Recently, I was out for a bike ride along a major road and I was horrified to see a Labrador Retriever jump through the back window of a moving car and get partially dragged by his leash. Thankfully traffic stopped and the owners stopped the car quickly. Witnessing a dog jump through a window of a moving car was obviously upsetting for me, but most of all it was a big reminder for me about how important it is for dogs to be properly restrained when in cars, and to be taught safe car manners.
For everyone’s safety dogs shouldn’t be riding on the driver’s lap, or unrestrained in the car. Dogs should also never ride in the back of a pickup truck (which is illegal in many areas), no matter if they are loose, tethered, or crated. When dogs are riding in a vehicle, they should be in a crate or secured with a crash-tested dog seatbelt.
Seatbelts are great options if your vehicle isn’t large enough to accommodate an appropriately sized crate for your dog. This will prevent your dog from being injured or ejected from the car in the event that you have to brake quickly, or in a worse case if you get into an accident. If your dog is wearing a seatbelt in the backseat of your car make sure that you have turned on the child locks to prevent your dog from pawing at the door and accidentally opening a window.
You also want to keep windows completely rolled up or only cracked. Never allow your dog to ride in the car with his head out the window as this can result in injury from a dog jumping out of the car as I witnessed, or a dog’s eyes being injured by flying debris.
Car Manners Training
Although car travel comes naturally to us, it isn’t something dogs automatically understand. As soon as your dog or puppy comes home, begin teaching your dog to behave safely and calmly in and around your car.
- To start, get your dog comfortable and familiar with the restraint equipment (crate or seatbelt) ahead of time outside of the car.
- Let your dog investigate the seatbelt or crate and offer treats and praise for approaching and sniffing the equipment.
- Keep training sessions short and fun and when your dog is comfortable with the crate and seatbelt you’re ready to get into the car.
- Introduce your dog to the car with a family member or friend planning to drive so you can focus on working with your dog.
- Depending on your dog’s age/health/size either lift your dog into the car or encourage her to jump up. Praise and treat for loading into the car. Close your dog in her crate or connect her seatbelt.
- Start car training without a planned trip in mind so that you aren’t in a hurry and can start with just a short drive down the street, especially if you already know your dog gets excited or struggles in the car. Praise and treat (small treats that aren’t likely to upset her stomach) your dog for any calm and relaxed behavior: not barking, laying down, etc.
- As your dog is more comfortable in the car you can vary the rate of reinforcement (treats) and the length of the drives you take.
Exiting The Car Safely
When you reach your destination, it’s important that your dog not bolt from the car the minute a crate door is opened or your dog’s seatbelt is removed even if you are somewhere exciting. To support your dog with developing impulse control and waiting they are appropriately leashed and cued to leave the car. Going places is exciting so we want to build value for our dogs with being in the car, and being calm in the car. If your dog is generally excited while in the car you can start teaching car exiting manners at home without going anywhere.
- When you are ready to get your dog out of the car, take a moment to settle yourself and get your leash and treats ready.
- When you open the door to where your dog is seat belted/crated, praise and reward calm behavior.
- If your dog starts getting overly excited or frantic, pause what you are doing. You want to avoid moving forward and letting your dog out while they are overexcited as it will reward the behavior you don’t want.
- As you open the crate/undo the seatbelt and clip on your dog’s leash, continue to praise and treat.
- Give your verbal release cue to let your dog jump out of the car (if it’s safe for your dog to do so) or as you lift your dog out of the car.
- Praise and treat your dog for standing calmly next to you, or if you prefer cue your dog to sit and praise/treat your dog for being calm next to you as you close the door and get ready to go.
- The goal is to build habit and value for our dogs in staying next to us and out of traffic by helping them to understand they need to wait for our cue to leave the car area.
Additional Tips: Drive-Through Training
An easy-to-forget aspect of training good car manners is to help your dog to get familiar with drive-throughs and gas stations. These situations can be particularly stressful or over arousing for dogs who are very excited, nervous around new people, or prone to guarding. This especially a concern for dogs who are wearing seatbelts as they can see out the windows and watch as people approach the car. Have treats ready and give your dog lots of praise and treats if gas station attendants approach your car or as other stressful interactions occur. Always make sure that your rear windows are completely closed to prevent your dog from sticking his head out, and to prevent people from reaching in to pet your dog. Some drive-throughs offer special doggy menus or hand out dog treats which is a fun treat but be sure to wait for your dog to be calm before giving your dog any drive-through treats.
When driving, remember you’re responsible for the safety of yourself and others on the road. You cannot be distracted by anything in the back seat that might take your concentration away from safely driving your car. Having your dogs properly trained and controlled in your car will allow you to concentrate on the deed at hand.