My dog barks incessantly, but only in the car. Occasionally I take her to the vet, which she doesn't like, but the vast majority of the time we're headed to the dog park, which she loves. Why is this and what can I do?
Barking in the car can have a few different causes. Some dogs will vocalize because they are fearful. Others will become very excited by the road noise and the view out the car window. Still others may get excited because they anticipate something very good or bad at the end of the ride. The good news is there are a few very basic but effective things that can be done to improve the situation without identifying the exact cause.
The first thing to consider is where your dog is riding in the car. Dogs, just like children, should be safely secured in the car. In the event of an accident a “loose” dog can be very seriously injured. Also, every few months I see a news story about a dog that is lost or injured after a car accident because she ran from the scene often right into traffic.
Dogs that are free to roam in the car can cause a whole set of issues before a crash even occurs. A loose dog can interfere with the driver’s ability to drive, to see out the window, and can present an irresistible distraction if they are interacting with children or trying to open (or eat) packages.
But more to the point, a dog that is free to roam around a vehicle can pass the time by looking out the window and barking at things as they fly by. This temptation is just too much for some dogs, and some can become very agitated by looking out the window of a moving car.
I am a fan of using a crate to transport dogs. A well-secured “soft” crate provides a safe and comfortable place for a dog to travel and also keeps them from becoming too interested (or afraid) of the view. This of course means that your dog must be crate-trained, and you may have to make an effort to acclimate her to the new crate if it is very different from what you are using at home.
A crate also makes it very easy to implement another suggestion for cutting down on barking: give her something else to do. While she is in the crate, give her a Kong, a bully stick, a rawhide, or whatever sort of toy will keep her occupied. All of my dogs have a special toy that they only see when we ride in the car.
If a crate is just not an option, there are quite a few good seat belt products available. If you need to use one of them, window shades may be an option for cutting down on your dog’s view of the road. It’s also best to strap a dog in the back seat, as passenger air bags present the same risk to dogs as they do to small children.
Once you have addressed where your dog will ride, you can start to think about some basic training for how she will ride. You want your dog to sit or lie down quietly during the ride, so practice that behavior! If you don’t have a solid down stay outside of the car, work on that first. But keep in mind – you can’t drive and feed your dogs treats at the same time, so you’ll need to fade the treats and replace them with praise before you are ready to hit the road. Once you have mastered a quiet down outside the car, practice in the driveway with the car shut off, then with it running, and gradually work your way up to short car rides. It’s also worth the effort to try to find a toy that holds your dog’s interest and using that to reinforce the quiet behavior.
Last, but by no means least, are you somehow reinforcing the barking? If you are repeatedly shouting “quiet!” or “no!” when your dog is barking you may actually be rewarding the behavior rather than punishing it. Also, are you letting her out of the car and into the dog park while she is still barking? That is definitely a reward! Even if she ends up at the vet instead of the park sometimes, the park is most likely a big enough reward that barking every time seems worth it! While it may require the patience of a saint (and the ear protection of a construction worker), do not let her out of the car (or the crate) if she is barking. This is very important and absolutely worth the effort. If you can be completely consistent with enforcing quiet before she can leave the car, it will have a tremendous impact.