How To Use A Dog Car Harness

Want your pup to accept that new car restraint equipment? Build in some training time.


So, that brand new dog car harness came just in time, eh? The night before you head out on a big road trip?


I bet you were anticipating feeling less stress in the car because you’re so focused on the fact that your dog will now be safer. Alas, you may find that this is the most disastrous trip ever because your howling wild child is thrashing around in distress!

Oops. It turns out that the ideal time to get any new car restraint equipment is a month before the trip, not the night before.

When you think about it, it’s obvious that there is no reason to assume your dog will be hunky dory with suddenly being strapped into a new device that constricts her movement and feels a bit uncomfortable. Sure, maybe your little genius will understand when you say, “Sweetie, this is to make you safe! It’s because I love you!” and immediately relax in the glow of that idea. More likely, though . . . she’ll be confused about what’s happening, she’ll hate it, and she’ll make her displeasure known in ways that will possibly even make you less safe as you drive!

So. Build in some time. The key to gaining your dog’s buy-in is to take it at your dog’s pace, and sweeten the deal by pairing the new containment plan with something the dog loves — likely in the edible category. Here’s how to get your dog to wear a car harness:

  • Start with a sniff in your home. Whatever device you’re using, start getting your pup used to the idea of it in your home. Maybe that means while you’re watching TV, you bring over that new harness or crate. There’s a sniff, and a treat. Repeat. Repeat. Create a positive link.
  • Now add restriction, still in your home. Once pup is happy about the sight/smell of the new device, go a step further: go ahead and pop that harness on — time for cheese! ham! — and then take it right off. Repeat. Repeat. Keep going until the dog stares at that harness, mentally willing you to start that fun new game by putting it on.
  • Build in duration. Once your dog is mellow about putting the harness, make that feeling last a bit longer. Let her walk around in the harness and give her a bully stick to enjoy at the same time. Repeat a few nights in a row.
  • Hit the driveway! If pup is fully comfortable with the new equipment, it’s time to try it out in the driveway. Load up with, say, dried fish or turkey, and take pup out to the car. Pop that harness on – treat! – and then take it off. Repeat. Repeat. That’s it for today. Then do it all again the next day.
  • Try a super short drive with a big finish. Now pup is happy to pop up into the car and get into that harness or that crate, it’s time for a little drive. Ideal scenario: a three-minute drive to your dog’s BFF’s house. Any brief moment of concern in the new equipment is quickly rewarded by the best real-life reward in the arsenal: fun playdate. Repeat. Repeat.

There you go. Your pup now has happy associations of driving while restrained in the car. You didn’t rush it, and create a negative association with that brand new equipment. Instead, because you invested the time, that new stuff signals yummy treats and adventure. You’re ready to hit the road!

Read Next: Wondering Which Dog Car Harness To Buy? Read Our Review

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Kathy Callahan’s new book, Welcoming Your Puppy from Planet Dog, is now available wherever you buy your books. Certified as a dog trainer (CPDT-KA) and licensed as a family dog mediator (LFDM-T), Callahan specializes in puppies. She and her family have fostered 225 of them in the past decade, and her business, PupStart, is focused on puppyhood coaching. The podcast Pick of the Litter is Kathy’s newest effort to help people and their dogs live more happily together. Kathy lives in Alexandria, VA, with her husband Tom. They’re technically empty-nesters now since their grown daughters have moved on, but the house is still very active thanks to the four family members who were foster-fails: Mojo the German Shepherd/Akita, George the Great Pyrenees/German Shepherd, Kreacher the Chow/Beagle, and Mr. Bojangles, the best cat in the world.