Dogs are not only our emotional co-pilots, but often also our actual co-pilots who ride with us when we run errands or go on longer trips. But if they break into frenzied barking in response to everything they see on the other side of the car window, their trips are likely to be infrequent. Here’s how you can change this behavior.
Many dogs bark at things they see through the car window. Most often these are people and other dogs, but sometimes also cars, trucks, motorcycles, children on bicycles, cats, skateboarders and scooters. Some dogs carry on in a similar way when they see the same things in a different context – perhaps from home or on walks – but others only react that way when they are in the car. And dogs that react in multiple contexts often carry on particularly hard in the car.
There is something about the tight space of a vehicle that makes this behavior more likely and more intense. Perhaps the dog feels trapped and is therefore more reactive. Alternatively, they can feel more secure, and that trust makes them more reactive. While the details are not the same for all dogs, dogs certainly struggle to stay calm at the sight of various triggers on the other side of the car window.
The first step in improving this behavior is to find out the specific triggers that cause it to occur. Is it just humans or just great men? Is it just dogs, or just little white ones, or just the ones that bark? Does every motorcycle cause the dog to go crazy, or is it just those that drive past the car? Is it any vehicle or just a truck?
Once you figure that out, determine what your dog loves, what can be feasibly and safely delivered to him in the car. (If her favorite thing is grandpa or she’s breaking into a run, that’s great to know, but not helpful in the car.) Is a new toy the best option, or is something to chew or a stuffed Kong best? If she likes goodies, which goodies make her happiest: chicken, steak or a special workout treat?
Get the BARK NEWSLETTER in your inbox!
Sign up and get answers to your questions.
Once you’ve established what triggers her and what she loves, the next step is to pair her repeatedly so that every time she is exposed to a trigger, she gets this thing along with lots of praise. Praise is very important, especially since it can also be given when you are driving alone. If there is a trigger, feel free to speak to your dog and then provide the reward as soon as you are safe – perhaps at a traffic light or by stopping. (Try practicing this when you have two people in the car so they can learn that praise means goodies are coming soon.)
Success requires considerable attention to the many details involved in this type of pairing. The important details include depicting the trigger with low intensity so that the dog does not react, safely releasing the reward and praise as soon as possible (ideally immediately) after exposure to the trigger, and gradually increasing the intensity of the trigger over lots of workouts.
First, do exercise sessions with the car parked. This makes the whole situation less intense for most dogs, presumably because the environment is stable and doesn’t keep changing as the world goes by. Get in the car with your dog, give them a treat, and speak to them in an optimistic tone every time their trigger appears. For example, if her problem is yapping at people, toss her some great treats and praise her every time a person comes in sight. (The same process applies to other triggers, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll keep using people as an example.)
Ideally, you can throw away the goodies and talk cheerfully before she can react. However, if that is not possible, give her the treats (and the happy conversation) even if she barks. Receiving the treats does not depend on their behavior. She doesn’t have to sit down, lie down, look at you, or otherwise be a “good girl” to receive the treats. That’s because you’re not training them to perform any behavior. Rather, they teach her to associate people’s looks with goodies and positive language that has nothing to do with their behavior. As soon as she learns to enjoy the sight of people, she stops barking at them.
In practice, one way to improve your timing in delivering treats before it starts barking is to coordinate the situation. This can be accomplished by having a friend or two walk past your parked car at some distance, or by parking your car a considerable distance from where people are likely to walk – for example, at the far end of a shopping mall parking lot. The goal is to keep your dog below the threshold (in an unresponsive state) and deliver the treats and happy conversations as soon as a person is visible. Timing is important because the more closely you are able to link the sight of the person and the delivery of the treats and praise, the easier it will be for your dog to make the connection between the two.
As your dog begins to make that connection, you may find that he looks at you expectantly whenever he sees a person, perhaps in anticipation of treats. Once she’s relaxed and happy about seeing people, and especially if she seems to be expecting treats, the next step in your workout is to increase the intensity of the trigger, possibly by decreasing the distance or choosing a person who is more likely a person is challenging because they are taller or move faster. Keep working on teaching her how to enjoy watching people go by up close until she can deal with people very close to the car.
The next step in building the association between people and positive objects is teaching them that this is true when the car is moving. The safest way to do this is with two people in the car, one to drive and one to offer their delicacies. It is best to do this for a short time – maybe just a few minutes – and drive in an area that is unlikely to offer you many triggers. If you make longer trips because you have to go elsewhere and try to combine this with dog training, then it is all too likely that you will push your dog’s limits and your efforts will be less effective.
In addition to training your dog to handle its triggers without barking, there are other strategies for dealing with car window barking that include prevention and management. For example, a useful option is to teach her to lie down in the car and then offer her a stuffed Kong or other item to keep her busy. This technique is most effective when you practice it with the car parked in your driveway and other quiet locations. It is easiest for them to develop this habit successfully when the car is stationary and nothing triggers it. Once she can get settled in a parked car, the more likely she can do so in a moving car.
Another management technique is to prevent your dog from seeing out the car windows. If she feels comfortable in a box, use one in the car and cover it with a blanket. A ThunderCap can also help. This tool obscures your dog’s view without completely blocking it, allowing them to spot shapes and navigate as needed. (Teach her to wear it comfortably before using it in the car.) ThunderCaps are soothing to many dogs in a variety of situations, including barking while riding.
As with any behavior change, teaching dogs not to bark out of the car window is a gradual process. This takes many steps and a lot of practice and patience. Reminding yourself that dogs are happier when they can handle the sight of a person (or other trigger) out of the car without responding will help you stay motivated. Your ability to stay calm also means you will likely be driving in the car more often – a win / win no matter how you look at it.