Dogs On The Go: Car Safety

With summer coming and vacation plans being made, there are many questions out there about what is the best way to travel with our dogs in the car. Debate continues by experts and dog owners alike as to which is the best way to secure our dogs. Experts agree that some form of restraint for our dogs is paramount, not only for the safety of our dogs but for us as well.

Loose dogs in cars are not only distractions but can also become lethal projectiles in an accident. Loose dogs after an accident run the risk of getting lost or hit by another car. They can also be dangerous to others who try to help and could bite out of fear. So it is crucial to consider how your dog is going to ride safely in the car.

On January 2, 2009, my family and I were coming home from our winter vacation. Traveling on a two-lane highway out in the middle of Idaho, we hit black ice, and our truck slid off the road and rolled. Our Border Collie was lying on the front seat between my husband and I. Our Aussie was in the back with our two boys. Neither dog had any restraint or seat belt. Luckily, my son was able to grab our Aussie before the truck rolled and hold on until the truck came to a stop, after a full barrel roll, about 30 feet off the road in a snow-covered field. I, however, was unable to hold on to our Border Collie when my side of the truck hit the ground upside down. She ended up outside the truck. We postulated that she got thrown to my passenger side window, and when it shattered, she was left on the ground when the truck continued to roll.

Terror struck my husband and me when we discovered that she was gone. My husband feared what he would find when he jumped out of the truck to look for her. Fortunately, he found her slowly walking back to the truck with only a slight limp from a cut on her front paw. She very quickly could have been killed or panicked and ran out onto the highway and gotten hit. We were fortunate. Our guardian angels worked overtime that night, and we, dogs included, walked away with only a few minor cuts and bruises. From that day forward, I vowed to find a way to keep my dogs safe when traveling.

Sadly, many times it takes a tragedy to get us to think about safely traveling in cars with our dogs. So often I see a dog sticking its head out the window and sniffing the fresh air happily, or the little dog in the lap of the driver. Although it is nice for the dog, I remind myself of what could have happened on that cold winter night on the highway and. Humans have an understanding of what can happen; dogs don't. It is our job to keep them safe.

So, which way is safer - crate or seat belt? Dog car seat? I think it really depends on your situation. I am not an expert on the topic, but I have done a lot of research and viewed many videos. More studies and testing of products needs to happen. Yet, I feel that crates or seat belts are the way to go. As to which is better - that is still up for debate. I lean towards crates.

If we had dog crates secured in the back of the truck, would our dogs have been fine in that accident? I'm not so sure. The wooden box that was in the bed of the truck and tied down with heavy-duty straps flew about 30 feet away from the truck. It was only slightly damaged, but still closed and completely intact. The wine bottles inside were not even broken! I know a standard plastic or wire crate would NOT have faired as well (my husband is a builder, and that box was heavily reinforced). And the thought of my dogs flying through the air and crash landing that far away is not a good scenario to run through my head. So, for this situation, where people can assist in holding the dog, a seat belt would have been good. That would have kept my BC in the truck, and I probably would have been able to hold on to her.

Does this mean that I favor dog seat belts over crates? No. I have seen videos of seat belted crash dummy dogs in crash tests, and they still get violently tossed around, unlike seat belted humans. So, even though the dog doesn't go flying through the car like a projectile, I'm not so sure that it will minimize injury to the dog.

If you choose to use a seat belt for your dog, the main point to remember is you need to get a system that is specific for cars. This is not the same harness you use for walking your dog! Seat belt harnesses have metal clasps (plastic will break), has thicker harness straps for your dog through the chest and body, and a way to safely secure your dog to your car's seatbelt. Buckle your dog in the back seat, never the front. Airbags are dangerous for dogs just like they are for young children. There are many different dog seat belts on the market, but not all pass the test!

In 2011, the Center for Pet Safety revealed an "alarming 100 percent failure rate of the tested harnesses at a 30 mile an hour simulated crash test, and none of the products were deemed safe enough to protect the dog and the humans in the event of an accident." I do not know what the criteria were for passing. Watching the videos, though, you can see straps and clasps failing and the crash dog summy flying through the vehicle. 

SleepyPod Clickit Utility dog safety harness is the seatbelt Kia is wearing in the photo, and what I use for my dog. Their Center for Pet Safety® Harness Study Summary Reportsafety system was named the 2013 and 2015 Top Performing Pet Safety Harness in a Subaru of America, Inc. test. It was also rated Top Performer by the Center for Pet Safety (CPS). Subaru and CPS did a collaborative study to test the effectiveness of pet harnesses marketed with safety claims. 

Here is the link to the Center for Pet Safety on the research for dog seat belts:

Crates are an excellent option when traveling by car with a dog, but not all crates are created equal. If you choose a crate, some will fair better in a crash than others. The problem with crates is if they are not adequately secured, they get thrown around in the car and will break, and your dog can get injured or loose. Two-piece plastic crates, collapsible, and wire crates do not perform well in higher velocity crashes. They break apart, fold down on your dog, and the welds in wire crates bend and break. The only crate I know that has been crash tested is the MIM Variocage (shown top right). But not all of us can afford the $800+ price tag, nor will it fit in every vehicle. Another crate that passed crash tests is Gunner Kennels (pictured bottom right). Impact Dog Crates are another very strongly built and work well for vehicle travel.

When using a dog crate for your car, make sure to secure the crate with a seat belt or tie-down properly, so it is not sitting loose in the vehicle. When deciding where to place the crate, consider where the crumple zones are in your car. That will designate whether the crate is safe in the back cargo area or in the back seat. The size of the crate should be smaller than your standard guide for measuring crates. It should be a tighter fit, large enough for your dog to turn around in, but small enough to minimize bouncing around in case of an accident. Place padding inside the crate.

As for dog car seats, they may be fine for small dogs as long as they are secured to the seat with the seat belt, and the top is closed, or the dog is buckled in as well. If your dog is loose in the car seat, he will fly out in the event of an accident.

When planning on traveling by car with your dog, make sure that your dog is safe and secure in your vehicle. When starting out, take short trips and get your dog used to his new way of travel before embarking on a long road trip. For longer trips, plan ahead. Make sure to feed your dog a light meal an hour before embarking to minimize the chances of car sickness. Pack things that you will need in advance, such as bowls, food and bottled water, a leash, poop bags, any medications needed, and health records. It's also a very good idea to have your dog microchipped and have ID tags, just in case. Carry a photo of your dog, just in case. It can be easily copied and distributed to helpers if your dog gets lost. Never leave your dog in the car on warm days. Vehicles can easily become slow cookers, and many dogs can suffer heatstroke or even die, even when it is only 70 degrees outside.

Being prepared gives you the peace of mind that you have done everything you could do to be safe and that you have everything you need for the journey. That will make the trip much more enjoyable for you and your dog. Happy traveling!