The Complex World of Canine-Car Relationships

(Originally written for DogWatch, a newsletter for the general public from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine)

What makes dogs behave so differently in cars? My dog Wallace loves the car whether we’re riding or he’s there alone while I run errands. Cammie, my sister’s dog, loves to ride in the car, but tears the upholstery apart if my sister leaves her alone there. My neighbor’s dog, Dilbertina, acts fine alone in the car, but barks and paces incessantly if her owner is with her. Another neighbor’s dog acts like he’ll rip your face off if you get anywhere near the car, whether his owner is in the car or not. Meanwhile my parents’ dog hates the car so much he begins shaking and drooling the instant he sets foot inside it.

Analyzing seemingly complex and contradictory canine behavior in terms of the dog’s strongest drive—establishing and protecting the territory—often provides the best clues. Dogs who feel secure in their territories can relax and enjoy themselves whereas those who feel threatened respond fearfully. These dogs typically want to freeze, fight, or at least try to run. However the dog’s temperament plus any limits posed by the environment and bond with the owner(s) may cause these three responses to manifest in a wide variety of ways.

Unfortunately a lot of times when we think of a dog’s “territory,” we immediately think of a physical place, such as a house or a car. But animals may view other animals and people as their territories too. Granted we don’t often think of canine mothers relating to their pups—let alone us!—the same way they relate to their favorite fuzzy toy or an old bone. Still like all dogs who lack confidence, these dogs may mount an equally or even more aggressive fear-based response when someone or something threatens those animate possessions or when they’re separated from them.

Because dogs can and do lay claim to both animate and inanimate objects, to properly analyze canine-automotive interactions we need to consider what a particular dog’s behavior tells us about and animal’s relationship to the car and what that behavior reveals about the animal’s bond with the owner.

For example, Wallace’s love of the car under any circumstances tells us that he feels quite secure in that space. Whatever or whoever comes along, he can handle it so he needn’t muster any show of force to frighten passers-by. He also feels confident that his owner possesses the wherewithal to take care of herself, so no need exists to worry when she leaves him alone in the car either.

Cammie, on the other hand, lacks Wallace’s confidence in both herself and her owner. As long as car and owner stay with her, she can cope. But if her owner leaves, she reacts the same way a timid bitch would when separated from her pup in a threatening environment. So for Cammie, the car becomes a prison that keeps her from protecting her owner instead of serving as a secure haven. Naturally, she tries to dig and chew her way out of it.

Another variation on the theme takes the form of Dilbertina who feels quite capable of protecting her owner’s car, but goes to pieces at the idea of protecting the car and her owner. In her owner’s presence, she feels obligated to pace and bark to warn off would-be threats to that person. At the same time,  she may show little if any response to those same stimuli in her owner’s absence.

In spite of what their owners might want to think about their pet’s “courage,” dogs who routinely respond hostilely to others who approach their vehicle are just plain scared. They mount those energy-intensive displays in hopes that they can frighten any real or imagined threat away because, unlike Wallace, they don’t have the confidence to face it. If such behavior only occurs in the owner’s absence, the dog doesn’t feel obligated to protect that person outside of the car, but claims the car as his/her own in that person’s absence. On the other hand, if the display occurs in the owner’s presence, the dog views that person as territory too. Similarly, dogs who drool and shake in the car also communicate that they lack faith in their own and their owner’s ability to handle the situation.

By recognizing the cause of the negative behaviors, we can design and implement programs of human-canine behavioral change that make car trips enjoyable for everyone.