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Hi John,

We have a great chocolate Labrador Retriever almost two years old who exhibits anxiety when traveling in our SUV. He loves to get into the back of the SUV but once in starts to whine and pace and sometimes barks. He appears very upset with the travel. He normally goes into the truck to go to doggy day care or to go to the dog park 15 minutes away so the drive is not extensive. His is okay on long trips over 1 hour as he has been on a couple of those but does not like the short trips. After an hours run at the park he is very tired and does not mind the trip home. I know vehicle travel can be upsetting but we really don’t know what to do. What can we do to relieve him of this behaviour? – Donna

Dear Donna,

Author, Regina Nadelson wrote, “Most travel is best of all in the anticipation or the remembering; the reality has more to do with losing your luggage.”  As dogs don’t have luggage your problem lays in the anticipation and the remembering.

Pavlov became interested in studying conditioned reflexes when he was trying to unravel the secrets of the mammalian digestive system.  He noticed that when the dogs he was working with encountered food, saliva was produced in significant amounts. What really got his attention was noticing that the dogs, even when there was no food was in sight, still dribbled saliva as if on cue. You think I’m going to say they were responding to a dinner bell that rang every time they were about to be fed, but you’d be thinking wrong. Initially he noted that the dogs were reacting to lab coats. Every time the dogs were served food, the person who served the food was wearing a lab coat and the dogs reacted as food was on its way. The bell came later.

Instead of lab coats, bells and food your dog has your car, you and the promise of frantic canine company. Instead of salivation he’s having a literal or something similar to an adrenaline rush. Long trips don’t produce the “food” so he settles down. He’s fine in the vehicle on the way home because there’s no need to salivate now that “dinner’s over.”
I’ll bet your problem starts way before you get near the car. His adrenaline starts to trickle when the time draws near for an outing. It begins to drip when you move towards the door. It streams once the leash goes on, and torrents when he gets into the SUV. At that point forget trying to teach him anything. You might as well try teaching a Halloween candy overdosed 5 year old to lay quietly while daddy has a nap.

Fixing this is going to take the patience of Job. You can try the “sit in the car and don’t go anywhere” or “keep you head down” etc. but in cases this advanced I find it too hard to get through to the dog and everybody gets stressed out. The only way I know is to stop taking him in the car anywhere. Exercise him in the neighborhood for now. In the mean time you have to start teaching him that the car doesn’t take him to the park, you take him to the park and if you’re not happy, then he’s not going to be happy. That can only come by teaching him how to listen to you to a far greater degree then likely exists now. See if you can track down a good  trainer of working dogs willing to go slow and steady in helping your adrenaline junky lab. Of course unless the trainer can come to you or you can teach your dog to ride a bicycle you’re going to have to brave a car trip.

– John Wade the Dog Trainer

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