You often take your dog on the road for adventures or errands, but are you using a seat belt or dog car restraint? Read on to learn the pros and cons of different ways to keep your dog safe while you’re driving.
Why You Need a Seat Belt for Dogs
Have you ever thought about what might happen if you have a car accident with your dog in the vehicle? It’s horrible to imagine, but there is real risk of death or injury to both you and your dog if your dog isn’t restrained. One study found that only 55% of surveyed Americans restrain their dog while driving.
Having your dog unrestrained in your car isn’t just risky for both you and your dog in an accident. It also creates a greater risk of accident in the first place!
One poll found that 65% of dog owners engaged in at least one of the following distracting activities while driving with dogs in cars:
- Using one hand to prevent their dog from jumping in the front seat
- Using one arm to keep their dog in place while braking
- Allowing a dog to sit on their lap
- Giving food or treats
- Playing with, petting, or taking a photo of the dog
If you do have an accident with your dog free in the car, you face the following dangers:
- Your dog could be thrown forward or through the windshield if you brake suddenly
- Your dog could collide with you
- Severely injured by airbags if your dog is in the front seat
- Your dog may get scared and bolt from the car into traffic
What’s The Best Way to Restrain Your Dog In The Car?
Unfortunately, there’s a lack of regulations, so many products haven’t been crash-tested … and most that are tested fail. The Center for Pet Safety has done tests that show very few products are up to par, so it’s a good idea to read their reports before you choose a product.
Seat Belts For Dogs
A seat belt restraint is a popular choice. There are many kinds of these devices. A seat belt harness is in this category because it gives you a way to attach your dog to the regular vehicle seat belt; these work by using the seatbelt buckle or by feeding the seatbelt through a loop on the harness.
Choosing A Car Harness
Make sure your dog’s harness is made from a sturdy enough material. A regular walking harness often has narrow straps that aren’t strong enough to double as a seatbelt harness. The powerful forces of a crash will break a lot of harnesses or even injure your dog. So if you want to buy an everyday harness that’ll do double duty as a car and walking harness, make it is a sturdier one that you can use for both! The best choice is a special car safety harness with padded, wide straps that can distribute force evenly. A padded chest plate will also help protect your dog. If possible, find a crash-tested harness.
If you have a small dog, there are harnesses available that let you strap your dog in an upright position (almost like a backpack). This may look uncomfortable but can actually help keep your dog calm while also letting her see out the window.
It’s safest to harness your dog in the rear seat. Dogs in the front seat can be crushed by the air bags in an emergency stop.
A solid travel crate, well secured to your car, is often the safest place for your dog.
Sturdy, hard-bodied crates are the best option for large dogs. Heavier dogs put a lot more strain on a harness in the event of an accident than smaller dogs.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when choosing a crate:
Will it maintain its structural integrity when a lot of force is applied to it?
All crates are not created equal! A cheap plastic crate won’t offer the same protection as a thicker and stronger one. You can get aluminum crates or crates with padding built in to provide protection in case of an impact.
How easily will I be able to get my dog out in the event of a crash?
Some crates only have one door, while others have two or three for easier access. The type of door latch also plays a role in how easily you can free your dog in an emergency. Some types of latch may be more likely to get stuck when force is applied to the door.
Where in the car can I secure the crate?
If you have a small dog, you may be tempted to strap the crate to the passenger seat. Don’t do this! If you’re in an accident, the airbags could severely injure your dog. If you want your dog in the front, a better option is to place it in the foot area, and then carefully move the passenger seat forward to help secure it there so it doesn’t slide around.
Another safe option is to brace a small crate against the backs of the front seats on the floor of the vehicle. This way if there is an intense forward force, there is nowhere for the crate to go.
If you have a large dog and a small vehicle, your only option may be to put the crate in the rear. There are a variety of cords, ropes, and straps available to secure a crate in the trunk of a car.
The downside of putting your dog in the back is the risk of being crushed if a vehicle collides with the back of your car. This is why you should choose the sturdiest crate possible to give your dog the best protection.
How comfortable will my dog feel in a crate?
Crates can be a very comforting place for dogs. If your dog has anxiety while traveling, it might actually help her to feel she is in a safe space. Be sure to do lots of training with yummy treats to ensure your dog develops a strong positive association with the crate.
Tethers are leashes or ziplines that you can fix to a spot in your car and then attach to your dog’s harness. Most of these are intended for use in the rear passenger seat. If you have a dog who likes to dangle out of the window or tries to get to the front of the car, a tether is a great way to make her stay put in the backseat. It also minimizes distractions to the driver.
Caution: Never attach a tether to your dog’s collar … it could strangle her or seriously injure her neck during sudden braking or a collision. Always attach the tether or zipline to a sturdy harness that’s designed for car safety.
If you use a tether, make sure to keep it as short as possible while still allowing your dog some range of movement, so she can sit up and lie down comfortably. The tether should be short enough to prevent her from hitting the driver or front-seat passengers. Make sure the tether is secured at the back of the harness, never at the neck.
Some seat belt tethers and ziplines are sold with specially designed safety harnesses. These are often more robust and safer than dual-purpose harnesses you’d also use for walking.
Are Car Seats and Soft Carriers Safe For Dogs?
These aren’t a good choice. Car booster seats, boosters, and soft carriers are available for smaller dogs. They’re lightweight and easy to carry around. This might be a rear-facing car seat … or it might allow your dog to sit higher so she can see out while you’re traveling. Unfortunately, they offer no protection in the case of an accident and have not passed crash testing.
What Are The Laws About Dog Car Restraints?
It’s not yet a law in all US states or Canadian provinces to have your dog strapped in, but it should be! Laws vary from place to place, so check your local rules. Only a few states require you to secure your dog in the car. But quite a few places restrict driving with your dog on your lap in the car, and understandably so. You can be charged for distracted driving in some states for this offense. And besides, it’s the most dangerous place for your dog to be in an accident. She can be crushed by the steering wheel or, if the airbags deploy, they could suffocate her.
Final Tips for Choosing a Seat Belt for Dogs
Ultimately, you need to decide which type of restraint is right for you based on the crash test information available, your dog’s size, and your budget. Whatever type of restraint you choose, be sure to inspect the quality of all the parts.
- Steel buckles and carabiners are more likely to hold in a collision than plastic buckles
- Anything that is actually meant to hold your dog shouldn’t be made of plastic (but other superficial features like size adjusters can be plastic)
- Crates should be made of material that won’t crack under impact
- You can buy a “panic strap” in farm stores with a quick-release buckle in case you need to easily free your dog during an emergency or dangerous situation
Now you’re ready to buckle up that pup and enjoy road trips together, knowing you’re both safer!
Coleman, P. Keeping that doggie in the (car) window safe: Recommendations for driving with canine companions. Pace Law Review, Volume 38(2), 2018.
Susan J. Hazel et al. Restraint of dogs in vehicles in the US, UK and Australia. Preventive Veterinary Medicine, Volume 170, 2019.