Canine Behavior/Dog in car
QUESTION: My Miniature Schnauzer Polly has loved travelling in the car all her life. She's now almost 15 and she has suddenly started to freak out in the car, even on very short journeys. She is very well trained although about 70% loss of sight and hearing has made communication difficult. She wanders around bumping into things and stares at walls 'in neutral' which I put down to her age. She no longer barks, but in the car shortly after we start to move, she starts to whine and this escalates into very loud whining and frantic movement. I've tried sitting in the car with her when not moving, even with the engine running and rewarding her as she is calm. To extend the exercise to driving a short distance I have put her on my girlfriend's lap, driven slowly and she has given her treats which distracts her and she is calm then, but when the treats stop she starts to get frantic again so we stop the exercise.
It seems to be a visual thing, as when we have draped her head with a fabric she isn't frantic when driving along, but she is taken up with trying to get out from under the fabric.
She may just be getting senile and the visual movement is causing the anxiety, particularly as she can't easily focus, so it's all a confusing blur but I'd really appreciate your views.
ANSWER: Thank you for your question. Watching our pups get on in age can be difficult and emotional. It can be frustrating for us when we don't understand what's wrong or how to help make it better.
Your dog is nearly 15 years old and at least partially blind and partially deaf. You said she sometimes stands and stares at walls. This may be an indicator of Canine Cognition Dysfunction (dementia).
You can help her in the house by getting a few different essential oils such as lavender, anise, birch and then using a different (consistent) scent to mark different areas/edges so that she can more easily move around the house without bumping into things. Example:
Birch on doorways.
Lavender on edges of furniture (each leg of a chair/couch/table and a bit every 6 or 8 inches along the long edges.
Anise every 12-18 inches on walls (so she can follow them without walking into them - and then the Birch to mark the doorways can help her learn to navigate better.
If you have stairs, I'd get a fourth scent and mark the middle of each step.
Now, you'd have to apply the scent to the specific areas (I might do doorways the first day) and walk her to each doorway and let her sniff the spot where you put the drop of oil (around her nose height on the door jamb). Then a couple days later, add the furniture and walk her from one piece of furniture to the next, allowing her to sniff that scent at the furniture. Then a few days later add the steps or the walls.
You'd likely have to reapply the oils in each location once or twice per week, maybe every other week if the odor is lingering, to maintain these markers for her. If you put your nose up to the area and you can still smell the scent, then you don't need to reapply. If you can't smell it anymore, than it's probably time to put a fresh drop.
But... your main question is regarding her behavior in the car.
My guess is that it's more about the physical sensation of moving. It may be about the blurriness of the movement. It may be about feeling unbalanced or insecure at the movement. My own dog used to ride in the car untethered for her first 13 years and it was always fine. But her last year and a half with me, I had to tether her in the back seat (she was a 60-lb dog) because she no longer had the strength in her hind end to balance herself with the movements (turns, speeding up, slowing down, stopping) of the car. She started slipping off the seat every time I came to a stop, even when it was a super smooth, slow glide to a stop. Once I tethered her by her harness to a traffic lead that was connected to the seatbelt, she just lay down and was much more comfortable.
With a miniature schnauzer, you might consider a soft carry crate that you can secure in the back seat with the seat belt. Or they make riding seats for small dogs which you usually have a safety clip that you can attach to her harness (never to a collar, always to a body harness in case of an accident). By providing a smaller, more secure space for her, she may feel more comfortable and safe with the car's movements.
You indicated that covering her with a blanket or towel distracted her. Was she calm and relaxed under there until you stopped driving? Or was she just so focused on trying to extricate herself that she was not vocalizing because she was focused on getting out from under the fabric? I wouldn't want to just shift her stress and anxiety to the more local issue of being draped with something. So, if the fabric actually relaxes her and she sits or lays quietly with a blanket over her until you stop driving and then it's only as you begin to remove the fabric that she starts to try to "help", that might be an easy solution. But if she's spending the entire drive trying to get out from under it, then this is not the right choice as it's probably just as stressful for her, only her focus is more inward rather than on the movement of the car.
Your efforts at helping her feel better are exactly on target. You might try doing those super short drives with your girlfriend, but have the dog secured by harness to one of those seats (I'll put some links below so you can see what I'm talking about). During the drive, your girlfriend can first offer treats almost continuously. But then, as she settles a bit, start putting just 1 or 2 seconds between treats. Over several sessions, try building up so the treats are presented every 5 or 10 seconds. If she's relaxing, you can space the treats to every 15-20 seconds and so on.
In the beginning, it doesn't matter if she's vocalizing or not. We just want to make the association the moving vehicle means food appears. To that end, our order of presentation is crucial. Get her in the car and settled. Get the engine on and give her a minute to take that in. The moment the car starts moving - food appears. Every time the car stops moving (stop sign, red light, parked), the food stops. This is referred to frequently as "Open bar/closed bar" Essentially - when the car is in motion, the bar is open for business and food is readily and steadily available. When the car stops moving, the bar closes and there is no more food.
Finally - and maybe this should be FIRST, really. TALK TO YOUR VET
Only the vet can rule out other medical issues that may be contributing to this change of behavior. They may find joint issues or inner ear/balance issues that are upsetting her by the car ride and this may be treatable with medication. Or they may conclude that she is experiencing some dementia - there's medication for that too, which can sometimes make really great improvements in the dog's experience of life and thus their overt behavior. My own dog was on such meds for dementia for the last 4 years of her life. For the first 3 years she was on the meds, I got back the dog I'd always known - after she'd started showing several subtle signs of dementia. Her final year she began to decline again, but it gave me 4 extra years with my dog that I otherwise would not have been able to have. It's worth it to speak to your vet about trying such meds if all other medical reasons for her behavior are ruled out. Or you may wish to consult with a veterinary behaviorist on this matter. In my experience, two separate local vets refused to prescribe the dementia medication because my dog was not displaying the most "classic" symptoms of the disease. But a veterinary behaviorist accepted that I knew my dog best and that while several of her symptoms were quite subtle or even antithetical to the classical presentation of the symptoms, they were clear changes in her behavior that I was seeing. He was willing to try them to see if it made a difference and it made a HUGE difference in our case. It's not always the right choice and sometimes the neurological damage is too great for the meds to make much difference. But at her age, with the behavior changes you describe, I would definitely speak to my vet or a vet behaviorist if it were my dog to discuss this possibility. If it's as easy as a pill a day for the rest of her life and she's less stressed and more comfortable with life and more engaged - then to me it's worth it. I can't make the decision for you, obviously, but I encourage you to at least open that line of dialogue with your primary vet.
Car seats for dogs:
Here is the results for my Amazon.com search "car seats for small dogs"
There are several options and variations to choose from and many are available at local pet stores so you can see them in person.
I hope some of this proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance or if you want to update after you've discussed with the vet or tried some of the car restraint options or the refined exercise with your girlfriend giving the treats (open bar/closed bar).
Los Angeles Behavior Specialist
---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------
QUESTION: Hi Jody
Thanks so much for your insightful and comprehensive response. Polly did settle under the fabric but it needed someone else's attention to ensure the fabric didn't stress her, as I was driving, so it;s not a solution when I'm on my own in the car. My vet had already prescribed a course of treatment for increasing blood flow to her brain but it didn't seem to make a difference. We tried it twice one month on and one month off then one month on again to be sure. I will try Polly in a soft cage as a friend has one. The vet also said I might try a calming spray in the car and I have read varying reports. What's your opinion?
Thank you very much Jody, I'm most grateful.
I don't know what medication your vet prescribed so I don't know if s/he was testing to see if the issue was Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. I'm also not a veterinarian, and so I can only speak to my experience and stuff I've picked up along the way - I cannot diagnose nor prescribe.
I can only recommend a conversation with your vet specifically about CCD (doggie dementia) and determine if the meds your vet tried was for that issue. If not, then a conversation about the possibility that this is what your dog is dealing with and trying the medication for that would be appropriate. But I defer to the vet's final recommendation as I am not a trained veterinarian.
As to Over the Counter (OTC) calmatives - they generally fall into the category of "can't hurt, might actually help" and so it would probably be worth trying something.
There are sprays such as Comfort Zone or Adaptil (as your vet suggested) which have a synthetic hormone that nursing mama dogs produced and appears to have a calming effect on the dog. They are usually in a medium of alcohol, so you want to spray the seats about 10-15 minutes before you actually bring Polly into the car as that alcohol smell is quite strong.
There are aroma therapy options out there as well - which will smell better and some people have found them to be calming to their dogs. Lavender is, for some dogs, just as calming as it is for some humans. But there are individual differences in this type of thing just as there are in humans.
There are chewable calmatives - some are herbal based with things like Ginger Root, Valerian Root and chamomile. Others are more supplement based with things like colostrum complex and L-Thenanine and Vitamin B1. Colostrum is what a new mother produces before the milk comes in. It's also supposed to have some calming effects.
You can read up on the ingredients and reviews for various options and decide what sounds like you want to try it. Just be sure to keep your vet in the loop on what you are giving or stop giving as some things can be contraindicated with other medications.
You can read up on various calmatives and their reviews here:
Search term: "Calming Aids for Dogs"
Comfort Zone Spray:
If you decide to try the soft carrier, be sure it's secured to the seat with the seat belt so it can't go sliding around if you turn or slow/speed up. And you may need to drape the fabric over that as well to block her view.
Good luck. Let me know what you try and how it works for you.
Los Angeles Behavior Specialist