There are four main reasons that dogs don’t want to get into cars, trucks or other vehicles. It will either be because getting in is not rewarding, that the act of climbing in or the ride is unpleasant, or because they aren’t ready to go home. The last problem, the dog who doesn’t want to go home, can be particularly worrying, because you are away from home and getting your dog back into the vehicle is a safety issue. Fortunately it is fairly easy to fix.
My dog won’t get in the car at home
If you only take your dog or puppy in the car when he is going to the vet for his vaccinations
Or when you are driving four hundred miles to visit relatives
Being in the car won’t have much appeal.
You’ll need to make the car a more rewarding place by giving him something pleasant to eat of chew on while he is there.
Make the car a rewarding place
Put a handful of kibble or a tasty treat into your car crate before you put your puppy in there, every time you take him out.
If you do this without fail, your puppy will come to see the car as a great place to be.
A kong stuffed with food and frozen will help to keep a puppy or older dog happy on a long journey and they will soon learn to sleep away the miles on longer journeys if all trips are made pleasant ones
If regularly exercised at the end of a short car drive, most dogs are very keen to leap into a vehicle and get going. But that is no comfort when your dog still won’t get in the car!
Some dogs find car travel very unpleasant and we’ll have a look at that in a moment. For others, it is the act of getting into the car itself which is the problem.
My dog won’t let me pick him up
Some dogs have missed out on the important puppy socialization that includes learning to be handled and lifted off the ground.
If this is the case with your dog, you can teach him to enjoy or at least tolerate being lifted off the ground, but this takes time.
Here is a video to help you help a dog that doesn’t like being handled. You can extend these exercises to include gentle lifting in stages.
In the meantime you may want to consider getting a ramp which you can lead him up (see below)
If your dog only objects to being picked up when you want him to get in the car, then it is the car journey itself that is the problem, so skip on to my dog hates riding in the car
My dog won’t jump in the car
For some dogs, the problem lies simply with getting in and out of the vehicle, especially if there is a bit of a jump involved.
Adult dogs in the prime of life are pretty good at jumping and many healthy dogs of average size and above can jump into most vehicles from a standing start.
But there are two issues here
- Jumping may need to be taught
- Some dogs should not be asked to jump
Even if a dog is willing to jump, a bad jump, where the dog fails and hurts himself in the attempt, can damage his confidence and put a dog off jumping for a long time.
Jumping is partly physical strength and power, and partly confidence. So if you want to your dog to jump into your car or truck you should teach him to jump in stages.
Puppies jumping into cars
Many experts think that puppies should not be allowed to jump until they are over a year old. This is because it is believed that jumping may damage the puppy’s joints.
The evidence on this is actually not very clear.
There is a study which showed that puppies who are exposed to climbing stairs in the first three months of life are more likely to get hip dysplasia.
But the same study showed that puppies exposed to plenty of free playing exercise (including scrambling about) were less likely to have problems than other dogs.
Larger breed puppies are more vulnerable to hip problems so it probably makes sense to be on the safe side and not expect your puppy to jump into high backed vehicles at a very young age.
Senior dogs jumping into cars
An older dog that has always jumped willingly into a car and now begins to show signs of reluctance needs you help. Don’t keep encouraging him to jump if he is unwilling. He may do it to please you at cost to himself.
If he is small enough to lift, then do so. Otherwise get him a ramp or a step to give him a hand.
Disabled dogs jumping into cars
Some dogs should never be asked to jump, even if they seem capable or willing.
This includes some of the very long backed breeds like dachshunds, and dogs with spinal problems or recovering from surgery.
Dog ramps and steps
If your dog needs physical assistance getting in and out of your vehicle, and he is too heavy for you to lift, then you need to use some kind of a ramp or steps.
Obviously this needs to be an easily portable device so that you can pack it in your car and use it at both ends of the journey
We like the Tri-fold pet ramp from Pet Gear, which is currently Amazon’s best seller, and can support dogs up to a massive 200lbs in weight.
It has a stable non slip surface and unfolds quickly and easily
Dogs who hate riding in the car
Dislike of car travel is not uncommon in dogs and puppies, and it is usually caused by motion sickness or fear of the noise and sensation of the moving vehicle.
Many small puppies are car sick initially but this soon passes if they are taken in a vehicle on a regular (preferably daily) basis.
Fear of car travel or motion sickness tends to occur in older dogs that have not been exposed to regular car travel when small.
There is quite a bit you can do to help. And some dogs will need travel sickness medication which your veterinarian will be able to prescribe.
Helping the dog who is afraid of car travel
With dogs that are just plain nervous about riding in cars, you can help them overcome this fear. While you are working through this program of counter conditioning, don’t take your dog out in the car at all.
Begin by feeding your dog all his meal in the back of the car, with the engine switched off and the door open. Lift him in or lead him up a ramp if you have to, to begin with.
TIP: Feeding him several small meals a day rather than one big one will speed up the process
If he is capable of jumping, by the end of the first week, he will probably be willing to jump into the vehicle for his food. At this point you can shut the door while he eats.
After a few days where the dog is happy to jump in the car for his meals, start to briefly turn the engine on and off again when he is half way through his meal. A couple of seconds is enough.
Feeding your dog with the engine running
If he is reluctant to finish his meal when you do this, leave the engine off for a few meals and then try again. Once he is willing to finish his meal after hearing the engine switched on and off, you can start to increase the time the engine runs for.
You can see where we are going with this. Soon the dog will eat his meal in the back of the car with the engine running.
Then you can start to move the car a few feet forwards. Just briefly to begin with. Then stop the engine, give the dog a little more food in the car, then get him out.
Now start to turn on the engine and drive a little way before stopping and feeding the dog.
My dog won’t get in the car to come home
Recently, one of my readers wrote in asking for help with a dog that won’t get back in the car at the end of a walk.
This is a really common problem. And a serious one.
It is no joke hanging around in a car park for an hour or more, until your dog decides he is ready to go home, and no fun chasing a dog around a muddy field trying to catch him when you are already late for collecting the kids from school.
But to understand the problem of dogs that play ‘keep away’ at the end of a walk, we first need to look at this from the dog’s point of view
Why won’t my dog come home?
For many dogs, their daily walk is the highlight of their week. Nothing else matches up.
In all honesty, most dogs’ lives are quite boring. The day often begins by watching people get ready for work and school. Followed, for many dogs, by several hours spent entirely alone.
Later they get to see people cooking tasty meals, most of which they don’t get to share. So life is long stretches of dull, punctuated once or twice in every 24 hours by a meal of kibble, which is gone in less than a minute.
Except for those walks.
Walks are a huge big deal if you are a dog. They mean, getting out and about with your family, hunting amazing smells, running with the wind in your ears, playing, sniffing, exploring. Walks mean meeting people, and meeting other dogs. They are the opposite of boring. Walks are the ultimate prize.
It is hardly surprising that some dogs don’t want their walks to end. That they dart out of reach and refuse to have their lead put back on, or refuse to get back in the vehicle.
It is perhaps far more surprising that so many dogs do willingly go home with their owners at the end of each walk.
So why do some people have trouble and not others?
How does the problem start?
Just like us, dogs tend to avoid behaviors that have had unpleasant consequences in the past, and repeat behaviors that have had pleasant consequences in the past.
The more unpleasant the consequence, the harder the dog will work to avoid it, and the more pleasant the consequence, the harder the dog will work to get it.
Part of the problem is that it is the dog’s perception of the value of the consequence that counts. Not ours. So a dog that values the features of the walk more highly (dogs that are bred to hunt for example) are more likely to be upset by its end.
Understanding how consequences control a dog’s behavior is the key to training a dog effectively and to resolving problem behaviors. And you can find out more about that in this article: How dogs learn.
My dog won’t get in the car because it’s boring
It is very important to put aside outdated and disproven notions that dogs will work just to please their owners, or because they respect them. This is simply not true.
If your dog won’t get back in the car, or let you clip on his lead, you have a problem. But so does he.
His problem (which is now your problem too) is that he has (in the past) associated getting in the car or being caught in the past with something unpleasant.
For some dogs, the ‘end of the walk’ is so unpleasant that is acts as a punishment and punishment makes the dog avoid the behavior that it accompanies or follows.
In this case, the dog has come to associate the displeasure of the end of the walk with getting in the car, or having his lead put on. So he tries to avoid these at all costs.
Your dog still loves you
This behavior doesn’t mean your dog doesn’t love you or care for you. Most dogs that do this remain very close to their owners but just out of reach. This is infuriating but much better than running away altogether.
He stays close because he loves you and doesn’t want to lose you.
He won’t get in the car because he believes (quite rightly) that this means the walk is over.
Teaching your dog to get back in the car
You are going to teach your dog that having his lead put on, and getting back in the car, are great things. There are three factors or ‘props’ that you need to include in your retraining programme
- Amazing rewards
- Frequent leashing
- A long line
We’ve talked a bit about getting back in the car, but we are going to focus on the lead, rather than the car here, because once your dog is on a lead, you have control of him.
And because you cannot realistically take your car on the walk and practice getting in and out of it in a controlled and rewarding way. We will however make getting in the car fun, so that you don’t have to lift your dog in and out.
When you want to change the way a dog feels about something he views as unpleasant, initially, you need to use massive rewards.
A bit of old dog biscuit simply won’t cut it.
Think of the most wonderful reward you can offer your dog. Food rewards are ideal because they are convenient, portable and easy to deliver quickly.
Later, other rewards can be incorporated into training but I suggest you begin with some seriously impressive food.
Freshly roasted warm chicken, dripping with juices and covered in tasty crispy skin is a brilliant one. Even the most determined dog will struggle to resist this.
Using your amazing reward
The idea is to get the dog to associate being leashed with your amazing reward. If you do this often enough it will change the way he feels about being leashed.
You don’t have to restrict this practice to walks, you can make a start at home. Leash your dog several times a day in the house and garden. Follow each leashing rapidly with a great reward.
Use rewarding experiences in his daily life too. Leash him before you give him his dinner for example. Leash him before you throw his ball or play tug.
Make that lead a good thing.
Out on walks, you will need to change your use of the lead dramatically
Frequency of leashing
This is the next part of our strategy. Many dogs only have their lead put on at the end of each walk. This is a huge mistake and if you have been doing this, it’s one you need to rectify right away.
In order to get a dog to associate the lead with pleasure outdoors as well as in, you need to put your dog on the lead, many many times, and follow each leashing with a major reward.
This will seem odd at first. But you need to do it a lot, at least to begin with.
If you are going for an hour’s walk, aim to put your dog on a lead at least twenty times. Each time give him a great reward – a lump of chicken or cheese for example, or a juicy sardine. Then release him again.
“But, but!” You cry “How am I supposed to do that if I can’t catch him!” which is where we come to the third part of our strategy.
Using a long line on your dog
If you don’t own a harness and training lead, now is the time to get one.
While you are out and about with your dog he needs to drag a training lead. This is a long line that trails along the ground where ever he goes outside. You don’t hold the end or use it to control him until you are ready with your amazing reward.
Then, without saying a word, just walk to the end of the long line and pick it up. You can then call your dog and he cannot avoid you.
Toss some of your amazing rewards on the ground, throwing them closer to you until he is near enough for you to clip on his normal lead. As soon as you have attached his lead, give him several more juicy treats then release him.
After a few repeats of this, he will recognise that there is no point in trying to avoid you and come quickly to get his reward.
You’ll soon be able to do this without picking up the end of the long line at all. But still leave it attached to him as a back up. And be sure to pick up the end of the long line before you call him when you approach your car.
Rewarding the dog in the car
If getting in the car was your problem, you need to make sure that a splendid reward awaits the dog once he is seated in the car.
He will soon be jumping in of his own accord. But carry on rewarding him in the car, each and every time he gets in.
Fading your props
Everyone wants their dog to come when called and jump in the car without fuss, just like other dogs.
Most people are in a hurry to get away from the amazing rewards. After all, it is quite a big deal carrying hot chicken around with you.
But be aware. This training system works really quickly, but your efforts will all come to nothing if you try to fade rewards or reduce the frequency of leasing too quickly.
Take your time
Your ‘props’ are those massive rewards, frequent leashing, and a long line. Don’t throw them away until your dog has had chance to develop reliable new habits.
Take at least a month to get this right, then fade your props slowly
Over time, you can incorporate simpler rewards. Sometimes when you leash your dog you can give a piece of cheese, kibble or other easily prepared and stored food.
Sometimes you can play tug after leashing your dog, or release the dog with a throw of his ball.
Occasionally you can just make a huge fuss of him – but mostly, you need to reward him with something he really likes. For most dogs this will be food.
Check out this article on fading rewards for more information, and if you are putting your dog in a car, never stop placing a nice treat in there for him at the end of each walk. That needs to be a permanent part of your routine.
Fading the frequent leashing
Gradually, you can leash your dog less often during each walk, until you are only putting him on the lead two or three times per walk
Don’t be in too much of a hurry to do this. Take your time! If your dog starts to seem reluctant to come back, you need to leash him MORE often not less.
Fading the long line
One way to fade the long line is simply to cut a little bit off it each day, until finally there is just a stump attached to the dog’s collar.
It means you are getting closer and closer to the dog when you pick up the end, so don’t do this until you don’t actually need the long line any more. In other words, when you are at the point when you never have to pick it up in order to prevent him avoiding you.
An alternative is to unclip the long line for short periods of time. In the early part of the walk to begin with.
Either way, don’t fade the line until you don’t need it any more.
Creating good habits and good default behaviors takes time. How long it takes will depend on your dog’s temperament and how long he has been playing keep away for.
Practice leash rewards at home a lot. Make sure your dog is hungry before you take him outdoors to practice (don’t feed him first)
Don’t fade your ‘props’ too quickly and never stop rewarding a dog that has willingly climbed into a car to go back home with you at the end of a walk.
He had made a huge gesture for you – leaving his beloved outdoors behind. The least you can do in return is provide him with a treat.
If you have had trouble with your dog playing ‘keep away’ after walks, let us know how you are getting on with your training.
Helping your dog to love the car
As you can see, helping your dog to love getting in the car starts with understanding why the dog won’t get in the car in the first place.
The reason is that the car has become a punishment of sorts, in that something the dog dislikes has become associated with the vehicle.
This could be pain, or difficulty in getting into the car, a fear of the engine noise and sensation of motion, travel sickness or fear of losing the freedom he associates with the walk.
With the occasional exception of severe motion sickness, all these problems can be treated with a little time and committment on your part.
And for more information on every aspect of training your dog do check out: Dog Training, Obedience, Good Manners And Fun!