First of all, I need to clarify that something we would look at and classify as ‘over-excitement’ is much more likely to be a nervy, adrenalin reaction. As a society we have been conditioned to believe that our dogs LOVE the walk, and therefore we associate any over the top behaviour to be a sign that they love it so much that they just cannot hold themselves back.
The truth is that before we walked them (only in the last few decades), dogs would walk themselves, just casually wandering around the neighbourhood – their extended territory – checking in with the other neighbourhood dogs – their extended pack. In those days there was no over the top behaviour from a dog about to head out into the world. They were much more confident and comfortable with the situation then.
So what went wrong?
In a word, humans. We went from finding them helpful to have about, to turning them into family members. This in itself isn’t a problem, as long as the dog understands who the pack leaders are. The problem is that when us humans started treating them as family members, the message we were giving them didn’t do a very good job of showing dogs that we are their packs leaders. In fact 100% of dogs that I have helped in my 10 years as a dog behaviourist, have not seen their owners as pack leaders.
So going back to the walk, as the dog sees itself as pack leader, it’s no longer an amble through familar territory, it’s now become a difficult patrol with confusing messages from us, all the while trying to keep us safe. This means a lot of stress and potential for things to go wrong, so adrenalin is required.
Releasing adrenalin in the car
Chances are your dog will already have released adrenalin long before you get to the car, because of all the build up in the house, e.g.
- Putting the lead on them
- Putting coats on
- Picking up car keys
- Saying “Walkies” (or equivalent)
Each of these things is a trigger that releases adrenaline, and if you aren’t giving them a chance to calm down in between (which most of us would not naturally do), by the time they come to leave the front door, they are already “pumped”. If you then go on to put them in the car, this creates a further release of adrenalin, and for many dogs this will tip them over the edge.
Behaviour in the car
I have helped dog owners dealing with a number of different types of behaviour in the car, including:
- Clambering over the seats
- Chewing through harnesses/seatbelts
- Going into ‘freeze’ mode
- Shaking uncontrollably
Vomiting and shaking are quite obvious signs that everything is NOT okay, but the others are all open to interpretation. If you were to take a blood sample from your dog at this time, you would find really high levels of adrenalin and stress hormones. How often do we release a large amout of adrenalin on an occasion when we are doing something enjoyable? Maybe on your wedding day, or the day your child is born… Certainly not during regular enjoyable day to day activity.
How can I calm my dog down in the car?
The truthful answer is that you need to calm your dog down generally, which means helping them to understand that they are not in charge on the whole. There is a very clear way of doing this, which I can teach you, but it’s too much for a blog post.
There are some specifics you can do with the car:
- Desensitisation – calmly taking your dog into the car. Sitting in there calmly with them, then (all) returning to the house. This will need repeating multiple times.
- Do not be hurried – slow right down, wait for calm before your next move every single time you need to make a move. Otherwise it’s happening on your dogs’ terms which will just lead to more stress.
- Make nothing of it – do not shout at them, or try to sooth them. Be a calm role model instead.
- Practice very short journeys – round the block and back home. Or up the road, park the car, then walk them back to the house calmly.
As always, this advice is just the tip of the iceberg, there will be a lot of work required on generally convincing them that it’s okay to let you be in charge. If you want some 121 help with that, I’d be happy to assist. I work as a dog trainer, or dog behaviourist (technically I train you, the owners) in the Essex area, and surrounding counties – London, Suffolk, Kent, Herts.