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Friday, 23 March 2012

Bad traveller

Dear Dogs Today,

Can anybody in the wide world of canine lovers offer my wife and I some advice?

About 18 months ago, we became foster parents to a lovely West Highland White Terrier, and she has proved to be a splendid, lovable companion. However, she has one rather irritating habit... whenever we try to take her out in our car, she barks constantly, which gets very frustrating, stressful, and even dangerous. We have her in the rear of the car, and my wife seems to think that she may be barking because she wants to get into the front with us, however this is probably illegal, not to mention dangerous too.

We have tried ignoring her, but to now avail. Even on long journeys, we have had constant barking for over three hours, which has sadly meant that we try and avoid taking her out anywhere at all now. It's a pity, because we would love nothing more than to be able to take her out 'normally' like other dog owners, for a day at the beach, or a walk in a park, or etc.

Mitzi is ten years old now, and we don't know much about her first eight years before us, but she probably didn't go out in a car maybe? Is she even too old to change this habit even?

Any advice on how to keep our bundle of noisy fluff silent whilst driving would be fantastic and much appreciated!

Keep going with the splendid magazine, and we look forward to hearing from you soon,

Many thanks,

Paul and Beverley Thompson, by email

Vicki Milner, Canine Welfare Trainer at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, says…

Dear Paul and Beverley,

Many dogs, for a variety of reasons, do not like travelling in the car. This can manifest itself in several ways, including, refusing to get into the car, barking or whining constantly, panting, pacing or generally acting the clown. All of these symptoms are signs that your dog is actually afraid of the car or the motion of it. The cure for this problem involves changing your dog’s perception of the car from a negative one to a positive one. There are few things you can try to help overcome her barking behaviours.

Utilise food that will take a while for her to finish such as long lasting treats or food toys. At first you will want to get her used to these in the home, once she is happily entertaining herself with the food item move to the car. 

These steps should be practised once or twice daily and after a while your dog will soon start to associate the car with pleasant things. It is vital that you do not rush your dog, only move on to the next step when the previous one has been perfected.

Ask her to get in, putting her in the normal position and give the food item, wait for her to settle with it and reward any quiet behaviour. At this stage you will have all the doors open. If she starts to bark ignore the behaviour wait for her to be calm then bring her out and start again once quite.
Once she is comfortably eating the chew and not barking close the doors and move into the driver’s seat but don’t take it any further.
Build up so that you are stationary but the engine is running
Start taking very short drives with her.
Continue this process with one or both of you in the car varying the length of the journey
When she gets out of the car make sure she receives something rewarding such as food, attention or a walk but this will need to be once she is quiet.

Some other things that you can try:

Remember that your dog may have built up a bad association of travelling to unpleasant places such as the vet’s etc. Some dogs find this hard to forget. So you would need to start taking your dog to perhaps a person that your dog likes or perhaps drive a short distance to the local park.

Some dogs feel safer if they can’t see out of the window. The use of a travelling cage secured in the car with a towel draped over the top, to restrict the view, can often help them feel safe.

It is not advised that dogs travel up front with you. Some dogs travel better in the boot of the car compared to the back seat if possible try changing positions in the car as this can help to reduce the behaviours that have already developed

An oval dog bed with a soft blanket in it can sometimes help dogs to feel safer. It can reduce the likelihood of them being thrown off balance whilst the car is in motion. The blanket should be full of comforting and familiar smells.
Hopefully this should all help to reduce her vocal tendencies in the car and ensure that you all have more pleasant car journeys in the future.


  1. Hi
    Im a dog behaviourist and also own 3 dogs, plus I transport many dogs for rescue centres and have had some difficult travellers over the years.

    Have you tried blacking out the rear windows of the car with a tempory measure of black fabric and velcro?

    If you velcro black fabric to the inside of the car windows you are preventing the dog from being excited by things moving outside the car.
    Maybe even restrain the dog in a car crate in the boot of the car so the dog is safe and secure too then you can put a cover over the cage to block out the movements from outside (preferably a reflective one to deflect the heat coming in through the windows).

    My 3 dogs travel in a crate in the boot area of my car and they are below glass level and the windows have blinds across them all the time- i can see but it distorts their view.

    Also try having the radio on quietly as it could be the noise of the car and the road that is also upsetting the dog when your travelling

    1. Paul and Beverley Thompson9 April 2012 at 08:25

      Hi Claire, many thanks for your reply to our dilema!
      Sadly your blanking-out-windows won't work, as we now have a small pannel van, without windows to the sides or rear, yet Mitzi still carries on with her barking! If anything, it's worse for us, because the noise resonates so much now we are in a hollow van! Ouch!
      Many thanks anyway!
      Paul & Beverley

  2. If you are familiar with clicker training (or can familiarise Mitzi with the idea), you could try clicking any gaps in the barking and rewarding her for the silences, however infinitesimal they may be initially?

    1. Paul and Beverley Thompson9 April 2012 at 08:26

      Thank you very much Heather! We shall give it a go and keep you informed of our results!

  3. Hi Paul and Beverley,
    You sound like fantastic owners who care very much for your westie. Constant barking while in the car can be very dangerous so you are right to seek help, it would be such a shame to stop taking her out in the car permanently so let’s see if we can get the problem sorted.
    First off, I would suggest giving her a break from the car trips for a few weeks, get her over the trauma of being in the car. This is going to be a long and slow process, but it will be worth it for all of you in the end!
    Start off with baby steps, start to reintroduce her to the concept of the car, walk her past the car with the door open for a week or so, don’t put her in it, don’t reassure her if she reacts negatively. If she can walk past the open door with no reaction praise her with treats/toy/verbal command – which ever she responds positively to.
    Then, over a long period of time introduce these steps:
    - Have her jump in the car, then out again.
    - Have her sit in the car for 2mins/4mins/6mins (over a period of days/weeks).
    - Have her sit in the car with the door closed for 2mins/4mins/6mins (over a period of days/weeks).
    - Sitting in the car with the engine running – to get to this point will take a long time.
    - Eventually, start making short trips (as in 2mins driving).
    Ignore any negative behaviour; whining, yelping, pawing as comforting her will just reinforce her belief that there is something to be scared of. If she starts to react negatively to any new step you have not taken enough time in the previous steps so you will need to start again!
    Good luck!

  4. I've had 3 Westies.. all have been 'car-barkers'. So far I have not found any permanent solution. The problem stems from a few sources. Their instinct to 'guard' their people & property, their tendency to get over-excited when over stimulated, and the fact that Westies are very vocal. Mine have all been barkers. But I think my 1st Westie was the least 'loud' probably because she went with us 'everywhere' for the first year of her life, so she was used to the car, shops, strange people. My other two Westies were not as well socialized as puppies and both of them barked non-stop anytime they left the house. Victoria Stillwell has addressed this problem on her TV show and in her books... you might want to check the bookstores... maybe it will help.

  5. When I first had my dog, Saith, he was terrible in the car, sick every time as he was so scared - the vet advised me to take him in the car as often as possible, every available opportunity, it worked.This is probably bit difficult when he is distracting you all the time, but maybe lots and lots of short journeys to begin with until he becomes accustomed to the car ?

  6. Hello, I am a pet behaviourist and dog trainer. The course of action you take really depends upon the motivation for the barking. It might be travel sickness/discomfort in which case a travel sickness remedy will help. It could also be stress/anxiety OR it may be excitement. This behaviour may well have been strongly reinforced in the past either way and so may well take a while to resolve. If it is excitement the idea of blacking out windows and therefore reducing visual stimuli is a really good one. some people prefer to use a dog cage with a cover but would entail careful introduction to a cage if unused to being in one. If the problem is anxiety then as previously mentioned careful counter conditioning is needed to get the dog to feel a positive association with going in the car. You may also want to look in to other things to help with anxiety such as Thndershirt or some natural remedies such as 'sleepytime tonic' but always check with your vet even with herbal remedies as they can interact with other medication etc. Good luck!

  7. Perhaps get your dog into chewing Kongs. Kongs are rubber toys that you can fill with a variety of foods. I would suggest soaking her dry food overnight and then squashing it into the toy. Give it to her a few times in the home when things are calm and she is relaxed. Once she understands how to get the food out you can start freezing them! This makes it extra hard to get the food out but is just as rewarding. Feed her in this manner a few times, again at home and when things are calm. This builds an association.
    Take her on a ten minute car journey when she is hungry, as she gets in the car toss her a frozen Kong and off you go.
    Hopefully she will be eagerly chewing on the Kong and eating the filling. Chewing alone can produce a calming effect and if she is chewing and eating, barking would become very difficult.. The Kong has to be filled with something tasty enough and she has to be hungry enough. Keep the journeys short initially and if no barking occurs then the habit will eventually die. Car journeys become 'chew time' and not 'bark time'!
    If her normal dog food isn't exciting enough for her, you can fill the Kong with most foods which are acceptable for dogs, so be creative.
    Certainly worth a go!

  8. Hmm, this sounds familiar! Mine bark like crazy as we drive off but it does subside after about 5 minutes. With ours it is sheer excitement and everything we have tried has failed. Short of holding her in your arms I will be very suprised if you can remedy this.When the barking is driven by sheer joy and anticipation nothing seems to break the cycle. However if your wife is prepared to sit in the rear seat with the dog beside her [dog seat belts are available] you may find that stroking and talking to her will stop the barking escalating. I would like to think that eventually your wife could resume her place 'in the front' but this could take time!