Are Car Rides Mental Stimulation for Dogs

Does a trip in the car provide enrichment for your dog

Yes, without a doubt. Especially sensory enrichment. In a car ride, a dog’s brain is processing all the information their senses are picking up. It also stimulates your dog’s pack and hunting instinct. In addition, the anticipation of the destination stimulates and arouses your dog.

Sensory enrichment for dogs traveling in a car

Canine enrichment can be categorized into six types – Environmental, cognitive, feeding and food, toy, social, and of course sensory enrichment. Sensory enrichment is any activity that engages your dog’s five senses – sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste.

Sense of smell

The power of a dog’s sense of smell can vary depending on the breed, however, it is much greater than that of a human – 10,000 to 100,000 times more powerful. They don’t just have a more powerful sense of smell. They smell in a completely different way to us. When a dog sniffs a spot on the ground they gather huge amounts of information right down to who or what was there.

Just sitting in the car they can smell lots of amazing scents, often smells they wouldn’t normally come across when walking around the block or at the park. Just imagine how many great smells they detect with their head out the window with the window blowing scents straight into their face.

Sense of hearing

A dog’s sense of smell is their most powerful sense, but their hearing is also far more acute than ours.  Dogs hear much louder and more clearly than humans. They are able to discern subtle differences in sound that we could never hear. They are also able to hear frequencies that we could not pick up. In addition to all the smell information, they are gathering while riding in the car, imagine the added sound information.

Sense of sight

As with the other senses, a dog’s vision works differently from ours. They see in a way that makes them see movement as opposed to clear objects. Unlike humans who see in full color, a dog is only able to see the world around them in shades of blue, yellow, and gray. This way of seeing the world was developed for the purpose of being more effective hunters. They can see the movement of their prey enabling them to chase it down. In a way, a ride in the car is much like hunting for them.

They also have excellent vision for seeing in low light such as dawn and dusk. They can also see better in the dark than we can.

Sense of touch

A dog’s entire body is covered in touch-sensitive nerve endings. These nerve endings are a way they feel the world around them. The wind blowing on to them through an open car window or with their heads out the window is setting off sensory signals. 

In addition, dogs have vibrissae, also known as their whiskers on their muzzle and above their eyes. These further help them to feel the world around them.

How does riding in a car simulate hunting for a dog?

Dogs are pack animals and want to run in a group and be with you (their pack leader) whenever they can. That is why when you pick up the car keys they are keen to come along. They also enjoy a good adventure and going on a hunt.

When dogs hunt in a pack they work together through a phenomenon called physical synchronization. They move together in unison, just as they do in a car. Car rides allow your dog to be in this feeling of physical synchronization as they are moving at the same speed, distance, and direction as you and the other occupants of the car.

They also don’t understand things outside the car are not moving with the car. To them, it feels like they are chasing them.

Anticipation of the destination

Another reason most dogs love going for a ride in the car is the anticipation of where you are heading. If you regularly drive to the park, your dog will likely associate trips in the car with an adventure at the park. Taking your dog with you to visit friends and families will also provide a positive association as they enjoy the social enrichment.

If the only time you take your dog in the car is to go to places they don’t like such as the vet or groomers, they may not be so keen. Try to develop a positive association with the car by taking them to good places more often than the bad ones.

Is it safe for a dog to stick their head out the car window?

It is generally not recommended you allow your dog to stick their head out the car window. There is the potential risk that they will fall or jump out the window. In addition, there is the risk of side-swiping another vehicle or stationary object. With the wind rushing in their face, there is the real possibility of an insect or debris going into their eye.

If you are going to allow your dog to put their head out the window you need to take precautions to reduce these risks. Your dog should be tiered to a seat belt to ensure they don’t jump or accidentally fall from the vehicle. You should avoid fully opening the window.

To protect their eyes, it is recommended they wear Doggles (dog goggles). These are an inexpensive item and well worth having to keep your dog from an eye injury or losing an eye.

View Dog Goggles on Amazon

It is recommended that instead of letting your dog put his head out the window, just crack the rear windows slightly so they get the breeze and still enjoy all the smells.

How to restrain a dog in a car

Many dog owners don’t restrain their dog in the car despite knowing how dangerous it can be not only for the dog but the other occupants of the vehicle.

An unrestrained dog can become a projectile in the case of a crash or even sudden braking. On top of all that an unrestrained dog is at far greater risk of injury or death in an accident. A dog that is moving freely around the car can also be a distraction to the driver causing an accident.

Ideally, the best way to transport a dog in a car is in a dog crate that is secured into the vehicle. This is not always possible. If you have a big dog, a crate big enough for them may not even fit in the car.

Other ways to keep your dog restrained in a car if you don’t want to put them in a crate are –

  • a harness that your dog wears and attaches to your vehicle’s seat belt. This is either by way of having a buckle that clicks directly into the seat belt or has a loop that the seat belt goes through. It is best to use a crash-tested harness like this one. Many untested harnesses will simply fail in a crash.
  • a zip line. These are attached to two points on either side of the car with a short leash attached to your dog’s harness. This is a good way to restrain a dog that doesn’t settle and moves around a lot in the car. They allow your dog more freedom and movement than a seat belt harness. View zip line on Amazon.
  • a mental barrier that will keep your dog in the backseat or in the back of a station wagon. These are adjustable to suit your vehicle width and can be easily removed if you need to. View the range of car barriers available on Amazon.


Now that you know just how enriching and mentally stimulating a ride in the car is for your dog, take your dog out for a ride whenever you can. Happy travels.