What could be more delightful than hitting the open road with your dog?
Here’s the thing, though: You need to keep your pet protected. Even if you’re a supremely confident driver, car accidents do happen — and crashes that might leave a human relatively unscathed can be deadly for a dog who's riding in unsafe conditions. Plus, an energetic and unrestrained dog can be a dangerous distraction while you’re driving.
Here are some key tips for riding safely with a canine car companion.
Be Wary of the Front Seat
Airbags deploy at up to 200mph — so fast that they can be deadly to children under 12. It’s doubtful your dog would fare much better.
Airbags are designed for humans who weigh over 150 pounds and stand more than 5 feet tall — heavier than the vast majority of dog breeds and taller than all of them. (Airbags can even injure adult humans who are on the petite side.)
The bottom line: Airbags can be flat-out fatal for your pup.
The safest thing you can do is keep your dog in the back seat throughout your ride. (We’ll explore how you can achieve this in later sections.) If you’re dead-set on letting your furry friend ride up front, you should never have them in your lap — a steering wheel, like an airbag, can crush a dog during a crash.
So if they're riding shotgun, they must be belted in with a harness, and the airbag function must be off. While some newer car models use automatic sensors to deactivate the passenger side airbag when riders are under a certain weight, you should always double check to make sure the airbag isn’t on. If you can’t turn it off, your pup needs to ride in the back. To be honest, that’s where they should be in any event; it’s just safer.
Just like you, your dog can enjoy the benefits of seat belt protection. But you’ll have to get a special harness attachment. You can buy a harness for a pooch of any size. A harness will generally fit over their head and torso; you’ll then attach it to your car’s seat belt. Here’s a great example from Sherpa:
Make sure the harness is tight but not uncomfortable. Just like a regular seat belt for humans, it’ll keep your dog from being ejected from the vehicle during a crash.
It’ll also serve some dog-specific functions. Harnesses keep your dog from climbing into the front seat and distracting you, which will increase your chance of a crash. (One study found that unrestrained pets can cause unsafe driving behaviors to more than double.) A seat belt harness will also prevent your dog from venturing outside the car after an accident, which could get them run over.
Calmer pups tend to do better with harnesses; it’s not unheard of for anxious dogs to try and gnaw through them. Just make sure you monitor your furry family member during the ride.
Crates and Carriers
Not all dogs can tolerate long stretches of automotive crate time. That said, crates and carriers aren’t always as oppressive as many pet lovers seem to fear. In fact, crating your dog can often reduce their anxiety by providing them a safe space during stressful times.
Crates and carriers serve some of the same basic functions as harnesses: Preventing your dog from being ejected during a crash and keeping them from roaming around and distracting you.
Just make sure you successfully secure the crate or pet carrier to the car. If it isn’t attached well, it could come loose — and even become dangerous to people in the front seats — during a crash.
Some smaller and medium-sized crates and carriers are actually equipped with strap loops so you can attach them to the car’s seat belt with ease. Just place the crate in the back seat (always behind another seat — never in the middle seat). Then loop a seatbelt around the crate, through the seat belt loops, and clip the belt in.
Crates for large dogs can be a little trickier. You might need to purchase safety straps that can be attached to the crate and then secured to the seat belt buckle.
By the way, some crates are safer than others. Believe it or not, dog crates from many different brands have been crash tested, like this one from Sleepypod:
One carrier crash test study, from the Center for Pet Safety, was released in 2015. It’s still a decent guide to which products are safe — you can check it out here.
Back Seat Hammocks
Canine car hammocks are actually fairly popular. Of course, when you read “hammock,” you’re probably thinking of a thin piece of netting suspended a few feet in the air — and that’s not what we’re talking about here.
Here’s a great example from Frisco:
Car hammocks serve a few purposes. They provide a cozy space for your dog. They make it a bit harder for your pup to vault into the front seat. And they make it impossible for your furry friend to descend into the footwell. They also keep your pup from tracking muck onto your car seats, and they’re usually very easy to clean.
Dogs of all sizes can benefit from a back seat hammock — just make sure you buy one that’s the right size for your car.
Not all pups can tolerate being harnessed or crated, and hammocks may not always do enough to keep an anxious dog in the back seat. In these cases, a barrier between the front and back seats will likely do the trick.
Many types of barriers are available for car-bound canines of all sizes. Some barriers are made of synthetic fabric; these are affixed between the two front seats.
Other barriers are full-fledged gates that stretch across the width of your car, separating the front and back seats. (Your dog may look like a perp in the back of a police cruiser, but that’s all right.) Here’s a great example from rabbitgoo:
Barriers are not only better than hammocks at preventing your pup from intentionally escaping the back seat — they'll also keep your dog from flying into the front if you’re forced to brake sharply.
If you do opt for a barrier, just make sure it’s the right size for your car and that you’ve installed it correctly. Otherwise your dog might still be able to squeeze through a gap and get into the front.
Crank Up the AC
If the weather is even moderately warm, you must keep your air conditioning on when your dog is in the car. A temperature of 75° Fahrenheit outside can mean a 100° temperature in your car.
Dogs can’t sweat, which means their body temperature can spike very quickly; a hot car can become life-threatening for a pooch faster than you’d think. So keep things cool.
Keep Your Dog’s Head in the Car
Doubtless you’ve seen this classic image: A happy hound hangs his head out the window of a moving car, tongue lolling, fur rippling, and ears flapping in the wind. Adorable.
And also, unfortunately, totally unsafe.
Your dog could collide with an unforeseen object, or even — if the window is open wide enough — jump out of the car. Plus, throwing caution (and your dog’s face) to the wind can dry out and irritate their eyes. So keep the appropriate windows down, or only open them a crack.