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  • Writer's pictureSara Scott

Safe and Sound on the Go: A Dog Owner’s Guide to Stress-Free Car Rides

Teaching proper car manners to dogs is an essential yet often overlooked aspect of pet ownership, a lesson I was vividly reminded of with the arrival of a new, large, 75lb dog into my life. Having Chester, a smaller, 17lb dog who has been a breeze to travel with, made it easy to forget the detailed training that went into making car rides seamless for us. It’s been five years since Chester’s initial car introductions, and his calm demeanor on car rides had become second nature, quietly eclipsing the memory of our initial lessons. However, the introduction of an adult dog with no history of car travel presented a new challenge—a fresh slate requiring a revisit of those crucial teachings. This experience has prompted me to share the importance of car manners and skills, especially for larger dogs, through this blog. Join me as we explore essential strategies to ensure a safe and comfortable journey for you and your dogs, navigating through the initial steps to the subtleties of reinforcing positive car behaviors. 

When contemplating the logistics of car rides with your dog, management should be at the forefront of your considerations. It’s crucial to assess whether your dog needs to be contained or can have free roam within the vehicle. This decision impacts not just their safety, but also the safety of the driver and passengers. The ideal location for your dog to ride is another aspect that demands careful thought. For the utmost in safety during unforeseen car accidents, a crash-tested dog crate is unparalleled. These crates are specifically designed to protect your pet by significantly reducing the risk of injury.

However, not all crates guarantee this level of safety; many simply ensure that your dog remains in a single location, helping manage their movement but not necessarily offering protection in a collision. Alternative solutions include car-specific tie-downs that attach to the seat belt buckle, securing your dog while preventing them from roaming freely and potentially causing distractions. There are also physical barriers designed to confine dogs to the back seat, safeguarding both the pets and front-seat occupants.

For smaller dogs, specialized car seats offer a secure and elevated spot right next to you, allowing them to enjoy the ride while staying safely contained. Conversely, if your dog’s behavior permits, allowing them to ride without any restraints could be an option, provided it doesn’t compromise safety for everyone in the vehicle. Ultimately, selecting the right management strategy depends on balancing your dog’s behavior and needs with the priority of maintaining safety and focus while driving.

Establishing a routine for both loading into and exiting the car is crucial, especially with larger dogs like my Fernando, to prevent any misconceived notions about when and how to enter or leave the vehicle. It’s important to me that Fernando doesn’t impulsively jump into the front seat from the back or leap out of the car the moment any door opens. To avert these behaviors from taking root, we consistently use the same door for getting in and out of the car. This method teaches him that not all doors are meant for his use; for instance, the front door is exclusively mine for entering and exiting, signaling to him that it’s not his route. Similarly, opening the hatchback doesn’t mean it’s time for him to hop out, even if I’m loading groceries or other items. This strategy significantly reduces the risk of door dashing and keeps everyone safe.

Customizing this approach to fit what works best for you and your pet is key. A helpful tip to reinforce this routine involves using a door that isn’t designated for your dog’s exit to practice self-control: open it and toss a treat to your dog for staying inside and not attempting to exit through an unofficial door. This positive reinforcement helps cement the idea that patience and waiting for the correct door to be opened is rewarded, further embedding the routine and ensuring safety for your dog during car travels.

Establishing a well-defined routine for exiting the car is essential, particularly when managing multiple dogs. My system is tailored to accommodate both my needs and those of my dogs, ensuring safety and order during the process. Both of my dogs, Chester and Fernando, are trained to wait inside the vehicle until released by name, which prevents any chaotic scrambling or potential hazards.

Chester, who exits through the front, is always the first to leave the car. The training process began with simple steps: I would open the door and reward him with food for remaining inside, despite the open door. Next, I’d hold onto the leash, continuing to offer treats as he waited inside the vehicle as the door stayed open. The final step involves calling him by name to exit the car, ensuring he understands that permission is required before leaving.

Fernando, observing patiently, is rewarded for his calm behavior as Chester exits. His turn follows a similar pattern: I open his designated door, grab his leash, and initially reward him for staying put inside the car. Only when he shows no signs of impulsiveness do I give the cue for him to exit. This structured approach not only streamlines the process but also prevents unwanted behaviors such as door dashing or jumping out prematurely, ensuring that both dogs safely and calmly exit the vehicle every time. Adopting such a routine simplifies car rides, making travel enjoyable for everyone involved.

Creating positive associations with the car is a pivotal aspect of teaching your dog car manners, and it’s something I integrate into our daily lives. While formal training sessions, involving loading up the dogs and rewarding them with treats for settling down, are effective, integrating positive car experiences into your lifestyle can be just as impactful. This approach hinges on the idea that the car is a vehicle to adventure and fun. Whether it’s heading to the park, exploring new hiking trails, or even receiving the occasional snack during a ride, the goal is to embed a sense of excitement and calm in your dog when they’re in the car.

For most dogs, achieving a balance between happiness and relaxation during car rides is the ultimate goal. However, it’s important to acknowledge that dogs with a history of anxiety or hyperarousal related to car rides will require a more intensive and personalized training plan than what is outlined here. Such cases often demand a gradual build-up of short car experiences along with professional intervention to help them associate car rides with positive outcomes. If your dog is anxious in the car, check out my other blog on car anxiety here.

Teaching your dog to stay alone in the car comfortably and safely is an invaluable skill that I emphasize with all my dogs. I strive for them to view the car not just as a mode of transport but as a secure place where they can relax and take a break. This skill proves particularly beneficial during dog sports events or social gatherings like family BBQs, where they might need a moment of solitude away from the hustle and bustle.

However, the safety of your dog is paramount when they’re left alone in the car. It’s crucial to park in a secure location, preferably within your sight or on private property, to mitigate risks. The unfortunate reality is that dogs can be, and sometimes are, stolen from cars. Therefore, it’s not advisable to leave your dog in the car unattended in public spaces.

Gradually introducing your dog to the concept of car confinement is essential. Begin with short periods and provide them with a comforting chew treat to make the experience positive. Additionally, always consider the weather conditions to ensure they’re not exposed to extreme temperatures, and make sure the car is well-ventilated.

Managing your dog’s behavior in the car also plays a role. For example, Fernando is tethered down to prevent him from rummaging through the front seats for leftover food. This measure is temporary and as he matures, such restrictions will become unnecessary. It’s about finding the right balance between safety, comfort, and freedom for your dog while ensuring their well-being during moments of solitude in the car.

In conclusion, establishing clear guidelines and routines around car travel is essential for the safety and well-being of your dog. From creating positive associations with the car to teaching crucial skills such as entering, exiting, and staying alone safely, each step is fundamental in fostering a secure and enjoyable environment for your dog during car rides. Remember, the goal is not just to prevent unwanted behaviors but to ensure that each journey is a pleasant experience for both of you. Whether it’s through formal training sessions or incorporating these lessons into your daily life, the effort you invest in teaching these skills will pay dividends in the form of stress-free travels. Always prioritize your dog’s safety, comfort, and happiness, and never underestimate the importance of management when needed. As we navigate the roads with our dogs, let’s commit to making every trip a safe and joyful adventure.


Ready to take your dog’s car manners to the next level? If you’ve enjoyed the insights and tips shared in this article, imagine the transformation with my Private Customized Coaching. Tailored specifically to you and your dog, I’ll help you navigate any challenges and fine-tune your approach to ensure every car ride is as enjoyable as the destination itself. Don’t let stress and uncertainty dampen your adventures. Click now to learn more about how we can achieve serene and joyful travels together. Your journey to the perfect road trip companion begins here!


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