Why Do Dogs Pant In the Car & How to Change It

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Traveling in the car with your happy pup’s head hanging outside the rear window is a wonderful image for the next summer road trip. On the other hand, there are dog owners that couldn’t imagine five calm minutes in the car.

Their dog is panting, drooling, shivering, and just hating the overall driving experience. Just getting around the next corner could turn the ride into a puke-filled nightmare. This forces owners to leave their dog at home until the next dreaded vet visit.

If that horror scenario seems familiar, I might just have a solution for you.

In general, panting is a natural cooling mechanism and everybody’s dog pants once in a while. But panting can also have a different meaning and your dog may want to tell you that he’s feeling really uncomfortable and anxious or overly excited in the car.

Unfortunately, travel anxiety is common in dogs and could be caused by many things, including trauma from an accident or lack of desensitization. If you only drive your dog to take him to the vet, don’t wonder if he’s afraid of going.

Thank goodness that there are many ways to change your dog’s perception of car rides and eventually turn him into a calm and comfortable travel companion for every trip.

Let’s make sure you and your furry friend both enjoy the next adventure with some quality bonding time!

Why Do Dogs Pant?

Panting is a necessary mechanism to regulate their body temperature. It’s characterized by a wide-open mouth (often referred to as a smile), heavy breathing, and maybe even drooling.

Dogs don’t sweat the way we do and only produce sweat on their paw pads and the nose because they are not covered with fur. However, they do have glands associated with every hair follicle and release pheromones.

Producing moisture beneath the fur wouldn’t make much sense. No wind could cool down the skin so they would have to rely on areas that are not covered with fur. But those sweat glands alone could never cool down their body temperature.

Instead, they utilize the evaporation of moisture from their mouth to create a circulation of hot and cold air. It usually occurs after exercise or while sunbathing outside.

Why Is My Dog Panting in the Car?

While panting is normal behavior, it can be a symptom of many things like excitement, anxiety, or pain. Your dog might be expressing his discomfort of being in the car or he is just too excited to arrive at the dog park.

1. Temperature: The first reason for your dog’s panting in the car could be that it’s simply too hot for him. Make sure that it’s not too hot in the car before you get in and provide your dog with fresh air during the ride.

Never ever leave your dog alone in the car, especially during the spring or summer. Temperatures can rise quickly to a life-threatening level in minutes (even in the shade).

2. Dehydration: A long walk in the summer or just a game of fetch can really heat up your dog’s body. All that drooling and sweating flushes liquid out of your dog’s body. Make sure that you always bring a portable water dispenser to keep your pet hydrated.

3. Car Sickness: Many dogs, like people, can get car sick which leads to excessive drooling and possibly vomiting. Especially puppies can experience this type of motion sickness and usually grow out of it.

It definitely doesn’t build up a positive association if you feel bad every time you go on a car ride. Medications and supplements can be used to treat car sickness. Speak to your vet for more information.

Don’t feed your dog at least one hour prior to the car ride to reduce the likelihood of him feeling sick.

Puppies and small dogs are often affected because they cannot see out the window which also worsens travel sickness in humans.

You can buy your dog an elevated car seat or provide him with the iBuddy Dog Car Seat Cover that has a see-through mesh window. This way, your dog will be able to see what is going on in front of him even when laying down.

4. Anxiety: Travel anxiety can actually develop from motion sickness and the resulting negative associations with driving.

Even if your dog has never vomited in the car before, he still can suffer from this type of anxiety.

Shivering, pacing, restlessness, drooling, panting and peeing are all signs of anxiety that you will need to look out for.

There are several reasons to why your dog has developed travel anxiety. From underexposure as a puppy to trauma from a car accident.

You will want to change that behavior into something positive so your dog can finally enjoy driving with you. Keep on reading for the action steps below.

5. Overstimulation: A car can be a very strange environment for a dog to be in. The engine roars loudly, cars and people pass by, and lots of new smells are coming in. Don’t forget that a dog’s hearing ability and olfaction are way stronger than a human’s.

Turns and bumpy roads can send your dog sliding due to a lack of grip. I would feel very insecure if I had to endure this type of transportation without even knowing what’s going on.

6. Underexposure: If you only take your dog to a trip into hell (aka the vet) every few months, he will definitely fear driving with you.

Take your companion with you on fun trips to the dog park or hiking through the woods.

7. Medical Reason: A dog that suddenly starts to pant excessively can be a sign of pain or underlying disease. This panting would also occur outside of the car and persist over a longer period of time.

How to Calm Your Dog Down In the Car

There are two ways that can successfully treat panting in the car:

  • Counterconditioning
  • Prevention (desensitization)

If you have only ever taken your dog to unpleasant car rides, switch up that routine and utilize a method that’s called counterconditioning. Your dog has the perception that driving is awful so you will want to change that belief.

Start by just driving around the neighborhood and show your dog that car rides don’t have to end with a negative experience. You can then add some trips to a playdate or just a nice day at the park.

If your dog is extremely scared or even refuses to set a paw into the vehicle, you will have to reset your training and start from zero.

In case your companion is still a puppy, it’s best to take care of a problem at the root with proper desensitization.

During the socialization phase, puppies can easily be taught to associate the car with a pleasant experience.

If your dog already experiences signs of discomfort or anxiety, training must be done very slowly and in even smaller steps compared to desensitization.

But before we get into any methods, you will probably have to gear up. A back clip harness and elastic seat belts are must-haves if you ever want to drive your dog in the car.

Never ever attach the seat belt to your dog’s collar.

Even a small impact could cost his life. Attaching the belt to a back clip harness is the safest way to travel. You will also want to get a car seat cover like the one I mentioned above to keep your dog safe in the back while keeping the seats clean.

Consider putting your dog in the front seat (might work better if you have a small to medium-sized breed) to reduce nausea.

Some dogs simply can’t cope with being in the car freely at all. Transport crates are a great way to keep your dog contained and safe at all times which adds to his level of comfort.

Provide your dog with his favorite toy or a clothing piece that has your scent on it to create a familiar and pleasant space. You can spread out some blankets in the back seats that you usually use inside the house or get your dog a ThunderShirt.

Now that we have covered the essentials, we can move on to the training steps. Counterconditioning and desensitization are structured very similarly with the difference that you will have to go a little slower and cut down on the luring when it comes to treating anxiety.

Counterconditioning Car Anxiety

For the following method, you will need treats, a car (obviously) and lots of patience. To effectively treat your dog’s discomfort in the car, he should be able to approach the car on his own terms and make the conscious decision to trust it.

1. Some dogs shiver at the mere sight of the car, so you will want to start the training outside of the vehicle. Play a round of tug of war or give your dog some basic obedience commands which will be rewarded with treats and a lot of praise.

Spend a few minutes with your dog until you feel that he is getting calmer. Every time he approaches the car, treat him to create more positive associations with the car. You can repeat this step a few times over the course of several days or weeks depending on your dog’s reaction.

2. The next milestone would be to open the car door without your pup freaking out. You will use the same technique from the first step and simply reward your dog for positive behavior in the vicinity of the open door.

Keep in mind to not accidentally encourage anxious behavior when rewarding your dog. If you sense any signs of stress and uncertainty, take a step back and give your dog more time.

3. When your dog is ready to jump into the car, capture this behavior with a command. This gives your dog a little bit of extra assurance because he knows what is expected of him and that he will be rewarded for it.

Repeat this process of jumping out of and into the car a few times and add the command “jump” to it. Your dog will know exactly what to do which will boost his confidence in the process.

4. Now your dog will be ready for the closed door experience. Command him inside the car and close the door for a few seconds. Open it and let your dog outside if he wishes to.

5. You can try getting into the driver seat while your dog is either sitting in the front seat or back row. Spend a few minutes with your dog there and don’t take the training any further for a few days.

6. Once your dog feels really comfortable in his dedicated seat (properly secured), you can start the engine and get the car rolling for a few seconds. Some dogs get startled by the engine so you can choose to just expose him to this sound for a few minutes.

Exposure therapy is often used in dogs with noise or thunder phobia. Regularly and slowly exposing them to the sound they are afraid of, will eventually normalize the noise occurrence and the anxiety will be reduced.

7. Drive your dog around the neighbourhood a few times and end it with a short walk in a familiar environment. Gradually build up the distance and add new fun places to your dog’s daily walks.

You can take him to the dog park (and just watch the other dogs from outside if he is scared), visit a doggy friend that he adores or enjoy a calm walk through the forest. The more often you drive him around in the car the better he will adjust to it.

If your dog is severely suffering from anxiety and the tips mentioned above didn’t help, talk to your vet on possible medications like Benadryl, Dexmedetomidine, or CBD oil. Don’t use any meds before consulting your veterinarian.

dog hanging his head outside the window, panting
Image by Free-Photos

Preventing Excessive Panting

If you just brought home a new puppy or rescue dog and want to get him accustomed to driving in the car, early desensitization will prevent anxiety. Compared to the first training method, your puppy has no idea what a car really is so you will have to tackle this a little differently.

1. Think about where your puppy should be driving preferably for the rest of his life. Switching up routines and rules isn’t something dogs respond well to. Take your dog’s adult weight into consideration and crate train him prior to driving if you plan on using a crate in the car.

2. Walk a few rounds around the car and let your dog sniff out everything. Once he is ready, pick him and place him on his seat. Let him explore and get comfortable with the whole interior. Lots of praise and treats need to be involved!

3. Get into the driver’s seat and provide your puppy with something to chew on like a stuffed Kong. Chewing is extremely calming to dogs, especially puppies in the teething phase.

4. While your puppy chews on the toy, turn on the engine and wait for his reaction. If he is acting calm or completely ignoring the sound, treat him. If you notice stress signals like lip licking, yawning, escaping, sneezing, or laid back ears, turn the engine off.

You can continue your training outside and get back to the car on another day. Don’t force your puppy inside the car because you are in the perfect position of teaching and showing your puppy everything for the first time in a positive manner.

5. After completing the first few steps, you can take your puppy on fun little road trips. Puppies are so easily excitable so this shouldn’t be a difficult task. Expose him to as many places, people, and sounds as you can.

Calming an Excited Dog In the Car

Anxiety and excitement always have triggers. Whether that’s hitting the breaks or opening the car door. My dog used to get super excited when I turned off the engine because she knew that something awesome was about to happen.

When trying to calm your hyper dog in the car, change his expectations, and only reward calm behavior. Now, what do I mean by this?

Go on a regular drive with your dog and before getting outside, wait for him to calm down. Your dog expects to jump outside and sniff that amazing grass and suddenly he has to wait.

This can take many minutes and will test your patience. Don’t interact with him in any way because negative attention is also attention. Once your dog calms down, reward him by letting him out.

You will have to repeat this process over the course of a few days or weeks until your dog really gets it. Be as consistent as possible so your dog can quickly learn that he will be only let outside in a calm state.

No treats or verbal praise are required as the walk will be his biggest reward. Once you are outside, don’t stop the training. If your dog immediately starts to pull on the leash, follow the tips outlined in my leash training guide.

Dog Suddenly Anxious & Scared In the Car

Sudden anxiety in the car can develop from a medical issue or trauma. Sore joints can hurt a lot on bumpy roads with many turns so the pain could be the problem.

Your dog might have also experienced something traumatic like a car accident. Loud noises from sirens or construction sites could easily trigger a fearful response.

To successfully cure the anxiety, you will need to determine the trigger and write down the exact circumstances in which the response occurs.

Afterward, follow the steps I have mentioned under counterconditioning. Talk to a veterinarian or behaviorist in case the tips don’t work and evaluate the situation in order to develop a tailored action plan for you and your dog.

Let me know in the comments if your dog always gets excited or fearful when he’s about to enter the car!

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About Danielle

In love with dogs, their behavior and psychology. I am writing on this blog since February 2019 to provide you with valuable information on everything dogs. When I am not working on my blog, I study research articles and enjoy the time with my beloved Rottweiler Amalia.

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