Thursday, December 23, 2010

This is How We Roll - Restraining Your Dog in the Car

After Sarah's scary adventure, it should be obvious why restraining your dog in the car is important - for the safety of you, your dogs and the people around you.  Today I want to talk about these issues, your options for restraining your dog in the vehicle and the pros and cons of each option.

A loose dog in the car can cause an accident.  Even a generally well-behaved dog may distract you by getting up, moving around, getting sick or soliciting attention while you are driving.  A more unruly dog may jump on you or obstruct your view if he is excited by a distraction outside the car – another dog, wildlife, moving vehicles.  Your dog may cause an accident that puts you, him and other people on the road at risk.  There have been several recent accidents in the news where a dog distracted his owner while driving resulting in an accident and the injury or death of other people.

Dogs also need to be restrained for their own safety.  In the event of an accident, an unrestrained dog has no protection – just like a person who is not wearing a seatbelt.  Loose dogs can be thrown about the vehicle sustaining injury or even ejected from the vehicle.  Some forms of restraint provide much more protection during an accident than others.  Several companies are now making crash-tested dog seatbelts to help reduce injury during an accident.

In the event of an accident, restraint can also protect your dog after the fact.  In an accident, dogs may become agitated and fearful.  A normally confident dog may escape through an open window or door and run.  This puts him at risk of being hit by a car or lost in an unfamiliar environment.  Additionally, even normally docile dogs may bark or growl at emergency workers after an accident.  This can slow their ability to treat your injuries and may put them at risk.  There has been an increase in the number of cases of police officers shooting dogs that they perceived as posing a threat.  Many restraints will control and protect your dog from these concerns after the accident even if you are incapacitated.

Many dog people need to leave their dog unattended in the vehicle at some point like at trials or other dog events.  Some forms of restraint will keep your dog safely secured while you are away from the car.  Others should only be used while you are supervising your dog.

There are several methods of restraining your dog in the vehicle including crates, seatbelts, barriers, and tethering.  Each method has its advantages and drawbacks when it comes to restraint during and after an accident, ease of use, ability to restrain an unattended dog and cost.  Each method is discussed below but remember that heavy-duty crates and crash-tested seatbelts provide the best protection to the dog in the event of an accident.

A heavy duty crate provides an excellent level of protection in the event of an accident.  Crates must be secured so they can’t move about in the event of an accident.  A crate that is sized for the dog, rather than over-large, will provide a higher level of protection because there is not as much space for him to be thrown around in the crate. 

Provided the crate stays intact through the accident, it will provide a good level of protection after the accident as it keeps the dog safely restrained from running or threatening emergency workers.  Airline or heavy duty wire crates (preferably drop pin) provide the highest level of protection during a crash.  Lightweight crates are more likely to come apart or for the door to pop open upon impact.  In a serious accident, a wire crate may be distorted making it more difficult to get the door open and the dog out in a hurry.   Many people who travel regularly with their dogs will print out any pertinent information (including medical information and who to contact in an emergency) and attach it to the front of the crate. 

Crates provide the additional benefit that they will contain any pet accidents made in the car.  This protects your vehicle and provides an additional level of driver protection from distraction.  People have had accidents while distracted their dog vomiting or eliminating in the vehicle.

Good heavy crates can be cumbersome but lightweight or collapsible fabric crates provide little to no protection in the event of an accident.  I like the heavy duty folding wire crates personally.  Crates work well for people who travel with their dogs regularly and keep the crates set up in the vehicle.  Crates take up a lot more room in the vehicle than seatbelts do but you can also stack other things on top of or around the crates if necessary as long as you ensure that your dog has adequate airflow. 

Crates also provide an excellent means of restraint if you need to leave your dog unattended in the vehicle.  I can leave my dogs crated in the car and safely leave the windows down and the hatch open for good airflow.  Remember to remove your dog’s collar before putting him in the crate since collar tags can get caught in the crate and pose a suffocation hazard.

Good crates can be costly.  The Premier Ultima Three-door folding crate that I like lists at $129 for a 36" crate but you can find it online for about $80.  Costs are higher for larger crates.

When choosing a dog seatbelt, make sure you select a crash-tested model.  Just like children, dogs should be secured in the back seat to protect them from the force of the airbags.  Seatbelts will also keep your dog restrained after an accident.  If you have a fearful or reactive dog, you want to seatbelt him far enough to the back of the vehicle that he will not threaten an emergency worker trying to help you or other human passengers in the event of an accident.

Some of the newer seatbelts double as walking harnesses making potty stops on the road quick and easy.  Some dogs will need a slight adjustment period when getting used to the seatbelt harness.  Dogs that chew will need to be supervised closely or use an alternate form of restraint.

Likewise, seatbelts should not be used when a dog is not being supervised.  If you need to leave your dog unattended for any period of time, you will need an alternate form of restraint.

Good seatbelts aren’t cheap but they are a good investment.  Crash tested seat belts start in the $30-40 range and go up from there.

Barriers can efficiently confine dogs in the passenger compartment but provide limited protection in the event of an accident.  Many barriers are compression mounted and may pop loose during an accident.  Also, if a window is broken during an accident, the dog may jump or be thrown out the window.  Barriers will provide efficient restraint after an accident only if they stay securely in place during the accident.

Barriers can be easy and convenient to use once they are installed.  You will need to select a barrier that is sized for your specific vehicle make and model.  If you have multiple vehicles, you may need to buy separate barriers for each one.

Barriers can be used to restrain your dog while you are away from the vehicle but are not as secure as crate.  Remember that a dog’s collar tags can get caught in a barrier just like they can in a crate and pose a suffocation hazard.

Good barriers aren’t cheap and cheap barriers generally are not very secure.  Inexpensive barriers cost about $50 and the price goes up from there. 

Sometimes I will tether dogs in a pinch.  This technique – tying a dog in one place using a leash on his regular collar or harness – allows me to fit extra dogs in the car during a transport or other tight situation.  However, tethering provides little to no protection in the event of an accident and may actually put the dog at risk due to the force being put on his neck.  If you must tether a dog, try to tether him to a chest harness rather than a collar for this reason.  Tethering to a harness is frequently not an option with rescue dogs since they may chew through the harness.  Some dogs will also chew through their leash.  Tethering will usually keep a dog restrained after an accident unless a dog has slipped his collar or the tether is secured in a door that has popped open.

Tethering is easy and convenient which is why people use it despite the lack of protection provided to the dog.

Tethering may be used to restrain your dog while you are away from the vehicle but you need to be extremely careful.  Dogs can hang themselves by jumping over a seat or out a window.  I know of one woman who tethered her dog thinking he was safely out of reach of the windows in the car.  Somehow he managed to squeeze over a seat and go out the window hind end first which left him hanging outside the car.  Luckily, people nearby saw him and released him before he injured himself but he could have easily suffocated without help.  If you must tether for restraint while your dog is unattended, make sure your dog can’t get tangled up with another dog or object, or make it out a window or over a seat and hang himself.  I prefer to tether my dogs outside the car (to the bumper or undercarriage so they can get out of the sun) if I have no other option.

Tethering is cheap – it just requires the dog’s collar or harness and leash.  If your dog chews, tether with a chain leash.

 Tethering in Pickups:
It goes without saying that dogs riding loose in the back of pickup trucks have no protection whatsoever and pose a significant risk to themselves and other people on the road.  There have been incidents of dogs jumping or falling out of the back of trucks and being lost or worse, hit by vehicles behind them.  Also, they can cause an accident as other drivers try to avoid them.  Tethering a dog in the center of the front of the bed reduces the chance that he will wind up in the road but provides him absolutely no protection in the case of an accident.  Tethers must be carefully designed so a dog has no way to jump off the side of the truck and be dragged.  Riding loose in a capped pickup provides only a little more protection for a dog.  If your dog must ride in the back of the truck (capped or uncapped), your best bet is to secure crates so they can’t fly around during an accident and crate them.

A restraint system will only work if you, the owner, consistently use it.  Make sure you choose the restraint system that works best for your needs.  Ideally, it will be either a heavy-duty crate or a crash-tested seatbelt to help keep you, your dog and everyone else on the road safe. 

Ben and Pip are in their crates.  All they need is for me to shut their doors and they are ready to roll.  The blankets over top keep the sun off of them and help prevent them from barking at distractions. 


  1. Thanks for this great blog post! Whenever I see a dog sitting on someone’s lap in a vehicle with his head hanging out and his tongue flapping in the wind, I wonder if the pet parents of that dog really understand the risk they are taking both for their dog and themselves?
    While I agree with most of the sentiment you’ve expressed in this blog post and there’s a lot of really helpful information here, I think a finer point needs to be made: the truth is the options for safe restraint of pets in passenger vehicles if far more limited than what you have suggested. You are absolutely right that tethering, vehicle barriers provide little or no protection. However, even of the options you do suggest, there are far fewer products that are actually safe.
    First, I do not recommend wire or plastic kennels (and you’ve already made a strong case why fabric is not an option either). Wire crates may seem sturdy and safe but the truth of the matter is that they can become lethal in an accident both to the human and canine passengers. In rear-end collusion or in a roll over, the crate will most likely be crushed. All the metal wires that compose the crate get bent in and the welds that hold them together break apart leaving you with jagged metal “spikes” that can impale human and dogs alike. Also, a solid crate in an impact can hit the back seat with such force that the seat actually breaks and the person(s) sitting in front of the crate can become impaled with the corners of the crate either in the lower back or at the top of their head. Of course, I’d hate to think of what happens if a metal crate with a 60 pound dog becomes airborne in the vehicle. . . about the only advantage I can think of is that if the crate does go through the windshield, at the very least the animal is contained when ejected from the vehicle. Many pets die not from the actual crash, but from being run over on the road after ejection.

  2. to continue . . .
    Plastic crates are no safer and arguably even more dangerous. The biggest problem with most of them is that they are designed as airline carriers, not vehicle carriers. I don’t know of any that have actually been laboratory crash tested and none are TUV or Center for Pet Safety tested/approved as far as I know. The top and bottoms of plastic crates are generally made of a very brittle plastic and the whole unit maintains its integrity by means of metal door that is pushed into two to four brackets on the front side of the crate. In a rollover or front end collusion, the door can easily snap out of the crate. Even in rear end collusions, the animal inside of the crate can be rammed up against that door. Once the door pops open, complete chaos ensues. Usually the crate implodes thereafter sending out plastic shards across the vehicle and ejecting the animal (there’s a scary video of a cat on YouTube that demonstrates this).
    The only crate available in the US that is actually crash tested for front, rear and roll-over accidents and is designed not to impale the dog or passengers in the vehicle is the variocage. However, the variocage is not an option for everyone. It’s $$$$ and cannot be used in a sedan. The Variocage is a very heavy metal crate designed specifically for use in vehicle trave but only in minivans and suvs. Its claim to fame is that it has crumple zones that are supposed to absorb the force of an impact.
    With harnesses too, there’s just one dog seat belt that has been tested and proven to save lives and that’s the Sleepypod harness. You see crash testing of the Sleepypod as well as most of the top-harnesses available on the Center for Pet Safey website. The Sleepypod is sort of the variocage of harnesses. It has a three point attachment system. The two side buckles are designed to snap off in an impact to absorb the impact of an accident . The reason the Sleepypod won the Center for Pet Safety’s approval where the others did not, is that it was the only harness that consistently kept the test dogs from falling off the seat.
    So all told, we really only have three truly safe options for dogs at this time 1) variocage 2) sleepypod or three, 3) leave them at home. Hopefully, the pet industry will wake up and start designing products that give pet owners more options to really keep their pets safe!