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Traveling by car with a small dog: Ready, set…

Photo by ♡Blackangelツ

Photo by ♡Blackangelツ

You’ve seen it, of course: an adorable, small dog either standing on her owner’s lap while her owner drives or with her front paws on the passenger-side door panel, nose blissfully out the open window and ears flapping in the wind. She loves it! She’s in heaven! She’s also really, really unsafe!!

If I’m describing you and your dog, believe me, I know you’re a terrific driver. Hey, I am too. But remember all those crazy drivers you shake your head at? At some point, one of them is going to hit you and when they do, your dog will suffer. In my last big accident, I was sideswiped at highway speed and spun into a concrete barrier so hard that, despite my seatbelt, the steering wheel bruised my chest. If a dog had been on my lap, she would either have been flattened between me and the steering wheel or she would have ricocheted around the car’s interior. In my current car, the airbag would have killed her (they deploy at about 200 mph!). And keep in mind you don’t have to crash at highway speed for your airbag to deploy — a frontal collision at only 20 mph may do it.

Other hazards? If your dog sees an irresistible squirrel, or another dog, she can be out of even a half-open window in a moment. A sudden swerve or bump can launch her out the window. And that open window is unsafe for reasons you may not have considered: a dog with her head out the window will get pelted in the eyes and face with grit, the wind will dry out and harm her eyes, and the joyous ear-flapping damages the blood vessels in her ears. Keep your windows closed, or just cracked, and use the A/C instead (and remember to disable your car’s electric windows with the child safety lock, so your dog doesn’t open a window, or close one on her own neck, by standing on the control).

So now you’re convinced that some kind of restraint is needed. What are your options? There are three options for small dogs: (1) a harness and strap that latches onto the car’s seatbelt structure, (2) a padded platform, strapped in with a seatbelt, with another strap that attaches to your dog’s harness, and (3) a carrier, strapped in with a seatbelt.

Please note that no matter what option you choose, your dog should ride in the back seat, not in the front passenger seat, for the same reason that parents don’t put their babies in the front seat: in an accident, your car’s airbag will injure or kill your dog. (Owners of the tiniest dogs do have the option to buy a car seat that straps to the console between the front seats.)

Option #1: Harness-and-strap

Take a look at Dog Jaunt’s earlier post about the harness and strap option. It’s convenient if you’re on a road trip away from home (that is, if you aren’t in your own car and you started your trip somewhere other than your own driveway), because the harness and strap occupy so little space in your luggage. It’s not ideal for a small dog, since although some choices allow her to lie down comfortably, she can’t actually see out the window and a view helps some dogs fend off carsickness. (Remember to bring a towel or pad for her to lie on, to protect her from a hot seat — and to protect the seat from her fur, drool, etc.)

Option #2: Car booster seat

Chloe in her Snoozer

Chloe in her Snoozer

For daily use, or for a road trip in your own car, I recommend the Snoozer Lookout. Ours occupies the right rear passenger seat of my car, and is solidly strapped into place with the seatbelt. A separate strap with a clip loops around the seatbelt. I’m glum about paying real money for what is, essentially, a big chunk of foam, but Chloe’s secure and comfortable in it (I lift her onto her padded platform and clip the strap to her harness). She’s high enough that she can see out the window (no more carsick Chloe), and she alternately watches the world go by and sleeps. The Lookout comes in a variety of sizes; the medium works well for our 13 lb. dog. The Model II Lookouts have a drawer in front. I’d like a drawer (for Bitter Apple, poop bags, and extra treats), but it’s pointless in a 4-door car. It would be a nice touch in a 2-door car, since you’d have access to the drawer when the front seat was tipped forward.

Snoozer’s Tiny Size Console Lookout is for the smallest of dogs, and perches on the console between the two front seats (no airbags to cause trouble there). Once again, the owners of truly tiny dogs have an advantage: their dog can ride safely next to them.

There are other raised platform options out there, including the FidoRido seat (which sits lower than the Snoozer Lookout), and the Travelin’ Dog Car Seat (which looks a bit clunky, and it’s too small for Chloe).

There are also some platforms that hang from the “shoulders” of a seat, including Kurgo’s Skybox Booster Seat, Solvit’s Booster Seat (Medium), and Outward Hound’s Car Booster Seat (Small). Although their marketing photos show them in use on the front seat of a car, they could be used safely on a back seat of a mini-van (and Solvit says that its booster seat will also work on the back seat of a car). The Kurgo and Outward Hound products both collapse for storage (the Kurgo Skybox’s collapsed dimensions are 16Wx2Hx13D; the Outward Hound seat collapses to 13.5Wx2.5Hx13.5D), so they could be packed in a suitcase and used for road trips away from home.

Option #3: Secured carrier

The third option (putting her in a carrier and strapping it in with a seatbelt) also works for road trips departing from somewhere other than home, because the carrier you used for the plane trip can, in many cases, also serve as a safe car carrier. From a dog’s point of view, there’s no pesky harness and strap to contend with. On the other hand, her view is limited to the inside of the carrier and whatever she sees through the mesh ventilation panels. Of the airplane carriers mentioned in Dog Jaunt’s earlier post, the ones that are designed to work as car carriers include the SturdiProducts carriers, the Sherpa carriers, Creature Leisure’s Carry Den, PetEgo’s Jet Set Carrier, and the Sleepypod Mini.

Here’s a clever alternative: some of the carriers are designed both to strap into a car safely and act as a car booster seat for your small dog. Of the options listed in Dog Jaunt’s earlier post (and excluding the ones that are just too darned big for in-cabin airline travel), Creature Leisure’s Pet Pilot XL, FetchDog’s Travel Easy Tote, and Pet Gear’s I-Go2 Weekender and Traveler fall into this category, according to their manufacturers. Clever, but does it work? The carriers have a large central ventilation panel that can be unzipped, allowing your dog an unimpeded view, and a tether to attach to her harness, keeping her in the carrier. However, none of these carriers actually boosts her above seat level. Also, since the carrier’s been unzipped to give your dog a view, only the tether is holding her to the car, and these tethers are significantly less sturdy than the car safety straps sold for use in the harness-and-strap Option #1. I would use these carriers in a car, but would leave them zipped.

Another approach in this category is putting your dog in a enclosure that straps to the seat and, when not in use, collapses for storage or travel. Two examples are The Roof Box Company’s DogBag or Pet Tube (the Pet Tube is also available through PetEgo). This option is nice because it gives your dog more room than a carrier to move around in, while still keeping her safe. For a small dog, the small DogBag (24Hx24Lx24W) is sufficient. It has plenty of mesh netting so your dog has good ventilation and fairly good visibility (though not out of the car), and it can be strapped to the car’s back seat with its “special seatbelts.” It folds up and fits into a normal-sized backpack (provided by Roof Box). The small Pet Tube is 18Wx18L, and straps securely to the car’s back seat. It folds flat and zips shut when not in use. The resulting 18″x2″ pancake could easily be packed in a suitcase and used for road trips away from home (as could the collapsed Dog Bag, in its backpack). If you choose to use the Pet Tube for everyday use at home, please note that you can purchase a “comfort pillow” for it, to pad the bottom.

Other safety and comfort issues

You’ve figured out how you’re going to secure your dog in the car and, if you’ve chosen the harness-and-strap option, you also have a pad or a towel for your dog to lie on. What else do you need to make sure your road warrior is safe?

Consider where your dog will be traveling in your car. If you’re driving across the Midwest eastwards on I-70, a dog in the right rear passenger seat is going to get a lot of sun. You may not realize how warm she’s getting, because you’re on the shady side of the car and your A/C vent is blasting powerfully at you. Similarly, if you own a hatchback and she’s in the back seat, she’ll have the sun pouring in on her all day no matter what direction you’re driving. If you can’t reposition her in the car so she’s safe and out of the direct sun, consider buying one of those window shades that parents buy. Many of them attach to the window with suction-cups, which parents seem to dislike; an interesting alternative is a product that attaches with static cling. Here’s the Amazon link: Cool Shade. It’s a two-pack, so you can use one sheet across part of your rear window, if you have a hatchback car; because the sheets are removable and reusable, you can shift them around as needed.

17 comments

  • happy dog

    It is important to also understand that just like a small baby carrier, the doggie booster seat should be installed in the back seat. Having the unit sitting up front can be disastrous if you are involved in a front end collision and the airbag releases. The impact and force of an airbag that has been deployed can maim or even be fatal to your little friend. So it is important to resist the temptation to place the dog booster seat up front where there is a risk of injury.

  • Jim (DoggyBytes.ca)

    My dogs don’t spend much time in my car, unless we’re on the way to the beach or a park, and they’re usually in the back seat (unrestrained) :?. Zeus will often jump up into the co-pilot seat, and I can honestly say I’ve never even thought about the possibility of the airbag deploying and hurting him. I will now.

    Dogs riding with their heads out the window can also lead to getting hit in the head by flying debris or bugs, and can lead to eye an ear infections as well. It’s just better all the way around to not let your dog ride with his/her head out the window I think.

    Chloe is a cutie! =)

  • Jen

    Hi Mary-Alice,

    I love reading your postings and hearing about your adventures with Chloe. Your site is VERY informative on so many dog topics. I love it! I am interested in getting a car booster seat from the Bowsers dog company because I like the way the charcoal and granite style looks and I’ve got other products made by them that are high quality and stylish. I’ve looked at their website where it shows how the seat would be installed in the rear seat, but find the pictures hard to understand. I looked on the web for a review or more information about the seats and could find no customer or pro reviews of the car booster seats. Do you know anything about their dog booster seats?

    Thanks so much for all you do Mary-Alice! Keep up the great work!

  • Hi, Jen! What a lovely comment — thank you, and thank you, too, for asking about the Bowser car booster seat. I took a look at one today, and they’re held to the car by two straps that emerge from the two back, bottom corners of the seat. Each has a toggle clasp on the end. If your car seat has a back, the straps pass from the front to the back and clasp together behind the seat. If your car seat back is part of the car (as it is for back seats in sedans, for example), you’re supposed to clip the toggle clasps onto the latch bars that are built into cars for baby seats. I’ll be writing a post about the Bowser seat, but I’ll just say that although the seat is very attractive, I don’t trust those little toggle clasps in an accident, and the strap is so low on the booster seat that I wonder if the structure (with the weight of your dog on top) would be tippy, too, in an accident. At the same store, I saw a booster seat from L.A. Dog Company that I liked better, because the seat belt holds it in — I even like it better than our Snoozer, because you clip your dog’s harness around a loop in the back of the seat (in our Snoozer, you clip it around the seat belt, and some dogs, though, happily, not Chloe, have figured out that that gives them enough slack to hop out of the seat). The seat isn’t as pretty as the Bowser seat, though. Here’s a link: http://www.ladogcompany.com/LA_Dog_ProductPages/LA_Dog_LA_Rider_Car_Seats.html

  • Yara

    Great site with lots of really good info. Thank you! I have been looking at improving the safety of my 2 Lowchens on car rides. They currently ride on metal crates strapped to the car floor.
    Wonder if you would know if any of the soft crates such as the sturdy products have been crash tested? It seems to me that it would be better in case of an accident than a metal crate, since it will give some and no risk of wires poking the dog (as I have heard can happen), but wonder if the mesh and safety straps that the seat belt goes through can really take the force of impact?

  • Hello, Yara! I know that Sleepypod has done some testing on its carriers (http://sleepypod.com/safety ), but, alas, they’re too small for your pups (the Sleepypod Air is the largest, and at 10″ tall, it’s a little too short for Chloe, who’s 12″ tall at the shoulders). I don’t know of any other testing done by soft-sided carrier makers. I think your approach is a good one — a lot of people criss-crossing the country with their show dogs use the Vari-Kennels, strapped in like yours, and I suspect they know what they’re doing.

  • EcoDog

    I am considering buying a pet tube for all three of my dogs (5#, 20#, 30#) to ride in the back seat. I have seatbelt harnesses for all of them, but I think they might like the pet tube better. I remembered reading about the pet tube here, but have you done a specific review of it? I wasn’t able to find it with the seach.

  • rose sulick

    I have a question: I need to to travel across country with my dog. It may be in August. What should I do about my restroom stops when I have to leave her in the car? Is there any I can avoid that?

  • Hi, Rose! What size is your pup? I stow Chloe (13 lbs.) in her PetEgo messenger bag, and carry her in to the 7-11 restroom, or the rest area bathroom, with me. A larger dog is tricky, when you’re traveling alone. If I were you, I’d go to rest area bathrooms and bring her in with me, rapidly and without drawing attention to myself. That’s breaking the rules, I know, but I will not leave a dog in a car at all, for any length of time, especially in the summer, so it’s the best a single traveler can do.

  • Alec

    Great article – but what are your thoughts about the front seat if the airbag is automatically disabled unless there is some significant weight in passenger seat (so if a very small dog is there in a harness, the air bag is clearly deactivated (and there is an indicator that says so?))

  • I think I’d be okay with that, Alec — I haven’t thought about it before, because our cars are old enough that they don’t have that kind of indicator, nor do they have a way (that I know of anyway!) to manually, temporarily disable the airbag.

  • Vanessa Tubbs

    What are your recommendations for large dogs, as far as backseat pads and restraints are concerned. My 50 lb. Border Collie is a great traveler but I think the back seat belt clips make it uncomfortable for him to lay down

  • Hi, Vanessa! I think I’d try the LARGE size Pet Tube from PetEgo, including the “optional” comfort pillow (not so optional, I believe, since it creates a flat surface, with a bit of give, for your dog to lie on). Here’s the Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Petego-Pet-Tube-Kennel-Large/dp/B000HVV3OE I think it’d be big enough for your 50 lb. guy, and the concept is excellent (we love the small one for Chloe). Please note that if you look it up on Dog Jaunt, you’ll see that I was initially confused about how to install the Pet Tube — I eventually learn the correct way, and there’s another post about that, I think. Since then, I’ve gone back to my wrong first approach, but with a pup your pup’s size, you’ll want to do it the right way (straps poked through to the back of the seat and secured there, not just hung over the headrest).

  • Lois

    Please check out the Pup Saver. Actually crash tested! Also because of the design can be used in the front seat. I just got mine. Doesent’ allow the dog to look out the window but neither of mine care about the scener. Nice website, Thanks!

  • Hello, Lois — Thank you so much for the recommendation. I’ve just bought one of each size, and I’m looking forward to trying them out. The Pet Tube from PetEgo that I’ve loved so much did just DISMALLY in the Center for Pet Safety crash tests, and yet the two solutions they liked are really too small for Chloe’s comfort. I have my fingers crossed over the Pup Saver! I’ll write a post, of course, when I’ve wrapped my mind around the product.

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