As I drove down the street I heard a car horn honk and glanced into to my rearview mirror. Much to my surprise I saw a minivan behind and the driver seemed to be a white standard Poodle. He did not seem to be doing a good job of driving and the van weaved back and forth and finally swerved to a halt next to an empty stretch of curb. I immediately pulled over myself, just to confirm what I had seen.
When I walked toward the van the scene changed. The Poodle moved out of the driver’s seat to reveal the blonde woman on whose lap he had been sitting. She appeared quite shaken and dropped her head down on the steering wheel. She would later tell me “There was someone walking a pair of spaniels across the street and Snowball just jumped onto my lap to bark at them. I thought that I was going to hit a truck in the other lane and just managed to get out of the way in time.”
Unfortunately this is not a rare occurrence. Most people believe that all that is required when you travel by car with your dog is to toss the dog into the vehicle and then start the ignition. Unfortunately this is not true. Many dogs are not happy travelers. When the car is stressful for the dog, this often results in behaviors that will also stress its fellow passengers. Furthermore, as in the case of Snowball and his owner, some behaviors can even trigger accidents that can be fatal for the dog or the other riders in the car. Let’s consider some things to keep the dog safe and content in the car.
Don’t Let Rover Rove!
Dogs don’t belong in the front seat, and certainly not on the driver’s lap.
It should be obvious that even a small dog sitting on your lap can interfere with your ability to steer a car. A dog anywhere in the front seats of the car can get excited and end up in-between you and the steering wheel. Small dogs have also been known to get down on the floor and interfere with foot movements required to hit the brakes. The distraction of a dog bouncing around on the front seat of a car makes the controversy over cell-phone use while driving pale in comparison. Furthermore, front airbags are designed for adults, not for children and dogs. Many dogs are killed each year, not by a car crash per se, but rather when the airbag deployed at the moment of impact.
A free roaming dog in the back seat of the car may not be much safer. After years of safety campaigns, most people have learned to buckle up their kids in the family vehicle, but many are unaware that their canine passenger is also at risk in a crash or sudden stop. In addition if the dog is loose in the car he may escape when the door opens and wind up in traffic.
There is yet another problem with an unrestrained dog anywhere in the vehicle.
According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, a 60-pound dog free in the vehicle during a relatively low speed (30-mph) crash potentially becomes a projectile that could hit a windshield, dashboard, driver or another passenger with a force totaling 1,200 pounds.
The solution to this problem is quite simple. Simple harnesses that attach to seat belts, which still allow the dog enough leeway to sit or lie down, are available beginning as low as twenty dollars. A kennel crate is another alternative. Simply slip it onto the back seat or the luggage area of a van, and secure it in place using a leash as a strap and attaching it to the seatbelts. A side benefit of restraining the dog is that this prevents him from hanging his head out of open car windows where particles of dirt in the air can collide with sensitive eyes, ears and noses and cause lasting damage.
Keeping Rover Happy
Most dogs put up with car travel well, however some become stressed, and some may even become carsick.
Taking the dog on car trips when it is a puppy is the best way to acclimate him to auto travel. Whether it is a pup or an adult, begin with short trips, perhaps with someone to sit next to him and provide comfort, or with another dog that travels well to serve as a calm “role model”. Keeping the dog in its familiar kennel crate in the car will also often reduce stress.
If the dog has a tendency to become carsick, simply don’t feed him before each trip. Most dogs grow out of carsickness. If the problem persists you can again resort to a traveling kennel, however you want to drape it with a towel. Motion sickness is often associated with vision, and it is possible that the rapidly passing scenery that makes the animal nauseous. The dog may feel better if he can’t see outside the car.
One Last Safety Hint
Just in case Rover should go missing along the way, it is important to make sure that your dog has two types of identification on its collar.
The first is the usual tag that has your home address and phone number. The second should change during the trip, indicating your destination, and where you are staying locally. A simple way of providing this changing information is using an inexpensive collar addition, which is a small hollow cylinder with a screw top. These are available from most pet supply stores. A thin slip of paper with your current information is rolled up and put in the container and serves as beacon for rescuers to bring your dog home. The information can easily be changed by simply removing the old slip of paper and replacing it with another.
These precautions are worth the effort since your dog is apt to be a lot happier traveling with you, then if he is left at home–even in a good boarding kennel.
Stanley Coren, the well-respected scientist, psychologist, researcher, and Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, is best known to the public for his series of best-selling books on dogs.
Coren’s easy-going style has made him popular with the media, resulting in numerous interviews, program and articles, including: NBC Today Show, CNN, Canada AM, CBC’s Fifth Estate, NBC’s Dateline, CBS’s 20/20, Oprah Winfrey, Larry King,Vicki Gabereau, USA Today, the Globe and Mail, Time, Macleans, Saturday Night, and many others.