Q: We have a Border Collie rescue, named Guinness, brought home from the local SPCA in August 2002 when she was 2 years old. We have been consistent in her training helping to overcome some typical border collie traits and issues possibly stemming from her early years. But she is a terrible traveler. At first, we used a seat belt harness for her but she struggled so much it either cut into her skin or broke. Now we use a large kennel, but she still panics – scratching at the sides, chewing at the holes or wire windows.
Gravol or sedatives only made it worse for her. Is there anything I can do to help her? We don’t travel with her often but when we do it’s a long trip since we live in the country.
A: Hi there Kerri-Anne,
Thanks for writing in with such a good question. It’s not an uncommon problem where some dogs are not good travelers. A lot of dogs love to go into the car, and love the idea of a nice car ride. While they are others who find the act of traveling in the car to be a very stressful experience.
I can totally understand how Gravol or sedatives can make it worse for her. Neither help her with the stress she is experiencing while in the car. Gravol or a sedative may help to make her drowsy, yes, but in my experience, dogs who are stressed and under this medication can sometimes become even more stressed! If you or I were to take a sedative, we would be aware of the side effects, and may even welcome them. Our dogs do not possess this luxury.
Years ago, I had to ship a dog I rescued from Atlanta on an airplane to get here. The airline wanted me to have the dog on medication, but I refused. The experience would be stressful enough, and I did not want to add to it. When a dog is stressed, not being in control of themselves can make them even more stressed. They have no idea what is happening to them, and may attribute these scary, unknown feelings (of being sedated, or drowsy) to the very activity that causes them stress in the first place. All of which will cause a negative association, which may make the dog abhor that activity even more.
The key here is to focus on alleviating the stress that the dog is experiencing. There are different methods that can be used, depending on how stressed out the dog is when it comes to being in the car. And they can be used in tandem with one another.
Some dogs do well with just a doggy booster seat. The idea being that if the dog can see out of the windows, that they’ll feel more secure. (I am assuming that this might not work with your dog, as she is medium sized dog, and can already see out the windows.)
Teaching a dog how to relax (while not in the car) can be very helpful. Some dogs respond well to a gentle massage. Others relax when they are wrapped up in large warm towels that are right out of the drier. Some love to get a good run before relaxing. And others benefit greatly from Tellington Touch. I would recommend trying different techniques to find out what best suits you and your dog.
Then there are dogs who learn to handle stress better once in a Thundershirt, or a very tight fitting shirt of some kind. I akin this to how babies love to be swaddled. Other dogs respond well to DAP collars, Dog Appeasing Pheromone calming collars, to help calm the dog.
If none of these work, there are also anti anxiety medications that can help as well. Personally, I would only go this route if nothing else worked. I would also only do so under the advice of a veterinary behaviorist. Keep in mind that these types of medications need to build up in the system before they can start to take an actual affect on the dog. And unlike Gravol, would need to be administered each day. If your dog doesn’t get stressed out under different conditions, then again I would rethink my game plan, especially if you don’t take her into the car all that often.
I would also recommend that any of these methods should be used in conjunction with a behavior modification plan as well. It would be vitally important to help the dog make positive associations with what she fears. And this takes work, dedication, time and commitment on the owner’s part. You will have to work in baby steps, keeping the dog below threshold (keeping her in a state where she exhibits no negative reactions to the stimuli at all), taking the time to build the foundation. This is critical.
Once you’ve worked on relaxation techniques with your dog, then you can start working with her near the car. Do some obedience work. Play with her. Try to make it fun, and try to keep it upbeat. Keep working while the dog shows no stress. Then (and this may take a week or more), work the dog even closer to the car. Then, again, this may take time, work further away from the car, but with the car door open. Then, move closer, and work your dog while the door is still open. Start feeding your dog right near the car with it’s door open.
You will need to make it fun and rewarding to be near the car.
Don’t make the exercises too long. Dogs learn best with short sessions, that occur multiple times during the day. At the beginning, your sessions should be super short, only a couple of minutes. With each successful session, you can slowly start to build up the duration, working up to 10 minute sessions and so on.
Once you can do that for a good period of time, then you can amp things up by starting the car, but again working near it with the doors closed. Then work with the doors opened again. Then ask your dog to touch the seat of the car with her snout. (Target training) Once she can touch the seat with her nose, ask for longer touches. Keep upbeat, keep praise high, make sure that the rewards are of super high value, make it so that being near the car, touching the seat and so on is the best thing in the world!
From there you can work on slowly getting your dog into the car. Again, start with the car off. In then out. Don’t ask her to stay in for too long. We need to keep working below threshold. If at any time the dog shows any signs of stress (drooling, whale eyes, slow motion movement, eyes darting back and forth, panting, not accepting a food reward, and so on) then you need to stop the exercise. If your dog shows any signs of stress, then it means that you are moving ahead too quickly for your dog. And if the dog is stressed, then no learning can occur.
Once your dog can sit in the car, then close the door. Open it quickly and ask the dog to come out. Do the same thing again but with the car started. Again, take your time, and keep things at the pace with which your dog is comfortable.
You will eventually work your way up to your dog being in the car for longer amounts of time, with the car started and with not. All of this while being in your driveway, and while the car has not moved a single inch.
I think you can see where I’m going with this in that you have to work with your dog at a pace that is slow enough for your dog to be comfortable with. In time, you will be able to move a couple feet back and forth in the driveway, before being able to even go down the road.
But with time, and patience, your dog can learn how to make positive associations with the car, and to if not find it an amazing experience, to at least not be so fearful and stressed out while in it.
I know you can do it.
Good luck and happy training!