If your dog is whining in the car, he may likely have a love or hate relationship with the car and this can largely depend on what happens when he goes on a car ride. Will the destination be the dog park or the dreaded vet or groomer? Will your dog get to go on a hike, play with his friends, visit dear Aunt Mary or will he be poked and prodded with needles or drenched in soap and water and then exposed to a scary hair dryer? Your dog won’t know for sure until you make that turn that’ll confirm him what’s going to happen next. The lives of dogs are often filled with certainties and uncertainties which can sometimes lead to bouts of anxious whining.
Is it Stress or Eustress?
Whining in dogs in the car may be triggered by the anticipation of something the dog dreads or the anticipation of something he looks forward to doing. Yes, because stress can be of the positive or negative type.
You might be familiar with these different types as you may have experienced them at some time. If you hate going to the dentist, you might have felt some anxiety in the past as you drove yourself there. Most likely you had all sorts of negative thoughts populate your mind such as “what if it’s painful? what if the dentist is rough?”
On the other hand, you may have felt very excited when you were getting ready to go on a cruise you have been wanting to go on since you were a child. Your heart may have beaten faster as you thought about the wonderful experience. You may have therefore oriented all your energy in making plans so to make the most out of it (eustress, the good stress)
Dogs unlike humans don’t engage in self-talk and therefore they are spared from all those often irrational “what ifs” us humans bombard ourselves when in anticipation of something worrisome.
Dogs however are known for associating one event with another, something adaptive that must have played a role in sparing them from dangers, “This ability to anticipate and thus prepare oneself for imminent events, gave animals that were able to do so an edge over animals that could not, and so classical conditioning evolved” explains Jean Donaldson in the book “Oh Behave! Dogs from Pavlov to Premack to Pinker.”
Dogs, like us, are also prone to eustress, and may whine in anticipation of something they look forward to doing. Being masters in keeping an eye on their surroundings, dogs soon learn to pay attention to certain tip-offs suggestive about what will happen next.
“Visits to dog park result in activation of HPA axis or possible“eustress.” ~Hekman et al. 2014; Ottenheimer et al., 2013
Dogs Excitement Whining in the Car
Whining in the car can be excitement based if the car ride meets certain criteria that have established in your dog’s mind. For instance, if the percentage of car rides to the dog park are higher than the percentage of rides to the veterinarian (like you go the park twice a week and at the vet once a year), your dog will more likely be whining in anticipation of meeting his friends there and having a blast.
If the predictability is not that easy, as you take your dog in many different places, your dog may rely on other tip offs such as the route you take.
Yes, dogs have demonstrated the uncanny ability to learn that a specific turn takes him to the dog park, while another one takes him to the groomer or some other place. You can literally see them whine in anticipation when you take that turn for the dog park and the whining may build up from their until you pull into the parking lot and your dog bounces off the car rushing towards his pals.
Now, here’s an interesting phenomenon, worth of mentioning. While your dog may initially whine when you take that turn to reach the dog park, you may notice at some point that he may also start whining earlier and earlier. So your dog may therefore whine before turning, then he may start whining on the street that leads to that turn, and then you may notice him starting whining even earlier such as soon as he enters the car, which equals to a dog whining non-stop for the whole trip. Quite an annoying affair to many dog owners.
How to Reduce it: Avoid getting your dog all revved about the car ride by saying things such as “Hey, Rover, let’s go on a car ride!” in an excited tone of voice. Just act matter of fact. It also helps to bring your dog along for many boring, unproductive car rides, so that their proportion beats the trips to the park. This should help tone down the excitement after some time as your dog loses interest.
Dog Anxiety Whining in the Car
A common mistake many dog owners make is to take their dog on car rides only when going to the vet, the dog groomer or being dropped off at the kennel when they are going on vacation. If the dog perceives these activities as unpleasant or downright scary, it’s normal that the outcome will be a dog who hates car rides!
These dogs will therefore be panting and anxiously whining for the whole car ride in anticipation. Other signs of stress that may be seen include yawning, lip licking and shaking.
A typical “modus operandi” of a dog who is anxious about the destination of a car ride is that his signs of stress tend to fade on the way home. Most dogs recognize visual cues suggesting that they’re nearing home under the form of landmarks, smells and even cues given off by their owners who relax as well. Some dogs may even snooze on the way back home!
How to Reduce it: If you’re dealing with a particularly challenging case, start with short trips. Walk your dog a block away and then have someone pick you up, and then drive you straight home. Do this several times. If your dog is willing to eat, provide some tasty treats during the duration of the ride. Then progress and start bringing your dog along for brief car rides to happy places where your dog has a good experience. Drive to a park where you get to play together, bring him along to buy dog food (if the store welcomes dogs) or go on a hike. With the proportion of happy places being higher than the “bad places”, your dog should start associating car rides with good experiences. Calming aids such as DAP sprays and veterinary recommended supplements may also turn helpful.
Note: If your dog ever drools or appears at any time nauseous, consult with your vet. There are chances your dog is whining because he’s getting car sick. This can be remedied with some anti-car sickness medications from your vet.
Dogs Whining Upon Seeing Stimuli
Not all dogs whine in anticipation of something, some will whine when they detect certain stimuli. Many dogs are driven by visual scenery, they’ll therefore be vocalizing a lot when they see a person, a dog or some other animal from the car window.
Some dogs may also whine in response to certain smells or certain sounds.
For some dogs, this is the result of lack of socialization. These dogs may have not been socialized enough and they feel vulnerable in seeing people or other dogs when on car rides. Generally, these dogs also react this way as well on walks.
Some others may whine/bark out of frustration, they may want to meet other dogs and they end up whining because of car door and windows acting as a barrier. These dogs generally tend to whine as well on leash or when they see other dogs behind a fence or window.
And then there are dogs who are simply excited by all the novelty they encounter when in the car. All those new sights, smells and noises overstimulate them, which leads to.. you guessed it, a bout of whining!
How to Reduce it : Dogs who whine in response to visual stimuli may benefit from a visual barrier. As the saying goes “out of sight,. out of mind.” Using a crate and covering it can help reduce this type of whining. Some dogs may further reduce their whining if they’re given something else to do such as a chew toy that’ll keep them occupied.
A Word About Crates
Many people are reluctant to use crates for their dogs, but using a crate in the car is different than using a crate in the home. In the car, a crate is for safety and it prevents a dog from rehearsing anxious behaviors such as pacing back and forth from one window to another.
A crate (or any other form of restraint) can therefore make a difference in the further development of a state of anxiety.
Also, a dog in panic may cause an accident and should the driver ever have to hit the brakes suddenly, a dog risks becoming projectile which can be very dangerous.
In some states, there are legislation requiring animal restraints in moving vehicles, and dog owners can be cited for improperly transporting an animal. Even if it’s not illegal, a loose dog can become a distraction to the driver.
A special word about older dogs: Senior dogs may have a hard time balancing themselves when owners use the brakes as they may have joint problems, and at times, they may be affected by inner ear problems that cause dizziness. If your dog is a senior that has been fine in the car most of his life and now is whining, you may want to see your vet to rule out medical problems.
And of course, young dogs can also be prone to medical problems so any changes in their behavior should always warrant a vet visit too.
- “Oh Behave! Dogs from Pavlov to Premack to Pinker” by Jean Donaldson
- APDT, “Best Practices” in Off-Leash Dog Parks: Do They Exist?” by Lindsay R. Mehrkam University of Florida . retrieved from the web on October 30th, 2016. Dogwise Publishing (April 1, 2008)
- Exploring the dog park: Relationships between social behaviours, personality and cortisol in companion dogs,