Ask a dog trainer: What if your dog is a nightmare in the car?

Sarah is our lucky soon to be mum whose Kelpie needs some help and tips about remaining calm in the car. Sarah is nervous about what will happen when she adds a baby in the mix too.

The question.

“My husband and I are expecting a little girl in mid June. We currently have a very loved Kelpie cross, Ruger, who has been the number one in our family for three years. He is walked off leash daily but has a very strong personality and some naughty traits we just can’t get rid of, even after much research and trial.

He is horrible in the car. He has never had a bad experience in the car and car rides always end with a positive occasion yet he cries, paces and barks (high pitched) the entire trip.

When visiting my family five hours away it is pure hell. He does not stop for hours. I have been angry and stern and have tried calm and supportive. Remaining calm seems to help but he never stops.

He is harnessed in but tangles himself at times and it becomes so stressful to me, it can be dangerous. The odd thing is that when returning home from somewhere he is generally quiet.

On long trips he will have episodes but it isn’t constant. We have tried exhausting him beforehand and it helps a little but still continues. He is not scared of the car. He is happy to jump in at any opportunity.

Do you have any advice for us as the only other options I have been told of is to sedate him but that can have an opposite effect? I don’t want him doing it with a baby in the car and leaving him at home is not always an option.”

Dog trainer Mel Ritterman answers:

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First off, well done for taking the steps to fix this. Avoiding car trips with your dog is not the answer. Making car trips a positive experience, is the answer. Just be aware, that this is not going to happen overnight.

It’s going to take some work. Lucky you still have time before bubs arrives, as there is nothing worse than a screaming baby when you drive (yes I have dealt with that plenty of times with mine) plus an anxious dog on top of that!

Sorry to all the parents of fur babies, but they’re just animals. The Mamamia Out Loud team discuss. Post continues after audio.

Start slow, be patient and remain calm.

You can’t rush this. First you need to start off by getting Ruger to jump in the car with you every day. Start slow. Don’t harness him to begin. Just get him sitting in the car and praise him. Do nothing, besides reward him if he’s calm. If he reacts already, ignore it. Ignore the bad and reward the good/calm.

Make sure to have treats with you – something extra special (sausage, chicken, cheese). Once he has this with no problems, build up from it. You sit in the front seat with him in the back. Then build up to sitting in the car and just putting the engine on.

Still going nowhere? Put his harness on, and repeat, sit in the car with no engine on. Then try the engine on with the harness on. Do each of these things one at a time, get it right, with Ruger being calm, before moving to the next stage.

Treat it as a five minute training session each day or twice a day if you have the time. Always making it positive. Keep going like this, until you can actually start driving the car. But when you start driving the car, start out small. Just to the end of the drive way and then back for a big treat.

Make the experience and the destination positive.

Start out by only taking him to places he loves. Dogs often become anxious of car rides because often car rides are just a trip to the Vet or to be Groomed etc, things your dog may not like so much.


With the information you have given me, it sounds like this is what’s going on with Ruger as he doesn’t seem to be as stressed when he’s on the way home. More when he’s on the way to somewhere he doesn’t know.

So, once you have built Ruger up to be able to go on little car rides, you want to start building up the car trips. But make sure to start out by only taking him to his favourite places; the park, the beach, for a play date with a friend, anywhere you know that Ruger loves.

Start out with the ones that are the closest distance to home. He needs to learn that the destination is going to be a good one and is not something to be stressed or anxious about.

Once you arrive at the destination, Ruger must be calm and relaxed before you let him out. So, you will have to sit and wait it out patiently. He will quickly learn that calm behaviour equals a fun outcome (you let him out of the car to play at the park, beach, etc).

Build him up to longer car trip.

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The big test will then be that five-hour drive to your parents. So, this is what we are building him up to. Even if it means that your hubby drives and you sit in the back to give positive reinforcements along the way. Work on all of this consistently, every day with him before bub comes. Starting with shorter rides and building up to longer ones. Always thinking about remaining calm and positive. Ignoring the bad.

Exercise before long car rides when you can.

Obviously, you’re not going to exercise your dog before taking him in the car to the dog beach or to the dog park. But before a five-hour long trip to your parents, this could be a really good idea to get out some of Ruger’s energy. It might be worth looking at the type of exercise he is getting.

You mentioned that you exercise Ruger off-lead every day. What some people don’t realise is that a dog being on lead can actually be more mentally and physically tiring for them. Off-lead is great, but not all the time. Why don’t you try some on-lead walks with him? Take him for a long and slow walk. Let him sniff around. Dogs can learn so much by using their noses, and it’s important to let them.

Even an on-lead run if your hubby wants the exercise. Maybe giving him a bit of variety and some good mental stimulation for home as well, could help release some of his energy. Hide and Seek games, tug of war, those treat dispenser toys where they have to work to get the food out, etc.

Sarah, I hope this has answered your question… I am sorry that it’s not going to be a quick fix. You will have to put in the time. Try your best to be calm and patient. It will be totally worth it in the long run!

If you are worried about some of his other naughty behaviour/ quirks, it might be worth finding a dog behaviourist or trainer to come out to your house before the bub comes and really getting him ready.

Good luck! Please get in touch if there is something else I can help you with. I would love to hear how you go so please keep us up to date with your progress.

How YOU can Get Involved with Mel’s Q&A’s: Please feel free to comment below with your questions or get in touch via email [email protected] I would love for you to send me through three to four questions you may have about your kids/babies/mumlife/dogs and if you get lucky, I will feature your questions in a blog post on my website!

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