Ask AKC with Lisa Peterson
January 2006

All dog owners need expert advice from time to time to meet the challenges of caring for their canines. The American Kennel Club aims to provide you and your purebred dog with the help you asked for.

Dear Lisa: Every time we take our Pomeranian with us in the car he gets sick and throws up. Since we normally take our dogs with us on vacation this presents a problem. The vet has prescribed a tranquilizer for long trips, but that gets expensive when we want to take him with us frequently on short trips. Is there something else that might work? Thanks. — Driving Miss Daisy in Denver

Dear Driving: There are usually two reasons for car sickness in dogs. Either motion sickness affecting balance or car-related anxiety caused by some fearful aspect of traveling in the car. Regardless of the reason for your pup's puking problems, the main remedy to address the issue is the same, a good desensitization program.

Before we start with the desensitization program, there are a few other steps to take since you don't know whether the pup suffers from motion sickness or car-related anxiety. One reason for motion sickness in young pups is the lack of early handling by humans. Try cuddling her upside down in your lap, pick her up in the air or roll her around on the ground like a log. These small motions a few times a day will mimic what she is exposed to in the car.

Avoid travel in the farthest backseat where there is the most motion. Also, in the backseat pups can only see out the side windows where a whizzing blur of objects creates a fuzzy visual that causes or compounds motion sickness. By moving her closer to the front, say in the middle seat and having her look forward towards the windshield she will see less movement. Another option is to place her in a Vari-Kennel® crate which has solid sides to limit her visibility. If you don't use a crate, remember to use a seat-belt like harness on her while in the middle seat to keep her safe in case of an accident.

As for car-related anxiety, the pup may have associated car travel with bad things happening to her. As a very young pup she might have been taken away from her mother and thrown into a car to go to the vet to get shots which wasn't pleasant. At such a young age a few bad trips can ruin a dog's appeal to a car ride.

Going for a Ride

Start with putting the pup in the car with you for a few minutes a day. Don't turn on the car or drive anywhere, just sit quietly giving praise and gently petting. Another good idea is not to feed the pup six to 12 hours before any planned travel or even sitting in the car. Feed her after the session or travel back in the house. Don't use treats to reward her in the car. This will only stimulate an already off-balance digestive system.

After a few days sitting in the car, try staring the car and letting it run for a few minutes with her in it. Bring a toy and play with her in the front seat. Make it a happy time. Then shut off the car and exit. Do this for a few days until she shows great enthusiasm for going to the car. The trick here is to progress slowly after she shows no sign of sickness. The next step is to drive up and down the driveway once then stop and exit. Do this for a few days and then maybe try up and down the street. You get the picture. Increase the amount of travel each time she reaches a plateau of not getting sick. If she gets sick then move the process backwards until she is not sick again. By taking one step back to move two steps forward you will progress.

Leader of the Pack

One of the most important things you can do is be a strong pack leader for her. Show her that being in the car is fun and trouble free. Another tactic you can do is to not make a big deal when she does vomit in the car. Do not pull over to clean it up, as this signals her that puking will stop the car. By ignoring her and the mess until you are at your destination she will not think anything about it. Then take her out of the car and go back and clean up the mess without the dog in sight. If you get emotionally upset when she is sick in the car, such as yelling, she will begin to associate your emotional unbalance with something being "wrong" with the car.

If she still has problems, or is overly excited in the car, then you may have to take your vet's advice with a mild sedative for car rides. Unfortunately, some dogs never do get over car sickness. But with a young pup and being vigilant about her program you are more than likely to have a successful outcome.

Dear Lisa : We have two nine-month old Yorkshire Terriers. They are wonderful, energetic little bundles of fun but the little female will look for and consume their feces. I pick up their stools around the yard but inadvertently I miss some. Is there any supplement I can give her in her food that will prevent this or what would you suggest? It's a yucky habit and it can't be good for her! Please help. — Pooped Out in Peoria

Dear Pooped: The habit of eating feces - on purpose and not by accident - is called Coprophagia . This abnormal ingestive behavior is gross only because your puppy does it in front of you. In fact, this behavior is quite common in puppies, isn't harmful and is usually outgrown. However, it's better if you become proactive and not risk that she won't out grow it, by intervening while she is still an impressionable puppy.

First of all, consult your veterinarian to see if there is any medical reason why your puppy engages in stool eating. Experts agree there is no known single cause for it and eliminating a medical condition will let you move on to looking at the behavioral aspects of it.

Possible Behavioral Factors

Most coprophagic pups do it as a learned behavior. Sometimes pups begin it as a form of "copy behavior" from their mother in the whelping box. Lactating mothers lick and clean up after small puppies to remove the smell that attracts predators in the wild.

Attention-seeking behavior may also be a cause for your pup's snacking. If, for example, you are away for long hours and the pup feels the need for additional attention, she may grab a tidbit knowing you will scold her for doing so. Don't fall prey to reinforcing this negative behavior each time she tries to grab a snack. Even negative attention is better than no attention at all.

Best Solution

The only way to stop it is to teach her a new behavior. You may have seen products to cure this problem or heard of the old wives' tales of putting meat tenderizer or MSG on the dog's food to make the taste of the feces worse (worse than what?). Anyway, speaking as an experienced owner of a coprophagic bitch, I can say none of these remedies worked for her. They may for a time, but once dogs get used to the new taste, the old habit returns.

The best way to avoid consumption is to pick up feces immediately after your dogs' elimination. If you are diligent with this clean-up act for several weeks and start a new behavior model for the puppy to follow, the problem should correct itself. For example, have her poop on leash, pull her away from the object of her desire and reward immediately with an acceptable treat and then a little playtime. She will begin to associate elimination with a new behavior and hopefully, she won't resort to the old behavior when you return her to the off-leash, unsupervised privacy such matters dictate.

Lisa Peterson, a long-time owner/breeder/handler of Norwegian Elkhounds, is the AKC Director of Club Communications. If you have a question, send it to Lisa at lxp@akc.org and she may select it to be answered here in Ask AKC.

© 2006 The American Kennel Club, Inc.