Why Do Dogs Love Car Rides?

Dogs love car rides because they feel as if they are on a hunt. For example, cats never love car rides, or at best merely learn to endure them because when riding in a car cats don’t feel as if they are on a hunt. Why when in a moving car, can a dog feel as if it’s on a hunt whereas a cat doesn’t? Because dogs evolved to hunt by feel whereas cats hunt by instinct.

This will make more sense once one understands what hunting for an animal feels like. In our mind hunting means stalking, chasing and killing prey in order to obtain food, but in the animal mind a hunt is a state of “emotional suspension” whereby the predator projects its “self” (i.e. its “emotional center-of-gravity) into its prey—and if—the prey acts like prey, then whatever the prey does the predator mirrors by feel the equal and opposite movement in order to counterbalance it. This in fact is how a predator “knows” how to catch its prey. (Best visual example of this is watching a cheetah take down a gazelle on a nature show wherein the cat by virtue of “being in drive” has projected an emotional calculus onto its movements so that at some point in time its own trajectory intersects with the gazelle at a common point in time and space.) And in such a state an animal feels weightless. Feeling weightless is what hunting feels like.

Cars are perfect vehicles for arousing an emotional state of suspension because the feeling of weightlessness can be induced by the phenomenon of physical synchronization. (This allows wolves to pool their collective energies onto a midpoint so that as a group they can take on prey animals in a coordinated manner that they cannot physically overpower even when in numbers.) Because a dog projects its “self” into the forms of things toward which it is strongly attracted or bonded with (for example people in a car), and because everyone in the car is 1) facing the same direction, 2) swaying in unison to the dips and bends in the road, 3) accelerating and decelerating perfectly in sync with the momentum and change of direction of the car, the dog is induced by all this synchronized physical movement into a state of emotional suspension and therefore the dog feels as if it is part of a group that is on the hunt. The more the car moves and the faster stimuli whiz by the more the physical energy is channeled into the feeling of suspension. The question now becomes how much sensory input, i.e. energy, can this feeling of weightlessness sustain and here we can see different temperaments of dogs begin to precipitate out so that they respond in various ways to the experience.

For some dogs the feeling can grow so strong that when their emotional or carrying capacity is exceeded, they strike at things going past. This is when the prey instinct, an automatic, hardwired reflex, takes over in order to make the kill. (We need to remember that it’s only in our mind that a dog on a sidewalk is motionless relative to the dog in the moving car. For the dog in the car, the dog on the sidewalk is moving 30, 40 or 50 mph and that’s a pretty fast prey animal.) Some dogs have a higher carrying capacity and can retain a feeling of arousal for the potential moment in the future when they will be let out of the car so as to express the internalized energy in a concrete way, such as running around, rolling on the ground, playing Frisbee or going for a hike with their owner.

Cats on the other hand (as well as all other animals) have a far more limited emotional capacity than dogs and so the phenomenon of induction by virtue of physical synchronization is not as likely to get going. For example, a lower emotional capacity is why when cats have their bellies rubbed and they start to get excited, they quickly hit an overload circuit breaker and then the reflex to claw and pounce comes up and, since the owner’s hand as prey-isn’t-acting-like-prey, they have to run away. Whereas dogs of course can have their bellies rubbed all day and simply wallow in higher and higher states of ecstasy, i.e. weightlessness.

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Published June 1, 2009 by Kevin Behan
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28 responses to “Why Do Dogs Love Car Rides?”

  1. Kimberly says:

    I read your article and I have the opposite problem my 8 almost 9 month old lab hates truck rides. I can’t get him in the truck and alittle problem getting out. I have no idea what to do. I wish he would get in so I can take him out on hikes and other fun things plus the getting to the vet is handy as well. Got any advice for me??????

  2. kbehan says:

    Most dogs grow into it even if they start out afraid, which is not unusual. The main thing is not invest in you getting him into truck. If he’s got to get in, just get it done as quickly as possible with no talking. There’s a couple tricks, like up on a box that’s halfway to cab, and then from there into the cab. But once he associates car ride with prey-making, that will ground him and he’ll love the car. Don’t take him too much, but when you do, go on short outings to a wide open field. Go for a short walk and see if you can get him to play fetch and tug after he gains his bearings. Next, carry tug toy back to car. If he doesn’t get car sick, take short hop, walk him around then give him small bowl of his food. Again, see if you can get him to play tug. The more active you can get his prey drive when you get out of the car, the sooner he’ll link the car to the hunt. And then again, don’t ask him, cajole him, sweet talk or look at him in order to get in the truck, otherwise he’ll perceive what’s happening as pressure. Just arrange for him to get into truck. Good luck and believe me, it’s just a matter of time.

  3. christine randolph says:

    yeah strange how some dogs are scared of cars.

    my friend has a bernese who never got rid of her car riding anxiety. i hope you will be able to make your dogs love the car Kimberley ! (she also has 3 other bernese who love the car)

    I love to go places with my dogs in the car because all they totally love it.

    all three of them ! i can totally see how they are into prey mode in the car, especially when i slow down and or turn on the indicator.

    when i am fast on the freeway, they sleep. They do need to be able to look out the windows otherwise they are not happy which makes it difficult to stuff them in a crate which is in the windowless part of the vehicle.

    i recommend building them a perch so they can lie down comfortably and look out the window whenever they feel like it or fall asleep when they have had enough of that.

    my little dog travels on the driver’s lap whoever that is. recently i travelled with my girl friend who thought that was too dangerous so we built a perch between us with a cooler and a thick blanket and made it interesting for her to lie there (treats) so she stayed there the entire time (a total of approx. 16 hours driving)

    i also had my young male who is large, he was in the crate. (my friend’s wishes) he was whining when we slowed down so I think he wanted to look out for prey at that time, but could not, so got frustrated. he ate a bit of the pillow he was lying on…another indication of nervous frustration I am sure.

    But, mostly he was OK with it. considering that i usually travel with him free in the car, when he likes to squeeze himself between me and the back of the seat…(grounding?)

    I am glad all this is not mandated by law, because I remember in Australia they had a law about having dogs in harnesses when in the car….

    however, I hope I will never have some kind of collision that will hurt my dogs…

    My young male and small female are both sometimes a bit hesitant to get in the car through the front door when the engine is running.

    …like some threshold anxiety…

    i think they do not like the noise of that and need to build their courage up to jump in. if this happens i reward them generously as soon as they have made the jump.

    maybe this is a factor for your dogs Kimberley ? something in the car that scares them a bit. a box or something they could interpret as a booger bear ?

  4. Lynda says:

    “For some dogs the feeling can grow so strong that when their emotional or carrying capacity is exceeded, they strike at things going past.”

    “WOW! You could be writing about my 5 yo Springer Spaniel!
    Bella super focuses in the car. Her head swivels constantly as she attempts to keep up with the passing mailboxtreecarpersonetc. then she starts to whimper/cry and if I ever open the window her panicked excitement reaches peak levels. I believe she’s overloading with all this info she has to process and she’s not happy.
    BTW Bella LOVES to go in the car! She jumps right in and settles down… until we move.
    Any tips on how to stop this behavior?

  5. kbehan says:

    First you have to create an energy circuit between you and your dog in terms of this 200,000 volts of energy engendered by preyful aspects racing past. So step one is to teach your dog how to push-for-food in your back yard. The more intense the resistance you provide, the more the dog is learning to channel intensity to you. Then, cut up a bunch of hot dogs and have them in your pocket and every time she sees something, offer her a treat. The goal is for her to see the stimulus, and then turn to you for the treat. The next step is to teach her to push and then down and then push until finally you can make her lay down in the car as she prepares to launch at a preyful aspect. Then you have to train her to lay down and stay while you drive about, I recommend using big parking lots in a deserted section of a mall or parking area so that it is safe. Finally and concurrently you have to play tug/push-of-war so that comes to represent 210,000 volts of energy more rewarding than the hyper-stimulating but ultimately frustrating and over-charging of the battery freaking out in car behavior. When she will do her obedience around the push/tug toy, then she is learning how to feel you and therefore is able to hear you when she’s at a peak of intensity. Good luck and get started pushing.

  6. Lynda says:

    wow thanks so much for answering! got a little busy for awhile but you have my attention now. Could you explain ‘push for food’ in a bit more detail? I wasn’t able to find anything on the net.

  7. kbehan says:

    The basic premise is that the dog learns to overcome resistance, this summons up fear from its internals, this makes it available to be resolved. Another way of saying it is that the dog is learning that its owner is the pathway to the answer, rather than one more problem to solve in any given equation. There are some theoretical articles on this site about the concept, and then Lee Kelley and Neil Sattin have written articles on their sites in which they explain it through their eyes, and also in much greater practical detail. So keep on Pushing! and your dog will love you even more for it.

  8. Burl says:

    Group consciousness of heat (week after Katrina)


  9. Cromulent says:

    My black Lab Goliath loved the car so much we would play fetch. In the car. While driving.

  10. kbehan says:

    Hope you had a stretch limo.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I reqd your article and although the idea you elaborated in is somewhat correct it is not a fully admisable one. In fact the real reason as o why they enjoy carrides so much is because when dogs poke their heads out the window and attempt to take in air it becomes much harder for them to do so. For some strange reason dogs acquire a feeling of euphoria or “high” out of this activity. Psychologists have conducted thorough experimenta on this subject and by simply making it harder for dogs to breathe they achieve the same results. Some dogs however may have lived through a traumatic experience such as choking and conclusively dislike the feeling they get altogether. I am sorry if i made spelling mistakes (i typed this on my iphone)

  12. kbehan says:

    Very good point. I have heard from horse folks that when horses crib on a rail they’re getting that same kind of high. Nevertheless even if your point is entirely correct, my point still stands that cats for example, because they can’t emotionally process the rate-of-change inherent in car riding, can’t therefore tap into this intoxicating possibility. In other words dogs enjoy car rides whether they stick their head out of the window or not. I think one major drive to stick the head out is the urge to be at the fore of the experience, to be in the front. Nevertheless it’s been my experience that dogs are getting quite a bit of olfactory input even when putting their heads out the window, but I think you’re right that the high could be even more reinforcing especially at high speeds. My dogs, as well as I suspect most dogs, like to lay down at high speed, they only get up to the window as we slow down, so they may be opting for the olfactory input over the high since I believe, they get their ya-ya’s out in the bite work. Thanks for the interesting input.

  13. julie says:

    Moose has loved car rides since he was a 8week old 38lb pup…now at 120lbs he is just as excited. He knows the phrase and has learned the spelling of r-i-d-e. He seems to love taking in the new smells. Of course a ride is usually to his grandmas house where once he gets out the car he waits patiently for me to open their garage door. He ducks under and prances on the landing by their door. If the door is open this is where he immediately goes. He is so happy to see them. He will search for my mom until he figures out which room she is in and then wiggle about and give kisses…

  14. kbehan says:

    Great name, no wonder he loves car rides.

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  18. Karen Reilly says:

    My 10-month old female rescue pup has not gotten over her car anxiety. She shivers, pants, ears flat back, trying to hide. Even when she knows she’s going somewhere she loves! I’m hoping she’ll grow out of it, but its been months and I’m not seeing much growth?

  19. Kevin Behan says:

    I would take a long break from car riding for a while and concentrate on developing her Drive. There is only one problem for a dog, what to do with my Drive (focused energy) and so since there is no Drive in the car (hence shivers, panting, flattened ears) she is unable to process the car ride. So you’ve got to teach her the core exercises, especially bite and bark and push, so that she will begin to be able to find focus when she is on a car ride. So give her a big time out from the car and develop her Drive and hence her Temperament (the faculty that turns the intensity of change into information). Good luck.

  20. Karen Reilly says:

    Thank you! Where/how/what are the ‘core exercises’ I should work with for her? She is so smart and I love watching her process her new experiences into information – absolutely amazing to be part of. I was given very little information from the rescue: the litter came to them without a mom, so they had no idea of the breed and made a guess that turned out to be half wrong. She was the only female of the litter and the smallest: her DNA shows a mix of GSD and Jindo – her brothers took after the GSD side and she is is physically and even temperamentally more a Jindo, although she has GSD ears. There was a bit of Lab and a bunch of hound, hunting and various miscellaneous breeds there as well.

    Thank you for any guidance you can provide.

  21. Kevin Behan says:

    For now you should concentrate on Pushing, Bark on Command and tug of war (goal is to get dog to carry not just shake, rattle and growl, but first it’s okay, as long as she’s expressing energy.) Pushing is to offer resistance with one hand, while the other hand holds food in an open palm. The dog is trained to push through the resistance to get to the food. This builds up confidence by strengthening her Drive. Barking is also huge confidence builder. Tie up your dog, hold some food in a clasped hand held against your chest, and any vibration is rewarded. Progressively you hold out longer and longer and you will see a bark begin to emerge. Ultimately the bark will refine into a deep, metered, whole body resonance. When she’s strong with these behaviors, in about a month if you only feed her though these exercises, not in a pan, then pop her in the car drive 100 feet, get out and ask for Push, Bite and/or Bark. Drive home, exit car and repeat. When you see no drop off in Drive, she will start growing to love car rides since all the sensory input is being grounded, i.e. turned into “information” i.e. an expression of Drive. Good luck.

  22. Karen Reilly says:

    Will do! Thank you so much!

  23. BIANCA says:


    My Yorkshire terrier, Mickey (1.5 years old), is really scared when we are driving on the highway. He can’t rest for the whole journey and he shakes so badly. We carry him his carrier in my lap, with his sister also(she sleeps all the way). I have tried natural pills that should calm him down but nothing works. The only thing that works is Sileo gel but I know that it is not healthy so I try not to give him so much. I am really scared because we need to move in one week and we will have to drive for 18h on the highway and my little baby is really scared of speed (I think). Everything over 50 mph makes him shake so badly and we need to drive with aprox 80 mph. Any suggestions?

    Thank you,

  24. Kevin Behan says:

    Many little dogs are carried around too much, and they eventually acclimate to being moved around this way by familiar family members (but we often see a lot of sneakiness when someone reaches in to pet the dog). My point being that when young the impression of being whisked up into the air is scary, but again, they eventually acclimate. Now the car is being perceived as being whisked up and away by an alien force which is the genesis of his fear. I think long rides may be the best thing, possibly in a soft carrying crate would help him feel safer. Put him in the crate, take him for rides and don’t tend to him. When his balance mechanism eventually settles down, then he’ll start to feel safe. Good luck.

  25. K9Mama says:

    I don’t think they feel they are on a hunt. I don’t/haven’t seen any body language to indicate that with any of my dogs that I have had in the past 50 years. I do see that they like to BE with us no matter where we are. It’s the pack complex. Stay together.

  26. Kevin Behan says:

    If hunting isn’t seminal to the canine nature, then why don’t cats for example become as ecstatic about prospect of going for a ride in the car as the dog? Why does only the dog want to “be with us” so strongly? (Certainly you have seen some dogs exhibiting pronounced prey-making behaviors in cars, and herd animals want to stay together as powerfully as canines, so again, why only the dog?)

  27. Willem Larsen says:

    The other question might be, what else would “hunting body language” look like, if not that which a dog displays on a car ride? What might you be projecting as “hunting body language” onto a dog that doesn’t actually reflect their comportment on a hunt?

    There are so many assumptions about dogs, what dogs feel, or think, or ought to, that I think a little empirical observation tends to clear up.

  28. Kevin Behan says:

    That’s a perfect question. Most of wolf hunting behavior isn’t intense predatory fixation or the stalk. It’s casually ambling along, always testing the air for a scent, staying in a loose formation and manifesting a positively expectant body language and facial expression. All behaviors that can be seen in most dogs who are but the least bit willing to hop in a car.

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Books about Natural Dog Training by Kevin Behan

In Your Dog Is Your Mirror, dog trainer Kevin Behan proposes a radical new model for understanding canine behavior: a dog’s behavior and emotion, indeed its very cognition, are driven by our emotion. The dog doesn’t respond to what the owner thinks, says, or does; it responds to what the owner feels. And in this way, dogs can actually put people back in touch with their own emotions. Behan demonstrates that dogs and humans are connected more profoundly than has ever been imagined — by heart — and that this approach to dog cognition can help us understand many of dogs’ most inscrutable behaviors. This groundbreaking, provocative book opens the door to a whole new understanding between species, and perhaps a whole new understanding of ourselves.
  Natural Dog Training is about how dogs see the world and what this means in regards to training. The first part of this book presents a new theory for the social behavior of canines, featuring the drive to hunt, not the pack instincts, as seminal to canine behavior. The second part reinterprets how dogs actually learn. The third section presents exercises and handling techniques to put this theory into practice with a puppy. The final section sets forth a training program with a special emphasis on coming when called.
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