Helping dogs deal with car fear
A maltese in a car. (Fotolia)
Q: We just got a 7-year-old old Maltese. The only problem is she 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?
— Helen S.
A: The first thing to ascertain is whether she’s suffering 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 upside, 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.
With this in mind. a common age for people to pick up puppies from the breeder is eight weeks. All in all it’s 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.
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.
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 push. 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 helps dog owners through his books, workshops and telephone consultations.