Happily harnessed

I’ve been focusing lately on what to do about dogs who are anxious in automobiles, and of course it’s an important topic. Car stress makes a ride unpleasant for the driver as well as for the canine passenger.

Not securing your dog properly? That can make a ride far more unpleasant.

As in deadly.

The safety benefits of car restraints for humans are no longer in dispute: 49 of 50 U.S. states have seat belt laws, and the same number of states require additional restraints for children — for example, rear-facing infant seats or child booster seats. Yet people who wouldn’t dream of driving their kids around without buckling them in have a blind spot when it comes to their dogs.

“I don’t want to restrict my dog’s freedom,” these owners protest.  The freedom to go through the windshield or run out into traffic? Really?

So it’s not a question of if a dog should be secured. It’s how. And I’ll get to that in another post.

But in the meantime, here are a few car safety basics.

#1: Dogs should always travel inside the vehicle

This might seem like a no-brainer but it bears repeating: it’s very dangerous to let a dog ride in the open bed of a pickup truck. Approximately 100,000 dogs die every year from falling or jumping out of pickups and countless more are injured.

#2. Having a hard cover on the back of your truck doesn’t ensure your dog’s safety if your dog is unsecured inside

Now this isn’t so obvious — as Lizzy Mead, who is a very responsible greyhound owner, learned the hard way. Lizzy was rear ended by the driver of a stolen car who plowed into her at 60 mph. Her truck’s camper shell popped open, and the terrified hounds rushed out into traffic and were badly injured.

I’m happy to report that this story has a happy ending and, in fact, inspired a terrific animal welfare group, the Greyhound Injury Fund.  Read all about it here.

But not everyone is going to be that lucky — and it’s not a good idea for dogs to be slammed around inside an enclosure in case of an accident, even if they don’t escape.

#3. Driving with an unrestrained dog in your car is not only dangerous, but potentially expensive — and publicly humiliating

Untethered dogs pose not only safety issues but legal and economic ones. Many states have passed variations of the law in Washington, where it’s a misdemeanor to “willfully transport or confine…any domestic animal… in a manner, posture or confinement that will jeopardize the safety of the animal or the public.” (Some laws specify that this includes having a dog in the back of a pickup truck.) Accordingly, if your unsecured dog causes an accident, your insurance is rendered invalid under many policies. And even if the accident is the other driver’s fault, your vet bills won’t be paid if your dog wasn’t properly restrained.

And then there’s the potential for unwelcome notoriety. You never know who you’ll hit if your dog distracts you to the point of causing an  accident. Case in point: While walking along the side of the road in 1999, author Stephen King was struck by a minivan. Driver Bryan Smith claimed he had been distracted by his Rottweiler, Bullet, who was rooting around in the vehicle, trying to raid the food cooler. Smith, who died the following year of a drug overdose ruled accidental,  subsequently turned up as a character in King’s Dark Tower series.

#4. Never attach a dog to a seat by his collar

Again, this is something that should be obvious but you can never underestimate the cluelessness of some people (see point #1). So: Car restraint attached to dog’s neck. Car stops short. Dog pitches forward. Get the picture?

#5. Never restrain a dog in the front seat of the car if the airbag isn’t detached

As my friend Rebecca mentioned in the comments to an earlier post, in some cars, including her Miata, the airbag won’t deploy if the car detects insufficient weight in the seat. Theoretically. As she also points out, her own airbag didn’t deploy in the Miata when she was in accident. So all bets are off, even if you have a Miata (which wouldn’t even hold Frankie’s luggage, much less both of ours, but that’s a whole other topic, which I won’t get into).

I don’t think it’s a good idea to have a dog in the front of the car under any circumstances. They always want to drive.


As for the best type of restraint, I welcome any comments.

I’ve also asked some travel expert friends to help me out here. I’m not naming names, because they haven’t agreed yet, but let’s just say they write my two favorite pet travel sites, and one involves small dogs.

How’s that for pressure?

28 thoughts on “Friday Focus: Five Car Safety Tips”

  1. Pingback: Dog News Update: June 11, 2010
  2. Another, often overlooked point to keep in mind when considering why you really must restrain your dog in the car?

    Your unrestrained dog becomes a hazard to rescuers trying to help you if you’ve had a crash. They are there to help the injured humans. If your quite understandably terrified and also possibly injured dog is snarling and lunging at anyone approaching the vehicle, it’s not going to end well for your dog. 🙁

    And as other pointed out on the last thread, if your vehicle has been sufficiently damaged, the dog is not restrained anyway because the vehicle is no longer enclosed.

    1. Excellent point about the danger that an unrestrained dog could pose to a rescuer and therefore to himself; I never thought of that but of course you’re right!

      1. It didn’t occur to me on my own either. I was reading a website and the point was raised. Totally made sense and I could certainly picture my dog trying to protect me in that circumstance.

        Sad to say, that was the point that pushed me over the edge to always using some sort of restraint in the car once my dog was trained not to leap out of the car as soon as the door opened. It scared me!

    2. And, as a dog walker, I carry three different sizes of dog seat belt and one crate (medium) in my car.

      I know most of my clients don’t use them. 🙁 But when I have to transport their dogs, it’s on me to be sure they’re safe!

      I do ‘gift’ seatbelts from time to time to my clients though. Once they understand the problem, they do use them!

  3. Great post Edie! I have a seatbelt for one of my dogs, but have been absolutely negligent in getting a second one. Daisy prefers to lay on the floor behind my seat because I have air vents under the seat that cool her off. Your post just reminded me that I need to get a second one – no matter that Daisy prefers the floor.

    So, so glad you wrote this post!

    1. Thanks, Mel. Believe me, I’ve been there. It’s only when Frankie turned up in the front seat after a sharp stop that I began to take that whole restraint thing seriously.

  4. Great article Edie!

    I usually seat belt my fur children into the back seat, but I have been at a loss as to how I can take all three dogs without seat belting Winnie woo my chihuaha x Italian greyhound mix in the front seat. Any ideas (other than buying a bigger car)? It’s not often that they travel together, but they do when I take them to grandma’s house.

    1. Thanks, Crystal. How about getting one of those elevated basket things for Winnie that straps over the headrest on the backseat and would raise her above a dog below? It’s not the most secure — and I don’t know how the other dogs would react to having a basket with Winne above their heads — but it’s better than the airbag deploying option. Crates? Of course there’s disconnecting the airbag, but your husband might object…

  5. Something I see far too often now that summer is here. Small dog owners riding with dogs on their laps, heads out the windows! I get physically ill and severeley anxious when I consider all the the dangerous scenarios that could create. It’s simply a brainless, idiotic thing to do. At the least, your dog could jump out. Your dog could distract you, causing an accident, your reaction time is impaired simply because you’re paying more attention to the dog than the road. You small dog owners out there that do this, and think it’s cute and “she likes it”, smarten up you fools!

    On a different note, I had an accident myself in which I was rear ended. I had my dog in the back of the car. I had an accident 2 yrs previous in which my neck was broken. As a result, I had to be taken to hospital, my car left behind. My dog sat in the car, all by herself, in a parking lot beside one of the busiest streets in my city for a few hours! I was able to contact family, but it’s something to think about when you travel with your dog. In an emergency, what about the dog?

    1. It’s true all the local emergency contacts that, if you’re vigilant, you have in a card in the car or somewhere easy to locate on you pretty much go out the window when you’re hundreds of miles away from home. Ok, as I head out on a car trip, I’m now officially hysterical….

      Anyone have any ideas about how to prepare for an accident on the road far from emergency contacts?

  6. This is definitely very important – thanks for the article! One of our meetup.com group sponsors, bigbreeddog.com offers a variety of products for travel safety… (ps if you’re interested, the promo code is on our meetup.com group website, save 10% and they support our rescue with each promo code purchase!). Not here to advertise for bigbreeddog.com, but it’s always difficult for people to find big and giant breed sizes in everything, especially the important stuff that helps keep your pet safe and healthly. ;). Thank you for posting five great rules and reminders!

    1. Thanks for this; you’re absolutely right that people have problems finding products for large dogs so I appreciate your posting the information here.

  7. Very necessary and informative post. I am glad folks like you are spreading the word. We here at FIDO Friendly magazine believe in Fido safety first and foremost.

    1. Thanks, Carol. And yes FIDO Friendly is a great, very safety conscious (not to mention fun!) publication. And as a matter of fact, I’m soon going to post a picture of one of your great, very safety conscious (not to mention fun!) contributing editors, Arden Moore, who came to my book signing last night.

  8. Such an important post! I was actually talking about this very topic with a colleague this morning. When I was younger we never had seatbelts for our pooches – we’re very lucky that nothing ever happened to them. When I got my current dog, we didn’t use a seatbelt the first few times, and she tried to climb in the back window and almost hurt herself falling out. Ever since, we’ve used the Travelin’ Dog Harness (http://www.safepetproducts.com/travelin-dog-car-harness-3.html) – I will never transport a dog without a seatbelt again.

    1. Good for you — better late than… you know.
      Thanks for the link, too. That harness looks nice and cushy.

      1. Agreed… I’m glad we wised up before it was too late.

        My pup seems to like the harness… it is definitely cushy on the inside. Lots of padding so it doesn’t interfere with naptime in the car. 🙂

  9. Oh my, this article is great. And so many good comments too. I have been preaching things like this for my students for ages, but have never sat down and written the article. Thank you for doing so. Jonathan

  10. I really am glad you have brought attention to this subject Edie, because I admit I am “one of those people” who think it’s okay to let my dog have his freedom in the car, or thinking it “cute” when he sticks his head out the window to say hi to the car next to us. But I have been in great denial.Sometimes I have restrained my dog, sometimes I haven’t. I think the fault lies in my thinking that nothing bad,-such as an accident – will happen while I”M driving. I’ve got complete control…right!!!! But that’s why they call them “accidents”isn’t it? Starting today I will have secure restraint for my best friend, always! I have been a “bad human”. I sit and stand corrected.Sorta like the Oprah pledge but the FIDO pledge would be more suitable in this case. Wrigley says “thanks” Bridget

  11. Great post! As an active participant in our local dog rescue groups, I hear too many horror stories of dogs that escape their owner’s cars at gas stations, etc, too often with not-so-happy endings. In fact, my latest foster-turned family pet (yes, I am a foster failure!) was found on the side of the road.
    I’m turning a new leaf and making sure ALL of my dogs are restrained in cars from now on!

    1. Good for you! My wake up moment was when I suddenly found Frankie in my front seat after a not-so-sharp stop at less the 25mph.

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