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Fear of Car

Hi John,
I have a German shepherd who is terrified to go in the vehicle. I had gotten him to get in and actually sit for a while with the motor running but as soon as I started backing out of the garage he was shaking so bad I stopped and we got out of the vehicle. How can I get him to tolerate and maybe enjoy going for rides and to the park or lake?

Thanks Linda – Sherwood Park Alberta

Hi Linda,

More often than not this a problem dog owners have their breeders to thank for. When breeders don’t provide pups repeated exposure through incremental introduction to motor vehicles before they leave the litter and their mother this happens. Some times it’s actually motion sickness but usually it’s fear.

What happens is this. Give or take a week the time between 3 and 12 weeks of age in a pup’s development profoundly affects temperament and how they will react to their future environment. This is especially important in matters of fear as between 8 and 10 weeks of age which is a fear imprinting danger zone, bad experiences that are not properly addressed while still in the fear period last for life.

A quality breeder will have had their pups in and out of vehicles at least a dozen times before the pups ever leave their care. Otherwise, the typical puppy leaves the property at about 8 weeks of age (fear imprint stage), leaving behind everything familiar. For some dogs this is a very negative experience and the vehicle can be associated. Their second trip in a car is more often than not to the veterinarian where they get pocked and prodded and inoculated in an environment that often screams stress. Some vets still give the awful blanket advice, “Now avoid taking your puppy any where until at least the next set of shots.”

As the next set of shots is a month down the road, the last 2 and only vehicle experiences are firmly ensconced in the fear imprint period and the dog is conditioned to fear the vehicle.

In theory there are two treatment approaches for this sort of thing and both can be augmented pharmaceutically however not with medications that sedate. You’re looking for the dog world’s equivalent of anti-anxiety medication and they should be on the medication for about a month before directly addressing the vehicle fear.

You should also be working with a trainer or a veterinarian that actually understands how these medications work. I find very few do. It’s rare to learn that they even take a baseline so as they monitor the affects of the medication over the first month they know whether to adjust dosage, augment with another med or switch to another med entirely.

Before I worry about those sorts of medications though or take a direct run at the fear trigger I make sure that certain things are in place in the dogs life as I find they can impact outcome far more significantly than drugs.

1. Does the dog currently perceive the person intending to get them over their fear as their teacher or their college roommate?
2. Is the dog getting daily exercise of amount and intensity that is in keeping with how his or her body was designed?
3. Is the dog’s mind receiving stimulation of amount and complexity in keeping with how his or her mind was designed to be challenged?
4. What is the dog eating, how frequently is it eating, how is it getting these things? (Meals and treats)

The two treatment approaches are gradual desensitization and flooding. The former requires an assessment of the dog (including the factors 1-4) to determine what the triggers are and how best to break them down into smaller bits and then the dog is desensitized bit by bit ideally associating some positive from the dog’s perspective with each tiny progressive segment. I personally find it works better when the dog has previously taught how to do something like “stay” as it learning that in a context of “no matter what” seems to help when asked to do the same around the incremental steps associated with something they fear.

Flooding is not for the weak of heart as it means the dog is exposed to their fear without respite. I had a friend with a dog that feared loud sounds such as thunder, fireworks, etc. She moved to a small town right beside an active train station. Her dog had a very rough 3 days but never had problems with sound for the rest of her life. It seems that if she wanted to eat and drink she’d have to spend less time thinking about her fear if she wanted to meet her more immediate basic needs and somehow it rewired her brain.

There is a 3rd approach that I’ve been using and it involves teaching the dog to use its nose to find a specific scent and gradually introducing anxiety triggers. I’m not sure why yet but if done correctly it really works.


– John Wade

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