Road Test Special: Man’s Best Friend, Shouldn’t He Wear A Seatbelt Too?

Road Test Special: Man’s Best Friend, Shouldn’t He Wear A Seatbelt Too?

02.06.2010: Text & Images: Iain Shankland Every day, people all over the world load their dogs into their vehicles. The trip could be short, or long, to the vet or off to the local park for a bit of exercise. People take their dogs everywhere - they visit friends,

Text & Images: Iain Shankland

Every day, people all over the world load their dogs into their vehicles. The trip could be short, or long, to the vet or off to the local park for a bit of exercise. People take their dogs everywhere - they visit friends, and they visit the dogs’ friends too. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize that these outings can spell danger for their four-legged friends.

Remember the old days when you’d see a mother holding her new born baby on her lap as the family went off on a day trip? Those days are long gone. While most of us – either by choice or by the threat of a fine – wear our seatbelts at all times, but what about our dogs (or cats even)? Most people don’t even think about restraining their dogs when they’re in the car.

Maybe you’ve never even thought about it.

You’re not alone - it’s just one of those things that most people overlook - until someone points it out.

If you think about it, the furry members of our family going without a restraint poses dangers to dogs and drivers alike. In the event of a sudden stop or crash, a dog can become a flying projectile that can injure you, crash through a windshield, or slam with a bone-breaking crunch into the dashboard (or seat back depending on what area of the car your pet rides)! You wouldn’t let your kids stand up on the back seat would you? Then why is it okay for your 36 kg Labrador?

Let's pretend for a moment that you've just been in an accident, and your pet is with you. Assuming your terrified and battered dog has just survived the crash what happens if a door flew open during or as a result of the crash? It may leap into oncoming traffic or run away, and become lost in unfamiliar surroundings. People do the strangest things after an automobile accident – your dog could be just as unpredictable.

Or what if you are injured and your beloved protector stands over you snapping as the emergency crew try to come to your aid? Even worse, what if your kids - all nicely bucked in - watch in horror as Rover takes a swan-dive through the front window? Or slams into the back of your seat, or worse – hits a passenger in the car? Not only could they be scarred for life, but your now flying dog could become the flying object that seriously or fatally injures a human member of your family.

So what should you do? What are your options?

Just like a human, your dog should be restrained while traveling in a vehicle. We’ve all seen those moron’s that drive around with a Pomeranian or a Bichon Frisé sitting on their lap, between the steering wheel and the driver, or hanging out the side window while impairing the driver’s ability to drive or even see for that matter (besides that don't get me started about the dangers to dogs while hanging out the window! They could slip and fall out into traffic, or they could get hit in the face or eye by a bug! Have you seen the impact at which bugs hit the windshield?

 Your dog could be blinded! Sure, they like the wind in their hair ... but if your kids like hanging out the window – would you let them? You have to think for your dog – so show some common sense!)! In my opinion, if the police would actually put their radar guns down for a moment they’d see these people driving with their dogs in on their laps and give them a ticket for impaired driving – that would sort them out!

CRATE. To understand the best method of transporting our furry friends, we should look to the Police with their K9 units – they use crates. This is the best form of protection for the dog, passengers and in the event of an accident – the emergency crew. Simply throwing a crate in the car is not good enough though, be sure that your pet crate is securely strapped into the vehicle, or better yet - bolted down to keep it from shifting (maybe one day manufacturers of pet crates will see fit to build features into their product to make transportation in vehicles safe and easy – for now, you have to use your imagination a bit to get your kennel strapped in well).

If you have a pickup truck or an SUV, a crate is a great option, but if you’ve got a small car and a big dog the crate will likely be too big for the back seat – in that case, a dog seat belt is your only alternative. My dog hates his crate, so it wasn't an option for us in the car. On the other hand, he loves to lean up against the window with his seatbelt on, watching the world go by.

Another instance that may prohibit you from using your dog crate in the car, is if you have a wire/metal cage – again, a doggie seat belt would be a better option for owners of those types of crates. As for those with pickup trucks who won't let their dog ride up front - it should be law that anyone putting a dog in the bed of a pickup truck MUST have it in crate – for the safety of the dog and everyone involved.

SEATBELT / HARNESS. Dogs, like children - should ride in the back seat whenever possible - well away from airbags. With many new cars offering front seat mounted air bags, remember they can maim or kill a dog. If your dog must ride in front, switch off the airbag, and make sure that his restraint doesn’t allow him to clamber into your lap.

NOTE: I recently heard that seatbelts/harnesses aren't always a very good option. The dog trainer told us that one of her clients actually had the dog go through the front window in a crash after the harness broke. We're now re-thinking the seatbelt/harness option and will probably go with the crate in the very near future.

There are many different designs of the dog restraint devices on the market today. Thankfully most pet stores allow you to take your dog into the store where your dog can try the restraints on for size, before you make the purchase. Some restraints can be attached to your car’s seat belt, while some are simple straps that allow you to clip your dog’s harness to the seat belt.

Some restraints only limit a dog’s mobility in the car - preventing him from being thrown out or escaping after an accident, while others are designed to hold dogs securely in an accident. Some doggie seat belts severely restrict the dog’s movement in a car, and can sometimes become uncomfortable for the dog – so always check on your pet regularly during your trip to make sure it is not becoming stressed or tangled.

An added bonus to strapping your dog is that it may actually calm down while in the car. Our dog becomes very relaxed and enjoys the ride (so do we) when he is strapped in. Whenever we pull out his harness he gets excited because he knows he's going somewhere and because of that he is more obedient - though very excited. Make sure you select a restraint that attaches to a harness, not your dog’s regular collar - otherwise you run the risk of serious injury your dog's neck. With a harness and restraint, the dog can be attached to the rear cargo tie hooks in SUV’s, trucks and station wagons if a spare seat is not available.

We went with a doggie seatbelt that was a harness - it had wide straps to spread the force of heavy braking or an accident across the chest and not across the armpits. It also has a thickly padded wide strap that runs up and down from the neck to the mid belly. There’s a D ring for attaching the harness to a seatbelt using a strap purchased separately (or you can use this to attach your leash to when walking from the car to the house and so forth), or you can use the looped strap to put the seat belt through and lock it in place.

Once the vehicle's seatbelt is connected through the dog seatbelt and fastened, he can move about comfortably without getting tangled in the belt/straps. He can lie down or sit up with ease. Because the harness was securely attached to him, we put his ID and emergency information on a tag attached to the harness (My wife took this a bit farther than the regular ID tag, because obviously he is already with us – she assumed the worst and included information in case we were injured in a car accident and couldn't speak for ourselves.

She included an emergency contact name and numbers for family so that he could be taken home, and she included the name and number of his vet and our emergency vet. Beyond that, anytime we travel with our dog on vacation, we always made sure that we had a list of nearby veterinarians and emergency vet clinics with us – just in case).

Puppies and young dogs that might be tempted to chew on the seat belt or harness straps can be discouraged by applying a sour-tasting product such as Bitter Apple to the straps. This works for some dogs – but not all. For the dogs it works on, they only have to smell it to stop chewing after they’d tasted it once!

If all else fails you may need to have your pet travel in a crate, and if your car is too small you may need to give in and buy a bigger vehicle! Another point to remember about puppies and young dogs is that they're still growing and their bones are softer – your pet still may be safer to ride in a crate rather than to use a harness.

BARRIERS. Barriers are not as safe as crates or seat belts, and are designed to be used in station wagons, mini-vans, and SUV’s. The metal barriers are pressure mounted, and tend to be sturdier than the mesh ones that attach with straps.

While they MAY protect human passengers from a flying dog in an accident, they don’t protect the dog from getting bounced about in the back of the vehicle - or stop him from escaping through broken windows after the accident. We would personally never use this method.

= = = = = = = = = =

Dogs are safest in the car when they are in a sturdy crate that is securely fastened in place, or wearing a harness and a seatbelt in the back seat of the car. Owners should ALWAYS carry water and a leash, and make sure their best friends are wearing ID tags. And NEVER ever leave your dog in a parked car when it's warm out ... but that's another article.

= = = = = = = = = =

Consider the various safeguards and select the one that will best suit your dog and your circumstances/vehicle.

Don’t overlook the importance of securing your dog – not only because he’s very distracting as he pushes you aside to bark at that dog across the street while you’re driving. In a panic braking situation or even an accident, a dog becomes a missile – regardless of its size and weight. You wouldn’t put a 5 kg bowling ball on the parcel shelf behind you – would you?! Sparky may be soft and cuddly, but if he weighs 13 kg you’ll re-think that as he thumps into the back of your seat (or head) in an accident or a sudden stop.

It’s very difficult to estimate the forces that act on your dog in a sudden stop or accident without knowing the many variables such as: the weight of the dog; whether it’s harnessed or not; the speed of your vehicle etc.


The University of Georgia has a car-crash calculator that lets you plug in your own values to determine the amount of force exerted on a human belted/unbelted in a vehicle that stops suddenly, as the result of a crash: Car-Crash Calculator.

Using 27.2 kg (60 lbs) as an example of a belted dog (a Labrador perhaps?), and assuming that the dog’s seat belt/harness will stretch to allow a stopping distance of .457m (1.5 feet), the forces are as follows:

At 48 km/h: 5,356.6 N of force (30 mph: 1,204 pounds of force)
At 96.5 km/h: 21,426.4 N of force (60 mph: 4,817 pounds of force)

That’s a lot of flying fur! However, if an animal is tightly restrained and can’t travel any great distance during a sudden stop, the forces are considerably less.

While we've talked primarily about dogs in this article, the sample rules apply to cats – for all the same reasons, fluffy deserves to be safe too! With cats however, the crate is the only way to go. I've seen people driving around with their cat sunning itself on the parcel shelf or dashboard, but this is inappropriate ... they still become projectiles ... just a missile of a different species!

So, while I'm not a fan of cats, I still think they deserve to be kept safe ... so use a crate for the sake of your pet’s life.

Copyright © 2010 by Iain Shankland – Follow us on Facebook at  or  

This original, copyrighted material may NOT be copied, used in whole or in part in any way, cut and pasted, published or otherwise reproduced in any form or in any medium - which means DO NOT post this on another website or BBS. If you want somebody else to see this, send them a link or post a link to this page.


02.06.2010 / MaP

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