Traveling with our dogs is something that is often not only a fun thing to do on the weekends but also a necessary part of responsible pet ownership when it comes to things like vet visits or a trip to the groomer.
When we take our four-legged friends on the road (or in the air), we can see all sorts of reactions from them as soon as they see the car. Sometimes they may be excited, and other times they may be a bit apprehensive.
This often causes us to pause and wonder if our dogs really know where they are going. But do dogs understand the concept of traveling?
Dogs likely understand some parts of traveling, including recognizing certain landmarks and routes to a specific location and what a car’s role is in getting them to those places. It is less likely that they understand the concept of travel time and the physics of travel, whether it be by plane, train, or automobile.
In the article below, we’ll discuss how and why dogs may understand certain parts of travel and how it is related to their natural way of learning through association, as well as the parts of travel that they probably don’t understand (at least to our current knowledge).
We’ll also talk about if dogs are likely to understand traveling by car, and why they aren’t as likely to understand traveling by airplane.
Do Dogs Understand Travel?
While we’ve made some great scientific discoveries over the last several decades, unfortunately, it’s still impossible to know for sure if dogs can actually understand the concept of travel in the same way that we humans understand traveling and getting from one place to another.
Despite that uncertainty, there are still a few things related to dogs and traveling that we do understand based on what we know about how dogs learn and their behaviors.
Using what we already know about dogs, we can make a few educated guesses about what dogs may understand regarding travel, and also what dogs probably may not understand about travel.
Dogs May Understand…
The primary way in which dogs learn is through association, and it is well known that dogs can create an association (either through the direct or indirect action of their owners) with almost anyone or anything, and that list likely includes locations.
When a dog experiences an extreme emotional reaction (either negative or positive) in a particular location, the dog is then likely to associate that location with that emotional reaction.
This emotional reaction and the resulting learned association can occur with a variety of things, including people and places and even objects and sounds, such as those of a gunshot.
Think about when you take your dog to their favorite dog park. Chances are your pup is already hyped up and excited even two blocks away from the park! Now think about when you take your dog to the vet. There’s probably quite a difference in their reaction when you pull into that parking lot, right?
Dogs do recognize locations and places, but it is dependent on their previous experience in those places and how strongly they associate their emotional connection to those places. Dogs can recognize landmarks leading up to certain locations, too, especially if they go there frequently enough.
In the case of the dog park, your dog may recognize the route you take several blocks away. However, even if your dog recognizes your regular routes and buildings, if anything is ever altered it can affect the way your dog reacts.
For example, with the dog park, if you suddenly switch your route, you may not get the same reaction as you normally would even if you are heading to the same place. Similarly, if your regular vet moves into a new location, your dog may not have the same negative reaction when you pull into the parking lot.
Associations With Vehicles
Similar to their understanding of a location, dogs may also understand the link between a vehicle (or other mode of transport) and going to a particular place. As with other types of association learning, this depends on how frequently your dog travels and to what types of locations they travel to.
This is why it is very important to include car training when you first get a dog and to make sure that you take your dog to really fun places instead of just to the vet or the groomer.
If you are only ever taking your dog to places that are more negative rather than positive (at least to your dog), then your dog will only ever associate your car as the thing that takes them to a “bad” place, and they will develop issues with getting into the car.
But if you make sure to also take them to really fun places like a park or to visit with a friend, then you can also help create positive associations with the car and teach them that going for a car ride sometimes leads to “good” places as well.
By making the end location of the car rides unpredictable, your dog will tend to lean towards the car rides going towards the “good” places, and be more inclined to get into your vehicle without issue.
Dogs are true optimists at heart, but even if you sometimes have to go to the “bad” places, make sure you are also rewarding your pup so that they can maintain their positive association with your vehicle and where it may take them.
For additional tips on how to make sure your dog has a positive experience while in the car, check out the video below!
Dogs May Not Understand…
How A Vehicle Works
While dogs can understand that a vehicle is the thing that potentially takes them to a place they really like (or really don’t like), they probably don’t understand exactly how the vehicle itself works.
It’s likely they don’t understand how exactly the car gets them from Point A to Point B, only that when they get out they have arrived at a new place.
The physics of how a vehicle (or any other mode of transport) works is also likely not understood by dogs, which is why so many dogs can become carsick or show stressful or anxious behaviors if they are not used to traveling in a moving vehicle.
That being said, there is ongoing research that may suggest dogs do understand physics in some way, but likely not as it relates to travel and movement (at least not yet!).
We don’t really know if a dog views a vehicle as a small house or crate that moves along from destination to destination, or if they identify it as something else entirely.
There is research indicating that dogs have some understanding of time, but it is not known if that understanding extends to travel time. As we discussed above, dogs can understand landmarks and routes, but if the landmark is removed or the route changed in some way, their reaction will change.
If the route is changed so much that the time it takes to get to their destination is increased or decreased, it’s probably more likely that the dog’s reaction will be a result of the change in scenery rather than due to a change in the travel time.
With longer road trips for dogs who are unused to traveling frequently, their anxiety could be a result of increased time in the car and understanding that they’ve been in the car for a longer period than normal.
Or it could be that they have pent up energy and are becoming frustrated at being locked inside a small space with nowhere to go. At this time, we simply do not know!
Do Dogs Understand Travel By Car?
Dogs can understand that a car is the thing that takes them to a place that they like or dislike, but beyond that we don’t really know if they actually understand how traveling by car works.
A lot of dogs like looking out the window as the vehicle is moving as they have an excellent perception of motion and movement, and it is feasible to think that maybe they understand that they themselves are moving in a particular direction (similar to how they learn how other naturally occurring things such as fire and the sun affect them), but it’s unlikely that they understand the actual mechanics of the movement in the way that people do.
While they may not really understand how traveling by car works, dogs have actually been taught to drive a car! Take a look at the fun video below to see how New Zealand has been working with rescue dogs to teach them how to “drive” cars.
Do Dogs Understand Travel By Plane?
Unlike traveling by vehicle, dogs are even less likely to understand what traveling by plane means. As most dogs do not generally travel frequently by plane, and the fact that it’s often to different locations, it’s unlikely they would be able to establish an association between the plane and its significance to a specific location.
Due to how stressful most airline travel is, it’s more likely that your dog would associate traveling by plane with the emotion of stress and anxiety rather than associating it with going somewhere fun and exciting.
With proper reward-based training and some patience, it is possible to reduce the stress a dog may feel when flying but unless you are flying on a very frequent basis it is probably unlikely that your dog will ever form a connection between going to the airport and getting on the plane and then arriving at a different destination.
The reason dogs can usually form that connection with car travel is that most dogs travel by car much more frequently than flying in a plane, so through repetition, they are able to deduce that a car means they are going somewhere.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about dogs and how they might interpret travel, especially when it comes to their understanding of time and the physics of movement.
But we do know that they can at least understand that a vehicle represents a way for them to get to a place that they really enjoy…or a place that maybe isn’t their favorite!
We also know that they can recognize locations and even the routes and landmarks leading to those locations, and that they can become confused if their route is disrupted or changed.
Perhaps with time and research, we’ll be able to learn more about how dogs understand travel!