January was Train Your Dog Month and for the past few years Pamela, from Something Wagging This Way Comes, has turned it into a fun dog training challenge. Unfortunately, things got away from me in January … so I had my own Train Your Dog challenge in February and things went pretty well.
Before we drove down to Austin for the winter, we picked up our car from the storage facility where it’s spent the past two years. We thought it would be nice to have it during our 3 1/2 month hibernation for some day trips and to run errands. Turns out, it’s also made a nice fort for the boys.
Ty and Buster have always loved hanging out in the car. I remember days spent outside at our house in the Poconos, with the back door of the RAV hanging open and both dogs lounging in there on their beds. They had acres (with squirrels!) to explore, and they chose to snuggle up and watch us do yard work instead. But, for Buster, that comfortable spot turns into something else entirely when I get in and start the engine.
When we first found Buster driving him anywhere was painful – he’d stand on the back seat, straining against his car harness, and bark at oncoming traffic with his mouth right between the driver’s right ear and the passenger’s left. We knew that had to put a stop to that, or we were going to go deaf!
Years ago we took the back seats out of the car to lower Buster’s line of vision and give both dogs more space to stretch out. That, and teaching him to lay down in the car, helped. Then we got the RV, parked the car, and things got a lot better. In the Winnebago, there is a curtain that separates the cab from the back of the coach where the dogs ride. We pull all the shades to limit the visual stimulation, and Buster usually only lets out a few “woofs” when we start and stop.
For some reason, it didn’t occurr to me that Buster’s vehicular antics would reemerged when we brought the RAV4 to Austin. But they have. And my February challenge was to work on improving his behavior when we’re driving in the car.
After studying what triggers Buster’s barking, listening to the hint of panic in his tone, and noticing how he lays down and relaxes once we’ve reached a cruising speed, my guess is that he has some anxiety about traveling in the car. He was about a year old when we found him as a stray, so it’s impossible to know what might have caused the negative association. I’ve always wondered if he wasn’t dumped from a car – which would have been especially heartbreaking for this sensitive boy! Regardless of what caused it, all we can do now is try to overcome it.
Just being in the car is a positive thing for Buster – his anxiety only starts to build when I sit in the driver’s seat and close the door. (A commentary on my driving, perhaps?) So, our first step was to put Buster’s harness on, buckle him in, and feed him bite-sized treats from the driver’s seat with the door closed. Though you can see he’s not completely relaxed, it didn’t take long until I could get in and out of the car without Buster making a peep.
The second step was just to have Buster remain calm while I started the engine. To do this, we pulled out the treats that take a bit longer to chew. While he was munching, I put the key in the ignition and turned it over. Of course, that sparked a little of this …
But pretty soon, we has able to relax and make eye contact …
Finally, he even laid down with me in the driver’s seat and the engine running. Ears back, mouth open – I love that look!
The next step will be for Buster to maintain this state of mind when the car starts moving. We’re still working on that … using the bite-sized treats and tossing a few in the cargo area when Buster start to get agitated. Searching for the treats seems to distract him from whatever he finds upsetting. This process will likely take a while, but I think we’ve made pretty good progress in a month!
What are your biggest challenges to traveling with your pets?