Ask Crystal: Barky Car Ride

Dear Crystal, 

Tessa, our two-year-old (28lb) Aussiedoodle is a fluffy ball of energy and joy but has developed a terrible habit of barking in the car, which began when she was quite young and has been intermittent since. We have been working on this issue for over a year, but still have not been able to help her learn that she does not need to bark in the car.  

We brought a 2nd dog (an 8-month-old Lab) into our home last October, just a few days after Tessa had a gastrointestinal problem and had to spend a couple of days at the Vet. She had been on Clomicalm for hyperactivity for about 10 months, but the side effect of loss of appetite made it very difficult to train. The vet took her off the Clomicalm when she developed gastrointestinal problems.   Then Tessa’s barking in the car really took a turn for the worse. She began barking as soon as the motor was turned on and/or the car starts moving (sometimes the barking even begins when one of us gets into the driver’s seat). The barking continues non-stop during the entire trip. She also barks when she goes fishing in the boat with my husband, mostly barking only when the boat is moving, but also barks at birds and dolphins, etc.   I have been working with a local trainer on this issue for over a year and have also recently been working with a 2nd trainer who was coming to the house (she says that Tessa goes from 0-100 in an instant, especially when it comes to riding in the car). We’ve tried many things, including the following:  • Tethering Tessa in the back seat while feeding high-value treats.  • Putting her in a crate in the back of SUV/covered & uncovered w/ treats or toys in the crate.  • Using PetMate spray collar – this worked for a while but had to finally take it off because Tessa started barking right through the beep, vibration, and spray.  • Playing games in/around the car.  • Settling exercises in the car.  • Desensitization – turning motor on, putting it in gear, taking it out of gear, putting a seatbelt on/off, but most of the time, Tessa starts barking before I have a chance to start the motor.  • Very short drives with me sitting in backseat with Tessa – massaging and giving treats, but I think the treats may somehow be reinforcing the barking. Tessa will lay down long enough to get a treat for laying down and being quiet but pops right back up and frantically looks out the window and all around (behavior chain?).  • Trainer recently recommended behavioral down as something that might help Tessa.   We tried tranquilizing Tessa with Acepromazine, on a trip to California in December 2020, but it only made the anxiety and the barking worse. When we traveled to California for Christmas this last December, we boarded her with the local trainer we work with. However, we won’t be able to board her when we go to Montana this summer as we will be gone for 3 months, and I fear that my only option may tranquilize her again to make it through the 3-day trip.   Currently, Tessa does not travel in the car at all, except for very short training rides (2-3 blocks around our neighborhood), going to the trainer, or necessary trips to the vet. We are trying not to give her more opportunities to practice barking in the car. We have two different cars, but which car we are in makes no difference to her barking behavior. Consequently, we can’t go to the park or other places where she could learn how to socialize with other dogs. She stays home in the crate when we go out and we’re working on the separation anxiety. She is not currently on any meds.   I have done a great deal of research regarding the “barking in the car” issue, but so far, even with the trainers’ help, we have not been able to resolve this problem. Tessa always seems to want to go with us, voluntarily jumps into the car with excitement to go somewhere and starts barking as soon as the motor turns on. We think she may be anticipating something but have not been able to figure out what, if any – desirable or undesirable.   As a side note, when we walk in our neighborhood, she always seems to be anxiously looking around, and seems especially concerned about something coming up behind us, or toward us. She gets very excited by people and dogs but is not at all aggressive.   We have raised many dogs during our 63 years of marriage but have never had a dog that did not love to travel in the car with us, or that had so many behavioral issues as Tessa. We love her dearly but have had no success in helping her with the barking in the car.   I am very hopeful that maybe you have dealt with this problem in the past, and that you may have some creative ideas that we have not considered that might help us help Tessa. We live in a small town in south Texas and there are no animal behaviorists anywhere near us – the only one I have been able to find is about 3 hours away in San Antonia, but she primarily works with aggression issues. 

Sincerely, 

Car Barker

Dear Car Barker, 

It sounds like you have tried a lot of different techniques for this issue. I can certainly understand how frustrating it is to try so many techniques with no real success. I have some ideas that you may not have tried yet that I think could help. I do want to say that, acepromazine is not a good choice for treating anxiety or fear. It has a dissociative effect so the dog is completely aware of what is going on and still able to experience fear but not able to physically demonstrate their fear. It does not relieve anxiety and can make the issue worse. Even if a dog didn’t have a fear of the car, it could potentially be a traumatic event for them which could cause the behavior to worsen. There are other options for travel medications that are a better option.  

Most of the information you will find on the internet related to barking in the car is going on the assumption that the dog is afraid of the car. This is usually the case for most car barkers and I had a Doberman that barked in the car that was afraid of cars and the desensitization techniques did work in that case. I did spend the majority of my time working on the issue outside of the car as he was also afraid of cars when he was walking. We worked on both issues separately but in a similar manner and we were able to get him past it.  

I am wondering if your dog’s breed is playing a big part in this behavior. I have a cattle dog and have had herding dogs in the past. They are often obsessed and excited by movement. My dog barks at the waves in the water and tries to bite them. Anything that moves is suspect and must be controlled by the herder. These breeds are also often high energy and excitability goes along with that. We often see that these breeds are reactive as well to a wide range of things. 

If she is not afraid of the car, then most of the methods you have tried are not going to work and potentially could cause additional excitement. The training I am going to suggest may help Tessa in multiple areas of her life. It sounds like she has issues with overarousal and not understanding how to calm herself down.  

I have recently begun learning about a new training program by behaviorist Laura Donaldson called, Slow Thinking is Life Saving for DogsDonaldson writes, “Slow Thinking is Lifesaving for Dogs teaches our canine partners a cluster of slow thinking habits rather than individual behaviors like sit, down and stay.  These habits include offering default behaviors, engaging in social problem-solving, having a fluent relaxation response and reframing contexts using cognitive reappraisal”. You can find the website here: Slow Thinking – Slow Thinking (fourpawsfourdirections.com).

This type of training changes the way a dog responds to stimuli that diminishes the intensity of a subject’s emotions and changes the meaning of emotionally evocative stimuli. (Ochsner and Gross 2005). This training could help her regardless of if this issue is caused by fear or overexcitement. I would really suggest getting in contact with this trainer to get more details on the program. Most behaviorists and trainers do remote training sessions now so your location should not matter. 

One part of the training that I have personally been working on with my own personal dogs and shelter dogs with great success is relaxing on a mat. This is not a stay exercise and we do not tell the dog to go to the mat. We condition the mat to be an awesome place and that lying down and relaxing on it is very rewarding. They learn how to calm themselves in a variety of situations and with a variety of stimuli.  

We start by scattering treats on a mat while the dog is out of the room. Walk the dog in on a leash and walk her over to the mat for her to find the treats. This will give your dog a really great first impression of the mat. As she starts eating the food, sit down and give her enough leash to sit or lie down. You can stand on the leash, hold it or tie it around furniture. Sit back and relax so it’s clear you are not interacting with her. You want to clearly be ignoring her so she will get the connection of, “When my human ignores me, I should calm down and relax because it pays off really well”. 

Drop more treats as the dog is sniffing around, as she is eating those, drop 1 treat every couple of seconds between her front paws. We are dropping the treats and not handling them to the dog as that can be too exciting. At this point we are just looking for less intense behaviors like looking down, looking away, yawning, sitting, lying down to start treating. We are looking to reward these small moments of calmness. 

Once she starts to figure out the mat, only reward when she is not looking at you. We don’t want to reinforce her for staring at us for this exercise. We are looking to avoid her becoming overly focused on the food. When she turns away or looks at the ground, drop several treats in succession at her feet.  

Once the dog gets the idea that less activity is paying off, you can then start to only reinforce when she is sitting. Do not ask for a sit. We want her to offer the behavior herself. She needs to learn to calm herself down. Start to slow down the treat delivery and only reward her for sitting. When she lies down, we will start to reinforce that behavior. If she gets up, ignore her and stop dropping treats. It doesn’t take many repetitions for most dogs to realize that laying down and doing nothing is what pays off. 

After several minutes, say “all done,” and take off the leash and put everything up. We want to pick up the mat, so the dog knows the game is done for now and leaves her wanting more. There is more to this game but that is the basic summary of how to do it. 

There are other relaxation training games that you can try as well that are different but similar. Dr. Karen Overall has her 15-day Relaxation Protocol and Suzanne Clothier has the Really Real Relaxation protocol. The idea that dogs need to learn how to calm themselves at a variety of times and all of these protocols will teach that.  

Another technique to teach a dog how to calm themselves is playing tug with rules. This technique takes a little bit of finesse to know how to get the dog just a little bit worked up but not so worked up that they can’t listen. This should be done for only a couple minutes at a time a few times a day. 

Hold up a long rope toy at your chest out of the dog’s reach. Wait for a few seconds of calm behavior. If the dog tries to jump up for the toy, hold it behind your back and wait for those moments of calm. Do not ask for a behavior. Again, we want the dog to learn to offer calm behaviors which then get them what they want.  

When she is calm, say, “take it” and offer the end of the rope to her. Tug for a couple of seconds. Make your arm go limp and hold a treat up to the dog’s nose to get her to drop it. When she drops the rope, toss a treat away from you. As she gets better at offering calm behavior through the sessions, you can start to make yourself more interesting by wagging the toy around, dragging it or holding it in front of her. You can also start to let her tug for longer as she gets better at the game.  

It is almost always helpful for any sort of behavior problem to be sure that the dog’s physical and mental needs are being met. Offer her 2-3 play sessions, training and mental enrichment like feeding meals from enrichment toys.  

Most of us are familiar with that exhausted feeling after a mentally challenging day. Feeding from enrichment toys is mental exercise that can help her to burn energy. You can also strategically feed her at certain times to help her develop positive associations with that activity. 

If you do nothing else, I would suggest you focus on relaxing on a mat for her training. I cannot tell you how amazed I was at how fast it works and in ways I did not expect. I have seen dogs at the shelter that were so stressed that they couldn’t stop moving, finally lie down and relax. It’s amazing how this works. My fearful dog loves his mat and can’t wait to get on it no matter where we are and it helps him to deal with things that would have triggered him before.  

I hope that even if these suggestions don’t fix all of your dog’s behavior concerns that you will see a reduction in reactive behavior. It could get her to a level where she is more workable or it could be the solution she needs. Just remember that behavior change takes time so keep at it! Good luck! 

Until next time, 

Crystal

 

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