How To Restrain Your Dog In The Car

Car Restraints for Dogs

Do you restrain your dog in the car? It’s estimated nearly half of Americans own dogs, and half of those routinely travel with a dog (or dogs) in the car. That’s a lot of dogs on the road—many millions a year. But the overwhelming majority of dog owners in a recent survey admitted they never restrain their dogs in the car, for reasons running the gamut from a strong desire to hold their beloved pet during transit, to insisting it’s too much trouble, to outright denial that the dog needs it to begin with.

Here are a few compelling reasons to restrain your dog:

  • It’s required by law in some states. Consult our interactive dog seat belt map to find out whether your state (or a state you’re traveling through) prohibits unrestrained dogs.
  • An unrestrained dog is a projectile that can cause harm to himself and the other passengers in your car.
  • An unrestrained dog is a driver distraction.
  • In the event of an accident an unrestrained dog poses a potential threat to emergency workers and is himself at risk of harm if he escapes the confines of the car.

You’d never think of letting your child go anywhere without being properly restrained in the car; your dog deserves the same protection.

Types Of Dog Car Restraints

All dog restraint systems for the car are not created equal, nor is there any official oversight of safety standards or testing of these and other dog products in the United States. But some are made better than others, and some systems seem to work better than others.

The two best dog restraint systems—the dog car harness (seat belt) and the dog crate—continually vie for the top spot in safety and effectiveness. The car barrier is better than nothing at all, but serves only to separate a dog from the car’s passenger compartment; it does not actually restrain the dog.

Whichever system you choose for your dog, never place him in the front seat of your car. The best place is the car’s back seat or cargo area of your SUV, keeping in mind this is the crumple zone in many vehicles.

I. The Dog Harness

The dog harness car restraint works in tandem with your car’s seat belt system to tether the dog to the seat; it is an effective way to contain your dog after an accident. Most dog harness systems have two parts: the harness itself, and the tether that connects the harness to the seat belt. Any harness system should inhibit a dog’s ability to move around within the car. Important things to consider when buying:

  • Look for crash test statistics.
  • A harness with broad, thickly padded straps, especially the one running the length of your dog’s chest, helps distribute the force of an impact as widely as possible.
  • The tether should be short to minimize tangling and to limit the dog’s propulsion in an impact. It should attach to the harness at the dog’s back, never at his neck.
  • Many car harnesses conveniently double as a standard harness for leash walking.

Dog harness car restraints are recommended for small- to medium-sized dogs, but can also work well for larger breeds. Get your dog accustomed to his harness on short trips first, and be vigilant: A harness system may not be appropriate for a problem chewer—use it only under close supervision, and never in the front seat of your car.

II. The Dog Crate

A crate or kennel can be an excellent way to restrain a dog in the car; it significantly reduces driver distractions by an agitated dog, and effectively contains a dog after an accident. But its safety and effectiveness depend on more than the crate alone; important things to consider when buying:

  • Look for sturdy construction.
  • Buy the right size: A correctly fitted crate reduces how much your dog is thrown around inside it in an accident.
  • If you drive an SUV and plan to use the cargo space for the crate, first find out whether this is the car’s crumple zone. This may prove to be the worst place for a dog crate or kennel.
  • If you must use the cargo area for the crate, use it in tandem with a car barrier placed between the back seat and cargo area.
  • Some dog crates are designed to secure with straps, particularly when placed in the flatbed of a truck. Read your crate’s instruction manual carefully to determine whether straps are required for the safest configuration.

The crate should rest lengthwise in the back seat of the car if it will fit there, or on the floor in front of the back seat if the crate is small enough. Remove your dog’s collar before he climbs into his crate to keep him from strangling on entangled tags.

Keeping a crate set up in your car makes routine travel with your dog much more convenient. Print out relevant information—including medical details and emergency contacts—and attach it to the crate in an easy-to-spot location in case of an accident.

III. The Dog Car Barrier

The car barrier is more about separation than restraint—it provides limited or no protection to your dog in an accident, nor will it contain your dog after an accident unless it stays in place and the cargo area and windows remain intact. But it is an effective tool to limit your dog to the cargo area of your car or SUV during transit, thus minimizing driver distraction. Important things to consider when buying:

  • Choose a barrier that’s made of sturdy materials and installs securely. You get what you pay for: the more you’re willing to spend on a car barrier for your dog, the higher quality you should expect.
  • Barriers are easy and convenient to use but must be sized and installed properly.
  • The dog car barrier is most effective when used in tandem with a crate or kennel, and can help minimize injury to passengers in the car’s back seat during an accident.
  • If you use the car barrier alone, your dog will still become a projectile during an accident.
  • Be advised that many car barriers can crumple or dislodge during an accident.

If your dog travels loose in the cargo area, his collar may become a strangulation hazard if his tags get caught in the car barrier; remove his collar after you place him in the cargo area if you don’t plan to restrain him.

The imagery of the unrestrained dog with his head poked joyously out the car’s window, hair and ears flapping in the wind—it’s all good until something goes wrong. You know in your heart of hearts it’s unsafe to allow your dog to ride loose in the car. Without using some kind of restraint system, you place him, yourself, and potentially others, in harm’s way.

The next time you invite him along for the ride, do the loving (and possibly legally required) thing and fasten him in before you go. He may not love being restrained, but he’ll be one lucky dog.

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