Dogs in Cars: Common Sense--and the Law

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Oct 28, 2016

For Rex, a moving car is an all-you-can-smell scent buffet. (Clive Tsai/Flickr)

Let’s start with that perennial question: Why do dogs stick their heads out of car windows? Mental Floss has this cogent explanation:

As air moves over the olfactory membrane, odor molecules settle on the scent receptors and get recognized. The more air there is flowing over the membrane, the more scents the dogs can detect. So when a dog sticks its head out the window, it’s like pigging out at a hi-definition all-you-can-smell scent buffet.

But letting your dog stand up on the seat with his head sticking out of the window—while fun for Fido—isn’t really a good idea. And the bed of your pickup truck? An even worse one. On new Ford trucks, there’s a camera that watches the pickup bed—perfect for making sure your canine is still a passenger. But there are better ideas. That’s why the dog crate was invented.  

You want something sturdy and well-ventilated, made of wire mesh or hard plastic (some with soft sides). It should ride in back, and it should be big enough for the dog to stand up and turn around in. Feel bad about locking Rover up? Don’t worry, says dog whisperer Cesar Millan. “It’s natural to feel bad about crating your dog,” he says. “After all, you wouldn’t want to be crated. But don’t project your feelings onto your dog. They don’t mind the crate and some even feel safer in one.”

Did you know there is a Center for Pet Safety (CPS)? Well, there is, and it tested crates, harnesses and carriers last year. It's top performers are the PetEgo Jet Set Forma Frame carrier with an Isofix-LATCH connection ($252); the Sleepypod Mobile Pet Bed with PPRS Handilock ($170 to $190); the Gunner Kennels G1 Intermediate crate ($500, with $75 more for eight-inch tie-down straps); and the SleepyPod Clickit Sport and ClickIt Utility harnesses ($70 to $100).

If you don't want to do a crate, there's always a harness, like this one from Volvo. (Volvo photo)

If you can't abide a crate, there are harnesses that connect your dog to the seatbelt. Volvo makes a good one, for instance.

Many dogs just like traveling in the car—mine certainly does—but if your Rex is an unhappy passenger, Web MD counsels starting off with a series of gradually lengthening short drives. And it’s best to feed the dog a light meal a few hours before—not during—the trip.

Carla and Stella are enjoying their crate. Just because you wouldn't like it doesn't mean they don't. ( photo)

It goes without saying you can’t leave Snowball or Rags alone in the car on a summer day, even with the windows cracked. Temperatures can reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit. According to PETA, “Animals can sustain brain damage or even die from heatstroke in just 15 minutes. Beating the heat is extra tough for dogs because they can only cool themselves by panting and by sweating through their paw pads.” And dogs can also freeze to death in cold cars, when your car becomes like a refrigerator.

For long trips, bring food and bowl, of course, but also a good water supply, sturdy leash, a pet pillow from home, a poop scoop, plastic bags, any medication and a pet-oriented first-aid kit. If you’re going out of state, bring along your dog’s vaccination record. And because Patches can get loose when you stop for a bio break, make sure he or she is microchipped for easy identification, along with a collar flat (not choke), festooned with identification tags.

Some of this stuff is common sense, and some is actually law. According to Millan’s website, you can get stopped in New Jersey (and face fines of $250 to $1,000) for improperly transporting a pet. Hawaii mandates against driving with a dog on your lap, and 14 states (and many municipalities) have laws against leaving unattended pets in a car or truck—in California, it’s legal to break a window if you see that happening. Almost everywhere, if an unrestrained pet causes a crash, you’re liable under distracted driving laws.

Oh, and here’s something from the American Kennel Club. “Car rides are boring for everyone, so instruct your children not to tease or annoy the dog in the car.” It seems kind of weird that people would actually need a “tip” to make sure that doesn’t happen. But if American life is anything like reality TV, a word to the wise would seem to be appropriate.

And here's a really artistic video showing, well, dogs in cars. Dogs in crates wouldn't make much of a video, unfortunately:

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