Alleviating Travel Anxiety in Your Dog
If you are a dog owner like myself, then you’ll likely want to take your pet everywhere with you, wherever possible. This might be a short trip into town, a longer trip out in the car to visit family over the Christmas holidays, a journey to the vet via the London Underground, or a train to Cornwall, or Eurostar to France for a seaside holiday.
But travel with a dog that gets anxious about travel can feel like the end of the world, especially if you end up torn between enduring a miserable or messy journey or leaving your best friend behind in kennels or with a pet sitter, thus your holiday doesn’t feel like much of a holiday anymore.
There are many reasons why your dog might get anxious about travel. They might have had a bad experience as a pup, especially if they are a rescue dog, or they may simply get travel sick, or just be inexperienced with travel. Common signs of anxiety include barking, whining, excessive slobbering, panting, vomiting, or toilet accidents. But don’t fear, there are many things to be done to alleviate anxiety, and the earlier you can start these with your dog (even if they don’t get travel anxiety), the better.
The key to success is to make positive associations with travel, so that every journey becomes an exciting adventure. To get your
dog used to the car, give them a treat and praise whenever they are near your car. If you dog is especially anxious, this could begin with sitting outside the vehicle close by, and slowly working closer towards the car. Next have your dog sit in the boot of the car or on a seat inside the car with you with the engine off, and offer treats and praise. Make it a relaxing space for the two of you to hang out together. If your dog will need to wear a harness in the car, then slowly introduce them to wearing the harness or getting used to its smell, for example, wearing it in the house, or having it someone where the dog sees it as part of normal, day to day life. Over time, you can start to introduce your dog to car noises by switching on the engine, putting on music if this is something you might do on a long journey, and then driving around the block, or taking short visits. Increase the distance with every journey, stopping for toilet breaks, treats, and visits to places where your dog can exercise and stretch his or her legs with you.
For train or plane travel, you will need to have your dog become familiar with unfamiliar noises, large crowds, and the movement of luggage. So try and be upbeat with your dog, offer rewards, and lots of fuss, and have your dog get used to components of the travel scenario long before you leave, for example, getting your dog used to being social with people, children, strangers, and other dogs, and used to being on the lead or in busy places like towns.
If you now that your dog has previous bad experiences or associations with travel, such as being hit by a car or only going in the car for a vet visit, then you will need to turn the association to one of the car or vehicle being a safe space. Some dogs benefit from the physical feeling of security that can be provided in the form of an anxiety vest, like a ‘Thunder shirt’ or the wearing of a safety harness, or being sat on a specially made dog booster seat, so that they can easily see what is going on around them and feel like they are part of the family.
Safe spaces and positive associations can also be created by playing soothing, classical music in the house and in the car, opening the window of the car or sitting near an open window on a bus or train so that your dog has fresh, cool air.
If your dog still gets travel sick or especially nervous about travel, then speak to your vet about herbal and other remedies that can be taken to prevent nausea and motion sickness, and make sure not to feed your dog right before a journey, and to give them ample time to go to the toilet, without a sense of stress that often comes with trying to organise a family and not being late to arrive at your destination.
Even if your dog doesn’t get anxious or travel sick, it’s a good idea to put together a travel kit for the car or to take with you, that includes dog poo bags, puppy pads, and wet wipes. We all get sick from time to time, and cleaning up any mess will be a lot easier and nicer for the family if you are prepared. If your dog does make a mess, don’t tell them off. They will likely feel terrible about doing something they are normally not allowed to do, and this could make them more anxious still. Reassure them, and let them know that sometimes accidents just happen, we’ve all been there at some point in our life, especially when feeling sick.
And finally, make sure that your dog gets plenty of exercise before your journey, if nothing else they will be exhausted and more likely to fall asleep for the journey, and be sure to check your own anxiety at the door. Your dog will look to you as the leader, if he or she senses that you are anxious, then this will make their anxiety worse.
Written by Sarah Weldon
Sarah is a British explorer and ice swimmer, who loves nothing more than hikes in the mountain with her Italian Greyhound and cosy nights by the fire with her three devious cats.