Riding in Cars with Dogs

Pet Travel Center

Tips for Safe Roadtripping with Rover

by Stephanie M. Colman


Who doesn’t know at least one dog who instantly rockets himself into a fit of excitement upon hearing his owners mention going for a R. I. D. E.? For many dogs riding in cars is the magic portal to everything fun: the park, the pet store or the hole in the wall where the French fries come from. (Oh c’mon… like you’ve never been to a drive thru with your dog in the car?)

As a trainer, one of my greatest pleasures is seeing dog owners venture out to experience life with their dogs in tow. Including your dog in outings, whether something routine like a trip to the bank or a weekend mini vacation, is a great bonding experience and an excellent opportunity to sneak in valuable urban socialization and training. However, when taking Rover along for the ride, it’s important to follow a few safety tips:

Buckle Up that Pup!

Most people would never dream of letting a toddler travel unsecured in a vehicle, but sadly, it happens to dogs all the time. Experts estimate that nearly 98 percent of pets travel unrestrained. This shocking statistic presents a variety of dangers for both pets and people.

The National Highway Safety Administration estimates that 25 percent of all accidents are the result of driver distraction. Dogs riding loose in cars can quickly become a dangerous distraction as they roam about the vehicle. In the event of an accident, unrestrained animals pose several potentially life-threatening problems. The non-profit group Bark Buckle Up, estimates that during a collision at 40 mph, a 25lb dog can cause an impact equal to 1,000 lbs of force. A 60 lb dog at just 35 mph represents 2,700 lbs of force. If the unrestrained dog were to hit a person, it could easily break the person’s neck. Likewise, hitting or crashing through the car windshield with that much force would more than likely kill the dog.

In less extreme examples, unrestrained dogs can sustain injuries from flying off seats and hitting other parts of the vehicle or being struck by the air bag, which deploys at approximately 200 mph. Assuming your pet survives the initial accident, you now must deal with a panicked animal prone to unpredictable, even aggressive behavior. As a result, injured human passengers must wait longer to receive potentially life-saving care. Many years ago, I heard a story about an elderly gentleman, travelling with his unsecured dogs, who had a heart attack and crashed his vehicle. His panicked dogs barked and lunged aggressively at the doors and windows, keeping paramedics at bay for so long, that the gentleman died before paramedics could get to him.

Even if your dogs aren’t aggressively challenging rescue personnel, they’re at risk for bolting out of the vehicle as soon as the doors are opened. Now your dogs are at risk of running loose, getting lost and potentially causing another accident as drivers swerve to avoid hitting them in the street.

Collisions aren’t the only kind of accidents to worry about. Dogs riding unrestrained face other potential dangers such as:

  • Jumping out of or falling from an open window. It only takes a second for a determined Casanova Cocker Spaniel to decide he must get to the precious Poodle across the street! Dogs can easily jump out or fall from an open car window. I once worked with a woman whose Boxer was nearly killed when he jumped from the back of her moving vehicle onto busy Wilshire Blvd. Her two dogs were riding unrestrained with the back windows rolled up, that is, until one dog stepped up onto the arm rest, hitting the window button and lowering the window.
  • Eye injuries from debris. Yes, dogs may seem to enjoy riding with their heads hanging out of the window, but it’s not safe. Riding this way puts them at risk of injury from flying debris and also increases the likelihood of arousal toward passing people and other dogs.
  • Dogs in trucks. Under no conditions should dogs ride loose in the back of trucks. Period. In many states, including California, it’s illegal unless the dog is in a secured cage or cross-tied, or unless the truck has side rails that are at least 46″ high. Even cross-tied or with legal railing, it’s a very unsafe way for your pet to travel. Please don’t do it, even on short trips.

So how does one keep canine companions safe during car travel? Confinement is the answer and you have two choices, a properly-fitting canine seat belt or a pet carrier. Both systems have their individual merits.

Seat Belts

There are several types of canine seat belts on the market. Most work on the principle of a body harness with a strap that attaches to the car’s seat belt system. The strap is designed to be just long enough for the dog to comfortable shift from a sit to a down, rather than move around excessively on the seat. Some straps have a loop in the h andle that is threaded through the shoulder harness of the car’s seat belt, some snap directly into the buckle, and others are designed to attach to the tether points of an SUV. While any seat belt may be better than riding loose, not all seat belts are created equal. Some seat belts are independently tested and manufactured to meet (or in some cases, even exceed) st andards for human seatbelts, so be sure to do your homework prior to securing your furry friend. Here are a few references to get you started:

  • Solvit Pet Vehicle Safety Harness
  • Bamboo Quick Control Leash + Seat Belt Latch
  • Canine Auto Safety Harness
Riding cars with dogs in car basket
Riding cars with dogs in car basket.

If your dog has been used to riding loose, it may take a little training to acclimate him to the new arrangement. If possible, recruit a friend or family member to accompany you for a short drive. Sit with your dog (backseat only, away from the front airbag, please!) and reward him (praise, petting and treats) for remaining calm while sitting or lying down. After a few tries with someone else behind the wheel, try a solo adventure. Remember to praise your dog while driving, and plan to toss him a treat or two whenever you can safely do so. If you have two dogs who will need to ride together, do this process with each dog individually before attempting it with both.

Pet Carrier

There are three choices in the pet carrier category: plastic, wire or soft-sided, duffel-style (for toy breeds). If airline requirements are any indication of which is the safest, plastic comes out on top. Whichever type you choose, be sure to somehow secure the crate within the vehicle. Small crates and soft-sided carriers can be strapped in using the car’s seatbelt, and larger crates in the rear section of SUVs can be tethered to factory-installed anchor points.

Now that your pet is safely secured during transport, consider the following tips for travel near and far:

May I See Your ID?

Golden retriever riding in the car
Golden retriever riding in the car.

Be sure to keep an ID tag with current information on your dog at all times, especially when travelling. If travelling out of town, add an ID tag with your cell phone number and a local contact number where you’ll be staying. Have your pet micro-chipped as an added source of permanent identification. (As an added tip, pet ID tags with the word “REWARD” and a phone number are great for adding to your key ring in case you ever lose your keys!)

Local Veterinary Care

Prior to embarking on an out-of-town adventure with your pet, do your research and find the local veterinarian as well as the local 24-hour emergency facility. Map out directions in advance and keep them on file with the name, address and phone number of the facility.

Local Medical Considerations

Before leaving, speak with your vet about medical concerns specific to your destination. For example, heartworm may not be a problem in your hometown, but may be rampant at your destination.

Motion Sickness

Some dogs, like some people, are prone to motion sickness. Young puppies are the most common victims, and the good news is that they usually grow out of it. Over-stimulation of the inner ear (as is the cause of motion sickness in people), stress and fatigue can cause motion sickness in pets. Dogs with motion sickness exhibit excessive salivation (think drooling buckets!) and in some cases, vomiting. Travelling on an empty stomach can help minimize or prevent motion sickness, as can riding in a crate, as it reduces potentially over-stimulating visual input. Be sure to expose your dog to lots of short car rides to fun places. If he only ever saddles up for a trip to the vet, the car will quickly become unpleasant and stressful. In extreme cases, medication may help, so talk to your vet if you’ve been unable to remedy the problem on your own. Frequently, dogs who experience motion sickness learn to dislike the car in general, often showing signs of stress such as yawning, panting and pacing, and even become reluctant to enter the car in the first place. If your dog falls into the category, find a qualified trainer who can help implement a structured desensitization program.

Know the Facts

It’s easy to forget important information in an emergency, so keep a detailed fact sheet for each pet in your glove box. Include details such as the name, phone number and address of your primary veterinarian, date of most recent vaccinations, whether or not your pet has medical insurance ( and with what company), medical conditions/related medication, and notable personality traits. Include a recent front and side-view photo that can be used to make “Lost Dog” posters in case your dog is separated from you while away from home. You should also include the name and phone number of a friend or family member who is authorized to care for your pets should you fall ill or become injured while travelling.

Practice On-the-Road Potty Habits

If your dog isn’t regularly asked to relieve himself while leashed, he may balk at the idea while on the road. It’s a wise idea to prevent “shy bladder syndrome” in your dog by getting him used to the idea at home. Prior to your road trip, make a point to leash walk your dog in your own backyard when you think he might have to relieve himself. If he’s really reluctant, start with a longer leash and work your way down to a st andard 4′ or 6′ leash.

Mind Your Manners at Home and on the Town

Basic obedience can play a major role in keeping your dog safe and secure while on the road. The following behaviors are a must-have when hitting the open road:

  • Wait and Stay – Prevents your dog from forcing his way out of the car door alongside the busy road or blasting past you out of the hotel room in an unfamiliar area.
  • Coming when Called – Get your dog back to you in virtually any situation. Just might save his life!
  • Quiet – Helps barking in the car, in hotels or at campsites.
  • Sit – A quick, easy position to pre-empt other unwanted behaviors.
  • On Your Spot – Helps your dog learn to settle and relax in a specified area. Portable dog beds work great for this, as they travel easily and allow your dog to travel with a familiar piece of real estate.
  • Loose Leash Walking – A dog who refrains from skiing his owner around town is much less likely to find himself in trouble while away from home.

Lastly, remember that dogs appreciate predictability and travel is a change in routine. This can be stressful for some dogs, so be sure to bring along some comforts from home (dog bed, toys, favorite chew bone) and make an attempt to stick with pieces of your dog’s regular routine. Something as simple as practicing a sit stay for his food bowl in the hotel – if it’s what he’s used to at home – can go a long way toward providing a sense of security while on the road.

About the Author

Stephanie Colman has been training dogs professionally for more than eight years. She teaches a variety of classes for J9’s K9s Dog Training, Inc. in Los Angeles, CA., and recently launched Caninestein Dog Training with the goal of inspiring people to get out and enjoy life with their canine companions in tow. Caninestein specializes in innovative, dog-friendly outings that have included dining with dogs, dogs at the movies and dogs at the theater! A former journalist and public relations executive, she writes regularly about training and behavior on her blog, www.caninestein.blogspot.com. She shares her life with Zoie, a Whippet, and Quiz, a Golden Retriever, and can be reached at StephanieColman@sbcglobal.net.

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