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Riding in cars with dogs

Teddy, an eight-year-old Border Collie, has his owner well trained.

When Teddy’s owner was between jobs, each morning the two would take a ride in the family pickup truck into town to get a coffee and a newspaper at the local Stewart’s shop. Now that Teddy’s owner has a job again, Teddy insists on the morning trip regardless of his owner’s new responsibilities.

Here is the script for TEDDY: THE MOVIE:

Cue light orchestral music that gradually swells with the appearance of the sun.

The sun rises over a pastoral setting of a field with a nearby forest. The sun’s rays touch on a lone farmhouse. The rays creep up the porch, then the door, then inside the house, across the floorboards, and finally rest upon the face of a sleeping Border Collie with a graying muzzle.

Cue a musical crescendo.

The dog’s eyes open.

Cut to the pickup truck, viewed from the side of the house. From around the corner, the dog races flat out for the truck, skids to a halt at the door, turns a 180, and sits on the dusty ground at the truck door.

A faint tick tock tick tock as the camera pans down the hallway of the house.

Cut to an alarm clock that reads 5:00 AM. Pan to the bed frame, where a pair of well-used boots sit on an area rug.

Cut back to the dog at the truck. He gives a soft woof.

Cut to the bed; there is a groan. Two bare feet swing off the bed and fumble for the boots.

Cut back to the truck. The dog gives a slightly louder, more insistent woof.

Cue a lilting up-tempo tune.

A man appears at the door of the house. The dog looks hopefully at him, tail wagging. The man sighs, takes keys from his pocket and begins to walk toward the driveway. As the man approaches, the dog stands, whole body swaying with each swish of the tail. Close up of dog’s eyes, warm and brown.

Cut to a shot of the truck parked at a Stewart’s, man in the driver’s seat, sipping a coffee, dog sitting straight up in the shotgun seat, daintily accepting a bite of donut from the man.

Contrast Teddy with Abigail, a 2 year old Bichon Frise. Here is her script:


Cue sparkling, happy music.

Camera travels around a cul-de-sac in a suburban neighborhood, and moves up the edged sidewalk of a large home with a manicured lawn and an immaculate white late-model SUV in the driveway.

We see the inside of the house and the kitchen, the back of the legs of a woman at the sink, the sound of water and dishes clattering. The camera pans to a pink and white dog bed on the floor, a small white dog asleep there.

Seen only from a dog’s eye view, we look up as the woman dries her hands on a dishcloth, walks to the hallway, and takes a pink polka dotted leash from a hook on a rack that says “This House is Protected by a Bichon Frise.”

Woman (excitedly): Abigail! Want to go for a ride?

The dog lifts her head, slowly raises her body, then lowers herself to the ground and slinks out of the bed and away. Shot of the back of the dog, picking up speed, as she rounds a corner and disappears.

Woman (wistfully, pleading): Abigail? Abigail? C’mon, honey. Time for a ride…

From the moment Abigail came home from the breeder, she has dreaded car rides. She has to be dragged on the leash to the car. She will not get in it of her own volition. If she is boosted into the SUV, she begins to tremble. A high-pitched whine emits from her shaking body, punctuated with short yips of terror.

Once the car starts, her face becomes a panting mask of misery. She cowers, quivering and drooling. Although she doesn’t vomit, she is clearly feeling wretched. Throughout the trip, she cowers on a family member’s lap, petted and clucked over, until the ordeal is over.

As a result, Abigail’s owners take her out in the car less and less. Now, she is only forced to endure torture-by-automobile for her annual visit to the veterinarian. Needless to say, the vet clinic is not her favorite destination. But that’s for another blog posting.

Without realizing it, Abigail’s owners made several mistakes right from the get-go that only increased their dog’s car anxiety:

  • Mistake #1 – Abigail’s first car ride took her from her littermates to her new home. Her second car ride was to the veterinarian. Neither experience was especially fun for her.

  • Mistake #2 – Her family made a big deal out of car rides to try to get her excited about them.

  • Mistake #3 – She was dragged to the car and forced into it.

  • Mistake #4 – Car rides were to the vet clinic only.

  • Mistake #5 – Petting and soothing Abigail for her anguished behavior made it worse, not better.

Here is what could have been done instead:

1. Make the first car ride to a park or yard for a session of playtime and some treats. Ditto for the second car ride, and the third.

2. Escort Abigail to the car in a matter-of-fact and low-key way, without fanfare.

3. Take Abigail on a walk first, to expend some energy and tire her out, then guide her to the car on leash. Help her in but don’t put her in, so she can transition to the car on her own.

4. Car rides can be to visit friends who have dogs, to the pet store, to dog parks, and to other fun places. Car rides can be on short errands, too, and on vacations.

5. When humans sympathize with a dog as we would a child, the dog reacts like a dog, not like a child. A dog’s reaction to the soft voice tones of commiseration is to get more anxious.

How does your dog like car rides? What script plays out with you and your dog?

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