Ask the Behaviorist: Car Anxiety

Check out the Michigan Humane Society blog on Wednesdays to see common pet behavior questions answered by our Senior Director of Operations and pet behavior expert, CJ Bentley. If you have an immediate behavior concern with your pet, please call a qualified trainer or behaviorist! If you have a non-urgent question you would like answered on the blog, you can comment here or email us at mail(at)michiganhumane.org.

Senior Director of Operations CJ Bentley and her adopted dog, Rogue

Senior Director of Operations CJ Bentley and her adopted dog, Rogue

“We have a 3 yr old male JRT mix, adopted him at 5 months from a good home. Like most dogs he LOVES going in the car and traveled very well until about a year ago When both my husband & I are in car and we stop for example to get gas Binky goes berserk before my husband gets out and carries on with a high pitched frantic bark for several minutes even though he can see my husband & I am still seated in car reassuring him calmly “it’s alright, it’s happens when Binky goes with just one of us. We have distracted him with treats and for the most part it works but not always do we remember to take if we are in a hurry. We have never left him car alone for long periods of time so we are miffed as to why he does this . Suggestions how to bring him back to the quiet in the car pooch ….Thanks so much!!”

Hmm… This is interesting. I wonder why he used to be fine and now he’s not? Aren’t dogs fascinating?

Well, regardless of the reason, here’s the thing: I believe that anytime a dog is allowed to repeat a behavior, he is actually practicing that behavior. And he’ll probably do it again, and again. So every time Binky acts frantic in the car, he’s reinforced for being frantic (somehow he’s being reinforced or he wouldn’t keep doing it.)

So we’ll take a two-pronged approach and see if we can’t help him out. First, I wouldn’t take Binky anywhere in the car for now. If you can’t guarantee he’ll be a good boy, then he can’t go. Second, we’ll do some work at home, in the car in the garage or driveway. You can start by getting some comfort zone type spray (dog appeasement pheromone – available at most pet supply stores) and mist the inside of the car.

Then I’d have a super treat that Binky loves. I use a kong-type toy, stuffed with a littl moist dog food and a tad of peanut butter. I’d get in the car with Binky, shut the door, give him teh toy and get out. As soon as I shut the door, I’d turn right around and open the door and get back in the car and take the stuff toy away. So… Binky gets the great toy when you’re out of the car, and nothing (well, except your company which he loves) when you’re in the car.)

If that works, simply extend the length of time you’re out of the car, as long as Binky is behaving. Then you can try to drive around the block… stop somewhere safe… give the toy, get out of the car… wait…get back in, take the toy back. It may take some time, but you can get there! We’re pulling for you Binky!

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