The number of cats and dogs injured and killed in car crashes each year is in the tens of thousands. If everyone had a seat belt for for their dog, this number would be significantly less.
According to the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, a “moving object in vehicle”, including dogs, is the fourth most common cause of driver distraction, with cell phones sixth. At the scene of an accident, unrestrained, frightened dogs may block emergency personnel from getting to injured people.
All the risk may make you want to keep your dog at home. But the worst thing is not to plan for your dog’s automotive safety. Use a system, even for brief rides. Dr. Ronald Scharf, DVM, says the “most common mistake is there’s no restraint used at all.” He adds that dogs, even when harness-tied, are not safe in the back of pick-up trucks, and “a crate is okay. But not ideal.”
There are three primary options: a secure gate in an SUV or wagon; a crate; or a dog seatbelt. Secure gates and crates minimize distraction and keep your dog in place. However, your dog, during an accident, might be flung against the bars of the gate or crate, and an unanchored crate may become airborne or shatter. If you use a crate, dog trainer Becky Robert says don’t choose wire: find one with hard plastic bars.
The best option is a seatbelt-like restraint. The most common, such as Batzibelt or Easy Rider, rely upon a harness that attaches to a car’s seatbelt. Some restraints, like the Saab 9-5Õs VersaLeash ™, attach to the cargo area of an SUV or wagon. There are several things to look for:
1) The harness should be snug and strong (the human seatbelt standard is about 5,000 pounds). According to Stenesh, the dog “can exert force up to twenty times its weight.”
2) Make sure that any force is absorbed by strong nylon or metal, not weak plastic clips (which are okay only to secure the harness to your dog).
3) The harness should have a strong fabric piece along the dog’s sternum, the best place to absorb shock.
4) Make sure the dog won’t hit the back of the front seat with the restraint fully extended.
5) Watch for tangling. The Easy Rider attaches to a car’s seatbelt via a nylon loop. Heidi Elmendorf says that her Boston Terrier gets tangled with the Easy Rider, although still “it keeps her in one place.”
Some dogs slip out of restraints; my German Shepherd mix backed out of the Ruff Rider Roadie ™ on two test drives. I had the Roadie attached to a shoulder seatbelt; you might have better luck with a lap belt, or a quieter or smaller dog. The Roadie was voted the best restraint by Your Dog magazine of Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine after withstanding more than 6,000 pounds in testing. After designer Carl Goldberg stomped the brakes to avoid an accident and his chocolate Lab flew into the windshield — fortunately the dog was fine — he developed the Roadie. The Roadie resembles a Mšbius strip of nylon — strong, but somewhat daunting at first. Another top choice is the Champion Canine Seat Belt System, designed by a husband and wife — the husband is a structural engineer– who lost a dog in a car accident. This tensile tested system has the option of linking to the female end of the seatbelt–eliminating tangling and the seatbelt not “catching.” Both systems can attach to cargo ties (make sure they are strong) in wagons.
Spend the time and money to find a restraint that you and your dog are comfortable with. Also, train your dog: “The biggest mistake I see with people is that they don’t take the time to teach dogs how to behave in the car,” says trainer Robert. Robert recommends having your dog do sit-stays with the car off, and then take short trips around the neighborhood. With the right attitude and equipment, you and your dog will able to enjoy the road safely.