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Safely Driving with Dogs: the Ultimate Guide

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Road trips can be a blast if your dog loves riding in the car. My dogs do, so I take them everywhere that I can. We go to dog-friendly restaurants, stores that allow dogs (like Petsmart and Home Depot), walks, and events. Driving with dogs can be great fun on day trips and longer adventures. I don’t love long drives, but my dogs do! So, they make the time pass a bit more easily when I’m behind the wheel with their company.

Driving with dogs takes some planning, but it can be a lot of fun for all. And of course, many of these suggestions apply to other pets as well as dogs. Here’s what you need to know to have a great time.

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My backseat driver, Che

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Driving with Dogs: Safety

One of the first things for you to consider when driving with dogs is safety. This includes both in the car and out of the car. Though you want to have fun with your dog, it’s important to make sure they remain safe. And the reality is that your dog may be a bundle of happiness and may not be thinking, so you need to do it for them.

It’s not just about safety for your dog either. People tend to be more distracted when driving with dogs, especially if they are not secured properly.

Safety Considerations While Driving with Dogs

When you’re driving, it’s a good idea to consider safety in case you get into an accident, have to quickly hit your brakes or make a sharp turn. The best way to keep a pet safe is in a crate or in a carrier inside your vehicle. This isn’t always possible, though. For example, I have a 55-pound dog and a small car, so his crate won’t fit.

Instead, it’s a good idea to use a harness that attaches to the seatbelt. Though the data has not proven this to be much safer than riding loose in a car, it is a good idea to consider and seems to make sense. After all, humans wear seatbelts, so why wouldn’t we use one for our dogs?

I have had a couple of friends who have been in car accidents and their dogs were propelled through the windshield. Thankfully, both dogs ended up ok but it’s a terrifying ordeal. If they are harnessed, they could still get injured, but any injuries would likely be less severe.

Using a hardness would also help with the situation I have with one of my dogs where he likes to jump out when I open the door. I learned to block his escape, but when he is harnessed in, he can’t go anywhere.

The Kurgo Tru-Fit Smart Harness is a harness that is highly rated by people who have purchased it. It’s also one that some of my friends use that they love. Another well-rated harness is the Mighty Paw Vehicle Safety Belt.

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Dutchess in a Car

Use a Collar with Tags

Another good safety idea is to make sure your dog has a collar and tags at all times during your trip. This is helpful if your dog were to get out, either in the case of a car accident or if they launch past you when you open the door. If they are wearing their tags, you have a better chance of successfully getting them back safely.

I generally keep collars on my dogs, but I honestly didn’t think of this one until one of my friends got into a car accident with her dog. She was unconscious for a short time and her dog got spooked and ran off. She got him back quickly because someone happened to witness the accident and saw her dog run away. They were kind enough to stop and get her dog for her. Can you even imagine? My heart shudders to think about it!

And with the example of my dog who likes to dash off when I open the door, he didn’t go far. However, what if something happened that spooked him? If a loud truck rolled into the parking lot or fireworks went off he might have shot off and would have been tough to get home without his identification. We might carry ours in our wallets, and our dogs carry theirs around their neck.

It probably goes without staying, but you also should make sure the tags have your current contact information and address. If you move or change your number, make sure to update the tag.

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Dutchess Driving

Get Your Dog Microchipped

Another really good safety measure is to make sure your dog is microchipped. All vets have microchip scanners. So do Banfield Pet Hospitals in Petsmart and most animal shelters. Now, it obviously requires someone taking your dog to get scanned, but, if they do that or if they end at the shelter, they will be identified so they can be returned to you.

You still want to use a collar as that is the fastest and easiest way to ensure your dog is identified. However, a microchip is a really good additional level of protection.

Microchips do require that you update your information with the chip company as well. So, if you move or your phone number changes and you don’t update it, they may not be able to contact you. Additionally, some companies do require a fee. Sometimes it’s an annual fee and sometimes it’s a lifetime charge. It could also be a one-time fee. Make sure you know and mark your calendar to make sure you stay current. Your dog’s life, and being returned to you, may depend on it.

Some popular microchip companies include:

Seat Placement

Another safety consideration for driving with dogs is seat placement. I always keep my dogs in the back seat and think it’s a good idea. Of course, I do know people who let their dog ride shotgun and I understand wanting the company in the front seat. I just don’t think it’s a good idea and I don’t do it with my personal dogs.

There are a few reasons for this. First, due to the risk of injury when the airbag deploys. Your dog is likely to get injured if you do get into an accident and the airbag deploys. Second, if you were to get into an accident, they really have little protection in the front seat. You do not want your best friend ejected from your vehicle in an awful situation if you get into a car accident.

Now, my one dog likes to supervise my driving. He will often sit as far forward as he can over the center console if I don’t put him in a harness. That’s not any safer than his being in the front seat. So, it’s something for you to consider when you decide where your dog will sit when you’re driving.

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Che and Jagger, over the moon about a road trip

Driving in Trucks

I hope it goes without saying but dogs should never, ever be left loose in the truck bed of a truck. They also should not be leashed to something in the truck bed. It is not safe for people or for animals to sit in the back of a truck like this.

Ideally, a dog should be kept inside the cabin of the truck. If the car is a two-seater, the dog is better off in the front seat than in the truck bed. But if that’s not possible, and you cannot keep your dog inside a truck, they should be kept in a crate securely fastened to the truck bed.

Too many times, I have seen dogs standing loose in the back of a truck bed. I have seen trucks roaring down the highway with a dog in the back hanging over the side of the truck. There is nothing to keep the dog in the truck, and if the driver was to get into an accident or even stop short, that dog would have a high chance of flying out.

Driving with Dogs: Other Considerations

There are a number of other considerations for safety and comfort when you are driving with dogs. Remember, it’s your job to keep your dog safe and to think of everything you can to do so.

Temperature

Consider the temperature for all stops along your drive. Even if you think you will stop for just a few minutes, your car quickly heats up to an unbearable, and potentially, life-threatening level. You can certainly crack the windows, but depending on the temperature outside, that may not help much, if at all.

For example, according to the American Veterinary Medicine Association, if the temperature outside is 70 degrees, in just 20 minutes it is 99 degrees in the car. If it’s 90 degrees outside, it is 109 degrees inside the car in just ten minutes.  I wouldn’t want to be in that car! Lowering the windows has a minimal effect when it’s that hot outside. There is a helpful article with a full chart that shows the temperatures in your car based on the temps outside of your car.

Additionally, consider the feel of hot asphalt on paws. It doesn’t take long to burn them and it’s quite painful. A good rule of thumb is to put your bare foot on the ground. If it’s too hot in a few seconds for your foot, then it’s too hot for your furry friend to walk on it as well. Give it some thought before driving off with your dog. You may need to either keep your dog in the car, carry them to a grassy area with shade, or don’t bring them.

Supervision

It’s not a good idea to leave your pets unsupervised for long. Understandably, you cannot always take them with you. You may need to run to get a drink or go to the bathroom during a long drive. But try to minimize the time your pet is without supervision. Ideally, park where you have a line of sight to your car so you can keep an eye on your dog. If you’re traveling alone and you can’t watch the car, try to minimize your time away.

Window Locks

I learned this lesson recently, as my dog apparently figured out how to lower the window to stick his head out and enjoy the breeze. I was wondering why my car was feeling cool and it got a bit louder and sure enough, he did it not once, but twice!

That is how I learned my car has window locks. It was probably a feature for child safety, but I’m very happy to use it for dog safety too. Without fail, if I leave the windows unlocked, he will roll the windows down.

Some people like to allow their dogs to hang out of their car when they are driving. To some extent, it depends on your dog. Will the dog jump out if you stop, and do they know to stay far enough in to make sure they keep their balance, even if you hit a bump in the road?

For safety, I might roll down the window a little bit to allow his head partially out, but I stop at rolling the window entirely down. For me, it’s a safety concern and I’d rather be safe.

Keep Your Dog on a Leash

It is a good idea to always keep your dog on a leash. Especially so when you are traveling away from home in an area your dog is not familiar with. This is true even if your dog is trained off-leash.

My dog is really good off-leash in my yard and won’t leave the perimeter. However, I won’t risk his safety when we’re away from home. Should he get scared by something unfamiliar and run, he might have a tough time getting back to me.

Another thing to consider is that not everyone loves dogs as much as we do. So, if your dog might approach a person when he is off-leash, it could escalate quickly. It’s just not worth it.

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Che at Boyce Arboretum, AZ

Is Your Pet Allowed on Your Stops?

I wrote another article about dining with your pet with a lot of detail, so check it out! You should always make sure your dog is allowed where you are going. Though restaurants generally won’t allow pets inside, many do offer outside dining on their patio with your furry friend. Never try to sneak them in, though. It’s not worth it and they will make you leave if they don’t allow dogs.

There are a lot of restaurants that do allow dogs. You can check beforehand if you know where you may stop on your road trip. Or you can call. But if you don’t have any advanced notice, you can always run in quickly to ask.

Of course, you’ll want to make sure your dog will behave well at restaurants. You don’t want to be that owner with your dog trying to climb onto people’s tables for their food. If you’re unsure, do a test run at home and try it. And be prepared to leave if you need to.

What Should You Pack When Driving with Dogs?

Packing for your trip does depend on how long the trip is and where you are going. (You may need specific items or may have to address temperature concerns). Here is a core list that you can modify as appropriate for your road trip:

Day Trips

  • Collar, leash, and tags (harness if your dog wears one)—I use the EasyWalk Harness with my big dog as it has an added bonus of a hook at his chest to reduce his pulling. Here is a similar harness made by Petsafe. For my small dog (who thinks he’s HUGE) I use one like this Petsafe harness. It’s a great brand and I like the harnesses that are more sturdy to ensure he doesn’t wriggle out of it. If you’d prefer to use a collar and not a harness, I highly recommend a martingale collar. It has a loop so it tightens when you pull the leash so the dog can’t back out of it. Max and Neo martingales are great and they give back to support local animal rescues with every purchase.
  • Water and a bowl—If I’m going for shorter walks or hikes, I bring a combination water bottle and bowl. If it’s a longer trek, I usually use my own water for my dogs and bring a collapsible bowl that I can attach to my pack (or my dog’s).
  • Poop bags—You can never have too many poop bags. I love these Planet Friendly Poop Bags by Frisco. You can purchase a clip-on dispenser that makes it quite easy by always having them handy. If you’d rather buy the bags in bulk (I did say you can never have too many!) they come with the dispenser. They conveniently come in scented as well in case your precious pup needs them.
  • Optional—Why do all the work when your precious pooch can help! I have an Outward Hound backpack and sometimes I make my pup carry his own water and snacks if we go for a hike or a long walk.
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Jagger at Boyce Arboretum, AZ

Longer Trips

In addition to the items listed above, I suggest:

  • Food and a bowl
  • Any meds required
  • Bed or blanket
  • Grooming items like brushes
  • Copy of recent medical records and/or vaccination records (and if you’re leaving a state in the United States, you may need a health certificate)
  • Seat covers and blankets for muddy paws and wet dogs (depending upon where you go)
  • First-aid kit
  • Toys, chews and other fun items

Driving with Dogs: Taking Breaks

It’s important to take breaks for your furry friend. If you’re like me, driving makes you a tad sleepy so I like to just go and get the drive done. Your buddy may need some stops though for water breaks, potty breaks, and stimulation. A little exercise when you’re on the road will do you both good.

Take a short walk around the parking lot and check things out. Your dog will love you for it and it’s great bonding time. It’s also a great way to take a mental break from driving for a little while, too.

Driving with Dogs: Road Trip Planning

Road trips with your dogs can be a lot of fun. For day trips or longer, you can reduce the stress by planning ahead and make sure to pack everything that might be needed. A little forethought regarding safety goes a long way to making it a fun, and safe, trip. Enjoy!

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Dutchess Kayaking at Watson Lake, AZ
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Che Kayaking at Watson Lake, AZ

If you are unable to bring your pets when you travel and are seeking options to care for them while you’re away, this post has information for pet sitting to help you decide the best way to do that. If you decide to fly, read more about considerations for flying with your dog. Read this post for tips for dining out at dog-friendly restaurants.

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