Dog Behavior and Training: Air and Car Travel

By Ellen Lindell, VMD, DACVB; Monique Feyrecilde, BA, LVT, VTS (Behavior); Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

Whether you travel with your dog daily or you would like to enjoy your dog’s company when you go on holiday or visit friends and family, there are some preparations needed for their safety and emotional well-being. It is also helpful to have a plan for those situations in which your dog cannot join you, such as a pet sitter or boarding kennel.

In most cases, some type of confinement is needed for at least a portion of the trip. For general information on confinement training, see the handout “Life Skills for Pets: Crate Training and Confinement for Puppies and Dogs”.

Why is confinement training necessary before travel?

All commercial airline carriers require pet dogs to remain in crates during the flight, while waiting to board, and while moving about the airport. Service dogs may be exempt for all or part of the trip.

When traveling in a car, your dog should be secured by a crate or a seat belt and harness - for your own safety as well as your dog’s. If your dog is not secured, they could move around and  interfere with the driver’s vision or movement. Also, if your car window malfunctions or if your car door opens, an unsecured dog could escape from the vehicle and run away or be struck by a car.

By training your dog to remain relaxed and comfortable when confined, you ensure your dog can relax, regardless of the duration of the trip.

What are the options to keep my dog safe during car travel? 

There are many types of travel crates available for car travel. Some models of crates, such as the MIM Variocage, are heavy duty and specifically sized to fit securely in an SUV or station wagon. The heavy-duty Ruff Land kennel also comes in a wide range of sizes to accommodate different vehicles. A slightly less sturdy but more portable option is a light plastic or fabric crate that can be secured to the car seat with a seat belt or strap.

Crates are especially handy if you need to quickly exit the car with your dog, as the crate can be carried easily. Sturdy crates also provide some degree of protection during an accident. An alternative to a crate is a seatbelt harness such as the SleepyPod ClickIt Sport Harness.

How can I get my dog used to being confined in the car?

If your dog has previously roamed freely in your vehicle, then you may need to gradually acclimate them to having their movement limited. To begin training, sit with your dog in the car in your own driveway. You may give your dog treats or a food-filled toy such as a frozen Kong while they are in the crate or seatbelt. Since you are not driving, you are free to help her settle (see handout “Dog Behavior and Training - Teaching Settle and Calm”). A pheromone such as Adaptil may be lightly spritzed onto a towel and placed onto the seat or in the bottom of the crate to further encourage your dog to relax.

Once your dog can easily relax for 15 minutes, take a short drive to one of your dog’s favorite places. If possible, have a friend drive so that you can interact with your dog, if needed. Next, try taking a half-hour trip, and then go for an hour’s drive. Be sure to drive to a pleasant destination each time.

What should I do if my dog is already unsettled, anxious, or vocalizing in the car?

Some dogs naturally adjust to car travel, while other dogs show signs of distress. They may salivate, become restless, pace, whine, howl, bark, or vomit.

If your dog shows signs of distress, particularly if your dog salivates or vomits when the car is in motion, check with your veterinarian. Your dog may be experiencing motion sickness and your veterinarian may be able to help by prescribing anti-nausea medication.

Often, these same physiologic signs are caused by underlying anxiety. Some dogs become anxious as soon as they enter the car, even when the car is not in motion. Treatment for car-related anxiety can include both behavior modification and medication to relieve anxiety. It is possible for a dog to experience both nausea and anxiety. If a dog learns to anticipate that a moving car means they are going to feel nauseous, they could understandably experience anxiety about that situation. Behavior modification techniques can be used to reduce anxiety related to all aspects of car travel that affect your dog. The goal is to gradually create a neutral or positive emotion. For dogs that are distressed when confined to a crate, it is helpful to begin training by acclimating them to the crate while inside your home before proceeding to the car.

Behavior modification techniques can be used to reduce anxiety related to all aspects of car travel that affect your dog. 

Triggers for travel-related anxiety may include entering the car, being restrained, the sound of the motor, and the movement of the vehicle. Some dogs react to changes in driving speed, movement of the windshield wipers, or even the doors and windows opening and closing. Pay attention to your dog’s demeanor so you can identify your dog’s triggers. You may notice a shift from calm to anxious: your dog may suddenly become alert, put their ears back or forward, and/or begin panting or vocalizing. Can you tell what your dog just noticed?

Here is an example of desensitization and counterconditioning to car travel:

  1. Teach your dog to relax (behavior modification settle). Practice the “settle” cue in the home until your dog automatically relaxes when presented with a mat or towel dabbed with pheromone or lavender. 
  2. Break down the trigger (i.e., riding in the car) into many small pictures or components. Introduce each component in a controlled and gentle way, in a small enough version that the dog is not stressed. 
  3. Pair every non-stressful exposure with wonderful treats to try to build the new emotional response. If your dog cannot take treats in the car, then instead, drive a short distance and take your dog out for a quick play session. This way, your dog will learn that once the car rolls, it will stop very quickly, and they will get out for some fun. Gradually increase the length of the trip.
  4. If a stress response is noted (e.g., your dog begins to salivate or pant), end the session. If you are already on the road, find a safe place to stop and take a quiet walk. Then start again later at a lower level of intensity to ensure the dog is not experiencing fear or stress. 

How can I prepare my dog for travel in an airplane?

Airplane travel involves encounters with many unfamiliar people, sounds, and scents. Your dog may need to be taken out of the carrier for a physical examination by an unknown person and will need to remain confined for extended periods. On long trips, bathroom breaks must be taken in designated areas that are usually indoors and may be covered with an artificial surface such as turf. Most dogs will be required to ride in the cargo area where they will be alone for an extended period; their crates will be moved around by strangers throughout the trip.

Sometimes, it is feasible to visit the airport in advance, to expose your dog to the busy environment before the day of travelling. You may be able to practice walking around in the baggage claim area and settling your dog in his crate for an hour or two.

Before the travel day, introduce your dog to artificial turf or potty pads. Also, be sure that your dog is comfortable entering and exiting their carrier, even in busy locations.

If your dog is traveling in cargo, the carrier will be lifted with the dog in it, placed on a conveyor, and often rolled on a wheeled cart. Help your dog practice going into and out of the crate on cue when it is elevated slightly off the floor as if it were on a platform, rolling cart, or ledge.

If your dog is traveling in an under-seat carrier, practice at home first. As described in the previous section, condition your dog to settle and relax in the appropriate-sized crate. Once the dog is comfortable and settles well inside the carrier, practice lifting, carrying, and moving your dog around while she is in the carrier. Reward frequently with small, delicious treats your dog enjoys. Consider whether you’ll be using a backpack type carrier, an over-the-shoulder bag, or even resting the carrier on top of another suitcase and rolling it through the airport.

Try to think of the experience from the dog’s perspective and practice each part of the travel experience while pairing it with wonderful rewards.

If, at any point, your dog seems anxious or concerned, pause the training program and go back to a calm and successful place. It can be helpful to reach out for professional coaching if it’s your first time teaching this skill.

Will I need any special equipment or documents for air travel?

Travel requirements for pets vary among the different airlines and with each destination. It is important to check with your airline well in advance. If you are traveling internationally, you should obtain a copy of the entry and exit regulations for that specific country. Only service dogs and dogs that fit in an under-seat pet carrier are permitted in the cabin.

Airlines set their own guidelines regarding the size of the carrier permissible for under-seat travel. There are also specific requirements related to the way the dog must fit once inside the travel crate. Dogs that do not meet the size requirement  must travel in the cargo compartment of the airplane.

What can I do if I do not have time to train my dog?

It is always ideal to train your dog before the day of travel. In some urgent situations, there may not be enough time to fully acclimate your pet. In an urgent situation, if you suspect that your dog will become stressed during travel, it is best to contact your veterinarian. Your dog may be able to take a fast-acting, anti-anxiety medication for the urgent trip. Your veterinarian will ask you to test the medication before the trip to be sure that your dog does not experience undesirable side effects.

What else can I do to make my dog less stressed while traveling?

You can reduce stress associated with new situations by bringing your dog’s bedding and some of their favorite toys. Be sure the toys are safe, as you may not be able to directly supervise your dog during travel. Using a pheromone product such as Dog Appeasing Pheromone (Adaptil™) may reduce anxiety.

Can I give my dog medication for car and air travel?

Medications and nutraceuticals can be used to help dogs relax during travel (see handouts “Behavior Counseling - Complementary Treatments” and “Behavior Counseling - Complementary Treatments”). While medicines are not a substitute for training, they can be used alongside behavior modification. Medication can be useful when there is an unexpected need to travel before your dog’s behavior training program has been completed. The goal of medication is, in most cases, to relieve anxiety and not necessarily to sedate your dog. When anxious dogs are sedated, they can become more anxious, particularly on future trips.

Motion sickness medication is also available. Your veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist will help you determine the best medication for your dog. Many factors will be considered, including the specific behavior that your dog exhibits during travel, the expected length of your trip, and your dog’s health history and concurrent medication.

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