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Car Sick

Car Sick or Fearful of Cars?

Car Sick Anxious Dog

We just got a 7 yr old Maltese that gets car sick. She just doesn’t ride well in a car. She pants and starts to shake and whine. We’re particularly worried as we drive to Arizona and back each winter. How can we help her from becoming car sick?

Helen S.
Hi Helen
The first thing is to try and ascertain is whether she’s car sick from motion sickness or fear. It can be hard to tell because you get similar symptoms. Other shared common symptoms are heavy drooling, vomiting and soiling.
Many of the dogs that would fall into the fear based segment also show signs elsewhere in their lives of being anxiety prone. Thunder, fireworks, hot air balloons are a few common triggers that will produce similar symptoms. On the up side another “symptom” is that they are often very gentle in nature and generally are really easy to train to do anything that includes their owner.
Dogs have something commonly called a fear imprint stage that give or take runs between 8 and 10 weeks of age. Their socialization period extends a couple of weeks past but negative things that happen during the fear imprint stage can result in life long phobic responses.
I should qualify that by saying negative things that aren’t put in a more balanced perspective will stick for life. For example if someone like myself were to step on a fear imprint stage puppy’s tail and the puppy were to associate that with extremely handsome men like myself and never saw another extremely handsome man like myself in a pleasurable manner many times until after the imprint stage you’ll produce a puppy that will have a life long fear of handsome men.
With this in mind. a common age for people to pick up puppies from the breeder is 8 weeks. All in all a pretty traumatic experience, being yanked away from mom, litter mates, etc. Some pups connect the car with the horror of it all. The next exposure to the car usually entails a trip to the veterinarians for the first set of shots – a fear imprint double whammy. Many vets with a mind to protecting the pup from viruses inadvertently expose the pup to a life long fear of cars if they tell people not to take their puppies anywhere for several weeks. By then the fear imprint has expired, leaving the puppy with the imprinted impression that cars are to dogs what tornadoes are to trailer parks.
If it is fear based as opposed to motion sickness, there are two ways of going about this. One is systematic desensitization (gradual) and the other is flooding which is simply immersion and no way out for an extended period of time. There is a story about psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe who’s fame oddly enough is connected with the systematic approach in which he put a girl, phobic about cars in a car and drove her around for hours and hours. She was initially hysterical but eventually settled down and in the end became quite comfortable around cars.
Systematic takes a long time but that’s not the problem. The problem is knowing when to push to the next level and when not to. Flooding is faster and easier to do but often not for the faint hearted or amateur application. Either way, again assuming it isn’t motion sickness you need to work with a trainer and if you end up going the systematic route I’d recommend looking for a better than average clicker trainer.
– John Wade trains dogs and dog trainers, writes dog books, publishes a dog newsletter, designs dog training equipment and provides dog clubs and conferences with a variety of dog behaviour workshops. Visit his website www.askthedogguy to read past columns and to subscribe to his free newsletter.

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