Dogs and Car Safety

Taking your dog for a car ride? Here's how to keep her as safe as possible.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
7-minute read
Episode #61

Does your dog adore a car ride? Maybe he rides shotgun, or loves to hang his head out the rear window scenting the breeze. Or maybe he just sacks out in the luggage well behind the rear seat and snoozes the trip away. If that describes your dog, honey, you’ve been gonged. I don’t care whether you’re driving I-80 from start to finish or going half a mile to the dog park. Your dog and you are in unnecessary danger the second you turn that ignition key, and this week’s article is your wake-up call.

Buy Now

As an Amazon Associate and a Bookshop.org Affiliate, QDT earns from qualifying purchases.

Dogs and Car Safety

None of us would ever dream of letting  an infant or child ride in a car without appropriate safety restraints, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen friends of mine carefully strap in their kids and then let Zippy the dog ride loose. Let me be blunt, here: If you have a thirty-mile-an-hour collision, your twenty-five-pound dog is going to turn into a projectile just the way your twenty-five-pound toddler would. One woman I know drove into a ditch with her three small dogs loose in the car; two were killed outright. The third ran away and disappeared forever. A friend, a dog trainer yet, got T-boned a few years ago. Her dogs were loose. One was trapped in the crushed car with her, which I guess is a good thing.  The other one escaped out a broken window and was found, injured but alive, after a week.  Am I making my point? Wait, there’s more.

A loose dog in the front passenger seat may be killed by the airbag. An injured or frightened dog who’s loose may interfere with emergency personnel, or even bite them. A scared, disoriented dog may survive the crash only to be hit by a passing car.

Are Barrier Devices Safe for Your Dog?

I mentioned “appropriate restraint,” but what is appropriate restraint? First of all, forget those metal or mesh barriers that you can put up between the front and back seats or between the backseat and the cargo area. They keep your dog from climbing in your lap and spoiling your view of the road, and that’s better than nothing. But Zippy will still turn into a Ping-Pong ball on impact in a crash and can escape through a broken window or smashed-in door. And don’t even start me on those cute plush booster seats that let your Yorkie see out the window but don’t strap him in. Now he can go flying around the passenger compartment from a launchpad a foot higher up than he otherwise would have been. Whoopee.

How Can You Best Protect Your Dog in the Car?

What’s left are crates and harness-style restraints. I’ve always assumed, like most people, that crates are the best choice, but as I researched this article I began to have my doubts. I couldn’t find any online reports of crash testing for travel kennels. I checked the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration websites. Nada. I phoned the two agencies. Each referred me to the other. I searched the archives of Consumer Reports. No tests of travel kennels, at least not in the last decade. I called the most famous manufacturer of travel crates; a nice man in the marketing department told me they got lots of thank-you letters from customers. But had they done any formal crash testing? I asked. The nice man took my contact information and said he’d ask the folks in Engineering. I haven’t heard back.

Do Dog Harness-Type Restraints Work in the Car?

And I did find several crash test videos online. Just to reassure you, they all used stuffed animals. The clearest and most detailed were in German, which I don’t speak, and were made by a manufacturer of harness-type restraints, so the testers had an interest in the outcome. That having been said, the videos are both troubling and informative. In one test, which appears from different angles in a couple of the videos, an ordinary travel kennel that’s seatbelted in essentially explodes on impact at 72 kilometers--just under 45 miles--per hour. The stuffed cat ricochets around the passenger compartment and finally lands on the edge of the back passenger seat in a way that will remind you of a certain scene in Million Dollar Baby. The stuffed Husky harnessed next to the cat likewise flies forward into the air between the two front seats and then bounces back and up and around. At several points his body flexes in ways that suggest a real dog would be breaking bones. The video then shows the same accident but with the stuffed Husky wearing the company’s safety harness. Let’s just say it looked a lot more survivable.

How to Choose a Safety Harness for Your Dog

None of us would ever dream of letting an infant or child ride in a car without appropriate safety restraints; protect your dog the same way.

I won’t recommend specific brands here. But after repeatedly watching the crash test video and studying pictures of the harness, I believe I’ve identified the features that you should be looking for when you shop. Just bear in mind, please, that this is me applying my common sense and observational skills. I would be much happier to turn this question over to actual engineering experts employed by an independent testing agency.

Look for broad, thickly padded straps, especially the strap running down the center of the dog’s chest. The broad straps will distribute the force of the impact as widely as possible, and the padding will cushion the dog’s chest wall and hopefully prevent or at least minimize crushing. I’d like to see the harness fasteners constructed like those on actual car seatbelts, which obviously have been tested for crashworthiness. Same goes for the tether between the harness and the seatbelt buckle.

And, finally, that tether should be short. That struck me as especially important. Think of how a dog who’s got the full six feet of leash to play with can lunge harder than he could if you were holding the leash at a point a foot from his collar. Similarly, a dog who’s sent flying forward in a crash will build up more momentum if her harness tether is three feet long than she will if it’s half that length. That difference in impact could make a difference in the degree of injury. It might also mean the difference between the fastener’s remaining intact or bursting apart and launching your dog into the windshield. Finally, please tell me that I didn’t need to tell you that the tether should fasten at the dog’s back, not at her neck.

How to Choose a Sturdy Dog Crate for the Car

On the whole, I now suspect that a well-made, properly fastened harness is safer than a crate. But plenty of dogs are more at ease traveling in crates, and as for those cats I just know are out there, they pretty much have to travel in crates. In the videos that showed a plastic crate flying apart, the crate was fastened to the seat by a single seatbelt strap. The crate was also set so its long axis was perpendicular to the back of the seat. Plastic, of course, is fairly brittle. With the force of the crash brought to bear on just one narrow section of the crate, it’s no wonder the crate broke down. Buy the sturdiest crate you can. Place it in the car with the long side against the seat back, then secure it not only with the seatbelt but also with a couple of wide, heavy-duty luggage straps. You might have a mechanic install anchors for these.

More Car and Dog Safety Tips

Phew! After all that drama, a few less thrill-packed pointers. Don’t let your carefully harnessed dog hang his head out the car window: dust and debris can fly into his eyes and nose. We’re often advised not to leave our dogs alone in the car at all, but what are you going to do if you need a restroom and the building doesn’t allow dogs? My answer is to park in the shade if there is any, leave the car windows open, and move fast. Heat builds up in a closed car with unbelievable speed, even when the outside temperature is fairly mild. Take breaks often; it’ll do both you and your dog good to stretch your legs. And I can’t resist one piece of nondoggy advice: Please don’t talk on the phone, even with a hands-free device, and please don’t text. Study after study has shown that drivers who talk or text are just as impaired as drivers who are drunk. Your dog needs you to take care of her, so bring yourself home safe.

Send questions and comments to dogtrainer@ quickanddirtytips.com, or write them on The Dog Trainer’s wall on Facebook, where you’ll also find links to interesting articles and videos. Follow me on Twitter, where I’m Dogalini. Thanks for reading!

Crash-Test Videos

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpA798rXSc0&NR=1 This is the full-length ad associated with the previous video; it includes more footage of the crash tests and gives details of the company’s harness.

This video shows a harness tether separating on impact, a crate exploding apart, and other scary crash scenarios.

Two other companies’ crash-test videos.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MGfHEkaPko4&feature=related. This video is amateurish, the testing is completely unscientific, and please don’t even think about having your dog ride in the back of a pickup truck, ever, no matter what, but I have to admit I was impressed by the amount of punishment the product took without falling apart.

I would be delighted to hear from any reader or listener who knows of objective data on any kind of safety harness or travel kennel.

Other Resources

The ASPCA’s general car travel tips for pets.
Consumer Reports tips on travel safety for dogs.

Dog in a Crate image from Shutterstock

About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).