Dog Car Safety: 5 Gotta Dos
If you love taking your dog for a ride in the car as much as we do, you need to be concerned about dog car safety. Just because Fifi wants to sit on your lap or stick her head out of the window doesn’t mean it is safe. Every year hundreds of thousands of dogs are injured in vehicular accidents. In fact, an estimated 100,000 die annually from not being properly secured when riding in a pickup truck bed.
We want you to enjoy your time with your dog and take them on fun long excursions. On top of that, we want everyone to get home safely. There are many ways to keep your dog safe when taking your dog for a ride in a vehicle. It doesn’t matter where you are going – to the dog park, beach, or veterinarian – safety should be your first priority.
Here are 5 ways restraint methods to maximize dog car safety for pet owners to consider:
1. Dog Harness Safety Belt
You are probably familiar with a dog walking harness that is used when walking your pup. It straps around his front quarters, with a padded chest strap for support and connects in the back. A dog harness is used to help control your dog when you are walking him without constantly yanking on a collar around his neck. Many dog owners find using a harness helps control larger dogs in particular.
A dog harness safety belt takes the concept of the harness and clips to a chain that is locked into the safety restraint system of the car, namely the seat belt buckle. This prevents your dog from freely roaming around the vehicle and is designed to prevent any forward momentum your dog has if the car suddenly stops in a collision. You can use a harness restraint in any passenger seat with a car safety belt. It’s recommended that the back-passenger seats are the best place for your dog to ride because it is farthest from the most common collision zones during a car ride.
The harness also makes it easy to go from the car restraint to a walking leash by simply unclipping him from the vehicle and attaching the leash. Not only are they convenient, but they are also the safest option for securing your pup in the car when used correctly to prevent injury in a crash. Just make sure to unleash him during the car ride so he won’t get potentially tangled and choked.
2. LATCH Bar
Every car since 2000 and every truck since 2001 is fitted with LATCH bar connectors. The LATCH system is designed for child passenger restraints, making it easier for parents to properly lock the car seat in place. LATCH stands for Low Anchors and Tethers for Children; the LATCH bar is the factory-installed metal bar that the LATCH hooks for car seats connect to located in the seat blight between the seat back and cushion on rear passenger seats.
These connection hooks are designed for a combination of 65 pounds. Some dog harness restraints are sold to be attached to the LATCH bar instead of the seat belt buckle. This is fine as long as the dog does not exceed 65 pounds. While these are strong enough that a large dog can’t pull them out of the seat they are not strong enough to handle higher weight capacities in an accident.
Avoid Connecting Collars to Restraints
It may seem like a quick and easy way to secure your dog in the vehicle, but restraining your dog by clipping his seat belt connection to his collar puts him at risk of a broken neck with a sudden stop or during a collision impact. Even a sudden stop puts your dog at risk of his body being thrown forward off the seat with his neck held back. Use a harness whenever restraining your dog in the car; it’s the safest option.
3. Cargo Area Safety
There are a couple of ways to keep your dog safe in the cargo area of an SUV or wagon. Review what gives your dog the most protection when in a cargo area.
Cargo Area Dog Guards or Barriers
A cargo area dog guard is a wire or mesh attachment that doesn’t obstruct the view throughout the car but prevents your dog from moving to the forward part of the vehicle. He can’t jump from seat to seat until he is on your lap. Barriers are a good way to give dogs a place that is theirs when on car rides that contain them safely. However, it can lead to a lot of bouncing around if they are not secured in the area during an accident.
While there is always momentum impacts every person and pet experiences during a crash, there is a higher chance of greater impact when your dog isn’t secured. Your dog will potentially hit windows, smash through them or otherwise get more injuries from multiple impacts with different parts of the car. Additionally, your dog could get a paw or two stuck between the wires in the barrier and potentially harm himself after the impact in panic after trying to free himself. Make sure you purchase a barrier or guard where your dog’s paws are too big to fit into the grid and get stuck.
Effective Crate Use
Many dog owners, especially those with larger dogs, opt for using a crate while traveling on the road. While this is a good way to minimize the space your dog might bounce around in during a crash, it doesn’t prevent additional toppling around in the crate. It is also important to note that an FAA-approved travel crate is a better option for your dog rather than the total wire crates used for house training.
While he might not have the view he prefers and can feel a bit claustrophobic to onlookers, the plastic walls are a better option than a wire training crate. Make sure to secure the crate in the back seat or cargo area as well, but be wary of the cargo clips found in the back of most SUVs as they aren’t designed for significant force or pull. They can fail during a crash.
There are two primary reasons the wire crates are more dangerous. The first is your dog could get a paw stuck in one part of the mesh as he topples with another paw getting stuck in another. He could potentially break several legs because he got tangled up in the crate at impact. The second reason is the wire could break at joints, leaving dangerous pieces of wire sticking out to potentially cut or even impale your dog.
These wire crates are not designed for the impact that the barriers are tested for. Wire crates are less likely to maintain structural integrity in a road collision. In some cases, the wire crate could even crumple around your dog, pinning him in and fatally injuring him.
If you choose the crate method, fit the crate to your dog’s size so it isn’t too big. Use an FAA-approved dog crate. This will be the preferred pet restraint scenario when using a crate.
4. Dog Booster Seats
A booster seat is like a car seat for a dog. Don’t let a booster seat’s cute and fluffy bed-like appearance fool you. These pet restraints lock into place with a vehicle seat belt. To use them correctly, you must also harness your dog into the seat. This restricts his movement in a crash but gives him enough movement to either prop himself up to look out the window or lay down for a nap while on a road trip.
These are good options for small dogs and most medium-sized dogs as it gives them the ability to safely see out the window and feel the wind blow across their faces. While it allows them to do this, it also prevents them from accidentally jumping out, getting thrown about in a crash, or roaming in the cab to potentially distract a driver.
5. The Best Place to Sit: Backseat for Dog Travel
We know you love to get those licks on your face and laugh when you see your dog’s tongue flapping in the wind. But the reality is you are driving and he needs to be secure, not just for his sake, but also for yours. Driver distractions lead to accidents and your dog can be a big distraction. Secure your dog in the back-passenger seat or in the cargo area to prevent him from distracting you.
The back seat is the preferred position over the cargo area when possible because a rear impact could put him closest to the impact zone without any real protection. It is also important to note that dogs in the front seat are likely to be seriously, if not fatally injured by airbags deploying. Keeping dogs safe means keeping them away from potential airbag thrust.
The Elements of a Crash
Car seat technicians for child restraints are taught that there are three collisions in every crash. The first collision is the vehicle colliding with another vehicle or object. The second collision is the person or animal whose momentum is still going forward that forces them into either the seatbelt (if restrained) or into a part of the car such as the dashboard, the seat in front of them or a window. The third part of the crash is the person’s (or animal’s) internal organs and soft tissue hitting the skeletal system; the brain hits the skull, the lungs hit the rib cage, etc….
Your dog is subject to the same stages of the crash. The good news is that research shows that properly restraining people and pets help reduce fatalities and significant injuries. The seat belt or another restraint system keeps the body from moving excessively and hitting another object. It also limits the internal collisions of soft tissue with better control over the body during an accident.
Effective pet restraints do the same job as car seats for children and seat belts for everyone else.
Preventing Distracted Driving
Driving properly requires your full attention and you have precious cargo in the car with you. Everyone is best served with a dog properly restrained in the back seat. Think of it this way, you wouldn’t let a child ride in a car without properly restrained with a car seat or seat belt. Don’t let your dog get away with it either.
Dealing with Whining Dogs
If your dog is new to car rides or new to being restrained, you may experience a bit of a problem with him. Good obedience training will help your dog get comfortable in his seat so you aren’t frustrated with his crying and barking in the back seat. Enlist the help of a professional dog trainer if you are unsure how to proceed.
Here are some tips to help you train your dog for relaxed car rides:
- Properly Restrain Your Dog: make sure the restraint is properly locked and your dog doesn’t have a lot of extra space to move, creating potential injury risks you might get concerned with while driving.
- Spend Time in the Car: sit in the car with your dog and reward him when he is calmly sitting in his spot. Roll the window down and praise him with love and a treat. Do this in the garage or shade to avoid overheating. After a few minutes when he is comfortable, get out and have fun.
- Take Short Trips: take your dog on a short trip around the block or to the dog park. Reward him for good behavior with a treat when you are stopped.
- Give Him Fresh Air: dogs can easily get car sick and will become agitated on longer car rides. If your dog is prone to getting car sick, don’t feed him before a trip and keep treat rewards to a minimum. Do give him fresh air with the window down or turn up the AC to keep him cool and relaxed.
- Use a Plush Toy: giving your dog something to do, especially with a loved stuffed animal may help keep him calm during the ride. Avoid bones and hard toys that might become projectiles in a collision hurting him, another passenger, or the driver.
- Make it Fun: while training your dog to get used to his safety restraint system, make the car trips fun. Go to the dog park or the beach. Try to avoid veterinarian visits or long-term kennel stays when you are training your canine to relax in the car.
Summer Heat and Dogs in Cars
This wouldn’t be a complete article on dog car safety if we didn’t address dogs left in cars, especially in the hot summer months. While it is hard to get an exact number of dog deaths due to overheating while being left in a car, PETA has reported 79 known deaths since 2018. Currently, 22 states make it illegal to leave a dog in a car unattended. The reason is simple, even moderate external temperatures can quickly turn dangerous confined in a closed vehicle.
Consider these temperature changes within the closed vehicle in only 10 minutes:
- 70 degrees outside = 89 degrees in the car
- 80 degrees outside = 99 degrees in the car
- 95 degrees outside = 114 degrees in the car
Leaving the car unattended for 30 minutes causes these numbers to rise dramatically. The 80 degrees outside become 114 degrees inside the car. The 95 degrees outside becomes 129 degrees inside the car. These temperatures clearly put a dog’s life in jeopardy if left in the car. Once his internal temperature hits 103 degrees, he will start to experience symptoms of heatstroke.
Symptoms of heatstroke include excessive panting, drooling, reddening of gums, vomiting, diarrhea, confusion, lethargy, and potentially collapsing and falling into a coma. Make sure car rides with your dog don’t involve pet-friendly stops where you can’t bring him with you. Leaving your best friend in the car is too dangerous to risk.
The Center for Pet Safety
Not every pet restraint system is created equally. In fact, very few are every tested in real crash scenarios to give dog owners the confidence to use them with their beloved pets. The Center for Pet Safety has a list of tests and approved dog and pet restraints.
The approved safety restraints include:
- Sleepypod Clickit Sport
- Sleepypod Clickit Terrain
- ZuGoPet The Rocketeer Pack
- Gunner Kennel G1
- Gen7Pets – Gen7 Commuter Carrier
These are among the certified pet restraints that have met independent testing standards. Pet owners can feel more confident using these products that have proven to reduce the effects of impacts and collisions on dogs.
Pet Owners’ Decisions
At the end of the day, it is up to every dog owner to decide on how to travel with his dog in the car. It is important that you have the right information to make educated choices about how to restrain your dog and wherewith in the car to keep them. If you are having trouble retraining what was once a free-roaming dog in the car to a restrained dog, contact a professional dog trainer for assistance.
They will help you address the issue with positive reinforcement training to make car rides a joy for everyone. Once your dog is comfortable with his car restraint, you can hit the beach, park, or hit your favorite pet-friendly café for lunch and people/dog watching.
Kimberlee Leonard is a certified pet first aid and CPR instructor. Her company, Safer Family Pets helps families prepared for worst-case scenarios including evacuations during natural disasters. She enjoys time with her beagle mix, Arky who enjoys “sit-walks” where he sits more than walks, enjoying the fresh mountain air.