Why Do Dogs Bark in the Car?
What to do when your dog barks at everything from other cars to people.
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Many dogs bark at things they see through the car window — most commonly people and other dogs, but also sometimes cars, trucks, motorcycles, kids on bikes, cats, skateboarders, and scooters. Some dogs bark when they see these same things in a different context — perhaps from home or while out on walks — but others only react like this when they’re in the car. And dogs who react in multiple contexts often bark especially vigorously when in a car.
There’s something about the confined space of a vehicle that tends to make this behavior more likely — and more intense. It could be that the dog feels trapped, and, therefore, is more reactive. Or, maybe they feel more secure, and that confidence makes them more reactive.
Whatever the reason, it’s common for dogs to struggle to remain calm at the sight of various triggers on the other side of the car window. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do about it.
Figure Out Your Dog’s Triggers
The first step toward improving your dog’s behavior is to figure out the specific triggers that cause them to bark. Do they bark at all people, or just big men? Is it all dogs, or only small white ones, or only those who are barking? Does every motorcycle cause your dog to go nuts, or is it only those that pass the car? Is it every vehicle, or only trucks?
Once you’ve that figured out, determine what your dog loves that can feasibly and safely be given to them while in the car. Is a new toy the top option? Or maybe a stuffed Kong? If they like treats, which treats make them the happiest: chicken, steak or a specific training treat?
Once you’ve determined what sets your dog off and what they love, the next step is to repeatedly pair them up so that every time they’re exposed to a trigger, they get that thing, along with lots of praise. Praise is very important, particularly since it can be given even when you’re driving by yourself.
When a trigger is present, give your dog lots of happy talk and then, as soon as you safely can — at a stoplight or by pulling over — provide the treat. (Try practicing this when you have two people in the car so your dog learns that praise means treats are coming soon.)
Success requires considerable attention to the many details involved in this type of pairing, including: presenting the trigger in a low-intensity way so your dog doesn’t react, safely delivering the treat and praise as soon as possible (immediately is ideal), and gradually increasing the intensity of the trigger over many training sessions.
How to Stop Your Dog from Barking in the Car
To begin, conduct training sessions when the car is parked. That makes the whole situation less intense for most dogs, presumably because the environment is stable rather than constantly changing as the world whizzes by.
Sit in the car with your dog, give them a treat, and speak to them in an upbeat tone of voice every time their trigger appears. For example, if their issue is that they bark at people, toss them some great treats and praise them every time a person comes into view. (The same process applies to other triggers as well, but for the purpose of this discussion, I will continue to use people as the example.)
Ideally, you can toss the treats and talk in a happy way before your dog has a chance to react, but if that’s not possible, give them the treats (and the happy talk) even if they do bark. Receiving the treats is not contingent on their behavior. They do not have to sit, lie down, look at you, or be a “good dog” in any other way to receive the treats. That’s because you’re not training your dog to perform a behavior — you’re teaching them to associate the appearance of people with treats and positive speech, which has nothing to do with their behavior. Once your dog learns to feel happy about the sight of people, they won’t bark at them.
One way to improve your timing at delivering treats before your dog starts barking is to orchestrate the situation. This can be done by having a friend or two walk by your parked car at a distance, or by parking your car at a significant distance from where people are likely to be walking — say, at the far end of a shopping-center parking lot. The goal is to keep your dog under threshold (in a state where they are not reacting) and to deliver the treats and happy talk the instant a person is visible. Timing is important because the more closely you’re 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 this association, you may notice that when they see a person, they’ll look at you expectantly, in anticipation of treats. Once they seems relaxed and happy about seeing people, and especially if they seems to expect treats, the next step in your training is to increase the intensity of the trigger, perhaps by reducing the distance or choosing a person who is more of a challenge because she’s taller or moves more quickly. Continue to work on teaching your dog to like seeing people go by at increasingly close range until they can handle people quite close to the car.
The next step in building the association between people and positive items is to teach your dog that it applies when the car is moving. The safest way to do that is with two people in the car — one to drive and one to offer the dog goodies. It’s best to do this for a short time — perhaps just a few minutes — and by driving in an area that’s unlikely to present them with a lot of triggers. If you go on longer drives while training, it’s likely to push your dog’s limits, and your efforts will be less effective.
A Few Other Helpful Tips
In addition to training your dog to be able to handle their triggers without barking, there are other strategies for dealing with barking from the car window that involve prevention and management. For example, one useful option is to teach your dog to lie down in the car, then offer them a stuffed Kong or other item to keep them occupied. This technique will be most effective if you practice it when the car is parked in your driveway and in other peaceful places. It’s easiest for your dog to successfully develop this habit when the car is stationary and there’s nothing to set them off. Once they’re able to settle down in a parked car, they’re more likely to be able to do so in a moving one.
Another management technique is to prevent your dog from being able to see out the car windows. If they’re comfortable in a crate, use one in the car and cover it with a blanket. A ThunderCap can also help. It obscures your dog’s vision without blocking it entirely, allowing them to make out shapes and navigate as needed. (Teach your dog to be comfortable wearing it before using it in the car.) ThunderCaps have a calming effect on many dogs in a variety of situations, including barking while riding.
The bottom line: Like any behavior change, teaching dogs not to bark from the car window is a gradual process that requires many steps and a lot of practice and patience. Remembering that dogs tend to be happier when they can handle the sight of a person (or other trigger) from the car without reacting will help you stay motivated. Their ability to remain calm also means they’ll probably be going places in the car more often — a win/win no matter how you look at it.
Karen B. London, PhD
Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.