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Vehicle Phobias - Dog Walkers Beware

Updated: Apr 10, 2020

If you're a dog walker, you may want to carefully consider whether to take on a dog who has a phobia of vehicles (meaning they are scared of car rides).

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As a dog walker, I know that dog walking is a business and for many walkers it is their only source of income. It might be tempting to take on dogs with issues in order to make ends meet. However accepting clients who are unfit for group walks can cause more problems for your business than it's worth. This includes dogs who are fearful of car rides, even if they are friendly with other people and dogs.

Exposing dogs to their phobia or trigger (the thing they're scared of) can send them into what is called the "fight or flight" response. The primitive part of their brain takes over and prepares their body to defend themselves, or flee, from danger. They might lash out at the other dogs around them (even their friends) or you in self-defense. This creates a stressful environment for everyone in the vehicle and may result in fights or injuries.

If you're thinking you can take on the client anyways and they'll just get used to the car rides after a while, think again. This is referred to as flooding (exposing them to their trigger for a sustained period of time) and can often make their phobia worse. Doing this creates a risk of injuries to yourself, to your other clients, and to the fearful dog. Even if physical injuries don’t result, the fearful dog will suffer from the unnecessary stress.

If you're thinking you can just muzzle the dog for the car ride, I urge you to reconsider. The dog will likely be more stressed with the muzzle on, and might still lash out and possibly cause a fight. If this happens, the dog has no way to defend itself. Best case scenario: you have a stressful environment in your vehicle and a worsening phobia for the fearful dog. Worst case: a fight breaks out and you may have injuries to deal with.

Treating phobias is a long process. The dog needs to be gradually desensitized to their trigger. The trigger is presented at a low intensity (e.g. a parked car) until the dog is no longer stressed, then increased in small increments until the dog can tolerate a car ride. An example of a desensitization program would be to be outside the car, then inside the car with it turned off, then inside the car with it turned on but not moving, then moving a few feet, then out of the driveway, then around the block, etc. Each step will likely have to be repeated a number of times and with a number of breaks in between before moving onto the next step. This can take weeks, months, or sometimes years depending on the dog. While you are desensitizing the dog, you can't expose them to their trigger at full intensity or you will undo all of the desensitization that has taken place. This means no cars rides until the dog is okay with them. The reality is that this is not feasible for most dog walkers.

Worried expression on larger dog

For owners with dogs who are scared of car rides, consider looking for a dog walker who will start the walk from your house without bringing your dog in a vehicle. Remember that if your dog does bite another dog even out of perceived self-defense, you are responsible for the vet bill of the other dog and you may end up with fines or penalties from your cities by-laws. It's best for both you and your dog to be cautious and not expose them to that sort of stress.

Very few dog walkers have the time, resources, and qualifications to work through a desensitization program, and taking on clients with car phobias can cost you more than you would earn from the walk. You, the dog walker, may be responsible for vet costs from a fight if you didn't do everything you could or should have to prevent it. You may lose clients if their dog was the victim of the bite. You may have to take time off work and lose potential wages if you are the victim of a bite (depending on the severity). You may have damage to your vehicle do to stress induced vomiting or elimination, or destruction from the stressed dog. You may also have to deal with a missing dog if the dog manages to bolt out of your vehicle when you inevitably open the door.

Ultimately, it is unfair to a fearful dog to put them through any amount of unnecessary stress. While it can be a difficult decision to turn down a client with a car phobia, it is usually the right decision, both ethically and financially.

Relaxed dogs enjoying the ride in the vehicle.

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