How to Train Your Dog for Holiday Road Trips

Uncomfortable dogs can lead to distracted driving. Here’s how to train your dog to love your ride.

You’ve wrapped the gifts and checked the road conditions. But there’s something else you should do before you head for Grandma’s house — train your dog to handle the journey.

On top of too much food and contentious Scrabble matches, the holiday season is synonymous with long road trips — and this often includes the ruler of your roost: your dog. But if Fido (or Fida) has never been in the car before, how ready will they be to make the trip?

Most of us are familiar with the iconic image of the happy backseat hound: head out the window and tongue flapping in the breeze. But not all dogs take so easily to riding in a vehicle. A furry friend that’s yelping in terror, scratching the upholstery, or getting nauseated isn’t going to make it any easier for you to focus on the roads. In fact, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reported that a diversion lasting only 2 seconds greatly increases your risk of a car accident.

So take a break from holiday-sweater-dressing your pooch, and use these training tips to help your dog love your ride.

Coax your dog into the car the first several times

Unless you wheel around town in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, chances are your everyday vehicle will look intimidating to your pup. Instead of just dropping Fido in the backseat and hoping for the best, lure your dog in using a beloved treat or toy (for my own teething dog, Lucille, that would of course be my ankles). Practice doing this in advance of your holiday trip to give your dog time to make the connection between being in your ride and being excited.

Start the engine, but don’t go anywhere

After your dog is used to the backseat of the car, you can introduce it to the sound of the engine. While my car idles, I like to offer Lucille rewards as long as she is acting calm — if she gets nervous or starts making noise, I don’t offer any rewards and ignore her until she simmers down. With this conditioning, your dog should make the same connection.

Keep the car clean

Obviously, your pup is no neat freak (if you’re anything like me, you’ve got aliving room blanketed in shredded wrapping paper and mangled garland to prove it). But for your swinging-tailed sidekick to focus on this new environment, the car must be free of distractions (other than the treats or toys used for conditioning). If your dog’s attention keeps jumping to tree air fresheners or cookie crumbs, it’ll have a hard time making any meaningful progress.

Gradually increase the length of car trips

If your dog becomes uncomfortable during the long drive to Grandma’s place, it could make negative associations about the car for life. So keep drives short before slowly extending them. (In other words, find another companion for your annual North Pole pilgrimage.)

Don’t feed your dog in a moving car

Kibble and a sharp curve could spell carsickness. And, like humans, dogs usually aren’t eager to return to places where they’ve gotten sick. In fact, I’ve found it’s wise to give your pup plenty of time outside to get rid of whatever, ahem, presents it has before hopping in the car.

Head to the park or pet store, pronto

The first destinations for your pup can make a huge impression. Riding with dogs to scarier spots like the vet (or in Lucille’s case, a mailman academy) right off the bat will likely make them feel skeptical of the car. Start with happy jaunts to the park or pet store to associate your vehicle with fun, friends, and rawhide.

Use a pet restraint

Of course, these are great for securing your pet physically. But pet restraints are also great for emotional support. Get your dog used to its harness, crate, or special seat at home so the restraint can provide a familiar and calming influence when you transport your pooch to the car.

To learn more about driving with dogs, animal safety restraints for the car, or the statistics behind how your furry friend could distract your driving, check out our insight on driving with pets.

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