Wanna go for a ride? Safety considerations for canine car rides

Most (but certainly not all) dogs love going for a ride in the car. Rides in the car often mean new sights, smells, social interactions, environments to explore, maybe a trip to the training classroom or to go play with a favorite doggy companion. For those of us who do like to take our dogs for car rides to new places, it behooves us to think carefully on what would make a trip with the dogs safe and enjoyable for all passengers in the vehicle.

Safety considerations include: restraint, training for good car behavior and manners, and first aid. Today, we’ll talk about restraint.


I’m going to start with restraint because I believe it is the most important consideration. Much like no responsible parent would dream of just placing an infant on the car seat for a ride of any length, no responsible dog owner should travel without considering the importance of safety restraints in the car. The safest place to restrain a dog is in the back seat of your car – dogs and small children should never ride in the front seat.

Restraint tools should also prevent the dog from putting his or her head out the window. Flying rocks and debris from the road can blind or otherwise injure a dog, so for optimal safety it is best to prevent these problems by only cracking the window or otherwise restraining the dog from putting her entire head out the window.

Before we get started, let’s see what happens to an unrestrained dog in a car accident.

Even the best-mannered canine can be a contributing factor to a driving accident. I frequently hear people say, “my dog is trained to lie on the back seat while we go for a ride.” It is my humble opinion that YOU CANNOT TRAIN A DOG TO DISOBEY THE LAWS OF PHYSICS, REGARDLESS OF YOUR TRAINING SKILLS.

Unruly dogs in the car are even more dangerous. I always cringe when I see a dog riding on the driver’s lap, paws all over the wheel, climbing all over the place, opening windows with scrambling paws. Additionally, in a traffic accident, an unsecured dog of any size becomes a dangerous projectile, flying around the car at high speeds which is dangerous to both human and canine passengers in the vehicle.

I’ll list a number of common restraint tools which will be given a safety classification level of 1 through 3.

1 means – little to no safety for dog or driver
2 means – an increased amount of safety, lacking impact testing
3 means – safest possible option, impact tested

Category 1 restraint methods:

Dog rides unrestrained in cabin on car or truck
Dog rides unrestrained in bed of truck

Category 1 restraint methods offer no safety to dog or owner. In the event of an accident, the dog may fly around the car, causing significant injury to self or owner. If the dog manages to survive the car accident but is hurt, the dog may react aggressively to rescue personnel. (Even the most friendly, well-socialized dog in the world is likely to bite a stranger trying to handle him/her when she is intensely afraid or in significant pain.) Rescue personnel have the right to shoot dogs at accident sites who reacted aggressively and could not be safely removed from the car or otherwise interfered with the rescue operation.

Category 2 restraint methods:

Booster Seats
Fabric, plastic, or metal “pet car barriers”
Non-impact tested harness

Category 2 restraints offer some modicum of safety to dog and owner in regular driving conditions but offer little, no, or untested safety enhancement in a collision. During regular driving, these restraints can prevent the dog from moving around the car willy-nilly and thus distracting the driver. Crates can actually implode or explode upon impact, or if they remain intact, can function as very large, heavy projectiles and significant safety risks. Crates can slightly reduce the chance of a dog being ejected from the car during an accident. If you choose to crate your dog in the car, please do make sure that the crate is well-secured and strapped into place.

Also, keep in mind that not all crates are created equal. Soft-sided nylon and collapsible metal crates provide the least amount of protection. Hard-sided plastic airline crates may provide marginally more protection, with sturdy, reinforced, metal crates being the most preferable for travel. Even sturdy crates may hinder a rescue team’s ability to get your dog out of the vehicle if the crate’s construction is compromised on impact (much like certain types of crashes can make it virtually impossible to open the car doors, increasing the difficulty of releasing passengers to safety).

If these tools do hold up in a collision, while they may not prevent the dog from receiving significant injury, they may prevent the dog from escaping the car and bolting from the scene in pain, fear, or panic.

Here’s what can happen to a crated dog upon impact:

I encourage readers to correct me if I’m wrong, but to the best of my knowledge there are no impact-tested crates, barriers, or booster seats on the market for dogs at this time.

Category 3 restraint methods:

Impact tested safety harness

Category 3 restraints offer maximum safety for dogs and their owners. Currently, there is a small number of impact-tested safety harnesses on the market – essentially, these are “seatbelt” harnesses for dogs that have been tested to human crash test standards which attach to the car’s seatbelt or cargo hook system through a male/female interface (hooking directly into the seatbelt system) or attaching through the use of heavy-duty carabiners to existing seatbelt systems or cargo hooks. Any of these harnesses may be used in conjunction with a “booster seat” to give toy or small dog breeds a view and safety during your travels.

The downside of these harnesses is that they do not protect your dog from projectiles in the car. It is best to keep your vehicle clear of items which may fly around on impact, and make sure that your cargo is safely restrained.

Here is a German video of a dog in an impact-tested seatbelt restraint:

(NOTE: I want these seatbelts and make grabby hands each time I watch this video!)

My friend Veronica Morris posted a review of two of the most popular available impact tested safety restraints for dogs on www.dogster.com. You can find the thread here and read more for yourself.

We currently use the “Roadie” manufactured by “Ruff Rider” and are quite happy with it. www.ruffrider.com My only complaint with the product is that I wish it were more adjustable. Aside from that, the product is exceptionally well made and sturdy.

Jim and I bought a minivan when we got a Saint Bernard. We promptly removed the captain’s chairs and replaced them with a large dog bed. Mokie and Monte both ride in their seatbelts on the dog bed during all car rides, regardless of how short the trip may be.

As of this posting, I am aware of the following impact tested seatbelts:

Roadie Ruff Rider
Champion K9

Of these, the Snoozer is only impact-tested in dogs up to 30 lbs and in speeds up to 30 mph, so for bigger dogs or higher speed traffic, this may actually be a category 2 restraint.

I like the Roadie, but dislike the lack of adjustability in size.

The Petbuckle is widely available, but does not seem to be as sturdily constructed as the other impact-tested harnesses.

The Champion K-9 is more adjustable than the Roadie, but the customer service to my understanding is rather unreliable.

The Snoozer is not safe for big or medium-sized dogs or travel at high speed.

When evaluating an “impact-tested harness,” be critical of who is doing the impact testing. I am always a bit leary of impact test ratings when the manufacturer is doing the actual test, and personally put more faith into results from independent testing companies hired by product manufacturers.

Now you know the basics on canine car restraint and safety. In later entries, we’ll discuss the other two critical components for happy travels with your favorite pooch – training for appropriate car behaviors and travel first aid.

With many thanks to my friend Veronica Morris for providing links, videos, and wonderfully comprehensive product reviews.

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