Mason had a lot of trouble in the car. For the first two years of his life, riding in the car with him was incredibly stressful. He would whine and drool the entire trip, no matter how long the ride was. He’d scream so loud, it made me dizzy. He would try to attack the cars around us. He threw his body against the windshield so hard, it cracked. At one point, he even threw himself out of a moving vehicle.
If a client came to me with these problems, the first thing I’d suggest is using a crate to confine the dog and a blanket to block their view. I tried this with Mason, but he broke out and was somehow even more agitated than if I just let him ride loose. It was awful. If you’re reading this, odds are you’re dealing with something similar. I have good news; he’s better now; almost normal! Here’s what I did:
Chapter One: Stationary Work
Week One: I put a moratorium on going places until the dog was ready. Fed all meals in the stationary car. I fed out of a Kong or other food puzzle to make the training sessions longer and more interesting. I sat in the driver’s seat while he was eating. During Week One, I’d get out of the car and release the dog before he finished eating, leaving him wanting more, and wanting to get back in to finish (I wouldn’t recommend this for a heavy resource guarder. My dog has very little guarding behavior).
Weeks Two and Three: I’d have us sit in the stationary car for a few minutes, sometimes at mealtime, sometimes with just a quick little snack. I always brought him out before he got worked up. I varied the amount of time we were in the stationary car so that he didn’t learn to count the seconds/minutes. My protocol here is based on Dr. Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol.
Chapter 2: Add Some Motion
Note: Weeks 4, 5,6 and 7 I used the highest value reinforcer for my dog. After that, I switched back to his kibble because he demonstrated that he slightly more comfortable, and would accept the kibble as a reinforcer at 8 weeks.
Week Four: I spent this week starting the ignition and letting the car run while I fed the highest value reinforcer for my dog – rotisserie chicken. Again, I varied the amount of time we spent in the car. Sometimes it was 2 seconds, sometimes it was 3 minutes.
Week 5: Now I began putting the car in drive or reverse but not taking my foot off the brake. This was just to get him used to hearing the gears.
Weeks 6 through 14: I would drive for a quarter of a block for a week (randomly alternating reverse driving), half a block, around the block. After a few weeks I really randomized the length of drives. Sometimes we’d go back to a quarter of a block (again, keeping Relaxation Protocol in mind). I always had treats/kibble at the ready to throw into the backseat to help maintain control. After about two months, I thought the difference was noticeable. We made slow but steady progress weekly.
We stayed at this stage for about three years, mostly because I was comfortable at this level, and didn’t do more to advance, and partly because it is tricky to keep the dog under threshold while you’re driving. I did this with no helpers. I think if I’d had helpers to do the driving it would have cut down the training time. An alternative would be some sort of remote trainer like the Treat and Train or the Pet Tutor.
Chapter 3: Refinement
We maintained at a level of “if we have enough kibble to provide him with near-constant reinforcement, we can go anywhere.” It was exhausting, and we’d have setbacks all the time. He’s also dog reactive, so every time we saw a dog while in the car, we’d have to go back to the protocol for weeks 6-14. After about three years of this, he was doing quite well on the freeway. I was super happy with the improvement. But he was still struggling in town, getting especially worked up when we’d stop at stop lights or make turns. I learned to toss treats in the back when I start slowing down. After a few months of that added practice, he became pretty decent to drive around with.
He still has trouble when we see other dogs. I’m not sure this will ever go away completely, but I started driving by dog parks at a far-away distance with our highest value reinforcer, and after 6 months, I was able to reduce our distance and that reinforcer to regular kibble again. After roughly 2 more years of this added practice, for the first time, I drove by a dog and he didn’t freak out. He saw the dog, got excited, and looked to me for a piece of well-earned kibble. It’s been a long time coming, but I feel like we have finally arrived.
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