I was running along a very busy six-lane road the other day when I saw a car drive by with a dog in the front seat, his head sticking out of the window. Honestly, when I see this type of thing it makes me angry.
Would you let your child ride in the front seat of your car without a seat belt while hanging half of her body out of the window? I don't think so! Then why is it acceptable to let a dog do the same thing? If the car was in an accident, the dog would project into the windshield or out of the car, surely being injured or worse. Dogs should be secured in the car just as you take care to do for yourself.
I can hear the arguments already: "But my dog loves it!"
Do you let your dog do everything that he loves to do? What about eating garbage? I haven’t met many dogs who wouldn’t stop for a good piece of day old garbage. Despite dogs' almost universal love for garbage, we don’t let them dine at the garbage can diner. It just isn’t good for them.
We make choices like this for our dogs each day, and the car is no different. There are lots of safe alternatives for dogs who love to go on car rides. First, think about where they will be riding. Just as you would not put an infant in the front seat of the car because of the possibility of injury due to an accident — or to the airbag itself — your dog should be in the backseat as well.
A crate is a great option to give the dog a comfortable place to lie down when in the car. Crates can be secured with tie downs or with the car seat belt to make sure they don't move around in case of an accident. Seat belts made from human grade material can be purchased for dogs so they can sit on the seat. These are generally harnesses with a loop through which the car seat belt is passed.
It's important to start young and teach your pup how to ride in the car properly. I have more than a few patients who can’t go for car rides safely because they bite their owners when the seat belt is put on. Generally, this has to do with sensitivity to the handling that is required to get the harness on and then to subsequently snap the seat belt. As with most things, if you start your pup at a young age, you will see better results when he is an adult.
If you choose to use a seat belt style harness, you will need to condition your pup to having the harness put on first, and then you will have to work on the action of threading the seat belt through the loop of the harness. Hand your pup a treat and then lift one of his feet to put it through the loop of the harness. Repeat these actions until he is not at all worried about you picking up his feet. Do this for all four feet. Then, when your pup is loving this interaction, you can put the harness on fully. Always make sure to follow with a treat.
This could take five minutes, or five days, depending on the puppy’s temperament. Make sure to cue this behavior with a phrase like, "Let’s go for a ride." With repetition, the phrase itself will become the cue for your pup to get excited about putting the harness on.
Once your pup can wear a harness, you’ll need to get him used to having the seat belt put through the loop of the harness. It seems like this should be an innately enjoyable activity considering that a car ride follows each and every time he has on the doggie seat belt; however, many dogs do not like for their owners to lean over them and pull on them as the seat belt is threaded through the harness. Make sure to train your pup for this step as well, using the same technique as you did with the harness.
For pups who love their crates, transitioning to riding in the car using the crate is fairly easy. For those pups who don't love being in the crate, it will be important to teach them to enjoy it before you use it for travel.
Start by setting the crate up in a comfortable place in the house. Feed your pup his meals inside of the crate, and make sure any bones or chew toys are put inside the crate for your pup to find. Scatter treats in the crate periodically during the day so that when your pup happens to walk in, there is something wonderful inside. Slowly work your way up to closing the door while your pup eats his dinner inside the crate. Once your pup is used to the crate, you will be able to use it in the car.
Going for car rides is almost universally loved by dogs. Make sure that that experience is not just fun, but is safe as well.
Dr. Lisa Radosta