/him, give her/hi some small treats, then say the phrase and gently close the door. Again, its best if possible to have a second person helping as the helper can already be in the car when you load the pup.
13. For the first week or 10 days of rides you needn’t get out anywhere, you simply drive around for a few minutes (increasing distance and time by a bit every day) and then go home. Once your pup is fine with this, you can drive to places close by and get out and enjoy before driving home. Try driving to the same place (e.g., a nearby park). We want to avoid introducing too many unknowns at this stage. Until your pup is fine with the car, it is best to go to a know destination (i.e., your pup gets into the car knowing s/he is going to Park X which s/he already knows from prior car rides).
14. Once your pup is comfortable with this, you can start driving to different places and for longer distances but don’t take major steps -- take baby steps. Remember, baby steps are always best for babies!
15. It’s best not to start a car ride with a full belly, so don’t feed your pup or give your pup a lot of water just before getting in the car. Best to wait several hours after eating before going on a car ride.
I’ll post more later about use of the crate or seatbelts and other car accessories soon. Meanwhile, happy riding!