Barking in the Car

By Kay Bradnum

This is a question which comes up fairly often. The first thing to determine is if your dog is afraid of the car, or excited by it. If afraid, this is covered in Guide 5: Fearful Dogs.

For many dogs, a car ride generally means something super-fun is about to happen: playtime with friends, a visit to family who will make a huge fuss of them, and so on. It can be as simple as the over-load on their senses with interesting sights rushing by.

Sometimes it will start the minute you’re in the car, for some as soon as the engine is started, some as they approach an area they recognise, some when the car stops.

If your dog definitely isn’t afraid, and is generally in a position in the car where they can look out of the window, the solution could be as simple as blocking the view. Have blackout windows or use a covered crate. Taking away the visual stimulation may be all that’s needed. Make it pleasant in that space with a comfy place to lie, and maybe a small chew if needed. It won’t work for every dog, but it’s surprising how often it does.

If the blocked view doesn’t help, then you have the long haul of desensitising your dog to each stage of whatever their trigger is. Ideally, you wouldn’t take the dog in the car while working on this, but we realise that isn’t always possible. Desensitisation is explained throughout the guides, but specific to this situation:

  • Step 1: You will know when the noise starts, and a second or two before that point is where you start. So, if it’s as soon as your dog is in the car, work on getting in and out, in and out until it’s boring
  • Step 2: Get in the car, shut the door, and get out again. Over and over until it’s boring
  • Step 3: Get in the car, shut the door, get in the driver’s seat and out again, over and over until it’s boring
  • Step 4: As above but turn the engine on and off, and so on. You get the picture

Aim to always stop and get out before the barking starts, but don’t panic if you don’t always manage it. The worst thing you’ll teach at those times is that barking = no car ride, which isn’t what we want to achieve (we want car ride = a bit boring, no need to bark) but isn’t a bad result.

Once you can be in the car with the engine on, try driving just a yard or two and stopping etc. Build up slowly. It should get faster as your dog understands that actually, getting in the car is a bit of a bore, and he may as well just settle down. Don’t make a big fuss when this happens. We don’t want him anticipating something exciting again, but you could toss a small piece of kibble so that settling quietly is rewarded. Make sure the kibble is right in front of him, so he doesn’t have to leap up again to get it.

Trigger stacking | Meadow Family Rescue

If your problem is at the end of the drive as you arrive (or as your dog thinks you have arrived, even if you were just stopping for traffic lights for example), then you would follow a similar procedure to the above, but reversed. Stop the car and immediately drive off again until it’s boring. Stop, turn the engine off and on again, and drive off until it’s boring. Build up to putting a hand on the car door, opening it, getting out, and so on, until your dog has no idea whether or not stopping means getting out. No need to reward anything here, we want dog to stay bored. But do forgive some excitement when they are actually allowed out of the car to meet friends, etc. We don’t want to take away all pleasure in that trip out. It’s our pleasure too, to see them having fun. We just want it to be safe.