Yesterday, Debbie arrived at the dog park with her beagle, Chuck. I have to say they’re both looking really good these days. They’ve both been dieting and getting more exercise, so I guess I’m going to have to stop calling Chuck “Chunk.” Debbie says she’s very near to her goal weight – she’s hit a plateau, but she’s still eating right and she’s determined to drop the few remaining pounds.
Debbie was as white as the proverbial sheet, and trembling, so of course I went over and asked, “What’s wrong, Debster?” She told me that Chuck had nearly gotten her killed in traffic on the way over. Being of a curious mindset, of course I asked her for details.
“He’s never done anything like this before,” she said, “But he saw another dog on the sidewalk to my left, and he just lost it. Normally he couldn’t care less about other dogs, but this time, he jumped over me, snapping and snarling, trying to get out the window. I lost control of the steering wheel, and came within inches of going up close and personal with a semi.”
“You don’t restrain him when he’s in the car?” I asked. She said she’d never needed to before. Chuck has always been perfectly content to just curl up in the passenger seat and nap all the way to the dog park. But all it took was that one time when Chuck acted out of character – when another dog pushed his buttons in some way –and Debbie (Chuck too, for that matter) ended up in serious danger.
I hardly ever go anywhere without Janice and Leroy. But they’re always in the back seat, strapped in using special doggie safety belts that attach to the “human” seat belts in my van. I’d debated initially about getting one of those mesh screens that separates the passenger compartment from the cargo area, but then I figured that if we should happen to be in a collision, the last thing I’d need would be two full-size Boxers bouncing all over the place. It wouldn’t do much for their safety, or for mine. The seat belts will keep them safely immobilized in the event of a crash.
I love it when I see other people out driving with their dogs – it tells me that they consider their dogs part of the family, and are happy to provide them with the pleasure of a drive around down. I’m less than pleased, though, when I see dogs riding in the driver’s lap, shifting about in the passenger seat, or with their heads out the window, vulnerable to all sorts of potential harm. And don’t get me started on those unspeakable morons who think it’s fine for their dog to ride in the bed of a pickup truck – listen, dumbass, if you care at all about your dog, secure him in your truck. What do you think is going to happen if you get in an accident or hit a big bump?
If you are going to travel with your dog, you have an obligation to make sure that he travels safely, the same as you would for a child or other loved one. Ideally, this means seatbelts or a crate, or as a last resort, a barrier. If you are determined to allow your dog to ride unrestrained, then you will at the very least have to make sure that he knows good car manners. This doesn’t mean doing what Debbie did – assuming that because your dog has always travelled well, he always will. It means training him how to behave when you’re on the road.
As an additional safety measure, make sure that you are always carrying identification in the event of an accident where you may be unable to communicate with your rescuers. If you are travelling with more than one dog, include that information in your wallet – this is in case one of your dogs escapes the vehicle – rescuers will know that they are looking for more than one dog.
Here are 9 good reasons why you have to either restrain your dog in traffic, or make sure he knows how to behave politely:
1. Your dog will be safer if he is restrained.
2. An unrestrained dog can interfere with your ability to drive safely. In addition to what happened with Chuck, a dog can also end up under the gas or brake pedal, hit the gear shift, or block your view.
3. An unrestrained dog is a distraction. If he acts up, the best case scenario is that you may have to take your attention away from the road briefly to deal with his behavior. The worst case scenario is that you will look away for long enough to hit another car, or a pedestrian.
4. If you are in a collision, your dog can end up bouncing all over the vehicle, and could be seriously injured. So could you if he collides with you.
5. If the windows break in an accident, or the doors pop open, your dog could escape and be struck by a vehicle. Or, being frightened, he could run off and get lost.
6. A frightened, unsecured dog can hamper the efforts of rescue workers who respond to an accident. If you are hurt, he may feel that he has to protect you from these “intruders,” and could bite.
7. Dogs who hang their heads out the windows can be harmed by flying debris entering their eyes. Even worse, if another vehicle passes too close, his head could hit a mirror. If you hit a sign or a tree branch, the effect can be equally disastrous. Simply stated, your dog could end up dying on the spot, or having to be put to sleep because of a serious head injury.
8. An unrestrained dog could jump out of an open window or truck bed.
9. This doesn’t exactly relate to restraining or good car manners, but I’m throwing it out here anyway, because it’s part of keeping your dog safe when in the vehicle. Presumably, unless you’re just taking your dog out for a drive for the fun of it, at some point, you will be stopping somewhere. If it is a hot (or even warm) day, even with the windows part-way down, your dog’s body temperature can rise rapidly, and he could die very quickly.
As a footnote to this, if you see a dog in distress in a hot vehicle, take action. If you think there is time, go into the building where the dog’s owner is likely to be. Give management the license plate number and a description of the dog and the vehicle, and ask them to make an announcement over their PA system to the effect that the dog is in distress and the owner needs to get back to their car. If you think there is little time to spare, call 911. The police will come and break the window to free the dog. If you think there is no time to spare, then break the window yourself.
Yes, I know I’m suggesting you break the law in some jurisdictions. In others, you can legally break the window without incurring any type of misdemeanor or criminal charge. Personally, I would always go with saving the dog. If the owner is just a well-meaning idiot, he’ll probably thank you. If he doesn’t, you might point out that animal cruelty is a criminal offense just about everywhere, so if he overlooks the broken window and promises never to do such a thing to his dog again, you won’t call the cops on him.
Now, I’ve probably missed a few good reasons to restrain your dog when he’s in the car, but I think the 9 I have mentioned should be more than enough to make you consider restraining. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy your dog’s company when you’re in your vehicle, but you do have to take measures to keep him safe.
For many dogs, there’s nothing better than a ride in the car. With Janice and Leroy, all I have to do is say “C’mon, guys, we’re going for a drive,” and they stop whatever they’re doing to sit and whine at the door. Then it’s several runs around the van, and when I open the sliding door, they’re in the back seat, waiting patiently for me to attach their seatbelts.
However, not every dog reacts well to travel, and if you have a dog that isn’t all that fond of drives, you’re running the risk of bad behavior. It’s usually due to stress. So, what you want to do is reduce the stress, and thereby reduce the risk.
So, what you need is a good car restraint option. If you have a lot of space, or a small dog, then a crate can be a good choice, provided that it is safely anchored. If you should happen to be in an accident, a bouncing crate is going to offer little protection for your dog, and you could end up being seriously injured even in a minor collision.
Now, if you have a small car and a big dog, obviously a crate is not going to work for you. In this case, a seat belt can be the better option. There are a lot of different kinds of doggie seat belts available, but whichever you choose, it should attach to a harness, not to a collar. Collar-attached seatbelts are never a good idea, because although they will restrain your dog during the normal course of things, if you should end up in a crash, your dog could strangle to death.
Another thing that you need to remember when using a seat belt for your dog is that you should take the same safety measures as you would for a child. What this means is that you either have your dog ride in the back seat, or if you are planning to have him ride up front with you, you disable the passenger-side airbag. An airbag can go off with enough force to cause serious, and possibly fatal, injuries to your dog.
Some dogs simply hate seat belts, and will chew on them in an effort to escape. Now, if you are constantly having to stop your dog from chewing on his seat belt, then you are not going to be paying enough attention to your driving. Try putting a dog repellent like bitter apple on the belt, or give your dog a chew toy to keep him occupied. You may need to secure the toy by punching a small hole into it, through which you will run a cord, which you will in turn tie to a secure spot in your vehicle. Just make sure that the cord is long enough that the dog can’t knock it under your feet.
If a crate is not possible, and your dog is simply never going to become accustomed to wearing a seat belt, you could consider a barrier as a means of containing your dog. It is a last resort, though, when it comes to restraining. This is because although if you do end up in an accident, you will be protected from a flying dog, the flying dog himself is still going to be very vulnerable to injury. There is also the danger of your dog escaping through a broken window.
When it comes to the use of barriers, the best advice I can offer is to re-consider the seat belt. Fill your pockets with treats, and take your dog out to the car, but don’t go for a drive. Secure him in the seat belt, and if he becomes agitated, give him a treat. If he bites at the seat belt, give him a treat. Then, let him fuss for a bit (but not too long) and give him another treat. Gradually increase the intervals between the fussing and the offer of a treat. Chances are that eventually he’ll get the idea that if he accepts the seat belt, something good is going to happen.
If you feel that you absolutely cannot confine your dog in your vehicle, then at the very least, you are going to have to teach him to behave politely. He should learn to lie down and remain calm in a safe spot – ideally, in the back seat, and never in your lap. It just makes me crazy when I see these people with little foo-foo dogs peeking up over the steering wheel. I mean, what do they think is going to happen if they’re in an accident? First off, a dog in that position can end up causing an accident. And second, even if they’re not the primary cause of the wreck, they can certainly end up being a victim when the driver’s body is thrust forward, crushing the dog against the steering wheel.
Now, as I’ve said before, good car manners mean more than just assuming that an ordinarily well-behaved dog is never going to step out of line. You actually have to train. If Debbie, for instance, had taught Chuck that his rightful place in the car was lying down on the floor of the back seat, Chuck would never have seen that other dog, and he wouldn’t have gone off the rails.
Of course, some dogs just have to have their humans in view all the time – Leroy is like that. I’m not talking about separation anxiety here (which is a topic I covered in Mommy, Don’t Leave Me: Dealing With Separation Anxiety) – Leroy is perfectly fine if I leave the house, or leave him belted in the car. But when I’m present, he wants to be constantly looking at me. So if I were disposed to leave him unrestrained, I wouldn’t stress him out by expecting him to lie on the floor. Instead, I’d train him to lie calmly in the back seat. I would also, though, train a dog to respond to a firm “Down” every single time. I’ve done this with Janice and Leroy, and I think that even in the face of a distraction like Chuck experienced, Leroy would respond instantly to “Down.” This is quite simply the most important (and in fact, maybe the only) command that you will ever need. So here’s how it’s done.
If your dog does not respond to “Down” every single time, then recruit a helper to go for a drive with you and your dog. Start off in your yard, where the surroundings are familiar. Or, if you live in an area where your dog might be easily distracted by other dogs or passersby, drive to an empty parking lot. With your dog in the back seat, tell him “Down.” If he doesn’t respond, have your helper gently put him in position and offer a treat (or a click if you are clicker training). Tell him he’s a good boy. Now, drive around the parking lot, while you continue to tell your dog “Down” every time he decides he wants to get up, and have your helper reinforce the command. Some dogs might need repeated, frequent reinforcement, but dogs that are already pretty calm in the vehicle will require less reinforcement.
Now, exit the parking lot and head out into traffic. Drive short distances, pulling over frequently to give your dog a bit of a break. Gradually increase the time between pull-overs. Then, switch things up a bit by driving for a short time, then a longer time, then a shorter time, and then – well, you get the idea. The purpose here is for your dog to not know when the next click or treat is coming, so he may decide that he can’t take the chance – if he doesn’t act out, something good will happen, so he might as well not act out.
You are going to want to make sure that this training has fully “taken” before you head out on your own with your dog. So, continue to increase the intervals between clicking or treating. Try to get to the point where you have to reinforce good behavior only very occasionally, and ultimately not at all.
I love taking my dogs for drives, both because it gives them pleasure, and because I am so much happier when I am in their company. I am a huge proponent of restraining, because even though I can’t even remember the last time either Janice or Leroy has failed to obey me when I say “Down,” there is no permanent switch in their doggie brains that might not end up being tripped in the wrong direction. I’m erring on the side of caution, because of course I don’t want to end up in an accident because of my dogs, or have them injured in an accident that’s out of our control. I love them, and I know that if you’re reading my blog, then you love your dog, too. So keep him safe. Restrain if you can – and you usually can – but if you absolutely cannot restrain your dog in your vehicle for whatever reason, at least make sure that he knows how to behave. It can save his life, and possibly yours as well.